Thinking about becoming a lawyer? If so, great—but make sure you’re aware of what the job entails before you jump in with both feet and start working for a law firm.
On the positive side, it’s a highly-respected field. The World Economic Forum reports it’s the world’s second-most respected profession after being a doctor. This should come as no surprise. Lawyers are renowned for being high-performing, intellectually outstanding, and hardworking individuals—often with a hefty pay packet to match.
But there’s another side of the coin. While lawyers might benefit from having an elite reputation and plenty of cash in the bank, it can also be incredibly stressful. Many attorneys grapple with long hours, difficult clients, and ever-increasing demands daily.
This blog takes a deep dive into how stressful being a lawyer really is. It explains the importance of where lawyers work, outlines which lawyers are happiest, and offers up some tips on how to find a legal job without sacrificing your wellbeing.
What type of lawyer is the least stressful?
Real estate law, estate planning law, and intellectual property law are commonly cited as the least stressful types of law to practice. Unlike other practice areas, people’s lives aren’t on the line.
Where you work is important
Unfortunately, there’s generally a tradeoff between the amount of stress you’re willing to take on, and your income.
Corporate lawyers, for example, earn an average base salary of $137,424. Note: that’s only their base pay. They can also receive performance-related bonuses as well as bonuses up to $75,000 for referring successful candidates.
Yet working for a corporate law firm is anything but a breeze. Yes, they’re paid eye-watering sums by their clients—but this comes with the expectation that attorneys will always go the extra mile and will be available around the clock. Unsurprisingly, there are countless stories of corporate lawyers turning their back on the sector due to stress and burnout.
Litigators are in a similar boat. This is an incredibly stressful practice area where cases can drag on for months, sometimes even years. And according to Yuriy Moshes, Founder of Moshes Law, P.C., “Litigation attorneys necessarily work with very difficult people for a living; people who will refuse to give an inch unless they are allowed to take a mile in return.”
Therefore, while litigators are on their clients’ sides, they’re also in the line of fire if things don’t go as planned. Given the high stakes and intense stress, litigators’ average base salary is $100,962.
Fortunately, not all practice areas are quite as stressful. In other words, there is a way to have your cake and eat it too—practicing law while keeping stress at bay.
Take estate planning, for example. Estate planners don’t need to spend all night responding to urgent requests or strategizing based on a new development in their case. They work fewer hours than litigators or corporate lawyers, so are generally less stressed. Of course, this reduces their pay packet—estate planning attorneys earn an average salary of $63,042 – $77,886.
Likewise, lawyers engaged in public-interest work demonstrate greater levels of satisfaction than those in private practice—though they’re paid significantly less. And then there’s animal law attorneys who generally prioritize mission over money, which is fortunate when you consider their average salary is $47,000.
But we know what you’re thinking: What’s the best tradeoff between stress and income? Which lawyers earn a decent salary without excess stress?
Intellectual property law
While there’s no exact answer, intellectual property lawyers seem to benefit from the best of both worlds. Our 2021 Legal Trends Report shows intellectual property lawyers had the joint-highest average billing rate by practice area, $362, in 2021. Despite this often being cited as one of the least stressful practice areas.
Interestingly, however, the stress lawyers feel might be down to their firm’s size and not specialty, with research suggesting lawyers working for mid-sized firms feel the least stressed. Biglaw is notorious for its “always on” culture, while smaller firms often suffer from a lack of additional resources—meaning lawyers may have to handle their own administrative duties.
If you’re considering a career in law then bear in mind the saying, “Do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life”. Pick a practice area that you’re truly passionate about and if you’re worried about stress, work for a mid-sized firm. There might still be late nights and hectic schedules—but if you love what you do, you won’t be nearly as stressed as someone who’s only in it for the money or prestige.
Who are the happiest lawyers?
Studies show lawyers in public-interest jobs are happiest, despite generally being paid less than their private counterparts. Their work is meaningful, impactful, and they usually have more control over their work than those working in private practice.
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How to find a job in the legal profession without sacrificing your wellbeing
By keeping the following points in mind, lawyers can forge a successful career without sacrificing their personal wellbeing.
Find a practice area that interests you
It’s difficult to fully engage in an area that doesn’t interest you. Consider the fact that some lawyers work up to 14 hours per day (including weekends). There’s only so long you can spend 70 hours per week doing something you don’t care about. Soon enough, you’ll become disillusioned, and you might even drop out of the profession altogether.
Play the long game by building a career centered around your interests. You’ll learn more, perform better, and derive greater satisfaction from your work.
Work at a law firm that’s a good culture fit
Law firm culture might seem like a slightly intangible, or even wooly, concept. Generally speaking, however, it encompasses “core values, communication norms, time and output expectations of lawyers, career development opportunities, social connections between colleagues, and approach to decision making”.
While culture might be hard to define or measure, it plays a definitive role in a firm’s success—and contributes to how attorneys feel.
If you don’t fit in with your firm’s culture then you might not get along with your colleagues or clients, agree with the firm’s approach, or you may find it harder to progress at the firm.
However, by choosing a firm that’s a good culture fit, you’ll likely feel more engaged and valued. You might be more prone to working long hours when needed and step in to support colleagues if necessary. You’ll genuinely care about your individual work, as well as your firm’s overall performance. Indeed, recent studies show that dynamic law firms—those that have built market-leading growth—boast collaborative cultures that get the most out of their people.
Have realistic expectations about work hours and pay
Millennials and Gen-Z are less accepting of burnout-inducing cultures, as demonstrated by the sheer number of people who have quit their jobs during The Great Resignation. However, just because work-life balance is a growing trend among some industries doesn’t mean it also applies to all legal practice areas. Unfortunately, working in Biglaw for multinational corporations will never be an easy-breezy nine-to-five.
Be realistic about how hard you’ll have to work before you apply for a job at a law firm. If you don’t fancy the idea of regularly burning the midnight oil, consider taking on a less stressful (albeit, likely lower-paid) position. For example, working for the government.
Likewise, be realistic about your pay. Sure—some recent graduates are starting on huge salaries amid a historic labor shortage—but that doesn’t mean you’ll be earning millions straight out of college. Understand you will still have to put in the grunt work before you can buy yourself a condo on the beach.
If you’re interviewing at a firm, be upfront and ask them what they expect from their attorneys. If they emphasize the first few years are a slog with not much pay to show for it, then maybe it’s not the right place for you. Or, perhaps you decide to grind it out. Whichever road you decide to take, asking questions allows you to make an informed decision.
Find a mentor to help guide you
Legal mentors are an invaluable resource, passing their guidance, experience, and advice to their mentees. Attorneys can benefit from what their mentor has learned from decades of working in the same field. This allows mentees to rapidly acquire new skills, set more appropriate goals, and ignite productive career development.
Plus, mentorship also increases employee engagement. 91% of employees with mentors are happy with their jobs, while 4 in 10 workers without a mentor considered quitting their jobs in the past three months. Interestingly, while 57% of attorneys say mentorship has suffered at their firm since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, those with a mentor value them highly—72% of millennial attorneys say an informal mentor has played a significant or crucial role in their career.
But mentorship isn’t just about finding the right person to learn from—you have to cultivate a long-term, often mutually beneficial relationship with them. You can do this by asking targeted questions that get to the heart of their experiences, setting goals for what you hope to achieve from the relationship, and always respecting their time.
Have a backup career plan
Even if you gain a JD, you don’t have to work at a law firm—at least, not if you don’t want to.
You could go in-house at a company, learning more about a specific industry putting your skills to good use without the constant pressure to increase your billable hours. Or you couldenter public-interest instead, working for the government, advocacy groups, or even charities.
Law graduates can even turn away from the profession entirely, pivoting into a career in management consulting, banking, or politics. If you’ve acquired a law degree, you’re clearly smart, well-organized, and hardworking. These skills easily transfer to a myriad of sectors and roles.
Afterall, which industries wouldn’t want these types of employees?
Have a long-term goal in mind for your career
Long-term goals give lawyers a sense of purpose. They can align how they spend their days, weeks, and years with what they ultimately want to achieve from life. This makes it far easier to battle through 80-hour workweeks and stressful clients. To quote Victor Frankl, “He, who has a why to live for, can bear with almost any how.”
Studies show that people who set goals are more motivated and have higher self-esteem, self-confidence, and autonomy than those who don’t. Plus, they allegedly earn as much as 10X more than their peers.
But goal-setting is perhaps more about the journey than the destination. Setting goals makes you evaluate what’s truly important in life, whether that’s prestige, money, integrity, making the world a better place, or maximizing your potential. You can use this lens to fuel your decision-making, creating a future tailored toward your particular strengths and inclinations.
Know that being a lawyer isn’t for everyone
What if you have interest in the legal sector but don’t think of yourself as a lawyer? Fortunately, there are still plenty of ways to make a valuable contribution within the legal industry.
Perhaps you’re well suited for working as a paralegal, a legal administrative role, or, you could instead work as a law firm accountant, personal assistant/secretary, legal SEO writer, performance coach, or legal journalist.
In conclusion: Is being a lawyer stressful?
Ultimately, the amount of stress you take on as a lawyer is entirely up to you. Working in high-powered practice areas for reputable firms is undoubtedly stressful—but it’s incredibly well-paid. On the other hand, working in public-interest is less profitable, though it allows attorneys to do their bit for society while minimizing stress.
Would-be lawyers must understand themselves before they dive in and forge a career as a lawyer. Do you cope well under pressure? Does stress bring the best out of you or make your life miserable? Do you like daily challenges, or would you rather leave work behind when you walk out the office?
Take the time to consider who you are and how you’d like to spend your life. Then, follow a legal career path that suits your specific interests and idiosyncrasies.
We published this blog post in May 2022. Last updated: .
Categorized in: Business
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