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Guest post: So you think you want to be a lawyer…? The pro and cons of entering the legal profession

There are many careers that are worthwhile. All jobs should be important to the people who do them. And all roles have their elements of drudgery, anxiety and exasperation. This is true of being a lawyer as well, so if you think you want to be a lawyer can I offer you anything worthwhile?

I don’t think I have anything to say that should sway you one way or another. On this you really must make your own decision. You should also know that my credentials for advising you on becoming a lawyer are at best idiosyncratic.

When I decided to be a lawyer it was because of an American TV programme about a defence attorney called Petrocelli. The plot lines were similar each week and usually involved a last minute piece of evidence emerging or a witness cracking under the cheerful, but relentless care of our eponymous hero. I loved Petrocelli because he fought for lost causes and because of his determined disregard for any material trappings of success. This included living in a caravan while he laid the odd brick in the forlorn hope of building a house!

Obviously this is not a strategic or even a logical way to make a career choice. I mention it up front so you may weigh my words in the balance with a large pinch of disregarding salt.

I will start with two negatives:

Don’t be a lawyer for the money. If money drives your career choice I am certain that there are easier ways for cash to be made.

Second, don’t be a lawyer for the status of belonging to an esteemed and traditional history. Status is transitory and in the eye of the beholder. The profession is changing and will never be the same again.

Now THE big question. What is a lawyer anyway?

I suspect it is nearly impossible to answer with any comprehensive certainty and so we risk cliché and oversimplification. We might say, for example, that a lawyer is an advocate, a champion, a guardian, a dealmaker and an advisor, but so are many others who are not lawyers. In the end, apart from the distinction of the paper qualification and the privilege to practice using the epithet of ‘lawyer’, what we are left with are really only principles that underpin our behaviours.

These are principles that do not apply exclusively to lawyers, but assuming you want the paper qualification to be the admission ticket, these principles, in my experience, are in no small way the rules of the game. In fact I think they will apply and will resonate at every stage of your career.

  1. Your credibility is not yours to own. It is lent to you by colleagues. Look after it and value it. While you retain their confidence to hold it, you have an opportunity to influence, to create and to be involved. These are not rights, they are privileges.
  2. Thoughtful simplicity is really difficult, but really worthwhile. Complexity is not often clever, particularly for an advisor. But simplicity that is careless or thoughtless is unworthy and cheapens your contribution.
  3. Elegant solutions are important, but only when they are needed. Good enough is not a poor solution per se. A good lawyer knows the difference and knows when the difference should apply.
  4. Kindness always, subservience never. There is too little unconditional kindness in business and in life. President Lincoln said that lawyers have a superior opportunity to do good. It is a worthy and honourable objective to aim for, and in my experience excellence allied to kindness is empowering, enriching and strengthening. Kindness is not the same as pleasing people for its own sake. We must never subvert our role to the will of our clients. We demean the advice we give if we do so and we undermine our confidence to give it.
  5. Long hours are not a substitute for working well. Commitment and conscientiousness are worthy characteristics, but be committed and conscientious to your efficiency, effectiveness and to your well-being as well.
  6. Develop the whole of your talent. Invest in you, not just in your job. Training to be a great lawyer is important of course, but training to develop the mind, the imagination and the soul will sustain you and make you more resilient in ways that no job alone can ever do.
  7. Leave all roles as a friend. The world revolves. Nearly every job has an arcing timeline that will (hopefully) enthral, challenge, grow, but inevitably it will become familiar and all frustrations will be revealed in time. Accept all of this. Know when to leave and leave being grateful for all the lessons you have learned.
  8. Know your ethical boundaries, live them, let others see you live them. Not every day is benign. Your judgement is the barometer of value. Be prepared to be tested, be confident you can cope. Discuss your concerns, do not be judgemental of others, but ensure you judge yourself by the standards you have set for yourself.
  9. Being present is different to being there. Attendance is not participation. Play your part. Accept all feedback, but judge yourself first and hardest. Did you contribute, did you make a difference, could you do more, were you kind?
  10. If you have to say ‘no’ do so with grace not relish. Say ‘yes’ with calm assurance not blind enthusiasm. This speaks for itself. It will be important to you and your clients every single day.

The day I qualified as a lawyer – 16 February 1987 – remains the proudest day of my professional life. I can also say with total certainty that being a lawyer has been an amazing opportunity to make a valuable contribution to society and I cannot imagine feeling more fulfilled in any other job.

You may or may not want to be a lawyer, but if you do, ensure you truly know the reasons why and then set about being the very best lawyer that you can be. Take care, good luck and bon voyage

Paul Gilbert is chief executive of LBC Wise Counsel. To read his blog click here.