Is lawyering a mistake? The short answer to this quandary is: not necessarily.
I have certainly met some Big Law attorneys who adore their jobs. Moreover, they make a hefty income and are able to enjoy the finer things in life. For these lucky folks, Big Law was an excellent fit for their personalities. They thrived in an environment that appears to be getting more and more hostile to fresh law school grads.
If you’re contemplating the leap into a law firm, let me give you some insight into whether or not you will like it. Here are five questions to consider before making the jump:
1. Are you an extrovert?
Make no mistake, the legal world does have some socially charged individuals, but most of them gravitate away from Big Law. This is because most associates at Big Law firms spend the majority of their time in an isolated office. You will be reading, writing, and reviewing documents from the comfort of your ergonomically designed chair with your brand new laptop and docking station.
I know that you might have fanciful fantasies of interrogating witnesses and bantering with judges, but this is not a realistic vision for mainstay Big Law work. Whether you’re going to be a litigator or a transactional attorney, you must be ready for the brunt of your work to be solo endeavours.
As you move up in the ranks, you will certainly start to take more calls with clients and opposing counsel, but you will still be largely confined to paperwork within your office. I used to imagine taking on the role of the partner who wines and dines clients, flies into sexy cities for hearings, and then breaks bread with other high-powered attorneys while sipping a fine chardonnay. While these types of lawyers do exist, they are extremely rare. When I started to realise that even partners lead a fairly isolated existence at work, I began to reevaluate my career path.
2. Do you genuinely enjoy researching and understanding legal issues?
Believe it or not, I never really thought about this as I entered Big Law. It was never about whether I should, but always about whether I could. The entire endeavour of law school and lawyering amounted to nothing more than proving my capabilities to my peers and myself.
For those of you who still have time, this is a really valuable question to consider. If you genuinely aren’t interested in learning about legal nuances and jurisdictional rules, the daily work can feel like a terrible grind. Instead of feeling excitement and anticipation when starting a new research project, you will be consumed by a dragging feeling that will make the work feel painful. And, the more you do it, the worse it will get. I know this from personal experience.
The tough part about addressing this question is that most of us don’t have our first real taste of legal work until law school. Yes, that’s a bit late for a first go. My recommendation to anyone contemplating this career path is to try and work as either a secretary or a paralegal in a Big Law firm.
This will give you valuable insight into what the attorneys do on a day-to-day basis. Moreover, if you’re lucky, you might get a chance to jump in the legal foray yourself. Test the waters before you strap on a bathing suit.
3. Is there something else that you actually wish you could do for a living?
Do you have a deep passion? Not everyone does, so it’s totally normal if you don’t. To be honest, many folks who end up in law school go there precisely because they have no gripping academic interests. But, if you do, take inventory of those passions. Think about the type of work that you would love to do even if you earned no money to do it. Do you like working with animals? Do you like helping kids? Are you obsessed with the financial section of the newspaper? Or perhaps the sport’s section?
Your natural inclinations can be an excellent guiding light for your career. Follow your bliss. That’s not fluffy advice, that’s real talk. Now, if you’ve determined that your interests truly lie in the daily practice of law, then terrific. My main advice is this: whatever you do, make a decision with your eyes open. Own your choice.
4. Are you in a large amount of debt?
A lot of my law school buddies routinely rant and rave about how much they hate their firm jobs. They despise the work, they dislike their coworkers, and they couldn’t care less about making partner. But, alas, they owe several hundred thousand dollars in student loans. If this is the case for you, then you might be stuck. You must be honest with yourself about your financial obligations.
If you need the money, stick it out until you are debt free. You could also push for high paying alternatives like consulting or investment banking. These fields are always looking for qualified candidates, and many times a legal background can you make a valued asset.
Chances are that if you’re in Big Law, you’re pretty goddamn smart. Accordingly, feel free to career shop. Just know that you won’t be quitting your job to travel the world as a free spirit for two years.
5. Do you really care if you are happy at work?
When I was about to pull the rip chord and jump out of the Big Law battleship, my best friend from law school pulled me aside to give me his perspective. “Look,” he said, “we all know this job sucks. The hours blow, the work is crap, and the people are kind of weird. But, we get paid a lot of money to sit in a nice office and churn out paperwork. It’s not a horrible travesty. And let’s be honest, work is work. You’re never going to like it, but you grit your teeth and do it regardless.”
This guy is brilliant. He graduated near the top of our class and ended up at the most prestigious firm in the country. He barely studied, never took notes, and partied five nights a week during his 1L year. Straight up legend. So, when he talks, I listen intently.
After much thought and contemplation, I finally realised that we are different. I actually do care whether or not my work brings me to life. In contrast, my buddy is more concerned with the other components of his life. He tolerates the job and pockets the booty. He’s happy as can be and doesn’t yearn for any sort of change.
Figure out where you stand on the spectrum. Take an honest look at what’s important in your life and proceed accordingly. There is no “one-size fits all” formula; the optimal path varies wildly from person to person. Find what works for you. Good luck.
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