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.

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

I got an e-mail from a good friend wrestling with the decision of whether or not to go work for a law firm after law school. He's spending this summer, post-2L year, not at a firm, but feels like "maybe being 'an adult' means putting your dreams aside and going to work for a more 'respectable' profession?" So he wanted to know if I had any advice. Here goes:

Okay, clearly I'm not the best person to be giving advice here, since, at least for now, fate has worked out to give me a way to be okay without the law firm, and I'm reluctant to posit that it ends up working out for everyone.

But here's the thing -- I feel like the advice I've gotten from people happy with what they're doing has consistently been to follow what your gut is saying you should do, and pursue the things you're driven to pursue, and that it all works out in the end. Now the problem with that, of course, is selection bias -- if it hadn't worked out, you wouldn't be a person I'd be asking for advice. It's fine for a professor to tell our section 1L year that we should follow our passions, because she did, and it worked out for her. But maybe ten thousand other people with the same dream followed their passions and now they work at White Castle. So I don't know where that gets us.

I hear about the five year plan too [he wrote in his e-mail, "A surprising number of people over the past few weeks have been telling that they just plan on working at a firm for five years or so and then leave to pursue their dreams. Not a bad plan, maybe even a great one. But five years!?! That's much of young adulthood. I don't know what'll happen to my dreams in five years. I'm not sure exactly where I'll be with my life. If I can put it off for five years, then why not another five and then another five? ...[And other people] would be five years ahead of me in an already tight job market."] And, really, I'm of two minds here -- on the one hand, if you're only going to do it for two, three, five years, why bother at all if it's not what you want to do. The salary only goes so far -- there's only so much loan-paying-off you're going to get to do, and then you're back at where you started, having made no connections in the field you really want to pursue, and saddled with an expensive apartment, and just two, three, five years older, sadder, and more removed from the life you want to live. I have the same fear/expectation you do, that you can't balance the creative stuff and the law firm job, and that you end up losing that passion, and losing that urge to create. And you end up with a family before you know it, and the added financial pressures and time pressures there -- and the inertia against leaving proves too great, and why would you leave when you're just five, three, two years from making partner and seeing your salary jump to the moon. If the money incentive exists for $125K as a first-year, it's going to be even stronger down the road. It's just a question of when to jump. I wrote a piece about this for De Novo a long while back, about getting off the train. If you know you don't want to be riding the train, it's just a matter of what stop you get off at. Are the benefits of waiting exceeded by the benefits of getting off sooner rather than later? What do you gain besides some money -- and how much of that gain is potentially offset by (a) being happier, and (b) the chance to make up the money loss by getting further in whatever career you want to pursue.

Between post-college-job and law school, in the nine months I spent aimlessly trying to play with the idea of being a writer and realizing I had no idea what that meant and how to do it, I ended up giving myself one criterion for whether to take different part-time or full-time jobs I thought about / interviewed for / decided whether or not to take -- from day one, would I be looking for something better? If the answer was yes, I couldn't justify doing it. And that was the problem with the law firm. I wasn't going to take my offer, regardless of how all this writing stuff turned out, because from day one I'd be reading the ads in Backstage looking for something better. There seems very little worse than living a life wishing you were living a different life. You're not going to starve, I don't think -- I don't know your parents, but I'm guessing they won't let you starve. I'm also guessing they want you to be happy. My grandma doesn't believe me when I describe the law firm lifestyle as far as I see it -- she doesn't believe that people take these jobs if they don't really love them. I hardly believe it either. But the evidence seems to be there -- just among my friends at school, most people are not so excited for their law firm jobs. It's sad, because there's something wrong with the social order, perhaps, if arguably some of the most talented and brightest young people are all ending up doing things they find unfulfilling.

So this isn't advice, it's just rambling, and maybe it's all obvious stuff. But if you make the best case for why you should go to a law firm, is it enough in your gut? Is it enough that you can picture it working out in a way that won't make you regret the choice, and will turn out to be a good decision? Maybe the answer is yes -- certainly financial security is important and it may be enough to make it a good choice. That's a fair answer. But if it's not -- if from the first day at the firm you're going to wish you were somewhere else -- then is it really a path worth going down at all?

I mean, none of this stuff comes into play if you really love the idea of practicing law, and a firm is a no-brainer -- something you love, plus the money's good -- then it's an easy decision. But I don't know how to shape the decision at the margins, necessarily -- I don't know if there's a "right" answer or just a set of tradeoffs and whether it's worth it ends up with a different answer for everyone...