Vol. 28 No. 3 (June 2018) pp. 36-38

THE AMERICAN LEGAL PROFESSION: THE MYTHS AND REALITIES OF PRACTICING LAW, by Christopher Banks. CQ Press, 2018. 144pp. Paperback $23.00. ISBN: 9781506333120.

Reviewed by Todd Collins, Steed Distinguished Professor of Public Policy, Department of Political Science and Public Affairs, Western Carolina University. Email:

Christopher Banks’ new book, THE AMERIACN LEGAL PROFESSION: THE MYTHS AND REALITIES OF PRACTICING LAW, provides an insightful evaluation of the law school application process, the law school experience, and the current state of the legal profession. Banks provides a strong mix of standard law school advice, review of recent scholarship, and data related to everything from law school rankings to the average salary of associate attorneys at “Big Law” firms. In addition to potential law students, this book would be a great read for new faculty or those recently assigned pre-law advising duties. It is also a worthy addition to the shelves of those that have been advising pre-law undergrads for many years.

The opening chapter introduces the purpose of the book and points out the modern perceptions and misconceptions of the practice of law, many of which stem from fictional characterizations of attorneys. Chapter 2 provides a very detailed examination of the law school application process. Much of the information here may already be known to those who have been advising students for some time, such as the standard advice that there is generally no “one” major needed to get into law school. This chapter also includes a good discussion of choosing the right law school, preparing for the LSAT, and the misconception that everyone makes a lot of money and is happy as an attorney, a theme the author returns to often in the book. While the information provided is fairly typical for pre-law advisors, what is very useful is that the author includes updated data and recent scholarship concerning these topics. Even for the experienced pre-law advisor, the updates and citations to scholarly works are well worth exploration.

Chapter 3 describes a brief history of the training of attorneys and portrays the modern law school experience. Again, much of the information here will likely be known to those that have advised for some time, such as the fact that social science perspectives on legal issues are not generally taught in law schools and that most of a student’s grade for a course is dependent on one final exam. A very useful section also discusses the bar exam and licensure requirements, something that many pre-law advisors may not include in their standard talking points, but is very important given the low bar passage rates of some law schools operating today. Again, this section is peppered with a significant amount of new data and references to recent inquiry into these issues.

The final two chapters delve into the modern practice of law, both describing the range of positions held by attorneys and critically examining the misconceptions of the profession. One of the strongest sections of the book is the exploration of “Big Law,” a term used to describe the largest elite law firms in the country which general focus on corporate law. Banks notes the rise of the large law firm through American history and explores the new standards for what being a Big Law “partner” really means. The author describes the many hours worked by associate attorneys, the limited opportunities to become a full partner, and the role of contract attorneys who also work long hours but at lower pay and without the opportunity of earning partner status. While the book does not explicitly use the term, one may come away with the view that this arraignment is a professional version of a “pyramid scheme” (even highlighted in the text by a triangle on page 76 to illustrate Big Law’s typical corporate structure). In this hierarchy, junior partners, associates, and staff attorneys put in hundreds of billable hours while a limited number of equity partners (the tip of the proverbial pyramid) share the profits. These equity partners generate clients, without necessarily providing legal services to those clients. However, the equity [*37] partners are not always stable in their positions either, as they may lose their status if they do not continue to bring in new business to the firm. The picture presented of most early careers working in Big Law is not particularly positive, as Banks notes, “it is not uncommon to record 2,400 or more [billable hours per year], which leaves little time to do anything outside of work . . . [Associates attorneys often work] without any meaningful mentorship or constructive feedback by senior associates or partners” (pp. 79).

Chapter 4 continues to explore other career paths outside of Big Law, including private practice in a smaller or solo firm, jobs as in-house counsel, and government positions. With an excellent use of current data, Banks highlights many of the most important considerations for those thinking about this type of legal career, such as current salaries for these various positions. A short section at the end of Chapter 4 is devoted to non-legal jobs: alternative careers that use comparable skills to an attorney but do not require a law license. These jobs, such as human resource personnel, legal compliance officers, and insurance positions, are deemed “JD advantage” positions where a law degree is helpful but not necessary. This was an important section that could have perhaps been expanded further to address alternative careers for pre-law undergrads who do not get into law school and are left thinking “What do I do now?”

The concluding chapter notes some of the challenges facing the legal profession, limitations of the traditional law school teaching model, and some proposed reforms to both legal practice and legal education. One reform that is taking place in many law schools is the emphasis on clinical education. Most law schools now have opportunities for students to practice law under the direction of a clinical law professor or through intensive internships. The author also points out criticisms of research conducted by law school professors, normally published in law reviews, which is generally not peer reviewed and is perhaps not that useful to the profession. Changes related to technology and the profession are also addressed.

Overall this is a great summary of everything one might want to know if considering law school and a career as an attorney. It is laudable for both its breadth and its timeliness thanks to the use of recent data. Many of the statistics used are drawn from sources likely familiar to those who have already been engaged in pre-law advising, such as the many resources available from the Law School Admissions Council ( and the insightful web page “Above the Law” ( However, having all of these resources summarized in one concise and useful book would be very valuable to potential law students and their advisors.

One small reservation of this book is that it emphasizes many of the pitfalls and obstacles to the current state of legal education and the profession, but it does not highlight many of the potential positive aspects of a career as an attorney. I do not disagree with Banks’s general assessments and I strongly concur that anyone thinking of law school (or those of us that advise them) should be aware of the “myths” of becoming a lawyer. However, the book sidesteps discussions of the rewarding qualities of the profession (outside of salary) and perhaps paints too negative a picture of the field. For example, the common perceptions of extreme dissatisfaction with the legal profession is often not supported by empirical evidence, with many studies showing generally high levels of career satisfaction among attorneys (see Levit & Linder 2010; Organ 2011). Of course, there is certainly dissatisfaction out there as some surveys show, particularly among more recent law school graduates, but the impression most pre-law undergrads may come away with after reading this book is that it is all “doom and gloom.” The book also places very little emphasis on the individual satisfaction often reported by attorneys from providing direct help to people in need and the direct impact attorneys can make in individual lives, such as depicted in Stern’s classic memoir, THE BUFFALO CREEK DISASTER. If one were using this book for a class or a pre-law club, it may be good to include supplemental readings that highlight some of the more positive attributes of the profession as well.

[*38] Regardless of the previous point, this is an excellent book that covers an array of important topics, particularly to those considering applying to law school and entering the profession. The inclusion of some of the most current data along with contemporary studies makes it a great resource with the added benefit of highlighting important changes following the most recent economic recession. This book would serve as a great one-stop resource with a wealth of information for those thinking of a career in law.

Levit, Nancy and Douglas O. Linder. 2010. THE HAPPY LAWYER: MAKING A GOOD LIFE IN THE LAW. New York: Oxford University Press.

Organ, Jerome M. 2011. “What do We Know about the Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being.” UNIVERSITY OF ST. THOMAS LAW JOURNAL 8 (2): 225-74.

Stern, Gerald M. 2008. THE BUFFALO CREEK DISASTER. New York: Vintage Press.

© Copyright 2018 by author, Todd Collins.