Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Saturday, August 14, 2004

I feel like everyone goes into the summer associate experience with an image of what this world is like, but never really knows if the story you're telling yourself is accurate until experiencing the reality. In a way, I wasn't fair. You hear stories as a 1L and 2L about law firm life -- people don't take their vacations, people work crazy hours, they hate their jobs but they feel like they're stuck there because of the salary, they plan on doing it for 2 years but stay forever because they develop a lifestyle that requires a high income, then they start a family, and the momentum to leave just sort of fades away. And so they're there. They're lawyers. For the long haul. Even if they didn't intend it to be that way.

I went into the summer experience with that picture in my head -- not a fair picture, certainly a one-sided picture, but that was the picture I went in looking to see if it was the truth. I know it wasn't a fair picture, but every time I'd hear things about firms from my classmates or friends at other firms, it would get filtered through my own biases about where I felt like I wanted to end up in the future.

It's not fair, but I went into the summer experience feeling like that practicing law 30 years from now -- having made it my real adult career -- probably isn't the outcome I want to have. Based on nothing more than a feeling that there are other things I'm meant to do with myself, or at least would get more fulfillment and satisfaction out of. No hard evidence, no contention that practicing law is bad... just a feeling that somehow, if this is the path my life takes, I'm somehow doing myself an injustice, and I'd think of myself as a failure. But, being in law school, of course I felt like I owed it to myself to try it for a summer, and see if experiencing it for real would make me feel differently, and change my mind about the long-term view. And it definitely could have, although I was probably forcing it to meet a standard it shouldn't have been expected to have to meet.

Part of me went in a little worried. Worried that I was telling myself I would try it for a summer, but that's what everyone says. And then they end up there. How does this happen? How do people who come into law school having no real burning desire to go work for a firm end up there after graduation? Part of it is the money -- school is expensive, people have loans, law firms pay well. This is all reasonable. But people know this going in, and still don't really make the decision to work for a firm until much later. So I felt like, before the summer, something must be going on to snag people. And maybe I'd be snagged. And I didn't really know that I wanted to be snagged -- again, not fair to the firm -- because of this feeling that if 30 years from now all I've done is practice law, that's not the outcome I'm necessarily hoping for.

So, slightly on guard to see how exactly people get pulled into this world, I went in sort of with a mental checklist of rumors I wasn't sure were fact or fiction. Or where on that continuum they fell. I felt like I'd done a really good job creating in my head a story that would let me justify to myself why I shouldn't work at a firm. People's vacations get cancelled, they work every weekend, billable hours requirements take over their lives, they lose their friends and their outside interests, they adopt a lifestyle that makes it impossible to give up the income, they settle into this life of a big-firm lawyer, and they never escape, and the work is dull, and the life is dull, and, inside, the people all turn, well, dull. But this was my excuse story, based on rumor and imagination and nothing even approaching fact. It's a great story -- who would ever take a job where this is all 100% true, regardless of the salary -- but all it was was a story. Was it true? Or was I just trying to justify to myself the decision, in my heart, I was probably going to feel a pull to make?

So I went into the summer with kind of a checklist in my head -- nothing written down, but a checklist of sorts -- Do people's vacations get cancelled? Do they work weekends? Do they lose their friends? Are they happy with their lives? Does the firm put them in a good position to end up with cool jobs down the line? Do they get addicted to the salary? Perhaps my biggest surprise all summer was how many of these questions got answered. Three, four, five, six, maybe ten times during the summer I heard someone say something, and I was able to check a box off in my head.

And, still, I'm not being fair. Because I was listening for one half of the story, and probably letting the other half slip by without noticing. One person says he cancelled his vacation for work, and I check off the box in my head. Twelve people go take their vacations as planned, and I don't take as much notice. One person says she's unhappy, and I check off the box in my head. Three people tell me how much they enjoy the work, and I don't take as much notice. But it surprised me that people really did fall on both sides of the questions I had -- that *someone* has cancelled a vacation for work; that *someone* feels like she never sees her friends anymore because she's always having to cancel plans; that *someone* is in the office almost every weekend. And usually more than one someone.

So what you hear is true, to an extent. One associate said at lunch one day that she couldn't imagine living on less than $125,000/year in New York. "It's impossible." Well, no. It's not. It's impossible if you live in an apartment that costs $5,000 a month, and you really like diamonds. Or maybe that's exaggerating, but, no, I don't believe it really takes $125,000/year to live in New York, and if that's what having this job leads people to believe... well, maybe that's part of why they don't leave.

Our daily lunch limit was $60/person when associates took us out. At one lunch, it came up that at another firm the limit was $30/person. "In New York? That's impossible. You can't get lunch for $30." Well, no. You can. Not at these restaurants, but, goodness, if I was buying my own lunch, you could give me a $10 limit and I could do pretty well. And that would be easy. $5 might be tough. But $30 could even get me 2 courses at a lot of the places I went this summer -- so we skip the appetizer; I think we'd survive. $60 made the lunches a cool event -- but wasn't necessary by any stretch. And if people think they are... I guess that's the lifestyle that makes anything less than $125K a year impossible to live on.

I checked off a box in my mind when people told me they didn't see themselves working at the firm forever, but they work such long hours now that they don't have much time to really think about what else they would do, or to take any affirmative steps toward moving in a different direction. You can't ponder your next move if there's not much time to ponder anything. You do learn something about business when you practice at a corporate firm, but I got the sense that the natural next step can be the in-house legal department for a company, but not necessarily company management. It felt like people do think they get pigeonholed as lawyers. Which makes sense. But I wasn't sure if it was really the case, or just an imagined fear. A couple of people said they feel like they're losing friends because they have to cancel plans; people with families said they make time for their family, but it means they don't really have time to do anything else besides that outside of work.

So the images I had in my head are, at least to some extent, not completely fictional. But I'm not sure that helps me conclude anything, except that if I want to tell a story of how awful life at a law firm is, I can tell that story honestly, despite knowing it's only one story among many, and it's not completely fair. None of this really explains why people get drawn into this life when they don't intend to be. I'll see if I can tackle that issue tomorrow.