How is the going? Sorry my follow-up to the previous letter has come a couple of months late, a lot has been going on in my life lately that involves moving from a despicably low paying job to an appallingly exploitative one. Apparently it’s a common trend that you’ll notice in this field if and when you get lucky to join in. Otherwise, how has the first semester of law school been like? Have any of the things I alluded to you come to pass? The thrill of being part of crème de la crème at the university, brandishing reading lists with this look-all-the-cases-I-have-to-read prate that tends to be misdirected to people who honestly don’t care. I guess you’ve already pepped up your vocabulary with these all important Latin phrases of “actus reus” and “in flagrante delicto”. Don’t you even wonder how you used to express yourself before you learnt this petty legal jargon?
Every time I sit down to write you letters, I end up making them longer than I plan to in the first place, I guess it’s because there’s just way too much to share on this subject. But I’ve decided to divide this one into sub headings, I hope this will help you follow better and keep me from rambling too much.
The LDC tragedy
I’m sure you heard the news of history repeating itself with the pre-entry exam, only 405 lucky lawyers made it to the wringer. As for the 691 who weren’t so lucky; well, they can always queue behind the 1000+ fresh graduates who will be applying next year. Some of them may defy the odds and get lucky at the second attempt, but until they do, I fear life may get quite miserable for the majority of those who can’t afford to buy time by flying out of the country in pursuit of master’s degrees for jobs they may never find when they come back here.
To put things a little more in perspective, over 1000 graduates are pumped out of law schools every year. In my year (2010-2011) only 464 lawyers sat for the Bar exam (including those who were giving it a second or even third shot) of whom only 290 passed. The unfortunate part about this profession is that you may never see an advertised legal job where a diploma in legal practice is not a prerequisite. For the few of those that you’ll come across, you’ll have to compete on the same level with graduates from all the degrees you despised. But the funny thing is even the majority of those lucky 290 are still struggling to make ends meet. I’ll give you a more personal example.
The rat race
After studying law for 5 years, I can’t tell you how happy I was to have finally got a job in a big business law firm that handles multimillion dollar transactions. But guess what my net monthly salary was; a whooping Ug. Shs 350,000 (no, I haven’t missed out any digits, I mean less than $ 140.) I can guarantee you the street side airtime vendor I walked passed everyday used to make a whole lot more than that by the end of the month. And yet he didn’t have suits to dry clean, or force a particular social status so he could match up to any delusional expectations for his profession. But like all young lawyers, I accept this pathetic excuse of a salary on the hope that I would be streaming in side deals from which I could raise enough money to pay rent, feeding, transport and maybe spare something for Agatha my kid sister—who I could tell how much I earned by the way for palpable reasons.
Obviously there were months when I made up to three times my salary in side income, but those were very few and far apart. What I remember mostly were months of struggling to stay alive with minimum debts as I counted down the days to end of the month.
My LDC graduation having coincided with the lapse of my six months probation period, I was mislead to think that finally, I could have the salary raise talk with my bosses. But when I tabled the issue, they brazenly asked me to justify why—in my interpretation—I thought I deserved to earn more than the airtime vendor. One of them even went ahead to ask, rather mockingly, “is it because you passed LDC?” (Like it shouldn’t count for anything).The other would later divert the session into that drab and hackneyed lecture of how no amount of money can be enough (not even 350,000 apparently). But at least he was courteous enough to correct me that what I earned was not a salary but a basic subsistence fund, just a handout to keep me from dropping dead (I credit him for his sense of humor).
But do you know why I endured that cruel joke I mistakenly referred to a salary for seven months? It’s because I knew how lucky I was to have a job in the first place. But I also knew that that’s the average salary for a lawyer before they enrollment as an advocate, more so if the firm is generous enough to give you lunch as good as the one I got.
Of course there were some classmates who had landed seven digit salary paying jobs in banks and other big institutions, but those were not more than 10% of the bunch. Many of my friends who worked in law firms were either paid less than the money I complained about, or would go for up to three months on nothing but the Shs. 20,000 weekly allowance. I tell you it’s a cold, mean and barren hustle out there.
In the firm where I did my clerkship training, I saw young lawyers eating groundnuts with black tea for lunch. At first I thought they were on a healthy diet schedule, but I learnt otherwise when I noticed the way this schedule tended to coincide with the dates where there were no court sessions to attend or court papers to file from which boda money could be saved.
I wish law students were taught to desist from the fanciful thinking that “I’m going to find this big job that will pay me so much money”. The truth is that lawyers—in my opinion—are not much better than the proverbial Indian employer; You will be assigned to draft demand notices for clients whose employers make them work over 48 hrs a week without overtime, leave or gratuity payments. Your boss will expect you to use the strongest of the threatening language to demand for the client’s rights, but he will forget that he makes you work 64 hrs a week and yet deprives you of all the privileges you have to rant about with those stale threats. But should you be a goat that doesn’t know how to turn that office headed paper into money, trust me you’ll never be in position to save enough money to buy a new shirt in three months.
The hysterical anticipation that characterizes law school can easily mislead anyone to think that the law degree is some sort of magic wand that guarantees a rich, rewarding and profitable career. And yet the ugly truth is that the majority of your classmates—perhaps even you—are going to end up working jobs that didn’t require blowing four years of one’s life pursuing an expensive course.
I caution you my brother, keep your expectations in this profession modest. These things of law tend to be too overrated. And don’t get me wrong when I talk about broken dreams in a legal career, I also have friends who have fleeced a couple of millions from a single transaction. But this isn’t entirely because of their legal training—which I’m not ruling out—but a combination of many factors. One being the opportunities they’ve had in life, which quite honestly, you may never find yourself, and mostly because they’re naturally shrewd people who would have made it anyway from any profession.
Make no mistake, many people have amassed wealth in the legal profession and you can be among them. But more than just the degree and the certificate in legal practice, you’ll have to be canny, shrewd and think creatively—virtues that you won’t learn in law school—before you realize your dreams in law. Otherwise you may end up among the crowd that will writhe in self loathing and silent regrets for the profession they joined with such preposterous expectations only to be smacked by contrary and brutal realizations.
But if even after this you still want to believe what you see in the movies, you may want to look at what is happening in the US where investing in the obnoxiously expensive law degree has become as dangerous as hopping along a mine field.
Best of wishes in your pursuit
Here is the link to Part I of Things They Haven’t Told You About Studying Law