An in-depth interview that may help you decide whether you'd like to become a lawyer.
Richard Pollack has been a corporate lawyer with a top international law firm for almost thirty years. In that time, he’s shared an office with one future member of the CIA, lived in three capital cities, and raised five very clever, very funny children. Over the course of our forty minute interview, he makes me laugh exactly nine times.
I quickly learn that being a lawyer is many things, but it’s probably not what you’d think. “About 10% of my work was just really random, crazy stuff,” Richard smiles, “it’s always challenging, it’s always different.”
How long have you been a lawyer?
How did you get into law?
I will give you honest answers. I got into law because I could not think of any other job to do after I graduated from college. I wanted to be a journalist. I had been working at The New York Times as a stringer and I thought that because of that I would be able to get a job as a journalist at any newspaper in country. But I could not get a job, so I got a job working in the Economics Division of the Department of Agriculture—and I hated it passionately.
A friend of mine was working as a paralegal at a law firm in New York at the time. I was complaining to him about how miserable I was in the job, so he lined up an interview for me at his firm, and I got a job as a paralegal. From there, everybody was applying to law school, so I applied too. It wasn’t because I ever had designs to be a lawyer or anything—in fact, I came from a family that hated lawyers. It was just one of those career paths you could apply for when you didn’t know what else to do.
Everybody was applying to law school, so I applied too. It wasn’t because I ever had designs to be a lawyer or anything—in fact, I came from a family that hated lawyers.
Would you say your story is pretty atypical?
I think it’s atypical to be honest about it. A lot of people probably go to law by default because they can’t think of anything else to do. But they then recast it as though they were wearing diapers and watching law shows on television when they decided to become a lawyer.
Can you briefly describe your current job and how long you’ve been doing it for?
I’ve really just had one job my entire adult life. I’ve worked at the same law firm for the last 29 years. I’ve sort of progressed through the firm, but I’ve never had to interview for a job all these 29 years.
I’m a corporate lawyer. Over the years I’ve split my time between capital markets transactions—helping people raise money in the capital markets—and mergers and acquisitions—helping companies buy other companies, typically crossborder. But about 10% of my work was just really random, crazy stuff. I was once sent to somebody’s house to check if some woman was alive. There was a nephew who was very greedy and was waiting for his aunt to die, that kind of thing. It was like something out of a bad English novel from the 1800s.
I was once sent to somebody’s house to check if some woman was alive... It was like something out of a bad English novel from the 1800s.
After I became a partner, it sort of gravitated to be all mergers and acquisitions or just general advisory work—talking to people about life, things like that. Most recently, they asked me to head the London office. The other part of my work now is that I have an administrative role at the firm.
So even though you stayed in the same firm, you were able to move around quite a bit?
I moved around in terms of my position, but also geographically. I started in New York, for a couple of years I was in Paris, then I moved back to New York. For a lot of my work in New York, I was traveling, making trips sometimes two or three times per week. Then for the first couple of years as a partner, the firm actually kept that apartment for me in Paris, and I would commute back and forth. My family lived in New York and I basically lived in Paris, so I would come home for some weekends.
Would you say there are a lot of opportunities for promotion as a lawyer? To move around during your career?
Well, yeah. I would say, of the people who start at my law firm, maybe one in fifteen or twenty stay on to make a permanent career at the law firm. And, of those who don’t, some significant percentage go off and become lawyers at other firms, or become lawyers inside companies.
But another very big chunk of people go off and use the legal formation to do other things. There’s a ton of movement between lawyers at a firm like mine and big business, investment banks, and government positions. There are a lot of people who become investment bankers or work at private equity firms. There are people who become business executives; they’re not really practicing law anymore at all, but the legal training helps a lot for understanding business organizations and business in general.
And then occasionally there are people who open bars—there’s even one guy who became a monk. So there’s a variety of different things you can do with a law degree.
Occasionally there are people who open bars—there’s even one guy who became a monk.
It sounds like the people you work with are an eclectic bunch.
People have very different backgrounds, very different socioeconomic backgrounds. They’re geographically diverse, their interests are diverse, and they happen into law from all different directions. I don’t think there’s a single path to it at all.
I feel like popular media offers us a very limited view of lawyers. There’s the Legally Blonde type, the Suits type...
[Laughs] Yeah. I don’t know about the “Legally Blonde” type—I don’t think we have anybody who quite fits into her category—but it is very broad.
Can you tell me a little more about the kind of training and education required to become a lawyer?
Every country is different, but in the US, you finish high school, go to college or university for four years, and after that apply to law school. Law school is typically three years. Then you take the bar exam in whatever state you want to practice in. It’s basically a licensing exam, and it varies by state. In California, it’s famously very hard; in New York, it’s sort of medium; and in some states, the reputation is that it’s rather easy.
Going back to law school, the typical path for somebody who does my type of law (and it’s different for different people) is that after your first year of school, you interview. Different potential employers come to your campus and you begin to interview for jobs at firms where you will work for your second summer. Employers are essentially focused on your grades from your first year of law school, so first year grades are super important. If they think you’re someone they might want to hire, they’ll invite you to the firm—and they’ll fly you in. Most of the hires at my firm come out of that process.
At the firm, you’ll spend a gruelling day of interviewing with four, five or six people. There’s typically a lunch you have to go to with three or four associates—so kind of intimidating as a law student. You might interview at ten or twelve or thirteen places, so there’s a lot of these trips—a lot of lunches and high stress situations. Then the law firm makes you an offer (or not) for a summer job. And if you do well, then at the end of the summer the law firm will make you an offer for a full-time job.
So it all goes back to if you get really good grades in your first year of law school. Because we never look again. I mean, we do; in theory people need to send us their grades. But they don’t really influence anything unless you’re failing, which is very hard to do in law school. (Law schools don’t like having students fail.) So if you get that first interview on campus and they invite you back to the firm, the chances are it will work out for you. That’s how I got hired, basically.
It all goes back to if you get really good grades in your first year of law school. Because we never look again. I mean, we do; in theory people need to send us their grades. But they don’t really influence anything unless you’re failing.
What kind of person tends to succeed in this career?
I don’t think there’s a single answer to that. If I look around and I see the various personalities in my firm, they couldn’t be more different from each other. There are people who are extremely intense and this is their only focus and there are people who actually do a lot of outside stuff—writing operas or novels, for example. So there’s a lot of really quirky, kooky people, but then there are also people like me who have their personal life, kids, things they want to focus on outside of work but who don’t have any screenplays or history books they’re writing.
And what makes you good at what you do?
I am very, very good under extremely high stress situations. I remain very cold and analytical and I don’t lose my head, I don’t get super stressed—at least not outwardly, because I do think it affects me inwardly. Even in situations where other people around me are screaming or scared, I remain very calm and cold and calculating. There’s very positive things in my career about that, but it translates into very negative things in my personal life.
Also, you know, having worked 20 hours a day for 28 years. (This last year I haven’t worked as much.) That gives you a lot of skills.
Could you walk me through a typical day of work?
Typically I’ll go and I’ll read the news for about three or four hours and I’ll have about twenty-seven cups of coffee. [Laughing] Then I’ll realize I haven’t done any work and I’ll get started.
A lot of my day is spent on the phone, depending on where I am and how many transactions I’m doing. So in a day like today, when I don’t have active negotiations going on for a deal, I’m basically fielding calls all day. Some of the calls are from other lawyers in the office, consulting me about things on their deals, some of the calls are about administrative things, some of the calls are with clients. In addition to my client work, the actual buying and selling of companies, a lot of it is just administrative, or client relationship stuff. We have to get paid, so some of my day is spent harassing people to pay us, fighting over fees, or trying to get hired.
What kind of hours do you typically work?
Again, it depends what I’m doing. So, today, I would say was a light day. I got to work at 9:30 am, and I finished around 6:45 or 7pm.
What’s the social culture like as a lawyer?
I think it’s different for everybody, because it depends on the group, the personalities. One thing about my firm is that it accommodates lots of different personalities. So there are people who are very social, who are very close friends and they hang out together, go to restaurants together, go on vacations together. But there are also plenty of people like me, who kind of want to spend as little time in the office with those people as they possibly can. My firm accommodates every kind of personality, but I’m always antisocial—it’s kind of my natural tendency.
That said, I do have very close friends at my firm. They’re people I’ve been working with all 29 years. (There’s very little turnover in the firm.) I don’t tend to hang out after work, I don’t go drinking with people, but I do see my friends socially.
What would you say is the best thing about your job?
Because we are much higher priced than other big law firms who do the same sort of work as us, people only use my firm for really challenging or scary things, things that are risky because they haven’t been done before. So I think one thing I like very much about my work is that it’s always challenging, it’s always different.
There are times when you think, “I wish I could just do one routine thing so that I wouldn’t have to stress so much and think so hard all the time,” but, the truth is, it’s always much more engaging and interesting when it’s novel or scary. That’s probably what I like best.
There are times when you think, “I wish I could just do one routine thing so that I wouldn’t have to stress so much and think so hard all the time,” but, the truth is, it’s always much more engaging and interesting when it’s novel or scary.
What’s the worst thing about your job?
Clients demand your full attention and instant service, and nothing in your personal life or family life or whatever else you’re working on matters to them. And in fairness, we’re charging them accordingly, so if I were them, it probably wouldn’t matter to me either. But that means your kid’s birthday, your sick parent, or the fact that you’ve got twenty other things on the same time schedule is irrelevant. They don’t care about you or whatever’s going on in your life or your world. You are always making the tradeoff in favour of servicing the client. The cost in terms of your personal life and your sanity is very high.
You are always making the tradeoff in favour of servicing the client. The cost in terms of your personal life and your sanity is very high.
So how would you describe the work life balance?
Pretty sucky. I think with age and experience, you can get more control of your life. Like, for me as a partner, it’s much, much better than life was as an associate. But it’s not ideal. Because even at my age and my level of seniority, when something is going on with a client, you basically drop what you’re doing and hop on a plane and go deal with it. That happens fairly often, and it usually happens at really horrible, inconvenient moments when you have a bunch of things you promised you would do and a bunch of people who are counting on you. Over time, the more times you don’t show up when people are counting on you, the more people just don’t count on you anymore. It doesn’t really contribute to a very good work life balance.
The more times you don’t show up when people are counting on you, the more people just don’t count on you anymore. It doesn’t really contribute to a very good work life balance.
What kind of advice would you give to someone who was considering becoming a lawyer?
My honest answer would be reconsider it. It’s a very hard, very demanding career. Having said that, if you stick to it and are willing to make the sacrifices that go along with it, you can get a lot of satisfaction out of it and do well economically and take care of your family and all.
To succeed in the career once you’re there, my advice would be keep your head down. People are constantly giving advice about the new, chic, hot approach to doing things. Don’t get caught up in that, just keep your head down and focus on what’s important. Just stay with the grind and focus on getting your work done.
People are constantly giving advice about the new, chic, hot approach to doing things. Don’t get caught up in that, just keep your head down and focus on what’s important.
One of the things I look for in the young lawyers at my firm is taking responsibility and ownership for an entire transaction, as opposed to just focusing on the task that has been handed to them. So, for example, if I ask somebody to write a memo on something or research some point and tell me what the court cases have said about it, I would really like them to be thinking, “Why is he asking me that? What’s the role in the transaction” and “Is he asking the right question?” I would love them to come back to me and say, “You asked me to look at that, but I think you’re thinking about it the wrong way.”
So think about what the client is trying to achieve and why you’re being asked to do what you’re being asked to do. Feel responsible for helping the client get what they need, and feel responsible for the overall delivery instead of just doing the minimum you have to do on your piece of it. If you’ve finished what you were supposed to do but someone else needs help, help that other person. You can both learn from it and also contribute more to the overall situation.
What do you wish you would have known before you became a lawyer?
I knew so little when I started. I literally hadn’t met a lawyer before, I had no idea what lawyers did. Everybody told me that you go to law school if you don’t know what else to do with your life. There are a lot things I wish I knew. I don’t even know where to start.
What’s the biggest misconception people tend to have about your career?
I don’t know about biggest, but a misconception people have is that, there are a lot of things I do that to the outside world look kind of fun and sexy. Like, I travel all the time. I am flying from country to country constantly. And to somebody who doesn’t do that often, that looks like kind of an exciting, fun thing to do. But there’s nothing exciting or fun about it—it’s kind of like riding a Greyhound bus around and constantly being late and constantly being stressed and tired because you’re trying to get through too many things at once. Again, it’s about not focusing on the outward appearance—that I’m flying around all the time, staying in fancy hotels, going to fancy restaurants—but to focus on what it is you’re doing and why people are paying you all that money to do it. It’s because there’s a lot of very hard work that goes into it, and all of those other things are just noise. If you’re going to enjoy it, you have to get pleasure out of solving the problems and doing the hard work, not that other stuff. Those things just sort of interfere with you trying to get your work done.
I travel all the time. I am flying from country to country constantly ... But there’s nothing exciting or fun about it ... Those things just sort of interfere with you trying to get your work done.
What’s the job market like? Is it difficult to get hired as a lawyer today?
Well, the legal market is vast. There are criminal prosecutors, defence lawyers, judges, divorce lawyers, tax lawyers and all sorts of things. But in my little segment of the legal market, I do have some insight on that, because I’m on the hiring end of things. And in terms of what I do, it’s a very competitive market to be able to hire the very top law students. We compete very hard with all the top law firms to get the best people, so for those people, it’s definitely a seller’s market.
However, there are a ton of law students and only very few of them are in that rarified space where we’re competing very hard for them. A very big number of students—and it’s only gotten worse over time—finish law school and there’s no job for them. They’ve ended up racking up a ton of student debt, and they’ve sort of been sold a bill of goods. There just aren’t enough jobs. Maybe they just didn’t take it seriously enough and they didn’t do well. Or maybe they did well, but they went to a less respected law school. It’s sort of a function of the university system being so screwed up; schools have an economic incentive to get people to enroll, even when they’re never going to get a job afterwards.
So not all of those people land on their feet. Some of them do very well and they break through the barriers and end up getting the jobs they want, but a good number of them end up in jobs that fall short of what they were hoping for. They end up in jobs as paralegals, or nonlegal jobs, or waiting tables. There’s a whole range of outcomes.
So choose your law school wisely?
Choose your school wisely and then work like hell to get really good grades that first year. It really does make a difference.