How many times have you heard it? “You can do so much with a law degree.” And you can do so much with a paper clip, too, but its best use is its intended use, generally.
Usually “you can do so much with a law degree” is uttered by well-meaning family, friends or non-lawyer colleagues. And I agree with the sentiment, up to a point.
Yes, you can take your law degree into many interesting, rewarding, even lucrative careers. I’ve done it twice. But the alternative to a legal career is the road less traveled. The signposts are sometimes faint or indecipherable. The most popular maps are often inaccurate or take you to places you don’t really want to go. It helps a lot to have a tour guide. In other words, it’s easy to get stuck and founder if you’re not alert.
That’s why those who hate law stay in it—not because they don’t have transferable skills or other talents they could use elsewhere, but because the trip out can be daunting. They stay stuck because they are scared.
The point where I wholeheartedly disagree with the whole notion of “you can do so much with a law degree” is when it’s used as insurance, of sorts, to persuade people on the fence about law school that they should go. Parents and other champions of safe-sounding careers often pull the timeworn phrase out when they sense wavering. As in, hey, if it doesn’t work out, if you decide that being bored out of your mind for 75+ hours a week while working for dysfunctional, toxic jerks isn’t your thing, you can just do something else. Snap your fingers and poof!
Right, because it’s really easy to take $200,000+ worth of debt plus regular living expenses and switch to a new, quite possibly lower-paying career. It absolutely can be done, but it’s not for the faint of heart.
Finding an alternative to a legal career when you’ve got a bright, shiny JD takes a fair amount of soul-searching and innovative thinking. These are not things that law exactly encourages. (Nor does corporate America, for that matter.) Employers look for the roundest peg they can find for their round-hole jobs. They’re not after square pegs, even if the square peg is a diamond waiting to be shaped and polished.
So it’s up to you to decide that you are the one in charge of your career, rather than the capricious job market, and that you won’t passively wait for the alternative legal job fairy to come wallop you on the head with her wand. You have to throw Cinderella thinking out the window, and figure out how to look like the round peg of gold with your JD.
Deciding to actually steer your career ship is a wonderful, heady thing to do, but I know from all the sample career coaching sessions that I do, it’s a very hard mental step for many attorneys. And I talk to the ones who are the most miserable in law and most motivated to get out. If you’re not miserable, the inertia can be staggering.
I started thinking about this because of the NY Times’ article on law schools and how they deceive prospective students about their future job prospects, or rather lack of them. This problem isn’t new, but it’s now reaching the second- and even first-tier law school grads, so it’s finally getting some attention from the bastions of the status quo.
I was one of those who fell for the “you can do so much with a law degree” line, and that was 20 years ago. Yet not much has changed since then. I talk to recent law grads and they say the same thing—they and so many of their friends went to law school without a clear idea of what they wanted out of it. They didn’t have any burning desire to practice law, but they also didn’t have any real idea of what they did want. They figured they could get some kind of decent job with a law degree in hand. Now, they’re finding out that those jobs are the ones they could have gotten without a JD.
If you’ve already gotten your JD and want out, you can do it. Keep reading this blog for tips on how. Network. Get in touch with what you’re really, truly longing to do. Call me or another career coach and get going, already. Make your plan. Follow your path.
If you’re a 1L or 2L, you can quit school. Really. You don’t have to finish what you started when it’s become clear that starting was the big mistake. It’s senseless to compound one mistake with yet another. It’s a damned sight easier to pay back $60,000 or $100,000 than $250,000. So many of the jobs you could switch to with a JD in hand, you could probably do right now. You’ve got the proven analytic skills, you’ve got the work ethic and determination. You’re smart. You do not need your job passport stamped with a JD to show this, I swear to you. You can get a job as a paralegal while you think things over. Or apply for a job as a legal journalist, if you’re of a writing bent. Or . . . you fill in the blank, with your interests and talents.
If you’re reading this and you’re considering law school, do yourself the biggest favor of your life: Make sure. Make sure you’ve got the right personality to succeed in law with relative ease. Make sure you understand what the work is going to be like once school is over and real life as a lawyer starts (most people don’t know, and law school WILL NOT teach you. Promise.) Make sure the schools you are considering are telling you the truth about where their grads are working long-term.
Ask the hard questions now, before you take on a crippling amount of debt in an uncertain, volatile economy. Don’t engage in the magical thinking that yeah, all this bad stuff can happen, but not to me. Sure, you may be special. But BigLaw and other firms are awash with associates and partners who were special, too. Now they don’t feel special, but instead miserable and would quit tomorrow if they didn’t have enormous debt. Check out the comments on any Above the Law and WSJ Law Blog career stories if you don’t believe me.
I know, prospective law students, I might sound like I’m discouraging you from following your dreams. As a life and career coach, I absolutely believe that people should follow their dreams, but let’s be clear about what those dreams are, and are not.
The dreams to follow are ones that light you up with their possibilities. That make you want to get up in the morning. You can’t stop thinking about how cool it would be if you could do X. The dreams to chase are those that give your life meaning, not just creature comforts. Even if they’re really nice creature comforts like vacations abroad, expensive homes and luxury cars.
The dreams to not follow? The ones that are fueled chiefly by the prospect of earning a lot of cash. If you’re getting excited mostly because the paycheck is large and the work seems not awful—be ruthlessly honest about this, I beg you—keep on searching for the dream that fires your imagination and your soul. Cash is nice, but I have never seen a person who is truly satisfied and happy in their life simply because they have money in the bank. I’m not saying that wealthy people are by definition unhappy. The happy ones have meaning in their life first, not big bank accounts in their life first and then meaning.
You, whether you’re already a lawyer, thinking about it, or on the road to law—you can do so many things. Choose the thing that makes you radiant.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who loves helping people who are lost in law to find their way out. She offers discounted, no-strings sample sessions so you can see if coaching is something that will help you find your path. Email Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule your session today.