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.

Monday, November 15, 2004

I'm trying to craft a decent column for the law school newspaper this week, about my decision not to work for a law firm. It might not be a good topic. It's hard to write it without feeling like I'm either being really naive, or coming off sort of more against law firms than I really am. I have nothing against law firms if people want to be lawyers. What I want my point to be is that I think it's too easy to get swept up in the herd mentality and do this because it's easy, even if you have other passions, and having other passions but working at a law firm seems hard. I have a beginning of a draft. I think it's not very good. UPDATE: I'm just going to scrap it and think of something funny to write instead. But I'll leave it up as a weblog post I guess.

Why I’m not going to work at a law firm

First, the setup. You’d never see a column that was the inverse of this. I don’t think anyone would even think of writing it. “Why I’m going to work at a law firm” would be a silly column because everyone knows why you’re going to work at a law firm, and since everyone else is going to work at a law firm too, there’s nothing all that interesting to say. This illustrates something. I don’t want to call it a problem, because I don’t know if I think it is. But – and this may just mean I didn’t do enough research before making the decision to come to law school – I didn’t realize before getting here that going to a work at a law firm was so much the default path that it’s taken as a given. There are exceptions, sure. But the vast majority of people are going to work at law firms, and law firms that are all substantially similar to each other. Five hundred and fifty people from a wide range of backgrounds, with a wide range of interests and talents and passions and skills, graduate from here each year, and the vast majority goes to jobs that are very much similar to each other. This is interesting. Again, I don’t know that it’s a bad thing. But it means that if I was going to work at a law firm, I wouldn’t really think about writing a column saying why. But since I’m not, I feel like this column might be worth writing. I may not be the right one to write it. But I’ll give it a try anyway.

I have heard people defend their decision to work at a law firm by comparing it to public interest work. That you work the same hours doing the same kind of work but you get paid a lot less and don’t get free coffee. I might try and argue that there’s public interest work that’s more rewarding than firm work, because you might feel like you’re doing more good for the world. That might not be a very good argument. Even if it is, I’m not the right one to make it. Other people can make it better than I can. My argument is that even if that’s true, it misses the point. Even if law firms come out on top if you compare them to public interest jobs, it doesn’t matter. Because these aren’t the only jobs out there. There’s a whole world of other things people do. I feel like it’s easy to forget that. And if practicing law is your passion, maybe it’s okay to forget that. Maybe that really is the entirety of the universe of jobs that interest you.

If practicing corporate law is your passion, then a law firm seems like the place to go. If doing important legal work down the road is your passion, and the clearest path there is to start at a firm, then that makes sense to me too. But what I think has surprised me about law school is that people with other passions, or who haven’t found their passions yet, seem more willing to give up that search than I expected. Here’s what I don’t get. Everyone in law school has to be pretty bright to get here in the first place. If we assume there is a set of people in the world who are lucky enough to enjoy their jobs and get great satisfaction from them – to be able to pursue their passions – it seems that law school graduates would have as good a chance as anyone else to become those people. Yet I hear too many people ready to admit that they recognize life at a law firm is not going to be particularly fulfilling, yet they’re going anyway.

I spent this past summer at a law firm, to try it, because I felt like it would be ridiculous not to try and then think I could make an informed decision about it. Probably most people went in with the default position that if they got an offer, they would take the offer, and something would actively have to happen to change that. If I’m being honest with myself, I can admit I probably went in from the opposite end. That something was going to have to convince me to take my offer. Maybe that’s the wrong attitude. I don’t know. It struck me that this is not a fun place to be if part of you wants to be somewhere else. I don’t think this is a damning statement about law firms, or even something they would argue with. But by the end of the summer I found myself alternately amused and flabbergasted by what the associates at the firm would admit if even slightly pressed. One attorney had rationalized to herself that “real life” didn't begin until age 40, and up until then it would be okay if she was miserable as long as she was saving up some money for when she figured out what she really wanted to do with herself. Another admitted she had been calling her parents every night and telling them she wished she could just pack up and move away where the firm couldn’t find her. People admitted that the first thing they did each morning, and the last thing they did each night, was check their Blackberries for new messages. At lunch they checked them every five minutes. More than one associate said he’d lost contact with almost all of his friends since coming to work at the firm. People cancelled vacations. A partner said it’s terrible how children “have a way of making you feel guilty” if you never see them. It seemed pretty close to an all-encompassing existence. Great if this is where you want to be. Not as great if it’s not.