Why Become a Lawyer?

In today’s environment, where law schools are churning out way more lawyers than the market really wants, plenty of law students and recent grads are wondering if it’s really worth it.

We’re asked this question, in various forms, all the time.  And we see it asked every day on various internet fora.

Our answer is always a resounding YES! …if you’re going into law for the right reasons.  It’s worth it.  Oh yes, it surely is worth it.

Now, if you’re going into law just for a nice paycheck and some prestige, you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  And it’s probably not worth it unless you’re so smart and accomplished that you can be hired by a big firm (and yet not quite bright enough to figure out that, except for a few awesome firms, doing so is essentially trading your life for a living, and putting off any further accomplishments for the next several years).  If you’re not already a superstar at what you’ve been doing with your life thus far, odds are you’re not going to morph into one during law school.

And if you’re doing it because you can’t think of anything else to do, it’s so obvious that you’re doing it for the wrong reasons that it’s a waste of space to even explain it here.

So what are the right reasons?

It’s going to be different for each person, because the right reasons are always personal.  It’s something about you, who you are, what purpose you want your life to have.  But if you’re doing it for the right reasons, you don’t have to be the smartest person in the room.  You don’t have to graduate in the top third of your class at a top-tier school.  All you need to do is bust your ass in school to master the material and learn how to think like a lawyer, then bust your ass once you’ve got that JD and make sure you goddamn well fulfill your purpose.

Again, the reasons are going to be different for each person.  We can’t describe what the right reasons for you might be.  But we can tell you what our reasons were.  Maybe that will help illustrate what we’re talking about.


Why did we go to law school?

Two words: Frank Johnson.

Most of you have never heard of the guy.  He’s not in the history books.  Though he ought to be.  Because Frank Johnson was living proof that one man really can make a difference.

What did he do?  He was a trial judge in Alabama during a critical phase of our nation’s history, when the cause of civil rights for blacks and other minorities became a movement.  And a good case can be made that, but for Frank Johnson, the movement would not have taken place as it did — maybe not even at all, as we know it.

The history books are full of the great men and women who led the movement.  But if it weren’t for Judge Johnson, they wouldn’t have been able to do so many of their great deeds.  He didn’t do their deeds, but he made them possible.

Check out Wikipedia’s article on the man, to get an idea of what this lower-court judge was able to accomplish.  With a stroke of his pen, he forced the State of Alabama to integrate those buses, made the governor get out of the damn schoolhouse door, forced the governor to allow the historic March from Selma to Montgomery, and much more.

It’s no exaggeration to say again that he proved by his deeds that one man really can make a difference.

That’s all we wanted to do with our short time on this planet.  Somewhere in our college years, we decided we were going to make a difference, if only a small one.  We looked at our particular talents and decided they’d be put to best use in the law.  We might never achieve the same kinds of things as Judge Johnson, but with luck and perseverance we might make a difference to a few real human beings.  We like to think we’ve been doing that.

(We felt so strongly about this, in fact, that during law school we wrote to then-President Clinton, and suggested he give Frank Johnson the Medal of Freedom to give him the recognition he deserved.  We wrote how he was the reason we went to law school in the first place, and described what he had done.  To our amazement, we got a personal letter from Clinton some time later, in which he said he had decided to award him the Medal.  Later we learned that a lot of other people had written similar letters to the president, so it surely wasn’t our doing by any stretch of the imagination.  But we’ve treasured that letter ever since.)

Anyway.  You want to know why to become a lawyer?  Our answer is simple.  Two words: Frank Johnson.

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7 Responses

  1. Trevor Reid says:

    But, there’s a paycheck and prestige too, right?

  2. Nathan says:

    Thanks for the chuckle!

  3. Asebeo says:

    Hello “The Criminal Lawyer,”

    I love this post. In general, your blog is great. Especially during these times where law students and graduates are so down about the lack of $160k job offers at graduation. Anyway, I have a question. Are there any books that you would recommend for a 2L who plans to work as a public defender? I’m looking for anything that will help me actually practice the law after school.

  4. Ryan says:

    I smiled reading this. I love the blog and your honest (well, seemingly honest) opinions. Thanks for reassuring me of my dreams.

  5. A career as a lawyer is an extraordinary calling. However, becoming a lawyer is an enormous undertaking in terms of time commitment and financial investment. Therefore, it is important to learn as much about the profession as possible before you embark on a career path as a lawyer.

  6. Great Blog, I think to become a lawyer needs lots of courage, experience and more over practice.

  1. December 13, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David J. Marquardt, NCCU School of Law and Philip A. Guzman, Nathaniel Burney. Nathaniel Burney said: The Criminal Lawyer: Why Become a Lawyer? – http://tinyurl.com/29ovude […]

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