How Much Do Lawyers Make?
In every university there is a career guidance center. And in each guidance center there is usually a stack of white notebooks with laminated pages which show a list of occupations. Each occupation will list average salary, education requirements, a brief description of the job, average hours worked per week, etc. It has been my personal experience that the information contained within those books are not even close to the truth. And as it pertains to the legal profession, they are dead wrong!
Imagine if you went to your guidance counselor on your university campus and you asked about a promising career in teaching high school algebra. Your career guidance counselor pulls out one of those thick white binders and she explains to you that in order to become a California High School Algebra teacher you will need a Doctorate Degree which will require an additional 3 years of study after your undergraduate degree. On top of that she accurately explains that to go to one of these universities you will have to take a rigorous entrance exam and you will rack up over $100,000 in student loans. And upon graduation you will have to take a rigorous three-day “teacher’s bar exam” in order to even start sending out your resumes. And by the way, once you are an official California-licensed teacher you will also be subject to severe rules on how you teach. If you so much as lie on a resume, cheat on your taxes, mess up a student’s grade, or upset a parent you will be immediately suspended for six to twelve months and face possible disbarment for life. And during this time period, you will not be able to accept work as a teacher in any California High School.
Yes, you know that it will be a rough road, but you ask your career counselor, “How much does the average California Attorney make?”. Her answer: around $30,000 per year less student loan payments. But what about all those lawyers who I see on TV driving around in BMW’s? Well, unfortunately, Hollywood does exaggerate. What about your next door neighbor who practices wills and trusts? His home is foreclosure proceedings and he is living off his credit cards and his wife’s parents’ pity money. What about that article you saw in Time Magazine that listed the average attorney’s salary at $125,000 per year? Believe me, we don’t know where they come up with those numbers either. (We suspect that law schools purposely feed those numbers to unsuspecting journalists to drum up demand for law school applications).
California attorneys are not rich. They are poor. They are broke. Many have recently gone bankrupt. Some have had their homes foreclosed (See GQ Magazine’s article entitled “The New Economy. What happened to the Neighbors” by Charles Bowden). Some Attorneys in California are now delivering pizzas for Domino’s. Many Attorneys in California are living on food stamps. And in some cases, some attorneys in California are homeless and living in their cars.
How is this possible? Aside from the awful economy, the single most important reason is three letters: UPL (Unlicensed Practice of Law). Technically, it is illegal to practice law without a license. However, the reality is that the law is never enforced. It is a myth that you need to be an attorney to practice the law these days. Don’t believe me? Find a local phone book and look up the term “Immigration Consultants”. I guarantee you that each and every one of those people you see there are practicing law without a license. It is not uncommon these days for paralegals to make court appearances for their clients. Insurance agents draft buy-sell agreements for their clients. Large corporations practice law without a license with impunity. We have also noticed that in several phone books, many non-attorneys who have never even set foot in a law school classroom are now advertising themselves as “Attorneys”. They do so with such chutzpah, that their brazen actions seems to indicate they have assurances that they will never be prosecuted.
Although there are no official statistics, it is safe to say that in the State of California at least 60% of all legal services are performed illegally by unlicensed people who have never set foot upon a law school campus. Some have never even stepped foot upon a college campus. Take that fact into account, and you can quickly see why there simply is no money for attorneys in California. Want to practice law without going through the hassle of a worthless $100,000 education? Just skip law school altogether, take out an ad in your local phone book and hang out a shingle. Is it illegal? Yes, but you will be in good company.
And what are the benefits of practicing law without a license? Well, for starters you will not have to worry about being suspended or disbarred for “lying” on your resume. No, that is not an exaggeration. In the summer of 2009, the State Bar of California suspended an attorney for lying on his resume for 6-12 months. You can literally lie about being an attorney, and the State Bar of California will do nothing about it because it is out of the scope of their jurisdiction.
So, to sum up, if you are looking for an exciting career as an attorney and do not mind making less than a high school teacher, do not mind facing impending and imminent suspensions and disbarments, do not mind a $100,000 student loan, and do not mind working 80 hours a week in a career with the highest rate of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, then law school is for you. However, if you are sane like the rest of society, then a job flipping burgers at McDonald’s makes more sense. At least you will get some much needed sleep at night.