What a Law Career is Really LikeWhat a Law Career is Really LikeChristopher C. Melcher
[Source: Admissions Straight Talk]
Celebrity divorce lawyer Christopher C. Melcher of top family law firm Walzer Melcher LLP explains what a law career is really like.
Need help deciding if law school and a legal career are right for YOU?
Christopher Melcher, a celebrity family lawyer and teacher of law, offers an unvarnished look at a lawyer’s day-to-day and what a career in law can look like.
Considering law school? Read on to learn what a career as a lawyer can look like.
What’s being a lawyer truly like? Our guest today, a celebrity divorce lawyer to the stars, is going to tell us. Some of you may wonder, what does celebrity family law (which almost seems like an oxymoron) have to do with admissions? That’s a very good question. Listeners considering a JD may want to learn what lawyers really do, what the career is really like.
Christopher Melcher got his JD in 1993 at Pepperdine Law, went initially into criminal law and personal injury litigation, and has been with the top family law firm of Walzer Melcher LLP since 2002. He’s also an adjunct professor at Pepperdine Law.
How did you decide that a career in law is for you? [1:55]
That was easy for me because my dad was a lawyer. He was a deputy district attorney in the early 1970s, and when I was really young, he would come home and talk to me about his cases. These were serious cases. I might’ve been six or seven years old when he started talking to me about his cases. He would explain what he was working on, and then he would ask me, “What do you think?” That got my legal mind started because he was genuinely interested in my opinion. I don’t know what I had to share at that age, but we would have these conversations.
As I got older, they, I’m sure, got better, but I remembered that he really wanted to know what I thought. I had the feeling like he would maybe use some of that input for his cases and arguments and trials that he was in. That helped form this legal, analytical mind. As I got older, I got into some trouble in grade school, and I remember being in the principal’s office and my buddy, Don, was there too for some unrelated offense. He would ask me like, “I got in trouble. What should I do?” I would give him advice. I was like a little jailhouse lawyer there as a kid, helping my buddies craft their stories for the principal. That’s how it started in getting those legal juices going in my brain.
Did you test that thesis as you got older? [3:38]
I wanted to be a lawyer from that early age, but I really didn’t want to do the work. I wanted to grow up too fast, and that really was a mistake. I had a lot of fun, but I didn’t want to put the work in, and that held me back. I think back then it was easier to slack in school and still survive. I don’t know what I would do now. I feel the pressure on students now is so much greater than it was. I’m talking about in the 80s, for me, because I could get by as a C student without studying or reading or doing anything and somehow got into college and somehow got into law school. I had it easy because, I think, of the times.
Things really clicked for me probably in the second or third year of college when I decided, “Okay. I have to actually do this and take it seriously.” Then I kicked it into high gear and finished off college and got into law school.
You initially started out in criminal law and then switched to family law. Why the switch? [4:54]
When I was in law school, I had my whole future mapped out. I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I wanted to become a corporate securities lawyer because I had met somebody doing that, and they made a ton of money. I was like, “Wow, this is for me.” I like corporate law. I liked all this with the investing angle. Some of these lawyers were taking a piece of the action, basically, for these companies that they were helping to form and getting paid quite a bit of money if the company was successful.
That was my goal, and I figured I was going to go out of law school, work at the Securities and Exchange Commission, learn the field, and then switch over to the private sector and get rich. I had it all planned. Then when I got out in ’93/’94, the economy was in the tank and no one was hiring. Not even the district attorney’s office was hiring, which was my fallback position. I went into private practice really not knowing what I was doing and just taking any case that I could get. Criminal was the easiest to go into because my dad had taught me some stuff on criminal and was able to help me get some experience there. Then it was really by happenstance that I went into family law.
The point that I talk to my law students about is that it’s great to have a plan, but you’ve got to be flexible, and you’ve got to look for opportunities because things don’t turn out the way we expect them. The law school career is a long play: thinking about it during college, applying, and then going through law school. And what is the economy going to look like four years from now? Nobody knows that. It’s a long-term play. It’s nice to have an idea and a vision, but you have to be flexible. Had I not kept my eyes open and been willing to talk to this divorce lawyer that I met, I would have never gotten into this field. It would have been a huge mistake.
What’s a typical day like for you now as a family law attorney? [7:34]
I’m a litigator. There’s different kinds of lawyers, and generally, people think of lawyers as going to court, and that’s not always true. But that’s what I do. I’m a litigator. I go to court. There’s other types of lawyers who are what I call “transactional lawyers,” who will basically work on deals and form companies or negotiate contracts, work on applications. They never go to court. Then there could be lawyers who use their law degree in other ways like real estate development, investing, that kind of thing. As a litigator, you’re going deadline to deadline, and it’s a rough life because of the stress of having deadlines that you’re constantly meeting. If somebody is interested in law, talk to a practicing lawyer about the different types of lawyers out there, because some people want the action, like I do. I want to be in court. I want to argue, I love that adrenaline rush, but it’s not for everyone.
Realize that in this field of litigation, you’re deadline-driven. I have a major deadline on Tuesday that I cannot move. It is Friday as we’re speaking, and I’ll be working the entire weekend on that. That’s just the way it is, unfortunately. I’m passionate about this because I think law is a great field, and it’s been so wonderful for me. I want to share that with people because it is such a big investment of time and money to get a law degree.
To go through that process and be unhappy with it… maybe it’s because they didn’t get the right advice. What I’ve seen in teaching my law class at Pepperdine is that there are students there that have never met a practicing lawyer before. How do you really know what a lawyer does? My encouragement is to go out and talk to one. If you asked 10 lawyers for help, you’re going to get at least a few who are going to say, “Yeah, I’ll help you.” That’s the secret here. Ask for help. Talk to a lawyer, pick up the phone, or send an email, connect on LinkedIn, and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about going to law school, or I’m applying. Could you give me some tips?” There’s people, like myself, who would be very happy to put time aside to say, “Absolutely. What do you want to talk about? How can I help?” People don’t do it, but they should.
In law school when I started, especially back then, I figured, “Well, everyone thinks the same as I do.” That fallacy. When I started talking to my fellow students, I realized that there were a lot of folks there who went to law school because it was expected of them, or they didn’t know what else to do. They had no real passion or interest in being a lawyer. I just couldn’t understand that because like I said, since I was in fifth grade, I decided I was going to be a lawyer. I figured that everyone else must think the same, and no, they don’t. It’s hard. I feel bad for those folks because how are you going to invest all that time? Going to law school is like a full-time job. It was intense. To put that much time into something and be in that much debt for something you’re not sure you want to do is not going to work out. That’s where I saw students dropping out. That’s just a terrible thing.
What I would absolutely do, again, is start picking up the phone, or email. LinkedIn is really good. Get on LinkedIn and connect with practicing lawyers. If a lawyer is on there, you can check on LinkedIn for their posting activity. Check out somebody who has an active account that’s posting regularly. That person is highly engaged and using LinkedIn. If you message them, there’s a very good chance they’re going to respond. You can say, “Hey, I’m thinking about applying to law school. Can I have a few minutes of your time?” I guarantee you, if you send 10 of those messages, you’ll get three, four, or five of those back, that’ll say, “Yes.” Do that homework. Then find an area that makes you say, “Wow, okay. Yeah. This did spark my passion. I talked to this lawyer.” They’re an intellectual property lawyer, or they’re a prosecutor or defense lawyer, whatever it happened to be. Maybe you’ll say, “Wow, this is really for me and I want to do this.” Now you have a connection. Now you have a reason and you have a passion to pursue, rather than just going into it and then getting your law degree, then figuring out, “What does it mean to be a lawyer?”
What, in your opinion, is good preparation for law school and legal practice if you’re still in college, or maybe out of college and thinking of going back to school for a law degree? [13:52]
The good thing about a law degree is there’s no real prerequisite for it. It’s not like a medical degree where you’re going to have to take certain classes in college. For a law degree, it doesn’t matter. That’s the beauty of it. A lot of people do political science as a gateway undergraduate degree. I didn’t do that. I did psychology, which I think is better because most of what we do as lawyers is people skills. Like in my job, divorce, counseling people is the biggest part of my job and probably the most value that I bring. I’ve got a little bit of math and some law stuff that I have to do, but it’s mostly people skills. A psychology degree would be great preparation for an undergrad. Political science, obviously, also accounting, any of these things, finance. That’s all great.
The LSAT has nothing to do with being a lawyer. You’ve got to take this test, but if you’re studying it and saying, “Wow, I don’t really like this,” don’t worry about it because it has absolutely nothing to do with being a lawyer. It’s just something you’ve got to do, so if you’re looking at those tests and saying, “Wow, I don’t want to be a lawyer because of these questions,” that has nothing to do with being a lawyer. It’s just a test. Don’t be scared off by that.
I’ve also heard that taking classes that require a good deal of writing is good preparation for being a lawyer. [15:46]
This is true. In law, we have a formula for writing which serves me well. If you asked me to write a poem, I could not do it. For the life of me, I could not do it. If you asked me to write a legal brief, well, I can do that in my sleep. The reason is because it’s mechanical. We have a formula. It’s called IRAC: issue, rule, application, conclusion. What’s the issue? What’s the rule of law? How do you apply that rule to the facts, and what is your conclusion?
That’s a standard essay method. We use that in practice for brief writing. To me, it’s easy as pie to write that. Some people grapple with it. I think maybe it’s how you’re wired. To me, I find that very easy to do. I think if you have an English major, and you’re taking classes on literature or writing, that is definitely going to help because we’re communicating mostly in writing. We don’t have a lot of oral arguments.
I think that the biggest mistake that lawyers make is when they speak like lawyers because nobody understands what they’re saying. It sounds smart, but it’s a terrible way to communicate. What I’ve learned is not to speak like a lawyer. The lawyers here that I train, I say, do it in English. If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it. We don’t want to speak like a lawyer. If we can have language that is persuasive and clear, we’re going to win our cases.
What do legal students or young interns do right, and what do they do wrong? [18:00]
It’s hard to get into law firms, especially the smaller law firms, as an intern because the smaller firms don’t have training programs. They don’t have capacity. They’re all busy. It’s probably going to be more of the midsize firms that you target. I think that the wrong way of targeting is to try and oversell yourself. I see people coming in like, “Oh, I interned last year, so all of a sudden now I’ve got vast experience.” That’s a huge turnoff because we’re going to train you. We’re going to tell you what we hope you need to know. If somebody is coming in saying that they know it all, they’re not even going to get an interview. There’s some humility there. It’s hard.
How do you sell yourself? How do you stand out from the crowd, from all the other law students? I would not be pushing on, “Oh, I’m so smart and experienced.” I would be looking at, “Well, these are my hobbies. This is my life story. This is my interest. This is what makes me special.” It has nothing to do with your GPA or what school you went to. What is interesting about you? Then we could say, “Wow, okay. I’d really like to get to know this person. This is somebody I would like to work with.” I would come in on that angle.
I would be coming in through LinkedIn. Again, if you’re not on LinkedIn, you need to be on LinkedIn, and you need to start making connections with lawyers before you even go to law school in that way that I talked before. These are connections that are going to serve you for the rest of your career. Go on LinkedIn, look up the people’s profiles that are lawyers in your area, and see if they’re posting regularly, because some have a lot of just dormant accounts. If they’re posting regularly, you know that they’re engaged. Comment on their stuff, make a connection with them, and then hit them up and say, “Hey, I’m thinking about starting law school. I have summer break. Could I come in and do some work in your office?” They might say, “Sure.” That’s a great way to make that connection, a great way to see what a lawyer does.
It’s also important for interns to realize that the standards in a professional office are a little bit different than, perhaps, on a college campus. [21:23]
We have had the people come in with the flip-flops, and I have to say, “Hey, look at how everyone else is dressed here.” It’s important because if you haven’t worked in a professional office before, how would you know? This is the benefit of an internship: to talk about office decorum. You can learn all that you want to about law, but until you’re actually in a law office, you wouldn’t know these things. How do you dress?
Then, also, there’s a hierarchy in the law firm. Certainly the lawyers know that. There’s associates and then mid-level partners and senior partners, managing partners. Do you just bust into the managing partner’s office and start asking questions? There’s a time and place. People working in the office know who to ask and when to ask and what not to do. That’s important, to be in there and learn that stuff. There’s no way to teach it other than to do it. If they’re going to come in with flip-flops, we’ll tell them. Then, if they change, great. If they don’t, well, this is not going to work out.
I’ve also seen it in the other direction where somebody is too scared. They sit in the office, and they’re not going to ask any questions, and they don’t want to make a fuss. I get that, and I respect that, but then also they’re not learning. They’re not getting anything. There’s a balance there. You don’t want to be too precocious, but you have to assert yourself and say, “Hey, this is a learning opportunity.” Because when we bring in an intern, we’re not really expecting much productivity. These are all paid. We’re not saying, “Oh wow, we’re going to pay this person to come in and they’re going to do some work for us.” This is an opportunity to build a relationship with that person, for them to learn. Then, if it works out, when they graduate, we may have a great employee. That’s our bargain. We’re not expecting great work.
How much do lawyers really make? [23:45]
That ranges, obviously, by what area. There’s big differences, even in California, which I was surprised about. If you’re talking about Los Angeles,, that’s going to depend on where you work. If you’re working for government, it might be $60,000 or $80,000 to begin with. A private law firm, a tiny, tiny law firm, might be $75,000 to start with. A midsize firm might be a hundred. Then the big law firms are $180,000 or $200,000. Then from there, I would say mid-career lawyers are going to be making a few hundred thousand dollars to $300,000, and maybe get up to half a million dollars. Then super successful lawyers can make over a million dollars, or several million dollars a year, perhaps.
Why these big variations? Why would somebody make $75,000 versus half a million? It really comes down to a couple of factors and, obviously, experience. Beyond that, it’s how many hours you’re putting in. There’s really no part-time lawyer job. That doesn’t exist. These jobs require a lot of hours. Then, if you’re willing to put in all these hours, why is somebody making three, four or five times as much as somebody else? It comes down to two things. One is a very specific skill set that you’ve honed. If you know one area of law as well as anyone does, and/or you can go to court and make the best arguments and get great results, well, you’re going to make more money. Then, it’s the origination of business that really is going to set people apart.
If you’re good with people, you know how to talk, you know how to listen, and eventually you start bringing in work to the firm, the rainmaker concept is what’s really going to set people apart in their compensation. Obviously, that’s going to come later and that’s everybody’s goal. Not everybody gets there, but that’s really the main driver as to why somebody might make a hundred thousand versus half a million. We’ve got to bring in the work. Not everyone’s going to do that.
We have a saying in law: there’s minders, finders, and grinders. The grinder would be the new associate coming in: “Here’s an assignment, here’s a deadline, write this brief.” They, what we call, grind. They’re just churning out this work product and billing hours. Then the mid-level lawyers are the minders. Those are the ones that supervise the work. Then the finder is the one who originates the client and gives it to the minder, and the minder then supervises the grinder. Everyone’s trying to work up that food chain. That’s a pretty good description of it.
Do you recommend a prenup? Why or why not? [27:28]
I recommend talking about one. It’s not for everyone. It’s very expensive because, at least in California, both sides need a lawyer. It’s the only contract that I know about that really mandates that both sides have legal representation because they have been abused, so the legislature has basically mandated counsel. Also, there’s certainly nothing romantic about bringing lawyers into a planned wedding. The good thing about it, and the healthy thing about it is that it forces people to talk about their finances. Most people, when they’re contemplating marriage, they’re saying, “Do you want to have kids?” or, “Where do you want to live?” They’re not talking about, “Well, gee, if we buy something during marriage, how’s that going to be titled? Who’s going to pay the bills? What if we break up?” These conversations around finances are usually never had before marriage. Then people find out during the marriage that one’s a spender and one’s a saver. That creates huge problems, or one was anticipating that they would share more of their premarital wealth than is happening.
Having those conversations is very healthy, and a prenup forces people to do that. That’s the only thing I like about a prenup. I do quite a few of them, but I really dislike them, honestly. They can be healthy, but many times it does allocate control to one party and can set the marriage off on a bad foot. Sometimes they’re necessary. When there’s children involved from a prior marriage and you’re getting remarried, you have two obligations. You have an obligation to your new spouse, but you also have an obligation to your kids. Those things could be in conflict. To protect everyone, a prenup could be good.
This is the thing about family law. We’re dealing with some very personal stuff. Some people like that. Some people don’t want to have anything to do with that. Most people who do well in this job, not just family law, but any law, are service-minded. If you hate people and you’re antisocial and you don’t like helping, this is not the right job for you. We’re servants. Servants to wealthy people, but nevertheless, servants. People come to us with their problems, and they want our help with it. If you have a helping hand, if that’s your mindset, this is a great job because you do get to make a difference in people’s lives. There’s boundaries that you have to keep, certainly. If you’re questioning, “Do I want to be a lawyer? Should I go and apply?”, think about why you want to do this. If it’s just to make money, there’s better ways to make money than this. If you want to help people, you want to make a difference, and get paid really well, this is a great career.
What’s the craziest prenup request that you’ve ever gotten? [30:56]
There are some sick folks out there. Say these people are marrying and there are some really big age differences, or there’s big differences in finances. They’re getting married and they don’t really trust each other, so much so they’re going to do this prenup. Mostly, you would think it’s over money, but there have been provisions in there about, “How many times are we going to have sex?” About weight gain, drug usage, cheating. When I see stuff like that, I don’t want to be involved in it because they’re not marrying for the right reasons. This is just a way of controlling somebody else. At least in California, and probably most places, none of those provisions are valid. I won’t write an agreement with an invalid provision in there. Luckily where I’m at in my career, I don’t help people I don’t like. You should be doing that, honestly, even at the beginning of your career, too. If you don’t like them, and you don’t want to help them, don’t help them because it’s just going to go bad.
What’s different about working with celebrities in family law than working with non-celebrities, other than potential for publicity? [32:33]
I’ve had some great fortune working with folks who have been idols and heroes of mine. I said, “Wow, I can’t believe I’m meeting this person and helping them. They’re asking me for advice.” When it comes down to it, we’re all the same. We’re all people with the same type of problems. Maybe a celebrity has more zeros attached to their problems, but it really doesn’t matter. If somebody is fighting over their kids or going through a divorce, and there are some bitter allegations being made, it doesn’t matter who they are and where they came from. It hurts just the same. That’s one thing I’ve learned.
The other thing is that these celebrities, the persona that someone has oftentimes doesn’t match who they really are. We’re seeing people under some significant stress. I’ve been surprised at the immaturity of some of these folks and lack of growth in their personal life. Maybe it’s because they were never challenged in this way and never held accountable for anything, and they have a lot of people surrounding them who agree with them. Now, their personal lives are exposed. They’re under pressure. They have to make decisions, and this is all super negative, and the bad side comes out. I almost take pity on some of these folks. You would think, “Wow, this person has everything. They’re rich and they’re famous.” Then when you look at some of them, they’re broken, and I wouldn’t trade places.
Any last words of advice for pre-law students or law students who want to pursue a career in the law? [34:42]
My advice is, ask for help. It sounds so simple, but people aren’t doing that. I wish I would have done that. I was lucky to have my dad. Ask for help. It’s amazing. You’ll get it. People will respond, so I wouldn’t be shy about that. You’re not wasting anybody’s time. The people who are engaged in this profession, who love it and want it to grow, they want people to come in. They want you to be interested in this. If we love our job, we want to share this with you, and we want to make sure it’s the right choice for you. Don’t be shy. Don’t hesitate. Reach out. Ask for help. You will get help. You’re going to make a connection. That may lead to a first job. That may lead to a totally different area of law that you never anticipated before. Ask and you shall receive. I see a lot of people thinking, “Well, I don’t want to be a bother. I’m going to go through law school, and then I’ll start meeting lawyers.” No. You should be meeting lawyers before you think about applying.
Where can listeners and potential applicants learn more about your work? [36:22]
You could Google me, Christopher Melcher. You will see lots of stuff come up. What I also encourage you to do is get on LinkedIn and connect up with me. If you haven’t used that before, it’s a great way. You can test it out with me. I’ll be your first connection. Get on LinkedIn, just search my name, Christopher Melcher, family lawyer in Los Angeles, and you will see me there. Send me a message and connection request, and I will respond. Tell me that you heard me on the show, and I would be really happy to be your first connection on LinkedIn.