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.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Post #17

From a 1L who was ready to go to Tulane:

I'm supposed to be reading property, but somehow I can't bring myself to read it. I know the worst thing to be doing during 1L year is to have personal issues, but sometimes life happens. Regardless, I find myself less than a month into law school, but already looking to transfer. I love my classes, professors, and the other students, but for reasons outside of my control, I cannot stay at the law school I am currently attending. Under normal circumstances, transferring can be pretty difficult, but with my circumstances, by the time I finish my 1st year, I will have already attended two law schools. The one I'm currently attending cannot let me stay for the year, and the one I'll be "returning" to in the spring is no longer the school I wish to get a degree from. I learned in class that law is supposed to diminish uncertainty, but all the law school I paid tuition to has done is increase uncertainty in my life. I probably sound like an idiot whackjob, but I'm not really sure if I should withdraw from law school entirely or if I should pray that I'm able to transfer. I probably should do the reading so that transferring remains a realistic option.

Post #18

A perspective from academia:

I was just reading through all the letters you've gotten. For the past month I've been a prospective law student; for the past three years, I've been on the track to getting a PhD from Harvard.

I think a lot of people end up disillusioned with academia because they've never tried anything else. But it looks to me like a lot of people get disillusioned with law because they've never tried anything else, either. I've spent the past three years - and more generally, a big chunk of my life - working on living out my least practical, most purely intellectual dreams. I have been paid to spend time with amazing people, listen to fascinating lectures, sit in the library and read, learn languages. I have gotten money from the university to spend the summers (and occasional mid-semester trips) traveling to exotic locations and the working part of those trips is...going to museums.

It sounds like the life but I am sick and tired of it. It's really depressing to realize that I could graduate with a doctorate from one of the best universities in the world - the best in my field, certainly - and not have a job. Or be forced to accept the first offer I get, because there will only be one, and it might be in Michigan or Texas. The politics are a pain in the ass; the limited resources make everyone more or less vicious; and since the only thing academics can really earn in quantity is pride, there is much too much of it. It is not fun to think of barely being able to make ends meet at 40 - professors that aren't tenured are very lightly paid - but more than anything, the biggest problem with my dream-life is that the ivory tower really is as isolated and isolating as it sounds.

It's no fun having work that is so solitary and anti-social. It's no fun knowing that most professors could take their life's work and toss it in the fire and nobody would notice. It's no fun realizing that as much as I may benefit from my knowledge, the buck pretty much ends there.

Why does law sound so appealing to me all of a sudden? Because tedious, mercenary, competitive, and dry as it can be, law careers present you with real choices; you live in the world, and affect how it operates, more surely than any self-indulgent intellectual or artiste. It's uglier in a lot of ways, but everything is uglier than just opting out of the world. I am an ambitious person, and I am looking for a bigger field of action. I don't want to bury myself before I hit thirty.

A lot of people seem to be complaining about the long hours that lawyers work. Why complain that ambition itself has a price? That's true no matter what your line of work. It's certainly not particular to law.

Post #19

Another perspective from Australia:

I am a lawyer in Australia and wrote the attached article for a lawyer's career's website - not sure if the website ever got off the ground or if the article was published.

Just thought it would provide another insight into the practice of law. It is relevant to the public service, and what I hear the public service is the same all over the world, and French Electricity according to a recently published book by a current employee of that company.

Therefore while all the figures are in Australian dollars and it is mainly aimed at the Sydney market, you can decide whether it is universal enough to post.

I don't work for the public service any longer, much happier working for a major firm.

The article:

As a public servant the basics are thus - in trade for a work/life balance you are paid less than the market rate. But there is a lot more to this story than what seems like an attractive lifestyle options package.

Primarily, the pay is atrocious. The most you could expect to earn would be about $90k pa. But, most people earn between $50k and $70k pa. This has many ramifications for life in the modern world. The first is you cannot have a life. The public service champions the cause of the work/life balance, however, your bank balance says that you cannot have a life. This is basically because there is no money left, after rent and expenses are paid, to go to a good restaurant, a decent club, and have some drinks (the usual night out for anyone under 40). Moreover, because you are on a mediocre salary you are either forced to live with your parents (at 25yo), live out in the sticks (anywhere west of Pyrmont), find cheap and nasty share accommodation in the city or get your parents to pay for the house for you, which puts you in their debt, which they will not let you forget. All of these options have other associated costs but the detail is boring - consider travel, food costs or social costs of having your mum cramp your style and turning in to a mummy's

The second ramification is you will never get off the renting treadmill because you cannot save to a sufficient extent to be able to buy a house. The average house price in Sydney is now $500k, requiring at least $100k for stamp duty, legals etc. Moreover, you can forget buying a decent car, unless you want something cheap, which is not why we did law ;>

The work/life balance becomes more of a joke at the senior levels. Senior people can be at work 12 hours per day, 6 days per week. These people may earn only $90k-130k pa and can have anywhere from 20 years to 40 years experience in the public service or in the private sector. So if you want to earn some decent dollars then you have to turn around and give up your life anyway. Compare this to a partner in a law firm who can be earning anywhere from $400k to $1m pa for the same hours and after just 10 or so years.

Another consideration is the regimented and bureaucratic processes of the public service. Decisions are not made because they will achieve a better outcome that is more efficient, of greater quality or add value, but because someone just wanted to change something or it is what the "systems procedures manual" said you have to do. Any semblance of original thought is removed from individuals and placed in the hands of a management hierarchy. There are many consequences of this. The major, and most considerable one, is employment and promotion prospects. There can be things called "jobs freezes" (caused by a lack of funding) which means no-one is promoted or placed in a necessary position for upwards of a year. Therefore, you can be stuck in the same area on the same pay level for 12 months or more.

Tied to this is the issue of actually gaining a promotion. The process is not so much based on logic, performance and ability, but whether how you can satisfy the written selection criteria. These are a series of open-ended questions to determine a person's suitability for the job. Jobs are made available to everyone to apply. Basically it becomes a creative writing exercise. Even if you were acting in the position for some time someone else can get the job because they wrote a better selection criteria than you. So you are left without a job or training them on how to do the job that you were doing.

Due to the nature of the public service you do not get complete exposure to being a lawyer. You have very little case management as part of your duties (unless at senior levels) and rarely follow a case right through to the end. Basically, you only see one part either the research and analysis of the law, the front end of litigation, the administrative side of things (eg are the correct forms filed) or something of that nature. Very rarely are you required to handle all issues. This may sound good on the surface, but you get very little experience and variety of work.

Because of this, and the nature and reputation of the public service, you can be typecast and stereotyped and thus find it difficult to gain outside employment. Take from this what you will, but you will find your choices to be limited the longer you are there.

A job for life does not really exist even in the public service. The nature and role of your job may change thus making you redundant. Even though redundancy does not happen as often as in the private sector, you will need to consider your prospects and experience you have gained, especially in relation to the last paragraph regarding stereotyping.

The old chestnut about the superannuation entitlements of public servants does not apply anymore either. It is the same as everyone else, to an extent. While the Public Sector Superannuation Scheme is still a defined benefit scheme the best you would get out of it after 20 years contributing would be about $50k pa in current terms - that will not get you a comfortable retirement, more heading down to the local rsl for the $5 lunch special.

Basically, at the end of the day, you are a number. You have little control over where your career is headed and basically will have to take whatever comes your way. There are opportunities to network within, but you may not gain a permanent position due to the promotional prospects outlined above. I think this treatment stems from the knowledge that most people are in the public service for the "easy life" rather than the achievement of life goals. Thus you are not credited with a lot of personal dignity. You can be replaced due to the mechanised and systematised type of work by having most decision making power in the hands of senior staff. However, the people in your team may be a delight to work with, but it depends on the situation.

All in all, if you are a dream-oriented, goal-focussed type of person who did law because it would earn you a lot of money/power/prestige/job satisfaction/challenging opportunities and all that that entails then stay clear of the public service. But if you can settle for a life of mediocrity, banality, meaninglessness, no goals and no achievement and work until you are 70+ then go for it.