What Do Lawyers Really Do? 7 Things Attorneys Wish You Would Understand About Their Job

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Lawyers. There are a million and one TV shows and movies about us, and they all make our little lives look glamorous and fast-paced. But the unsurprising fact is that very few movies or TV shows (maybe a few — The Lincoln Lawyer comes to mind) actually show the audience anything resembling the real day-to-day grind of being an officer of the court. What lawyers really do isn't very common knowledge either.

I know this intimately because I am a lawyer who also worked for two years as a court room clerk, and I, like many of my brethren, spend too much time sighing angrily at my television when I see how the law as a whole and as profession is portrayed. When the media gets things wrong, it means that the general public has an inaccurate idea about what lawyers do, which makes our jobs harder, because clients have unrealistic expectations.

So here I am to explain to you some of the realities of lawyering — or at least lawyering as I experience it. Sure, sometimes we get to make impassioned speeches to a jury, or rush to a police interrogation room at 3 a.m., but most of the time, our lives aren't quite that glamorous.

Every lawyer is different, and practices a different type of law, but here are seven things most lawyers probably wish you understood about our job.

1. Legal stuff takes time. Lots of time.

On every episode of The Good Wife or How to Get Away With Murder , a client hires a lawyer in the morning and then everyone seems to be in court by the afternoon. Unfortunately, in real life, court cases take months, if not years to complete, especially if you are dealing with the federal court system. Many types of cases have waiting periods before you can even get a trial, and others are subject to mandatory arbitration (basically where you present your case to a person who is not a judge who helps decide it).

Not only do most legal cases take forever, the end result is very rarely a dramatic trial. By some counts, 80 to 92 perent of civil cases settle out of court. And the same is true for criminal trials as well. There's a big reason for that: As cool as it is to think of having our Atticus Finch moment, most of us remember that Atticus lost that trial and would prefer to avoid that risk. After all, it’s a much safer bet to accept a deal that you know is okay, than to run the risk of getting nothing, or your client going to jail.

2. When trials do happen, they are incredibly boring.

Anyone who's had jury duty knows that trials are usually tedious and plodding. Believe me, lawyers know this too, but most of us can't control the urge to talk a lot — using really big words — even when we're awful public speakers. The people that suffer the most are court staff (and I should know, I used to be a court clerk). These poor souls have to endure attorneys droning on day in and day out, with only the occasional interesting moment. (I remember one fun day when I was a court clerk where a woman started breastfeeding her four-year-old during her testimony).

Also, court stenographers don't exist in most places any more. Everything is recorded instead.

3. We most certainly can handle the truth.

The kind of witness questioning you see in the movies and on TV is — and I know this will be a shocker — are much more dramatic than real life. Both witness and lawyers prepare extensively for trials, and maybe once in a blue moon does a witness say something so surprising it changes or ruins the entire case (though I have seen that happen. Once).

In federal court especially, the rule precludes "trial by surprise" because parties have to provide exhibit and witness lists to each other weeks in advance. Furthermore, there are extremely stringent rules about how a lawyer can ask questions and about what. We do yell out objections like “hearsay” a lot, but we don’t go into elaborate speeches while a witness is testifying, unless you’re one of those overly word lawyers that everyone hates.

4. Most of our job is reading, writing, and paperwork.

Seriously. There is a reason most trials are boring, and it’s because all lawyers are taught to do in law school is read and then write about the things we read. A huge hunk of a lawyer’s day — when we aren’t arguing cases or talking clients out of doing really dumb things (“No, you can’t fire that person cause they’re old;” “Yes, they will catch you if you ‘sort of’ break your probation terms"; or being told amazing, ridiculous stories) is taken up with writing pleadings, memos, and letters about what the law means and how it applies. You may think that the law is just what's in the statute books, but you’d be very very wrong.

A lawyer's job is about argument. Very specific arguments. You see, America, like all English colonies, is a common law count. What that means is that courts, not legislators, get to interpret exactly what a specific law means. Judges write out what they think laws mean or how a law applies to a certain situation. Most of this intrepretation is enshrined in court opinions, which are oftentimes dry, usually dull, and very rarely well-written. A lawyer’s job is to sort through all this crap to find out what a law means in relation to their cases and clients — and argue it.

5. Not all of us consider ourselves crusaders for justice.

Yes, many bright-eyed, bushy-tailed young people embark on law school with a dream of making the world a better place, but often, after law school, comes the crushing reality of rent and those extra crushing student loan payments. Some of us have to get jobs that simply pay more money. And in those jobs, our job as lawyers is to do what the person who is paying us the money tells us to do.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had other attorneys waste my time (and our clients’ money) droning away on the phone trying to convince me theirs is the side of right. It doesn’t matter, I’m being paid to argue the other side. The same goes when clients effusively thank you for finally listening to them and agreeing — most of us wouldn’t be listening if it wasn’t benefiting our paychecks.

6. If we're at a for-profit firm, everything we do for you will be billed.

Seriously, life as a lawyer is broken down into six minute increments (tenths of an hour) and we have to keep track of all of them. We bill for when we talk about clients, every time we send an email or get one — heck, some (extremely unethical) lawyers bill for  thinking about cases. Sometimes our contracts say that a certain task, no matter how quickly it's done, is subject to "minimum billing," so every letter we write, even if it takes .1 hours, might always be billed as .3.

A lot of the time we spend working, however, actually doesn't, or can't, get billed. Just because of how the world works, an eight hour work day might only result in five billable hours. Many lawyers are subject to requirements from the firm for minimum billing, which can mean 60 hour weeks to get to 30 billed hours. And even then, big law firms can find ways to screw us over. (This is why we can tend to be grumpy.)

7. We aren't all blood-sucking fiends.

It's true that there are lots of opportunistic hacks out there, the ones that are in it just for the paycheck. But although some of us work for the money, it doesn't mean we don't care deeply about our professional ethics, clients, and that everyone gets the treatment in court they deserve. A good lawyer will always do their best for their client, and always listen to that client as well.

After all, the Supreme Court building bears the inscription "Equal Justice Under Law," and we take that seriously.

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