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August 11, 2002

What Law Is Like

Reading around the web, trying to get some idea of what kind of a law career might suit me, I came upon the Greedy Associates and their Greedy Law Students Board. Interesting stuff there, but especially this post asking about alternatives to practicing law (once you've already got the degree), and the response that points to the Alternative Careers column at New York Lawyer. The column is a Q & A style written by Doug Richardson, a career counselor and former lawyer. What follows are large chunks from two columns that seemed especially helpful.

First, there is the advice to someone who wonders what he/she can do other than practice law after spending three years slogging through law school, which offers some good insights into what law school and the practice of law are all about:

Frankly, whether you loved law school or hated every moment of it, the law school experience – akin to going to a sophisticated trade school – does not necessarily tell you much about what it’s like to be a lawyer. “Law” is an extraordinarily large country, with a lot of different provinces: in firms, in-house, in government, in not-for-profit advocacy, in detailed-oriented work, in people-oriented work, in drafting laws and in enforcing them, in structuring sophisticated deals and in helping Dad and Mom pass the family business to the next generation. There are legal roles that are fundamentally competitive (litigation) and those that are fundamentally collaborative (deals, agreements, trusts & estates).

This much is true: law is more the province of the individual contributor (“I do it myself”) than the collaborative/affiliative type, law is fundamentally repetitive, law emphasizes spotting risk more than opportunity, and those who love to draw outside the lines frequently find law frustrating.

So in your case – what was not to like? Or, put more positively, what kinds of satisfactions or incentives entice your more than whatever rewards law might hold? Those who enter law because they wanted membership in a profession they think is secure, stable, collegial and respectable are getting a rude surprise these days. The practice of law is moving away from stability and headlong towards being competitive, specialized and adversarial – often even with one’s own colleagues. The risk/reward equation is shifting: big paydays also mean big risks. Those who somehow got the idea that law is either intellectually stimulating or creative are disappointed more often than not. Law does have opportunities for intellectuals – but not all that many. Ergo, you are not alone in questioning whether you should engineer an immediate change of venue.

This speaks to my concern that I won't be a good fit for law because I do like to "draw outside the lines." Yet, I believe I'm generally more of an individual contributor than a "collaborative/affiliative" type, so in that regard law might suit me fine. I take what he's saying about the cutthroat nature of law with a bit of skepticism because I wonder if he's considering public interest law, or just speaking primarily of big-firm, big-money law.

The second helpful column talks about the different reasons people generally have for going to law school:

Over the years, I have asked thousands of people, "why did you go to law school, anyway?" Their answers seem to fall into four broad categories: a large proportion say they want to be a lawyer -- to enjoy inclusion in a profession, together with the (supposed) stability, security, collegiality and prestige accorded to all lawyers.

Another large group say the want to learn to do something with their legal education, whether to right wrongs, make a lot of money, or be recognized as the world's greatest expert on electromagnetic torts. This "instrumental" motivation sees law as a tool one uses for a particular purpose, not as a ticket for inclusion into an exclusive club.

A third, much smaller group, studies law because they want to know stuff. It is the intellectual substance and challenge of law that captivates them. They see law in terms of norms, values, systems and history. They see the big picture. They generally are miserably unhappy in the mundane practice of law, but they make great law professors or appellate judges.

The final category contains all the "default" reasons: "My dad is a lawyer." "The LSATs said I might be good at law" [note that they never promised that you would enjoy law]. "It seemed like the thing to do at the time." "My folks said they would pay for it." These reasons can be very powerful, but fundamentally they are insubstantial: they are reactive rather than proactive, and therefore carry a high risk of later career dissatisfaction.

If one has thought through all these practical and motivation questions and is prepared to be cross-examined on one's motives, directions and sanity, effective spin control is not all that difficult. But be prepared to address this point: the majority of people who self-select into law are temperamentally suited to be specialists -- to be known for their knowledge in a certain discipline. In this regard they are much like accountants, plumbers, IT experts and human resources professionals. Their underlying drive often is to be an "individual contributor:" someone who "does it him(her)self."

I see a little of all of the above reasons in my own desire to go to law school. I primarily think of it as a tool (reason #2) that would help me contribute more to the public interest causes that I find so important. But the security and stability of the "profession" (reason #1) also figure in, as does the desire for the intellectual challenge (reason #3). The default reasons that might be motivating me include:

  • The security: maybe I'm just looking for something that seems kind of safe? And yet, how "safe" is law when there's an excess of lawyers and the economy's in recession and lawyers are being layed off? Also, how "safe" is it to want to go into public interest law, where I'll likely make only $30-40k/year? (Funny thing is that "safety" is relative: If I stuck w/academia I'd likely eventually make more like $20-30k/year.) Also, law doesn't seem all that safe and secure if you stop to think of the cost: It could easily cost $30-90k for three years of law school, which would take a lot of time to repay on $30-40k/year. But I've already decided that I won't go if I have to pay more than $30k for it, so that's a little easier. (The best option would obviously be that I wouldn't have to pay at all, which would make law school an easy decision, but...)

  • Another "default" reason I might choose to go to law school is the promise of the career path of law (this is related to safety). Right now I could either enter some other graduate program (law or library school, probably), or strike out into the big wide world of work (as a writer/journalist or in some capacity with a non-profit like Vote Smart or Public Citizen). Compared to the unpredictability that immediate entry into the workforce would involve, there's a certain amount of safety and predictability about pursuing another degree -- especially one like law or library school, either of which would send me down a more definite and bounded career path.

  • Finally, I'm not sure this qualifies as a "default" reason for going to law school, but it is one I'm suspicious of and which is closely related to the other two: Law school (or library school) could be kind of simple right now. "Simple?" you ask? "Is he on crack?" What I mean is that I'm pretty sure I have a good chance of getting into the law school at my current university which would make law school simple because I wouldn't have to move, I wouldn't have to pay out-of-state tuition, and it's also a top-ten public interest school. (Library school here would be the same -- I could probably get in, tuition's reasonable, and it's a top-five program). I'm not crazy about the idea of moving and rearranging my whole life at the moment, so in that regard transitioning to another grad program here would be very simple. Easy. Entering another degree program just because it's easy doesn't seem like the best idea.

Richardson concludes both columns with similar advice, one version of which is :

The bottom line here is that the study of law should never be a default choice or technique for marking time until one grows up. Like all people who want to plan and control their careers, you must be able to articulate your motives and directions -- both to yourself and to potential employers. You must convince the world that in studying law you are moving toward something and not running away from something. This degree of self-awareness is essential at all stages of one's career. Otherwise you risk looking, as someone told me recently, as if "I'm careening around wildly, kissing frog after frog in the hope one will turn into a prince."

Self-awareness is the goal here; I'm a little tired of kissing frogs.

Posted 10:08 AM | law general

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