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Philo and lawyers


I follow JoS only off and on, so pardon me if I have this wrong, but from postings you've made it looks to me as though you used to be a lawyer then took a degree in EE and are now a software consultant.

Do you mind if I ask why you chose that road?  Many engineers I know are thinking about how they can move into business or law.  I'm suprised that anyone would consider switching the other way around.

People here are always bitching about global competition in software and technology; whereas it seems to me that law is a meet-the-client profession with strong barriers to entry.

So what makes software more satisfying than law?  To me, they seem very similar...  looking at text with great attention to detail.

Anyone else out there made the same switch?  How about in the other direction?

Saturday, August 02, 2003

It's actually the other way around, and he did it to get the chicks.

Geoff Bennett
Saturday, August 02, 2003

LOL! Geoff's got it right, except I already had the one chick when I got the law degree.

I got a BSEE straight out of the Naval Academy, and went into the Navy. After about six years I decided the Navy and I weren't getting along, so I needed a fallback position - I applied to law school and took evening classes while I was on shore duty.

During my day job I picked up an assignment writing a training database in Access. Basically dragged myself into modern database programming via that project.

Got a medical discharge before I finished law school, had to pay the bills, so I put myself on the market as a programmer. That was 1998 - the early stages of the dotcom boom.

Finished law school, passed the bar, got my license, enjoyed programming too much to give it up, so here I am. [grin]


Saturday, August 02, 2003

As for "why is software more satisfying than law":
1) *Any* software project can "win" - you are always building something constructive and, conditions permitting, will deliver. Logically, half of all legal efforts must fail (in any court case, one side loses). Admittedly it's not that cut-and-dried; there's transactional work that's not adversarial, settlements can make both sides feel like they won, etc. But the bottom line is still true. And oh by the way - often whether you win or lose is in the hands of twelve people you don't know.

2) Lawyers are past ultraconservative. A law firm that successfully leverages modern technology is a bizarre exception, not the norm.

3) Many law firms are strongly autocratic - what the partner says, goes. End of discussion.

4) Law firms are, in generaly, very political. You have [x] associates and [x/y] partners - only partners make the huge money, and every associate wants to be a partner. In addition, you are expected to bill a certain number of hours per year. At some firms that number is 2100/year. Remember you can only bill hours that you are working on a case, so if you're lucky 2500 hours working might produce 2000 billable hours.

5) "Casual Friday" means you can take your coat off.

6) Experience outside the legal field doesn't count. If I went to work at a law firm, after 14 years of real world experience, I would start on roughly the same footing as a 24 year old first year associate.

That said, the legal world is of course always an option for me. It's just that so far it's not really an attractive option.


Saturday, August 02, 2003

Remember you can only bill hours that you are working on a case

Yeah, I believe that. :)

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Lawyers love to go to trial so that they can bill two clients at the same time.  In court there is a great deal of slack time.  For example, while the Judge is instructing the jury, while there is a recess, or (maybe) while the opposing lawyer is examining witnesses.

During this slack time lawyers will work on another case.  Both clients get billed: The one involved in the trial, and the one the lawyer is working on at the same time.

I've been on a jury twice, and was amazed both times how distracted and incompetent all the lawyers on both sides really were.  If a lawyer needs to defend me, I would really like to have his full attention.

Philo is right though.  Even with double-billing it is hard for lawyers to get the 2000 billable hours per year.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

"During this slack time lawyers will work on another case.  Both clients get billed: The one involved in the trial, and the one the lawyer is working on at the same time"

This is unethical and grounds for disbarment. Now, that's not to say that there aren't lawyers who do this, but IMHO there are far more who don't.

Let's put it this way: do you want people to form their opinion of you as a software developer based on the scriptkiddies who consistently deliver crappy product late and over budget? Then why judge attorneys the same way?


Saturday, August 02, 2003

A friend of mine has a master's degree in mechanical engineering and is a patent attorney in manhattan.  Patent law seemed kind of interesting, you basically just research weird shit all day.  I was kind of sick of my job (contract progammer), so on a lark I took a practice LSAT, and got 174.  This is pretty good, so I studied a bit and took the June LSAT and got a 178.

Then i started looking more into patent law. All the big firms are in Manhattan. You have to bill out 2100 hours a year. You only get paid about $50 an hour, until you hit partner...which is in 7 years. In contrast, I've been making more than $50 an hour for the past 10 years, and for the past 5 years have been making more than 2x that per hour.

I think there is a misconception that lawyers are better off than programmers. This might be true if you compare good law partners to bad programmers. But for every partner in manhattan, there are 100 junior attorneys in tampa working in real estate law for $40,000 a year.

If you are thinking about law, there are a couple of cool things i found on the interweb:

you can basically find the associate salary at any law firm in the country on that site.

also, the tucker max faq has an amazing rant about why you should not go into law:

"Do you want to waste three years of your life debating stupid and utterly irrelevant minutia? Then yes, get your JD. Do you want to get a degree that allows you work the rest of your life in a tedious, shitty, unrewarding job? Then yes, get your JD. Are you a boring, facile, socially retarded whore, desperate for the illusion of money and success, regardless of the cost to your life and the lives of those you love? Then yes, get your JD. Do you want to squander your existence sitting in a lifeless office, churning out ultimately meaningless paperwork? Then yes, get your JD. Listen to me people: There is a reason that lawyers have the LOWEST job satisfaction of any profession in America. THE JOB SUCKS. It is horrible. If you know any lawyers, ask yourself: Are they happy with their job or their life? 90% of the time, the answer will be no. If the answer to that question is yes, then ask yourself, "Do I like that person." The answer will be almost always be no. The only lawyers who like their jobs are the sketchy ones that are the reason lawyers jokes are so prevalent and popular. Do you want to be that person? If so, then yes, get your fucking JD. "

Saturday, August 02, 2003

"I think there is a misconception that lawyers are better off than programmers. This might be true if you compare good law partners to bad programmers. But for every partner in manhattan, there are 100 junior attorneys in tampa working in real estate law for $40,000 a year. "

Doesn't this simply boil down to the old adage about "The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence" ?

Robert Moir
Saturday, August 02, 2003

Actually, I'll argue against that rant. Just about everywhere it says "get your JD" it should say "become an attorney"

Even though I'm not practicing, I have zero regrets about getting my law degree. Perhaps I'll write it in the same style as the rant:

"Do you want to understand the various forces that affect your life, understand the laws Congress is passing that determine how they will spend your money, understand your rights and responsibilities every time you interact with another person? Then GET YOUR JD"

It's really quite an eye-opener, mostly as to how little the average layman understands about the rules that govern his/her life.


Saturday, August 02, 2003

as the poster of the above rant, i have to chime in to say that I agree with philo. Since I did well on the LSAT, and spent my college years dealing with really arcane subject matter, I think I 'd actually do really well in law school, and find the subject matter interesting. However, from the research I've done, I really _don't_ have any desire to work in a typical law firm.  If I can shake my addiction to consulting, and write a product that I can sell (instead of selling my time), I still might try to do it.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

"Lawyers love to go to trial so that they can bill two clients at the same time.  In court there is a great deal of slack time.  For example, while the Judge is instructing the jury, while there is a recess, or (maybe) while the opposing lawyer is examining witnesses."

Idiotic.  Trial time is peak-experience time for lawyers.  Almost every second is spent at hyper-attention, whether something is going on or not; you're running scared because you're thinking something is going to happen that blows your case.  Attention is focused like that for an athlete in a sporting event.  For example, in the paragraph quote above, a lawyer would be listening extremely carefully to exactly what the judge is saying to the jury, to make sure all of it is correct.  (In larger cases, parties may even devote lots of time without the jury around arguing over exactly what and what may not be said.)  And there is no lawyer who is not rapt with attention when a witness is being interrogated by opposing counsel.

That paragraph is just the worst of the misinformation in this thread.  But there's lots more.

I practiced law for four years, one at a small 5 lawyer firm and one at a large 200+ lawyer firm.  Very different experiences.  In my case, both very good experiences, but I'm glad I'm not doing it anymore.

One big difference from programming:  Law is adversarial.  Most lawyers are working against another lawyer most of the time.  This is most apparent in litigation, but even in transactional stuff you are promoting the best interests of your client and have to be very careful that the other side doesn't somehow take advantage of you. 

Another big difference from programming:  I think I've written some posts about it here on JoS before, but the law is ambiguous and vague in a way that programming rules are not.  In fact, a big part of what lawyers do is exploit ambiguity and vagueness in ways that further their client's interests.  This isn't to suggest anything illegal or anything about loopholes, etc.  It's just the nature of law.  In many situations, in fact in exactly the situations where a lawyer is most likely to be involved, it is not entirely clear what is required by the applicable legal rules, or even what the applicable legal rules are.  Lawyers have to make the best argument they can in favor of an application of the rules that favors their client.  The problem, the judge cares nothing about whether a rule favors your client, the judge is interested only in who can come up with the best interpretation of the rules for this situation: i.e., an interpretation that fits with the text of the rules, and where the interpretation of applicable rules both fits with the text of the rules and where this interpretation is consistent with the applicable rules' interactions with other rules in the huge sea of "non-orthogonal" rule systems that is our nation's body of law.  (I think I've written something about the 'non-orthogonality' of law in another JoS post.)

As a litigator, it can be very difficult to always be in an adversarial position.  You have to be extremely careful of making even a small mistep that the other side can take advantage of.  In document discovery, which can be a big part of life as an associate at a big firm, tempers often rise and voices often get raised as a lawyer thinks the lawyer for the other side is improperly withholding relevant evidence that they are bound-by-law to reveal.  Of course, that may be the case, but the other side may think there are good reasons to believe revelation of that material (e.g., privileged communications) is not required by law, and in fact that it would be breach of the laywer's legal duty to his or her client if they were to reveal it.

I don't know how much of an idea this little explanation gives you of the difference between law and programming.  But I would say a big part of the difference is that lawyers work within a nebulous web of rules, bound to further their clients' best interests and often with another side working vigorously against them.  The rules of a processor or a language aren't nebulous.  If you follow them your program will run.  Lawyers spend a big part of their time trying to figure out what exactly the rules are and whether and how they apply to a given situation.  They argue about rules.  Whether the lawyer is right or not is not determined by a piece of hardware that will always yield the same answer with the same inputs, it's determined by a judge who may not even be as smart as the lawyers making the arguments.  Also, a lawyer can make a fantastic argument and lose, if the judge decides to that certain facts apply that make the lawyers argument irrelevant; lawyers argue about "the facts" and "the law that applies to those facts".  If your client brings you bad facts, your hands are essentially tied.  You could be the best lawyer in the world and lose out to an idiot lawyer who couldn't argue his way out of a paper bag.

All of these are just general differences.  But there is also huge variation in what lawyers do on the job.  My job at a five lawyer firm was entirely different from my job at a 200 lawyer firm.  (And I believe the vast majority of lawyers in private practice are are at firms of 20 or less. )  Big firms get most of the press, but there are actually far more smaller firms. 

Here are a few more differences:

Despite what some people have said in this thread, lawyers are generally paid a lot more than programmers.  I mean, think about it.  $150/hour is a very cheap rate for a lawyer to charge.  At big firms in the cities your rate would quickly go up from there.  If the firm is not giving you a big enough chunk of what you bill, you leave and start your own firm (by yourself or with others) or you go to another firm with better pay.  Associates at big firms are paid salaries, but almost always they receive generous bonuses if they bill more than a certain number of hours.  In many cases, the yearly bonus will be explicitly tied to the number of hours you bill, so, effectively, you are not in the position of an ordinary salaried employee who can be overworked without seeing any financial benefit.

A lawyer who works in solo practice or with other lawyers at a small firm, is effectively in business for him or herself.  Billing 2000 hours a year (that's 40 hours a week for 50 weeks) at $150/hr generates $300,000 of potential revenue.  Even if all clients don't pay (which is a certainty) and even after subtracting overhead for offices and support staff, a good solo practice lawyer is going to make a good chunk of change.

Given the many threads I've seen from complaining programmers about working 60, 70, 80 and hour and more weeks at a fixed salary that's not even very good, I don't know why anyone would think 2000 billable hours per year is especially high.  Even someone who slacks off while they're at work should not require more than 60 hours per week to generate 40 billable hours.  Less if you're focused and keep your nose to the grindstone.  And it should be obvious that billing $150/hr as a small-time lawyer is more potentially lucrative than most programming careers.  How many programmers can get steady work at $150/hr?  Plus, you can be your boss. 

Even if you work in a big firm where the partners run things, this is quite a bit different from most jobs as programmers in a business where decisions are made by managers who aren't programmers.  In big law firms, the managers who run the business ARE the lawyers.  They have the same technical expertise as the associates who work for them, except in most cases they work harder and they have more expertise.  The typical big-firm partner is a workaholic.  It's almost a complete fabrication of law-school students to think that the parters sit back while the overworked associates make them rich.  Are the associates often overworked?  Yes.  Does a large part of revenue they generate end up in the pockets of the partners?  Yes.  But the partners are usually working just as hard, and they went through the same process on the way up.  If you don't like it, you go somewhere else. 

I could go on and on, but I really just want to say is that a low of what you hear about being a lawyer is bunk.  It can be an intellectually stimulating, rewarding profession, but as someone else said I think the number of people who actually thrive in it and enjoy it is small.

The odds of being happy as a lawyer go up, I think, if you work in a small firm where you run things with the other lawyers.  Your job has more of a "small business" feel this way.

I should also add that lawyers do far more than work at large or small private practice law firms.  For example, huge numbers of lawyers work for the government or as employees of corporations.  Their jobs can be much different, and they don't have any private clients that they work for so they obviously don't charge hourly fees, just get a straight salary, typically less than what they could make in private practice, but they don't have many of the private-practice headaches.

Lots of lawyers also never go into practice after law-school, or leave practice within a few years of starting their legal careeer.  They may find employment where their legal skills will still be a benefit, even though the job may not need to be filled by a lawyer.

Herbert Sitz
Saturday, August 02, 2003


That was a very interesting posting.  There have been a few times during the past couple of months when the thought of giving up software development and going to law school has crossed my mind.  It is not likely, though.  I haven't quite given up on the idea of a technical career and will probably make a less drastic change.

You wrote: >>>  Even if you work in a big firm where the partners run things, this is quite a bit different from most jobs as programmers in a business where decisions are made by managers who aren't programmers.  In big law firms, the managers who run the business ARE the lawyers. <<<

This is what makes law look like a better career than software development.  The technology I was working with on my last project was as interesting as I could hope for.  If I had written down a description of what I wanted to work on it might be a description of that project.  Unfortunately, the management sucked all the joy right out of that project.  In the end it took twice as long as planned, was buggy, and the work environment was stressful.  But as far as management is concerned developers are commodities to be shuffled around to meet budget goals.

I have had a few good experiences with software development, in a small company, owned and run by managers who had been developers.  These companies are rare and disappear after a few years, but the thought that I might find another one is what has, so far, kept me from giving up completely on a technical career.

Saturday, August 02, 2003

Great replies.  Much more insightful than I was hoping for.

I may be in a different situation than most posters since I'm an embedded guy and not business or financial software guy, but I've played with the idea of studying law for quite a while.

To me there seem to be quite a lot of "anti-competitive" advantages in entering that field.

1) Education

In Canada, a law degree is almost always your second university degree.  That means that unlike software, you won't be competing against the Teach Yourself In 21 Days crowd.  (I'm actually getting really sick of the self taught people who bash University education).

Now granted, in a lot of engineering firms, most people have at least an M.Sc., but to me that's not really the same difficulty level (ie: building on a base of what you already know as opposed to broadening your knowledge).

2) Language

Unlike Java or C, which are global, law is usually done in the language of your locality (except commercial law and some other exceptions).  This one's obvious.  Tough luck on the English speakers though :)

3) Accreditation/qualification

You need to be a member of a professional association to practice (be it bar, law society or whatever equivalent).  It's obviously in their best interest to make the standard for foreign qualification very high, to limit the number of foreign trained lawyers who are allowed to practice.

I've never heard of software or electronics requiring this.

4) Meetings with clients

There is generally a need to meet personally with the client so you have to be on location.

When I decided to study engineering I chose it in part because I thought there was a need for it world wide and that therefore I could move to any country and practice (subject to licensing issues).  It didn't occur to me at the time that it would also mean that competition would also be on a global scale and that so much work would get sucked into places like China with incredibly low salaries and high supplies of Ph.D.s.

I'm wondering if entering a very "local" type of field would be better in the long run.  And getting paid for overtime sounds like a fantasy come true :)

Sunday, August 03, 2003

What Herbert said.

I'm not a lawyer, but I'm married to one.  They do have difficult jobs, they work very hard and they are generally paid very well (my wife works for public schools, so she's an unfortunate exception to that last rule).

One point I'll dispute is the ease with which you can bill 2000 hours.  At my wife's firm the "unofficial" goal for associates is 1800 hours and fewer than half of them actually make that each year.  They do work long hours (longer than I do), but much of their work is not billable.  Despite what you see on TV and read in Grisham books, most attorneys do NOT inflate their hours

One point I'll make is that although some aspects of law and programming are similar (the strong analytical reasoning) and even though many programmers would do quite well on the LSATs (because of the strong analytical bent), the work is quite different.  Most programmers avoid writing (English, not code) like cats avoid water - well attorneys write an obscene amount.  They also read an obscene amount of mind-numbing legal documents.  It's just not the kind of work many programmers really would do well at.

And lastly, don't believe what you see on TV.  The vast majority of lawyers spend about .0001% of their time arguing court cases in front of juries.  Don't think my wife has been in front of a jury yet.

Sunday, August 03, 2003

"In Canada, a law degree is almost always your second university degree.  That means that unlike software, you won't be competing against the Teach Yourself In 21 Days crowd."

No, you're going to be competing against the type-A obsessive/compulsive kill-to-win crowd. If you've spent time around software developers and it's sunk in at all, you may not enjoy this agressive, cut-throat bunch.

They're not all like that, of course - manymany lawyers are very good people and can be great friends, mentors, and peers. But I think trading one end of the personality scale for the other could be a bit of a shock. [grin]


Sunday, August 03, 2003

David, I also question Herbert's allegation that it's so easy to bill. I have a friend who busted his ass for a year to make his bonus quota (2200 hours). In December his managing partner decided to cut a deal with a client and not bill a bunch of their hours. That makes those hours nonbillable. Suddenly he finds that instead of having a nice comfy 2200 hours, he's got to work nights and weekends to make his 1900 hour quota to keep his job.

As for a sole proprietor making 2000 hours "easily" - any entrepreneur in the world will tell you that when you own your own business, you can count on spending 25-50% of your time on nonbillable work: networking, marketing, administrative overhead (get a secretary? guess who pays for that?), etc, etc, etc. You also have to pay for office space, phone service, etc, etc, etc.

Most "hang your own shingle" articles for lawyers aren't about investment strategies for the money you'll be rolling in - they're about making sure the mortgage gets paid until you're solvent.

By the way, law firms are currently in a squeeze just like anyone else.


Sunday, August 03, 2003

You're quite right to question my saying it's easy to bill 2000 hours.  I didn't say that, I never billed anywhere near that. 

What struck me was that people on JoS who complain about working 60, 70, 80 or more hour work weeks would have difficulty biling 40 hours of work a week.  Maybe they would, but only if they're wasting a lot of time.  You would find that you become a lot more focused when all your time is "on the clock".

If there's work available, you'd have to be pretty inefficient  not to have 2/3 of your time at work be billable.  That's what's required to bill 2000 hours when you're "working" 60 hours a week.  Difficult, but there are lots of lawyers who do it, and they're not doing anything shady with billing, either.

I have one friend who's a partner and typically works 6 1/2 days a week (only half a day in the office on Sunday.  He's in the office at least 10 hours a day.  And he's billed as many as 2,400 hours a year.  Easy?  No.  Would I do it? Never.  But I have no doubt that he does, and that he's billing things honestly.

Mostly, I think programmers and almost everyone else exaggerates how many hours they work.  2,000 billable hours may not sound that hard.  But it's damn hard.  Lots of lawyers do it, though, and with honest billing, too.

Herbert Sitz
Sunday, August 03, 2003

One thing I should maybe have added to my original post is that a J.D. has become for many almost a "general purpose" business degree.  Certainly not to the same extent as an M.B.A.  But along those lines.  Lots of people who get law degrees decide not to become lawyers but their degrees are still valuable to them in a business profession, much as an M.B.A. can be valuable to somone in a business career.

Herbert Sitz
Sunday, August 03, 2003

"Most "hang your own shingle" articles for lawyers aren't about investment strategies for the money you'll be rolling in - they're about making sure the mortgage gets paid until you're solvent."

Well, for a lawyer fresh out of law school with no experience and no established clientele there will certainly be a difficult start up period.  But for someone who is smart and willing to work hard the odds are good that they'll end up making a very solid living even in smaller cities, i.e., over $100k/year.

There will be a slow startup period even for established lawyers who start a solo practice.  It won't last as long, though.  And I'm not talking just about solo practice, there are huge number of lawyers (probably more than are solo) in small 2 to 10 lawyer firms.  Odds of success probably go up when you start out for one of them (they provide at least some training and at least some clients), or when you start up a small firm with colleagues as a "business venture".

Eeegads, what do you expect?  Do you think someone should be able to go to law school, skate through in the middle or bottom of the class, and then start up a solo practice and immediate rake the money in while having no experience at all? 

Things don't work that way in any profession.  In almost any career, the big rewards come to those who take the risks and put forth the effort.  That normally happens when you're running your own business.  Programmers who work for companies and have an 'employee' mentality aren't going to get there.  Lawyers who do the same may make a bit more money than programmers, but they're not going to get rich either.  But the percentage of lawyers who feel like they're working for themselves and who control their own destiny is, from what I can tell, far, far, higher than the percentage of programmers who do so.  It's because programmers generally think of themselves as employees.  Lawyers, even when they're associates at big firms, generally don't.  Their is a collegial atmosphere between partners and associates even at many big firms.  (Allthough big firms that are bad to work for may make the junior associates feel like employees.)

Of course, there is a small but significant percentage of programmers who work as consultants and who, if they're good, will reap the rewards of running their own business. 

I know of one programming shop here in Seattle area that has around 6 programmers doing mostly complicated Access database work (i.e., Access as front end to SQL Server).  All of their work is billed at $150 hour.  But even there, the lower level programmers are essentially "associates" who get paid only a fraction of what they bill.  I'm sure the guy who owns the shop is doing very well.  But he's as much a small-business owner/entrepreneur as he is a programmer.  That's why he makes the bucks.

You don't have to be a genius to figure out that lawyers generally make more money than programmers.  (Forget all about the 2000 billable hours/year thing.)  Just look at their hourly rates.  How many programmers do you know who can charge more than $200/hr?  I'm guessing not many.  How many lawyers can charge more than $200/hr.  Lots and lots.  Isn't it obvious? 

Isn't that what people are complaining about here on JoS on a continuing basis: that other professions, esp. lawyers and doctors, (and I would add even one a bit lower on the food chain, chiropractors) do a better job of protecting their profession than programmers do, who don't even have established bodies to do so? 

Programmers are often compared to engineers.  While engineers to have professional bodies to enforce standards, I think the vast majority of engineers have an "employee mentality".  Sure, an enterprising few will start up their own companies and reap the rewards of that, but most work as company employees.

Lots of lawyers work as employees to (e.g., government lawyers, lawyers employed by businesses, nonprofit organizations, etc).  But the percentage of lawyers who work in private practice and are essentially "running their own business" is much higher than for programmers or engineers.  It's typical for an established lawyer in private practice to make good money. 

Lawyers who start off as junior associates at big firms will eventually work their way up to partner, leave to another firm where make partner, start up their own firm where they're a partner, or leave private practice and/or the law altogether.  For those who put in the time the rewards are great.  Programming doesn't have a career path like that.  Programming is much more like engineering.  After a few years if you want to move on with your career you typically end up advancing to positions that have less and less to do with actual programming.    That's totally different from professions like doctors and lawyers.  Yes, programmers who love to code can pass up promotions and maintain they're lowly "worker bee" position.  Doctors and lawyers don't have to make that choice; advancement does not require abandoning their profession.  Programming generally does.  In my mind, that's almost enough to say that programming doesn't even qualify as a "profession", in the truest sense of the word.  (And mind you, I'm a current programmer and a former lawyer, so it's not like I have a strong bias against programming as a career.  But from what I can tell I would never want to do programming as an "employee".)

Herbert Sitz
Sunday, August 03, 2003

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