Show Me the Money

By Murray Gottheil | April 6, 2024

Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko at Pexels

Youth is always impatient, even though, ironically, youth alone has time for patience – Lucilla Andrews

In my new pastime as a cynical commentator on aspects of the legal profession that I whole-heartedly embraced and profited from for many years, I speak to quite a few folks at the early stages of their careers. I try to think back to when I shared their enthusiasm and optimism, but frankly it was way too long ago.

The one morsel of wisdom that I impart to them, and the one that generates the most resistance is that there are more important things to focus on at the outset of their careers than money. In response, they tell me about student loans, the cost of rent and houses, and other stuff.

Although none of them say it out loud, having learned to read between the lines over decades practicing law, I am pretty sure that they are thinking, “It is so nice of you to call me from wherever you are travelling in the world to tell me not to focus on money. It is easy to say when you have some.”

I guess that I can see their point, especially in today’s world of high interest rates and higher cost of living. But there’s a different type of investment to consider.

There is a world of hurt waiting for young people in private practice. Much of it can be avoided by the following very simple (but not necessarily easy) steps, which I call the “Prime Directive”:

  1. Get good at what you do.
  2. Work with great people.
  3. Develop a client base.
  4. Make time to stay physically and mentally healthy.

Choosing job opportunities based primarily on how much money you will make is frequently inconsistent with these goals. For example, jobs in BigLaw may pay the most money, and some of them will undoubtedly allow you to work with great people and also provide mentoring and experience to help you get good at what you do. However, many will do neither and make it difficult to develop a client base or to take time to stay healthy. Ten years in, having made (and spent) a lot of that great salary, they find that they have been churning out paper for others, with little client base, less satisfaction with their work, and nowhere to go.

Of course, you can also find employment which will neither make you much money nor achieve the Prime Directive.

I tell my young friends that, in the early years, provided they can pay down their student debt and cover their basic living expenses, they should prioritize the Prime Directive, and that the money will follow.

For example, I recently spoke to a young lawyer who is thinking about working in an environment that in the short term would require her to take a cut in pay, but that will provide phenomenal training, position her as an expert in her field, and let her choose her opportunities. To me it’s a no-brainer. Take the pay cut for a few years. Become an expert. Then do whatever you want to do.

My young friend is thinking about it.

Perhaps I can be convinced that money can buy happiness. But I know for certain that not achieving the Prime Directive is practically guaranteed to buy misery.

Murray is a happily retired lawyer who lives in the country, drives a pick-up truck, writes, teaches and mentors. You can reach him at [email protected] or see what he is up to at


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1 Comment

  1. Another excellent article Murray. When I was much younger I was inspired by something Jerry Garcia (the founder of the rock band The Grateful Dead) is credited for saying: “It ain’t good enough to be the best of the best; I want to be the only Cat who does what I do!” As you said, “Become an expert.”

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