The Lives of Lawyers: Five Realities of Practicing at a Law Firm That No One Learns in Law School

Law school can be quite an adjustment for students coming directly from an undergraduate degree. From the Socratic method of learning to the adjustments needed to write as a lawyer, there are many new skills that budding attorneys must quickly master. One could think that because law school is so dense with information, it must teach everything necessary to practice law—but that would be incorrect. Regardless of which practice area a lawyer enters after graduation, there will always remain practical aspects to the law that simply are not taught in law school. Let’s look at some:

  1. Lawyers are required to file everything.
  2. For most lawyers, practicing law doesn’t reflect what you see on TV shows like The Good Wife and Law and Order. One of the key differences is the sheer volume of documents that lawyers are required to deal with on a daily basis. And regardless of the lawyer’s practice area, every document that enters a firm must be appropriately filed into either a Document Management System (DMS) or another folder where it can easily be found should it need to be produced. With lawyers receiving thousands of documents and email communications a week, this is no easy feat—lawyers must be prepared to commit at least an hour a week to ensuring that their emails are filed correctly.

    In addition, in certain practice areas, document filing goes beyond the DMS. In particular, for litigators at firms that do not have large teams of paralegals and assistants, it is necessary to learn how to file documents with the various courts and learn the fees associated and how to pay them. These processes can often differ dramatically from court to court and can be quite manual, meaning that many young lawyers spend hours a week making sure that their documents are filed with various courts correctly and on time. Failing to do so can result in serious consequences, including a malpractice lawsuit.

  3. Lawyers at law firms must seek to capture every minute of billable time.
  4. At most law firms, the primary fee structure still rests on the billable hour. Many firms assign their associates billable hour targets that can range from 1,800 – 2,400 hours per year, meaning that it is incumbent upon lawyers to capture as much of their time working as possible so that they can reach their targets and maybe still have time to take a vacation.

    Capturing and entering time is no simple matter either. At best, it is a tedious process that takes up the small amount of free time that young attorneys have. And if a lawyer isn’t able to capture his or her time contemporaneously, it can become a process of remembering what one did days ago, for how long, and at exactly what times. In a world where one’s life becomes six minute intervals, it can be incredibly difficult to find time for oneself. Seeing as how almost all attorneys will have to account for their time at some point in their careers, it would seem logical that law schools would train students in how to do so most efficiently so as to protect what free time they do have.

  5. Most lawyers need to understand the business of law (and not just the practice of law) to succeed in their roles.
  6. What many attorneys don’t understand is the sheer amount of business acumen that it takes to be successful in the legal world. This applies to practitioners in small firms as well as those in Big Law. For example, when trying to win work, lawyers are often required to fill out Requests for Proposals (RFPs), which include estimated pricing. Many firms do not provide the necessary tools to provide data-driven pricing, which means that lawyers must be able to generate an estimate based on their past experience with similar deals.
    With the legal marketplace becoming increasingly competitive, operational excellence is also paramount. Lawyers must learn to leverage the technologies around them to save time and friction spent on administrative tasks and better serve their clients. It is also critical for lawyers to understand what the professionals in their firms actually do so that they can best leverage them. For example, many firms employ specialists in business development who can inform lawyers on the competitive landscape and help them formulate compelling pitch documents that can help them win new business.

  7. Lawyers practicing within firms have one primary objective—to satisfy their clients.
  8. A lawyer’s primary job is to take care of his or her client, and, while that includes performing the necessary work, it also means interacting with clients and managing their expectations. Yes, law school teaches black letter law, and in some cases, even touches upon practical work such as negotiations and trial prep. But what schools don’t teach is how to conduct client intakes, procure new business, or console an unhappy client after a bad outcome. These are all necessary “soft” skills that come only with time and experience.

  9. Technology plays a significant role in your ability to do your job.
  10. For law students evaluating where to land after law school, there can be many factors involved in selecting a law firm: compensation, prestige, and benefits among them. However, one thing that law schools do not teach is that a law firm’s technology stack can be a major factor in an associate’s ability to succeed. For example, a law firm that doesn’t provide associates with the ability to work remotely will likely lead to lawyer frustration, burnout, and eventually turnover. In contrast, a law firm that provides lawyers with the ability to work flexibly and leverages technology like ZERØ to help lawyers be productive from mobile devices is likely to have better rates of attorney retention and is more likely to provide other resources that help lawyers be more efficient and productive.

    Law schools should consider offering classes factoring in the rapidly expanding world of legal tech, which could wildly ease the transition from law student to lawyer for many. For example, further class time spent on E-discovery procedures and electronic email and document filing systems could ease the burden on firms when teaching these skills to attorneys as they enter the workforce. These are only a few of the real-world tools that a lawyer will need as they transition into the professional world, and many would be wise to learn them before being blindsided.