Lawyers become lawyers to help people. To right wrongs, to champion for justice. While law school prepares you substantively for the legal issues you’ll face in private practice, it doesn’t address the systemically unhealthy cultural expectations of the profession.  Five years in, one new lawyer found that the tremendous workload, low associate’s salary in the face of huge student loans, and endless extra hours to stay on the partner track simply weren’t worth missing out on his daughter’s childhood. 84% of new lawyers we surveyed agreed. So is the culture of law doomed, or could building in a structure of support — to help people — be the answer? ALPS Risk Manager Mark Bassingthwaighte and ALPS Claims Attorney Shea Sammons discuss.

Transcript: 

MARK BASSINGTHWAIGHTE:

Hello, and welcome to ALPS In Brief, the podcast that comes to you from the historic Florence building in beautiful downtown Missoula, Montana. I’m Mark Bassingthwaighte the risk manager here with ALPS, and it is my pleasure to have Shea Sammons join me this afternoon. As we talk a little bit about a survey that we did with young lawyers here at ALPS. But before we get into that, Shea, can you just tell everybody that’s listening a little bit about yourself?

SHEA SAMMONS:

So I’m a claims attorney at ALPS. I’m originally from Montana, long line of Montanans. I think I’m fifth generation. Went to undergrad here at University of Montana Western down in Dillon. Had a professor kind of talk me into going into law school. I was a little bit interested anyway, but he definitely swayed me. So I went to law school here at the university. Graduated, went into private practice, was in private practice for about five years and then came on board with ALPS.

MARK:

Very good. Well, very good. Again, I appreciate your joining us. Why I thought it would be fun to talk with Shea. We did a survey of young lawyers and had some, not completely unexpected responses. But as we looked at the responses and chatted about it with some of the younger lawyers here at ALPS, it became apparent that that Shea, as an example, in his own path, his own experience, really mirrored a lot of the responses that we saw. And I just wanted to talk a little bit about that and share part of your story. And see if we can get some insights and learnings from what your generation is struggling with in terms of young lawyers.

You talked initially about a professor sort of encouraging you to head into law. Is there more to that? I mean, why did you end up going to law school? What was the dream, for lack of a better description?

SHEA:

Yeah, so originally I went to school to be a teacher. A lot of people in my family are teachers, educators. Decided that I didn’t have the patience to deal with young children after I did some field experience. So I had a degree in history and I had a degree in political science. What am I going to do with these things? It was either grad school, law school, something like that, continuing my education.

And then I had something happen with a family member in law that I didn’t really understand. And it was pretty out of my control, which I also didn’t like. So that was kind of what maybe peaked my interest in law. And then going through my last semester of school, I had a professor, constitutional law was a requirement for me to get my political science degree. Took that class. Became not really interested in it, but it was an interesting class. And I loved the professor and he was like, “Well, have you ever thought about going to law school?” I said, “No.” Just took the LSATs kind of on a whim type of thing. And then I just set my mind that I was going to go to law school. Applied here at the university, got in and ended up going. I guess that’s how I went into law school.

MARK:

All right. Actually, your expectations in terms of what … I think we all go into law with an idea in our head anyway, of what it’s like to be a lawyer. So I’m kind of looking at what were your expectations versus the reality, both in law school and post law school? Did they line up at all? Was I …

SHEA:

I think my expectations of law school were pretty spot on with the amount of work that it was, the dedication that it was, the financial burden that it is, and that it became. I knew those things going in.
The thing that didn’t really align with my expectations was private practice. I think one of the reasons is I went into law school wanting to be a prosecutor. I wanted to be this champion for justice and had these noble goals of doing the right thing for people that couldn’t do the right thing for themselves and righting wrongs. And then we start getting into these little kid cases and like crim pro. And I’m just like, there’s no way I could be a prosecutor if I have to deal with this kind of stuff.

I was interning at a law firm that first year, and I was coming home. And just thinking about these nonsense housing development disputes that we have until like 11 o’clock at night. I couldn’t imagine bringing that kind of work home with me. So I switched over and started focusing on civil litigation. Because I always did want to be a litigator, be in the courtroom. I liked that sort of thing. Got through law school. My entire law school career, I clerked for … Up until the last semester when I got hired on at the firm that I wound up working for here in Missoula, I clerked for a firm in Missoula that primarily does civil defense. We defended insurance companies, basically.

At that point, I kind of realized that I had, I don’t know if consigned is the right word for it. But I had just given up that the noble law avenue. And I was just going to pursue this avenue through law that provided a good living. That I knew that work was always going to be there, that our clients were going to pay their bills. That sort of thing.

Graduated, went on with a firm here in Missoula. And I did not expect the amount of hours that I had to put into things to be as heavy as it was in law school. Even clerking and seeing the amount of work that partners were doing, that sort of thing at the firm that I was clerking at. And some of that might’ve been my own personal way that I work. And not being able to figure out right away the most efficient way to do things or get through a brief or whatever it is. I was kind of in a lucky position. The firm that I stepped into had a couple of really good partners that really wanted to bring me along and were dedicated in developing me as a litigator. Really good at basically just holding my hand through a lot of it. “This is the motion. This is how the motions games work. You want to file this motion when this sort of thing happens. Don’t make that argument. You’re just giving the court reason to give the opposing party what they want,” that sort of thing.

So I was lucky that I had that handholding, but still the amount that I was expected to work and the amount that I had to work were not something that I was prepared for from law school. I think that they do a good job, at least the law school I went to did a great job of preparing me substantively for the legal issues that I was going to encounter like intellectually. They did a great job of preparing me for it. Trial wise, I don’t know if I had … I did trial class and I was on moot court team, but we didn’t really have any trial prep outside of that. Or we didn’t do any sort of deposit … How do you go through a deposition with people? Motions in limine, that sort of thing. There was no preparation for that in law school. And maybe you can’t prepare for that.

MARK:

I think it’d be hard. I think you can, through perhaps … I’ve looked at the medical school model practicums and internships and things. Maybe there’s something there, but law schools … I’m quite a bit older and your description of law school is very, very similar to mine. I’ve always thought, I think law schools really do a pretty good job of teaching how to be a lawyer. But a horrible job at teaching you the realities of how to run a legal business. How to make this thing work day to day in any kind of same way. That’s sort of how I responded to all of that.

But any regrets? Would you do it again?

SHEA:

I think that I would do it again. I would try to get in the door at ALPS a lot quicker than … Not to kiss boots or anything, but that’s a little bit. I mean, I think private practice was just so demanding just by its nature. You have to put those hours in or else you don’t get the work done, and you’re going to have mad clients. You’re going to have poor work product, that sort of thing. You’re not going to have a job eventually, but other than just, maybe I wasn’t prepared for the amount of work that it was, or the way that the work is also expected to be done. But I wouldn’t say that I regret going to law school. I would have thought a lot harder about it.

The other part of that, the other side of that coin, I guess, would be the financial burden that you have after law school. I knew that I was taking out student loans going through law school, but it’s not something that really hits you until you get out of law school. And you’re like, “Holy cow. That’s some loans.” And then on the outset, you’re just making first year associate money. Which lawyers make a decent amount of money as compared to some other professions or whatever. But I would say that, or I’m going to say that, I think that lawyers are probably underpaid for maybe the first two or three years. Considering the amount of financial burden that a lot of them have to take on to get out of law school.
I had friends that were making $45,000 a year with $120,000 worth of debt that they took on just to get through law school. And I mean, you can’t even pay the principal on the loan with that amount.

MARK:

Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. And at what you’re sharing for those listening here today, a lot of Shea’s insights really match what others have said on the survey. That just tremendous cost and not having a true realistic understanding of what the work environment and the financial side of all this is post law school. You see some same things in Madison. Some people think you can make a lot of money and some people do. But a lot of people—

Shea Sammons:

—Don’t.

MARK:

It’s day to day. I mean, it’s okay. Pardon me. I have a little cough here. Excuse me. But at that load it, you see the same thing in Madison. It’s just sometimes even quite a bit higher. And they just can’t ever get out of that.

SHEA:

I think-

MARK:

Yeah, please go ahead.

SHEA:

I’m going to just interrupted you a little bit.

MARK:

No, please.

SHEA:

I think also the way that the business is structured in law with the partnership structure, which is usually the common way that firms are structured. You’re on partner track, you put in three, five, seven, nine years, whatever the partner track is at your firm. But until you make partner, you’re still making that associate money. And then you’re hoping to maybe supplement that with some kind of bonus that your boss is willing to throw you, or hopefully you get a raise. Otherwise, it’s just, you’re making that little amount of money to make partner.

MARK:

Would you say the environment was sort of a sink or swim environment or was it more really geared to mentoring and they really did … What was your experience?

SHEA:

I think that’s the one, and maybe not just the only one, but one of the areas where my experience isn’t really the norm from what I’ve talked to with my classmates, at least. Because I was really brought along, I had two partners that were very good. They’d been attorneys in the area. A lot of them were practicing for 30 years. They’d help write some of the laws in this state. Really great attorneys. And they really cared about bringing me along as an attorney. So I had, it was more of that mentorship for sure. But I think that’s the exception to the rule in some places.

MARK:

Wow. That’s again, what we see a lot on the survey. Yeah. I think your experience is a bit of an exception there. What really led you to say, “Okay, the private practice life isn’t, you know …”

SHEA:

Not for me.

MARK:

Yeah. You start looking elsewhere.

SHEA:

I think it was a couple of things. So I have a four-year-old daughter. The main thing was that I was having to work enough that I was starting to miss things in her life. Like they’re going to go fishing, once I get off work we got a brief due on Monday. I’m going to have to be at the office for another three hours. You guys got to go without me. Or she’s in T-ball or whatever it is. And I have to miss a game. That sort of thing. That just in my experience, is something that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice, just so that I could put in enough hours to make partner, make as much money as I possibly could. That sort of thing. Work at that point, wasn’t worth more than missing out on things with my daughter.

So that was the main driver, I think. The other one was just the workload, it’s crazy. But I mean, by nature, it sort of has to be that. And some of my friends that I graduated with, love it. They were born to be letting [inaudible 00:14:33] 70 hours all week, every week. You know, those sorts of people. That’s just not how I’m wired, I guess. And that comes to another point that a lot of people were making on the survey that it’s really hard to find that life-work balance. You feel worked to death and there’s no area, no room for anything else outside of work.

MARK:

Yeah. I love how you talked about your daughter and the importance of that and driving the change. I’ve spent a lot of years on the road. And in prior years, long before you got here, I was traveling two weeks every single month. And again, we had five kids and I feel why [crosstalk 00:15:29].

SHEA:

It takes a toll.

MARK:

It does take a toll. And I think I did what you did just in a different way. You just have to find ways to … And we’ve talked about this a little earlier. For me, it’s not about finding balance. It’s about finding creative ways to make each day aspect of your life, whether it’s work. I don’t like this notion of compartmentalizing either.

SHEA:

I don’t either.

MARK:

And really sitting and saying, okay. So although I’m 2000 miles away, I may sit down at a restaurant, get a glass of wine and call my wife. And we’ll just chat for 15 minutes. And the kids know, okay. One of the other things that I did, it was kind of fun. I took each one out on the road with me. And they got to see what my life was like.

SHEA:

Exactly. I bet they loved it.

MARK:

And then they had some great dad and son or dad and daughter time. On a weekend, we’d go. And we have some really good times.

SHEA:

I bet.

MARK:

I’d love your thoughts, if you can take a couple minutes and say, speaking to both lawyers that … or young lawyers that are thinking or people think going to law school or in law school. And young lawyers that are the first couple of years of whatever their professional life looks like. What are your thoughts, thoughts about what can we do in light of the current reality of a lot of debt for a lot of people to go to law school? And I don’t know that that’s readily solvable, but the long hours. Let’s try to shed a little light or offer a little, a window of hope perhaps, for those that sit here and say, “Oh man.” You started to second. So I’ll let you run however you want to run with that. It’s a bunch of things in there.

SHEA:

I think then the first thing, at least that helped me to accept. Just to accept that the way to you achieving some sort of happiness. Because I think that’s what you’re talking or we’re talking about with this, the concept of life work balance. It’s being happy while also being able to maintain this lifestyle of being a lawyer. The work aspect of it.

MARK:

Okay. Yes.

SHEA:

So I think part of it is just accepting that the profession, at least the way that lawyers work, that’s just the way that it’s going to be. If you’re not up for working or putting in a certain amount of hours. Like with me, I litigated. If you’re not up for putting in those 60 hour weeks at the beginning, especially when you start practicing, then you probably shouldn’t be a litigator. There’s other areas of law that don’t require that hour workload.

I think the other thing is as well, is it … And this is something that I’ve kind of gained perspective on just recently in coming on with ALPS, I think is that I worked a ton when I very first came out of law school. But I got more efficient at getting my work done. And I maximized my hours in a more efficient way, I guess, for lack of a better term. I think people need to view that our load and that the insane amount of hours that maybe they will have to work as soon as they got out of law school or whether they do or not in a more of a longterm perspective.

The first five years of practice, you might have to bust your butt and work 60 hour weeks every single week. And you get a week of vacation every year and that’s it. That’s all you get. But maybe on that sixth year, you make partner and you don’t have to do that anymore. You didn’t have this … I don’t know. To use the term again. And I agree, I don’t really like the term life work balance because it insinuates something that they’re separate and you need to put this amount in this one and this amount in this one to balance them out. And how do you do that? That sort of thing.

I think the point is, is that you might not have that balance at the beginning of your career, but by the middle of it, you probably will. At least that’s been my experience. And I obviously I switched out to get that balance. I’m not private practice anymore. But as I was coming up on those five years, I had a decision to make. The partners were kind of retiring and I could take over the bulk of business that we had at the firm and our clients. And just continue on with this thing as my own, or I could go do something else.

And I made the decision that I wanted to go do something else. And that was with ALPS. Yeah.

MARK:

Okay. Yeah. Yeah. I have some takeaways on that and I’ll share shortly. The one thing that my thought is … And I think your experience was a little better in terms of having some mentoring and those kinds of things.

SHEA:

It was, for sure.

MARK:

But I’m not convinced. I guess I’m further down the road in a non-traditional legal career. Boy, I’ve worked with thousands of lawyers and you look at all the data on how unhealthy our profession is. I’m not so convinced that once you hit that partner track that it’s-

SHEA:

I agree.

MARK:

It’s all roses. Sometimes I think it can get even crazier.

SHEA:

Worse.

MARK:

Which just underscores the value of getting to this balance thing, getting to this finding a health and wellness in all aspects of your life.

I mean, some of the things that I take away from Shea’s story. I liked the fact again, that you really sat down and said, “Okay, I went into law with I think a relatively good understanding of what you’re getting into in terms of studying long hours, that kind of thing.” But the other side of that experience, I hear a little bit about, it’s not everything that I thought it would be.

SHEA:

No.

MARK:

And you are sitting down and saying, “Is this what I want the rest of my life to look like?” And it’s in no small part driven by this sweet little thing that you brought into this world. And you look and say, “What are my priorities here? Am I living to work or am I wanting to work to have a life?”

And I think you made a very well reasoned and intentional decision in your career. And to me, that’s one important takeaway to all of this. When I look again at a lot of the survey responses. I want to say to these folks, at the end of the day, whether you have regrets or might do things differently. You are where you are and you can make choices. This is your life. I’m another great example. I actually kind of was very interested in doing the same kind of thing you did early on. But I also there’s a non traditional legal career and there are lots of lawyers that are non traditional legal careers of all … There’s just so many things. I think that’s one of the value adds for lack of a better description of a law degree.

SHEA:

I agree. [crosstalk 00:24:00]

MARK:

Because you can do all kinds of stuff. If you listening to this are sort of … can relate to Shea’s story or feel some of the things that we’re sharing with some of the others young lawyers in this survey, in terms of these responses. You are in control. I mean, not saying it’s easy but you really have to sit down and ask some tough questions and decide what are my priorities in life.

But the other thing that I think is important too, that I like. Sort of underscoring the difference that you shared with your own experience in the law firm. This is where I’ve made a big mistake. I kind of jumped out and hung up my own shingle with a law school classmate. We were both green and had just no clue what we were doing.

SHEA:

It’s so tough, right? Yeah.

MARK: You feel alone. You feel scared. You feel isolated. And let’s be honest, you feel incompetent because you don’t have any real experience under your belt.

SHEA:

Because the way that they teach you a law is not necessarily the way that it’s practiced. Then all those little pointers and tips that you get to pick up with a mentor.

MARK: Yeah. Pardon me, I need a little sip here. My throat’s dry. But if you feel alone, isolated, not entirely competent.

SHEA:

And any of those.

MARK:

All of those, any and all of this stuff, I think it’s very, very normal, first off. So don’t feel like, oh, it’s just you.”

SHEA:

I felt that way. And I had somebody holding my hand.

MARK:

Yeah, I did too. And I really do hope that … To those that are can relate to this whole discussion, you are not alone. You are not unique in feeling what you feel. I’m not saying it’s great. I mean, it, unfortunately, in some ways it comes with the territory. But the good news is, again, you can control some of that. But I also think reach out and look core mentors and try to find people.

SHEA:

I don’t know. I might be speaking out of turn.

MARK:

No, please.

SHEA:

I don’t know if this program still exists in Montana. It did when I was in law school, but there’s a mentorship program here. That if you get ahold of the state bar, they can hook, they they’ll set you up with somebody to … You meet up, you have coffee, you bounce ideas off each other. How should I write this brief? What do I need to do here?

MARK:

Right. And a number of bars all over the country have various programs. They may be structured a little bit differently, but mentoring, there’s a tremendous need for it. But what a lot of folks don’t realize, particularly in terms of the younger lawyers, there are also a lot of people out there that are more than willing to do it. There is an availability, particularly the more senior among us.

SHEA:

Right. And you get on the backside of the practice.

MARK:

Right. It’s a way to give back. They start to slow down. I’ve talked with enough lawyers that do say, “I have something I would love to give and share.” And here’s another thought, some of these lawyers still want to practice for a number of years, but you know what they’re afraid of and not competent in? And sometimes it’s just how to use some of the tack. And what I have found at times, some really interesting mentoring relationships where the senior lawyer’s talking a little bit about-

SHEA:

Just back and forth. A little symbiotic relationship.

MARK:

“Here’s how you do a [inaudible 00:27:46] and don’t do this in front the judge.” And the other lawyer’s saying-

SHEA:

This is how you [crosstalk 00:27:50].

MARK:

Yes, yes. “Here’s how you put the screen up one Zoom.” It really can be-

SHEA:

Value goes both ways.

MARK:

Value goes both ways. But I also think at the end of the day, you can get some really meaningful relationships out of it, in terms of just support systems, professional support systems that really add to life.

So this has been awesome, Shea. Do you have other thoughts or points or things that you’d like to share? I want to make sure you get-

SHEA:

Yeah. Well, the only other thing that I was thinking is I think we’ve touched on this subject that people are having these experiences. My experience might be a little bit different than your experience. There were a lot of different experiences in the poll.

I think the last point that I’d really like to make is we’re all obviously individual. And what’s going to work for me in trying to find happiness and with my personal life and work might not work with the other person. One of the ways that I started to try to relieve that work stress and try to relieve my mind from working was going running, or getting outdoors. That sort of thing. And that’s what worked for me. Maybe for somebody else it’s knitting or playing racketball, or sitting there starting a new TV series or whatever it might be.

I think again, to touch on your point of it’s about internalizing, figuring out what works for you and making a really intentional decision after that thought process on, is this the way that I want to go? Is this the way that I want to go? Is this something that is going to be able to work for me? And then just following through on it. Yeah.

MARK:

I absolutely agree. You’re speaking, you’re saying things, I think I would have said myself in your shoes. I’m just, again, many years further down the road. But for me it’s bike riding and cooking. I love.
And interestingly enough, even the choice to be a road lawyer. That like you were saying, some people love to the hours of litigation and the thrill of the courtroom and all that. I am a guy that just loves to move. I mean, I really do. And so I had my challenges to find ways to make that work for my family, because I need to support and take care of my support system. And I’m also a support system to them. So I need to be there, but you can do that. It just took me a little while to learn that I’m the one in control of these decisions.

SHEA:

Yeah, exactly.

MARK:

And so I think we’ll leave it there. That’s, I think the message that we’re both trying to make. And I hope that again, walking away with, reach out to support systems, be a support system. But really you’re in control of your life. And all that you’re feeling is normal. We all feel it it. It’s just natural, but there are so many opportunities out there. Just take the time to find ways to reach out and make it work. So I hope you found something of value today. Shea, thank you for taking a little time.

SHEA:

Thank you. Yeah. This was fun.

MARK:

It really truly has been a pleasure. For those of you listening, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me anytime. If there’s something I can do in terms of risk question, an ethics issue, a cyber concern of some sort. You do not need to be an ALPS insured to visit with me. My email addresses MBASS, M-B-A-S-S @ALPSinsurance.com. That’s it, folks. Thanks. Bye-bye.

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