To lawyer, or not to lawyer

4 mins

That is the question. (User note: Only pass through this door to Lawyer Land if the red flags don’t apply to you.)

Law school is about to kick off again for 2019.

I recall sitting in my pre-law class, titled ‘Legal Methods and Reasoning’ at Melbourne Law School. It was both terrifying and exciting at the same time.

It was terrifying because there were plenty of opinionated students in my class. Most opinions came from those who had former careers, often mature-aged students.

It was exciting because law was something new and shiny. An observation deck for human interactions and the very human rules that we built around these interactions.

So, should I star in Suits?

If you’re thinking about whether you’d like to become a lawyer one day, but aren’t sure, you’ve come to the right place.

The law can be an incredibly rewarding career, as I have found. You’ll also find that the profession attracts a wide range of people. (Although we still have a long way to go with more diversity at the highest ranks.)

However, I am aware that one person’s treasure is another person’s trash. There are so many varied reasons for why you might enjoy law, which is why I’ve reserved this blog post for talking about the opposite… RED FLAGS.

These are the reasons for why a career in law might not be for you. You should think seriously about an alternative career to law if any of these apply to you.

FLAG #1. You’re creative and like expressing it

I have seen many people who are innately creative get burnt, or burnt out, in the profession. They study and work in law with an aspiration to change the world by unleashing their creativity. Unfortunately, the law is more likely a disappointing career if you’re creative and like expressing this through your work.

Firstly, the legal profession operates within a traditional framework with age-old rules. Due to the backward-looking (some might say backward) nature of law, there is little room to be inventive or creative in most pockets of legal practice. Even judges who we see as ‘making law’ are bound by the decisions of higher courts, and previous decisions. Most areas of life are now covered by legislation and judges interpret these within strict confines. Judicial activism (or ‘making new law from the Bench’) is not as common as you think.

Cases like the one recently handed down by Chief Justice Preston of the NSW Land and Environment Court, to refuse a coal mine development application citing climate change, are an exception rather than the rule. Preston CJ states at paragraph 8 of the judgment:

‘I have determined that GRL’s development application for the Rocky Hill Coal Project should be refused. The mine will have significant adverse impacts on the visual amenity and rural and scenic character of the valley, significant adverse social impacts on the community and particular demographic groups in the area, and significant impacts on the existing, approved and likely preferred uses of land in the vicinity of the mine. The construction and operation of the mine, and the transportation and combustion of the coal from the mine, will result in the emission of greenhouse gases, which will contribute to climate change. These are direct and indirect impacts of the mine. The costs of this open cut coal mine, exploiting the coal resource at this location in a scenic valley close to town, exceed the benefits of the mine, which are primarily economic and social. Development consent should be refused.’ [Emphasis added]

Gloucester Resources Limited v Minister for Planning [2019] NSWLEC 7 (Preston CJ)

Secondly, the legal profession is highly regulated with strict rules about what you can and can’t do. You only need to read through the professional conduct rules applying to lawyers and barristers to understand the restrictions. See for example the New South Wales rules:

There is little opportunity, although they exist, to ‘do things differently’. This is because you are bound by rules or precedent (i.e. what has gone before).

FLAG #2. You dislike hierarchy with a passion

Everything in law is one gigantic hierarchy. You might break out of this if you’re a true savant. For example, you have a photographic memory for detail, or are incredibly bright. But on the whole, the rest of us mortals have to do our time.

As I mentioned in a previous article, the unsaid and traditional hierarchy of the legal world is this: (1) judges, (2) barristers, then finally (3) lawyers. Higher courts come before lower courts. Senior practitioners (whether you’re a judge, barrister or lawyer) come before junior practitioners.

The short summary of this is—if you hate hierarchy like you hate high-school cliques, a legal career might not float your boat.

FLAG #3. You hate detail

In almost every area of law, a discerning mind for detail is valued.

If you are a transactional lawyer, you can’t escape the fact that a missing comma in a contract might cost you millions. On this note, check out this delightful article from the archives: ‘The case of the $13 million comma and why grammarians are rejoicing’.

As a litigation lawyer, you won’t find that chink in the other side’s armour if you don’t look into the factual details of a case. This involves plenty of hard yards in absorbing and analysing information. It might mean persisting for hours or days in reviewing emails, financial spreadsheets or documents to develop your case.

All clear? Then pass right through!

Photo credit // Jon Tyson

2 replies on “ To lawyer, or not to lawyer ”
  1. This sounds like very reasonable and practical advice! But I’m going to hold onto my instinct that my *creativity*, which is really just a tendency to think laterally; a (healthy?) sense of apprehension toward people holding positions of authority; and a lifetime of struggle with my relationship to detail will end up making me a gun, if I manage to make it through to what practice I imagine I’ll find fulfilling. But most days I feel much less optimistic. Wish me luck 😂

    1. Thank you for reading Samantha! I truly believe in trusting your gut – it’s something that lawyers don’t often talk about, but we use it so much! From what you’ve said, I sense you have a good combination of things going on and do hope that you’ll be a gun lawyer one day. What I mentioned here is really for those (especially creatives) who ignore their instincts about the right pathway for them. They end up in law because it seems like the sensible thing to do and might regret it later. Best of luck and remember that law school doesn’t define you 🙂


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