Being a Lawyer Doesn’t Make You Special

beautiful-unique-snowflake

“When everyone’s super, no one will be.”
— Syndrome, The Incredibles

That’s right, tell your parents to stop bragging. It’s not like you are a doctor, or anything.

Getting a law degree, passing the bar, and getting a license to practice law is no big deal. Not anymore. More than 40,000 law students do it every year. (That’s just a few more people than starters at the Boston Marathon in 1996.) Anyone with an LSAT score who wants to go to law school will be able to go, because law schools are in it for the money, not the prestige, and loans are easy to get.

I’m not kidding, either. There are even law schools built on the premise that anyone should be able to practice law. Instead of “look to your left, look to your right; one of you won’t be here at graduation,” it’s “look to your left, look to your right; starting networking with the poor schlubs you’ll be sitting next to at your swearing-in ceremony.”

That’s why lawyers have to put up billboards and stay up late worrying about SEO. There is a lot of competition out there. That’s why people are starting to talk about legal services as a commodity. There are a lot of lawyers out there, and many are willing to compete on price. Speaking of price, even the law itself doesn’t merit much respect these days. Courts, prosecutors, and especially public defenders are chronically underfunded. Justice gets short shrift.

Our ethical rules made a lot of sense when lawyers were relatively scarce and could charge high prices to meet high expectations. They make less sense when lawyers are a dime a dozen, and clients’ expectations are as thin as the paper that they think is all they are buying. We let people buy crappy cars, exploding laptops, and lead-filled toys on an open market — why not cheap lawyers without ethical handcuffs?

Because, like it or not, law degrees are a commodity. Lawyers and legal services are, too. We are a dime a dozen — almost literally.

So whether or not we start dropping ethical rules — which I’m not advocating for, by the way — lawyers need to realize that simply becoming a lawyer is not much of an accomplishment. The accomplishment comes later, in becoming a good lawyer. Getting a license to practice law is like qualifying for the Boston Marathon. You still have a long way to go before you finish.

Our profession has shifted from one in which law schools and bar associations were the gatekeepers to one in which the legal market is responsible for sifting the good from the bad, and some clients will get hurt in the process.

A license to practice is not a mark of quality. A reputation built on client service and results is the only mark of quality we have, and that, of course, has gotten easier to fake. Reputations have always been hard for a potential client to assess, especially when it comes to unsophisticated clients. Should we do more to protect clients from licensed-but-incompetent lawyers? Maybe. I don’t think Avvo is the answer, but people who need lawyers also desperately need a way to tell competent lawyers (and good lawyers) from incompetent ones.

But I think we have to start by acknowledging that simply being a lawyer doesn’t make us special. Sure, law school is challenging and graduating is an accomplishment, but it’s not much, in the grand scheme of things. To your clients, your license just qualifies you to provide them with a service — or a commodity, if you do transactional work. All they want is the right service, or the right document. If you screw up, they won’t care about your license then, either, except that it gets them additional recourse if you screwed up unethically.

What your license really is, then, is a lot of extra obligations and liabilities nobody cares about that you get in exchange for the the right to perform services and sell commodities that continue to drop in value. Because being a lawyer doesn’t make you special. Welcome to the marathon. The finish line is 26.2 miles away.

(photo: snowflake isolated on a black background from Shutterstock)

Law School, Legal Careers

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  • http://phillylawblog.wordpress.com/ Leo

    You mean I’m not a special snowflake? My mom is going to be so disappointed when she finds out…

  • Peter

    Perfectly said. The best assessment of the current state of the legal industry in less than 1000 words. And I agree that the ethics rules are outdated for the reasons stated.

  • Chris Bradley

    I dig the message, but you could almost say this about any profession. Even your average M.D. (who isn’t a neurosurgeon) isn’t particularly special. And even the neurosurgeon won’t be much of a surgeon for long if she doesn’t think of practicing her chosen profession as running a marathon. In the end, school is one thing, but it’s what you do with all the years after that makes the difference.

    • Ed

      Didn’t you know that M.D. stands for Medical DEITY! It has been said that the difference between a doctor and God is that God doesn’t think that He’s a doctor.

  • http://www.moorefamilylawmn.com Jennifer Moore

    I wonder, though, if this inevitable truth is really so inevitable? (And I wonder how many idiots watch me practicing law and think that if I can do it, they can and should do it?) Finally, I wonder if our profession is to blame for this state of affairs and if there is something we should or can do about it (assuming we can agree that it’s a problem)?

  • Katherine S. Walsh

    I completely agree but believe this has always been the case. There have always been good and bad lawyers (doctors, accountants, etc.); the point is what do you do when given the opportunity. I do believe ethics are important. Like it or not, a bad lawyer has a lot of ability to take advantage of clients. Rules are necessary if we are going to police ourselves and to work on our public perception.

  • mores

    I disagree. What other profession can defraud its new members, ruin their careers and hopes of financial solvency, stress their special emphasis on honesty and integrity, and not see the hypocrisy?

    • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

      That’s a different kind of special.

  • http://Www.sinoblawg.com Jason Tian

    Good article, good point. On the other hand, as said be others, there is no much difference between the law practicing and other profession. It is true of the case in China. Here, the public have a biased idea that lawyers are rich while it is not even close to the truth at all. Many in this city, Shanghai, are just making a decent life. Not special at all. The hard reality will get lawyers to realize that they are just as common as other folks.

    I have been admiring that our counterparts in USA have a much better reputation in society while Chinese lawyers are less recognized as a good community in society. The thing is that if the lawyers are not caring about ethical rules, they are eroding their future.

  • Giovanna

    So it’ the same all over the world: in Italy, where I pratiche law, it’s a very big war !

  • http://Www.silvermansherliker.co.uk Chris Sherliker

    Hi Sam

    Excellent. Hard hitting. True… Especially in the UK where deregulation is in full swing, Alternative Business Structures, High Street national franchises, lawyer micro-sires, DIY and free advice sites all over the place.

    And it he challenge is not just getting the marketing message into to newly qualifieds

  • jerome fabre

    true in the US, UK and France. Still a remarkable achievement in serious countries with real exams, of the kind of Japan, South Korea or Germany.

  • steph

    Lawyers not special you must be joking! Ive worked in this profession for yonks. Quite apart from passing exams, which is only the beginning, I have years of experience and numerous satisfied clients who have taken the trouble to let me know in cards, letters and in person. This is a difficult profession to work in make no mistake and its getting more competitive but theres always room for good lawyers who value their work and their clients, they will thrive and you wont get any of me or them for a dime. So if your looking for a quick fix – Ive passed my law exams = I’m brilliant, forget it, you have to do your time, the photocopying, learn your trade respect your admin staff, listen before you open your mouth and above all stop undermining what others have achieved by sheer hard work and investment.