Law students and lawyers…

As part of my class on Lawyers Practice and Ethics I ask students each year a few questions about their attitude to lawyers. This year I began the first class with a word association game, asking the students to think of the first words that came into their head when I mentioned these words.

I began with “lawyer”. The most common responses clustered around law, statutes books or rules. This is an interesting contrast to what I would regard as the highly social context in which much lawyering takes place (interviews, negotiations, advocacy) although drafting of course takes up a lot of time this is probably less driven by the law as by lawyers’ existing banks of precedents. Research on what lawyers do tends to emphasise the limited extent to which lawyers generally engage in legal research. The second most common response was around salaries, money and wealth.

The response to solicitor produced a cluster around the word ‘paperwork’ with ‘cases’ and ‘writing’ perhaps suggesting a similar response. ‘Schedule’ also suggested an intriguing attitude to the work solicitors do. A second cluster arose around the institutional setting: city offices, office, firms. A third cluster indicated a recognition around professional and qualified. Only one response referenced money.

For barrister, there was the strongest cluster around court and advocacy, suggesting a quite different institutional and working focus was recognised (perhaps the strong association with courts also indicates why, in part, barristers are associated with higher status in students (and others) minds). The next cluster was around what might be called attitude or demeanour (argumentative, bolshy, confident). Wigs got some mentions and there was one mention for justice.

I also asked the class why they wanted to be lawyers (if they did and the vast majority thought they probably did) and why they thought that others wanted to be lawyers. They had free reign to write what they wanted buit most responses can be categorised into: money, status, a desire to ‘do good’ or advance justice, and the likelihood that the work would be interesting and a good fit with their skills. The responses can be summarised as follows.

When commenting on their own motivations, the students most commonly given motivations were the nature of the work (31%) a desire to do justice (28%) or the money. 7% indicated that status was an important part of their own motivation. When commenting on others motivations for being a lawyer 44% of responses indicated money, 23% indicated status, 15% indicated a desire to do justice and/or help people and only 8% indicated the nature of the work.
Unsurprisngly, then, the arguments given for others choosing the legal profession was more instrumental (status and money oriented) and less flattering. Whether this is a more genuine indication of motivation is difficult to judge. What is interesting for the reasons given for own motivation is the very even mix of instrumental reasons (money and status) ; a sense that the work is interesting, complex and suitable to their skills; and the desire to help people.  It tends to be the middle reason (‘interesting work’) which is most often ignored in the literature: students are presumed to be either ethical (desiring to promote justice) or money oriented but not simply in search of the pleasures of interesting work. It would be interesting to understand how this desire for interesting work impacts on career choices and other decisions by young lawyers.

I’d be particularly interested in posts from the students themselves.  For instance, did you feel this kind of exercise got at your motivations for being a lawyer?

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