I have a slightly different perspective, because I just changed fields within the law, but am continuing to practice.
I’m a government lawyer, currently working for a large county in one state, formerly employed with the AG’s office in another, with a brief, disastrous stop at insurance defense in a big city private firm in between the two. (Interestingly, the county I work for has a population that exceeds that of the state I moved from, and the county attorney’s office I work for is larger than the AG’s office back home.)
I used to do mostly torts work (litigation), now I do mostly land-use and adminstrative law stuff – because a day without zoning is like a day without sunshine.
Nah, seriously, I really like my job. I wouldn’t say I love it, like I leap out of bed every morning at think “Hurray! Today I get to go to work!” but I like it a lot. I guess I’d rate my job satisfaction as “high.” I was hired because I have courtroom and hearing experience, but so far, though I’ve been to a hearing or two, I haven’t been back to court. And I have been pleasantly surprised: Land use is actually more interesting than I thought it would be (at least I’m finding it so), and I do not miss the high pressure of litigation at all, and I kind of thought I would. (Though it looks like I may be drifting back to litigation, because I have more experience than several of the younger lawyers in the torts division, and so they’re bringing me in on some of those cases.)
I had the big city law firm job, and I hated it. Long hours, ridiculous billing requirements, dog-eat-dog atmosphere, crap cases, clients I didn’t give a shit about (insurance companies), an exploitive firm environment – it was A Bad Time In The Life Of Jodi. I missed working for a client I believed in, doing work that meant something to someone with an actual pulse as opposed to just a bottom line, feeling like I was being of some small service to my community, not being stressed out all the time – all the things I got from being a government lawyer. I got sucked into private practice for the money, and what I found was that, for me, money wasn’t enough.
So I quit. I was unemployed for about five months early this year and then hired by the county. Now I’m happy as a pig in garbage. Less money, but more time, satisfaction, and self-respect. I’m at my desk by 8:30, I leave around 5:30, I track my billables for productivity reasons but have no billable hours requirements, so far (in six months) I’ve worked a grand total of one weekend day. (At my old job, I was in the office every weekend, sometimes both days.) So money isn’t everything.
I think the law is a fine career if: You like to argue, you’re fairly analytical, you’re reasonably articulate, you like to read and write, you’re willing to work hard (law school is a total grind), you have a fairly high degree of self-confidence, and you don’t stress out easily. I think it’s a bad career choice if you’re looking to make pots of money or you think the practice of law is just what you see on TV.
But in your case – If I were an engineer thinking about law school, I’d definitely check out patent law. It’s a very esoteric, specialized area of the law that I would never in a million years be qualified to pursue, but I too have heard that the people who do it really like it. And it can pay very well, because admittance to the patent bar is a tough credential to get.
But I’d talk to a lot of people, think about what kind of law might interest you, do a lot of reading, and check out some law schools before I made a decision. I’d also think seriously about how ready I really was to return to school full-time after eight or ten years out. Whatever you decide – Good luck!