On becoming a lawyer: Challenges and rewards of a legal life

The law school education is priceless. Practicing law, while never easy and sometimes beyond grueling, can be amazingly satisfying when you are helping others.

Public domain photo via Pixabay. (CC 0.0)

WASHINGTON, February 5, 2017 — In today’s column, I humbly share my experiences and thoughts with you on my profession. I have been a lawyer for over 36 years and I have loved every minute. Should you become a lawyer? After a few technical points, we will explore the challenges, possibilities and rewards of this unique profession.

What is the difference between a lawyer and an attorney?

An attorney is a lawyer, but a lawyer may not necessarily be an attorney. Practically speaking, the terms are interchangeable in common understanding, but the words do mean different things.

A lawyer is someone who is trained in the law. He or she may or may not provide legal guidance to another.  Thus, anyone who has attended law school in the United States is a lawyer. However, until they pass the bar exam in the jurisdiction in which they intend to work, how they use their lawyering skills is limited. For example, a policy advisor or consultant to the government, who attended law school, is technically a lawyer and may offer his or her skills in the course of their work, but they cannot cross the fine line into providing legal representation.

An attorney, on the other hand, has passed the Bar Exam and can represent people.

Do you want to travel down the road to a legal life?

Becoming an attorney is a mind-expanding process that typically begins with three years in law school. It forces thinking in ways most people never before, or ever will, experience.

If becoming an attorney is not the objective, any who are lucky enough to get into law school should nonetheless go, in my opinion, if only to experience growth in how things are perceived, analyzed and potentially resolved. A key lesson learned in law school is that there is NEVER one answer to anything. NEVER. This lesson alone is worth the time and the entire cost of the three years, if it can truly become ingrained and carried through the student’s lifetime in how things are approached and accomplished.

Translated, that lesson means understanding there is at least one more side of every issue, problem or question. A legal education fosters attempts to see those alternates, and law school often forces the student to go through the steps of seeing the other side by becoming the advocate for those alternates.

Being an attorney can be a powerful advantage in life. For many people, dealing with an attorney is different from dealing with a non-attorney. The very thought that an individual may have to deal with an attorney often seems like an implied threat. I have, so many times, gotten things accomplished simply because I started a telephone call with “I’m an attorney and I want to try to resolve things amicably.” The threat implied by even the word “attorney” underlies the statement or request without making the threat. Magic, sometimes, but not with Comcast, Verizon or Sears.

Being an attorney can also be an advantage in business. Non-attorneys sometimes feel those across the table that are attorneys somehow are smarter or have an advantage (often not true at all), or sometimes feel that they should not be “playing games” because the other party’s attorney will know what to do if and when. On the other hand, being an attorney can be a detriment if some of the skills taught to lawyers—detail and obsessive perfection—are brought into the business world where common sense and quick decisions are needed.

Becoming an attorney might be an excellent choice for those wanting to also be psychologists, counselors, financial advisors, business advisors, higher-level government employees, politicians (heaven forbid), social workers, or defenders of causes that are way too numerous to list here.

Law school is an intense three years, but not so much (as I understand it) as medical school or even other “professional occupation” schooling where an aptitude for that field is probably a prerequisite.

Books that detail the legal life

There are several books individuals considering a life in the law might read, to get a flavor for what school and that “lawyer life” might be like.

“The Paper Chase” is the classic story (made into a movie) of a first-year law student at Harvard and his struggles with his contracts professor. The student is both inspired and intimidated. This is a pretty good view of law school.

“Law School Confidential” is an excellent portrayal of what law school is like from the viewpoint of recent graduates who offer advice as well about getting into law school and studying for exams.

“Getting to Maybe” is a book that bills itself as a guide to doing well on law school exams, but it is perhaps a better guide on “thinking like a lawyer.”

I am a fan of Alan Dershowitz. I highly recommend any of his books, particularly “Shouting Fire,” his book about civil liberties cases. Another of his books, “Taking The Stand, My Life in the Law,” recounts many of his sensational cases, including the eye-opening story of former boxing great Mike Tyson’s rape trial.

Superstar attorney Gerry Spence’s book “How To Argue and Win Every Time” is an excellent treatment allowing the reader to appreciate “legal strategy.”

Finally, for my purposes today, as there are hundreds of other excellent books, Jim Perdue’s “Who Will Speak For The Victim” cannot be missed if purpose is a meaningful barometer for deciding whether to go into the life of law.

Closing Argument

Despite the jokes and despite the comments from those who’ve recently gone through a contested divorce, the practice of law is a noble profession. It is a profession where making a difference can truly be accomplished, whether on a one-person-at-a-time basis or on a larger scale.

Perhaps the key to making the decision about going into the law is that: purpose. Obviously, there are hundreds of ways that a life well lived can take form and unfurl without necessarily becoming an attorney. But I have found that for me, and for virtually every colleague, being an attorney is, at its core, a very satisfying way to bring about purpose. Even if failure is the result, often simply knowing that an effort was made is important.

I imagine there are attorneys who practice law without real purpose. I believe, however, that doing so would be very difficult, because the multitude of questions faced, the issues presented, and even more, the real people involved, make purpose something that must often be addressed and reconciled.

Perhaps poor reconciliation amounts to an abandonment of purpose. That does happen in my profession. Many wide-eyed young lawyers begin their careers with dreams of conquering wrongs, helping the downtrodden and correcting the system. Many of them become disillusioned for many reasons, and many of these, unfortunately, become thick-skinned and and focus only on making money; or, they simply leave the profession.

Law? Get a diverse education. Read everything you can. Pay attention in class. Graduate from law school and pass the Bar Exam. Then go out and help someone.

Becoming an attorney is not easy, nor is practicing law. To do “the job” often requires countless hours, staying up late at night, going to work on weekends and missing family events. All this is because the attorney has caught the bug: Do each task perfectly because the client or the cause is what really matters.

Practicing law can be painfully and impossibly challenging. But when the effort an attorney makes actually succeeds in helping someone, there is nothing better.


Paul A. Samakow is an attorney licensed in Maryland and Virginia, and has been practicing since 1980.  He represents injury victims and routinely battles insurance companies and big businesses that will not accept full responsibility for the harms and losses they cause. He can be reached at any time by calling 1-866-SAMAKOW (1-866-726-2569), via email, or through his website

His book “The 8 Critical Things Your Auto Accident Attorney Won’t Tell You” can be instantly downloaded, for free, on his website: http://www.samakowlaw.com/book.

Samakow has now also started a small business consulting firm. His new book “Step By Step, Achieve Small Business Success” is available at www.thebusinessanswer.com.

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