The Golden Handcuffs Excuse

I’m often struck how lawyers’ attitudes toward money have not evolved past the Monopoly belief system: Whoever has the most wins.

golden handcuffs on red background

Does the shininess make up for the hole in your soul?

And yes, I mean even some of you who want out of law and into something else more satisfying. The ones who say to themselves, or to me, how they cannot possibly look for a job that would pay them significantly less cash than they rake in now.

Money is a huge bugaboo for many lawyers. They really lock themselves tightly into those golden, shiny handcuffs because of their beliefs about money and its substitutes. For example, here’s one thought train I hear:

Client: I need a job that pays close to what my law firm job pays, because I have a huge mortgage.

Me: Why did you decide to tie yourself to such a huge mortgage?

Client: Because we need to be in the neighborhood we’re in because of the schools.

Me: Isn’t there another nearby neighborhood that’s cheaper with schools that are still pretty good?

Client: No, we couldn’t do that—our kids won’t have a future if they go to a lesser school.

Right. Because there can’t possibly be better personality or learning style fits in schools with slightly less glowing test scores (the measure of all human knowledge and worth, after all), and kids can’t possibly go to fairly crappy public schools in Eastern Kentucky and still go to a top 10 law school. Just sayin’.

Selling the McMansion Lifestyle

What if you got off the prestige/ conspicuous consumption/ externalization train, and thought about your life through the lens of the things that are important to your soul, rather than the things that you make important out of fear?

I ask this kind of question of clients all the time, but I thought I’d bring it up because of this great story that ran in the New York Times recently. An Atlanta family sold their house, which sounded McMansionish, substantially downsized, and put half the proceeds toward charity.

You want to know the really astonishing thing? They did it because their then-14 year old daughter wanted to and basically pestered them into doing it. She and her family were driving in Atlanta, when she saw a homeless man on one side of them, and a shiny Mercedes on the other. She was struck by how if the person with the Mercedes had spent less money on the car, he could have easily fed the homeless man.

And then, consistent with that value to help others in this world, she bugged the living daylights out of her parents until the family collectively decided that they could downsize their stuff and give a large chunk of it away.

Just Do It, For Crying Out Loud

If you start looking beyond what your lack and attack monster spouts, you might see some startling things. You might start valuing things that are important to you, and acting in support of those values, rather than worshipping at the altar of money.

As Martin Seligman and others (link to TED talk, 24 mins well spent) have shown, money does not lead to happiness. Connecting with your authentic self, and living that self’s purpose, does.

You can start anywhere in your life with this process: health, family/relationships, spirituality, leisure/hobby time, renewal/rejuvenation, or mind. Or, since you’re here, maybe you could start with a career that makes you glow first. The money you need will follow. Just don’t try to lead with it.

Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches lawyers on connecting with what they truly value, and then helps them chase after it. Are you in the race? Contact Jennifer at for a discounted sample session to see if coaching with her will help you get out of the rat race and onto a meaningful path.

12 thoughts on “The Golden Handcuffs Excuse

  1. LeavingLaw says:

    “Me: Why did you decide to tie yourself to such a huge mortgage?

    Client: Because we need to be in the neighborhood we’re in because of the schools.

    Me: Isn’t there another nearby neighborhood that’s cheaper with schools that are still pretty good?

    Client: No, we couldn’t do that—our kids won’t have a future if they go to a lesser school.

    Right. Because there can’t possibly be better personality or learning style fits in schools with slightly less glowing test scores (the measure of all human knowledge and worth, after all), and kids can’t possibly go to fairly crappy public schools in Eastern Kentucky and still go to a top 10 law school.”

    It appears that some of your clients lack are using improper strategic analysis.

    From a strategic perspective, you want to go to the high school in which you have the greatest chance to graduate valedictorian – meaning that you want to go to the public school with worse students (comparatively – this does not apply to major metro areas). This will maximize your chances of monetizing your grades and SAT scores when applying for college. (Note, this was an actual successful valedictorian strategy used my by sister-in-law. I, on the other hand, had to use the “My Father is School Superintendent” multi-purpose weighted GPA and school schedule modifier.)

    Once you have your valedictorian certificate from the lesser school, you get the state school to give you a full scholarship. Ideally, it will not be the “best school”, since you would then be competing with the Ivy Leaguers.

    This is a major major no-no. Never ever go to the school with 1000 valedictorians when you can go to the school with 5 or 10 valedictorians.

    You can meet up with the Ivy Leaguers when you go to Duke Law and compete with them there if you want to do this. Or you can use your 4.0 from State U to get into dental school if you are my sister-in-law.

    In any event, your clients are wrong. Their kids have a better future from a purely economic/prestige perspective if they use my proven tools for academic monetization.

    Remember, no one cares about where you went to high school or college. However, they DO care about where you got your J.D., M.B.A., M.D., or Ph.D.

  2. Thought-provoking as alawys, JP.
    I wonder what would happen if you chose things based on something besides an economic analysis? Things that have non-cash but important value? Could get weird . . . and wonderful.

  3. Everyone cares where you went to high school. It’s consistently found to be the only real correlation with later success, probably because it indicates family income.

    You know what else they care about, if you want to work for a PIRG, or a cute little start up selling organic something or other, or a nice consulting company?

    1) That you traveled, which requires both stretches of time NOT engaged in paying the bills, and the money to do so.

    2) That you seem confident, not at all like a service worker, but like a boss.

    3) That you have spent a great deal of time on volunteer work in your “passion,” which requires, again, lots of time NOT spent working for a wage.

    The kind of people who say, “No one cares where you went to high school,” are also the kind of people who will punish others, harshly, for traits that correlate with not having gone to the right high school. Because they are refusing to acknowledge certain realities about privilege, income, and class in our country.

    • I’m talking about the standard-issue standard dental/medical $300,000/year path more than anything else.

      I’m pretty sure that it’s irrelevant where your dermatologist, cardiologist, or oral surgeon went to high school.

      To an extent, it also applies to BigLaw, but people tend to flame out there pretty easily before they hit the multiple six figures area.

      I think I’ve told approximately 0 people where I went to high school in the last 15 years. I think I got asked where I went to high school exactly 0 times when I was in law school.

      Of course, everyone thought that I went to Penn when I said Penn State about college, but I could live with that.

  4. Thank you for writing this! As a recent law school grad with mortgage-sized debt, I refuse to go into BigLaw. I am actually in NZ getting my LLM, and last year I became a yoga teacher. I plan to practice law, but I plan to do it to help children, not to rake in the big bucks. I was just at a conference recently where I was part of the “future” because I am young(er). What struck me is that so many of my colleagues were not there seeking money as their ultimate goal. Our generation has a new definition of success. While some still want money for the sake of money, that is becoming less of a goal. And I have to say, it is about time. Thanks for the reminder that we can do good and well all at the same time!

  5. If no one is literally asking you for the name of your high school, then I guess you don’t live in Boston, Louisville, Seattle, or certain parts of New York city. But that doesn’t mean people aren’t screening you for factors that would figure in to where you went to high school, which, again, is correlated with family income.

    I don’t know which bothers me more, the obvious snobs who screen for boarding school credentials, or the people who pretend it doesn’t matter that they went to the only high-scoring high school in their part of the state, which just happens to be locate in the county with the highest per capita income.

    Where you went to high school matters – again it’s the only thing that is correlated with later career achievement, more so than college – even if you don’t still wear the t-shirt (and a lot of people in DC do).

    • My high school, of which no one literally knows the name sends students to Duke (me and one of my classmates) and Harvard Law (one of my sister’s classmates). We also create med students.

      There is literally one high school, one middle school, and one elementary school. Each class has 120 students and we lived beside cornfields and cows.

      I have never encountered anyone who ever asked where I went to high school, even at Duke.

  6. You have a monetary interest in your argument being true JP – if no one cares about high school, then you’re not selling magic beans by telling people their background won’t matter and that you can help them advance.

    But their background DOES matter for certain jobs – there are set paths to being hired on the Hill, for PIRGs, for the Foreign Service, for government agencies, for prestigious law firms, for consulting companies, for software startups, and on and on.

    And no amount of magic beans will really help anyone skip a step and jump into a career path where the people who hold that career path started in high school. A few outliers might make it (not through paying a consultant, but through having something prestigious enough on their resume to outweigh other considerations – like a Fulbright scholarship or a White House internship, not like a top LSAT score) But these outliers will have a very difficult time advancing unless they know what’s going on and what they need to overcome.

    I’m not saying people shouldn’t try to move toward what they ultimately want, they should. But paying someone for help and denying what they’re up against is not going to do much for anyone who is trying to move somewhere else in life. And it bothers me to see people pretending, “Pay me money and work hard and you’ll be where you want.” These two factors have NOTHING to do with the reality of a career path today.

    PS – If you think the people at Duke didn’t care where you went to high school you are really missing something. Maybe you have some athletic prowess to overcome that deficiency. Or maybe you found people with a similar background to hang out with. Or maybe you just aren’t very perceptive about social situations. But I know Duke, and you’re not right.

    • I don’t have a monetary interest in anything. I’m just speaking from my experience and my wife’s family and friends’ experience more than anything, mostly with the dental/medical tracks.

      I’m just arguing here on Alvey’s blog since blog commenting amuses me. I’m an attorney-employee and I actually get all of my business through telvision advertising by the firm. And since it’s disability law, I actually get people significant government benefits that will eventually implode due to over-subscription. So I suppose I do sell magic beans. If you have a really low IQ or are functionally illiterate, that makes the benefits easier to get.

      I went to Duke for law school. I didn’t go there for undergrad. People assumed that I went to Penn, rather than Penn State. I thought that was funny. It never occurred to me to ask where people went to high school because I woudn’t recognize the names.

      I didn’t have any interest in actually practicing law, but I figured it was safer than doing chemical engineering. Plus, I could take tests and I had to do something with my life.

      I just know that you can go to the the local high school here, go to med school, and come out practicing dermatology, making $280,000 or radiation oncology and make more than that. That’s pretty much my only point. I know nothing about any major metro areas. The city in which I live has 100,000 people.

      I also don’t have much of an interest in life these days. I’m pretty bored, overall, and have been bored for a long time.

    • I disagree that your life is set in stone by where you went to high school. Or college. Or law school. Or kindergarten.

      There’s a great deal of fatalism and pessimism in that view. Essentially, it’s a belief that the system triumphs over any individual merit, talent or attribute. You might want to take a look at Seligman’s Learned Optimism for more on that.

      Sure, if you want to walk on a certain path, there are easy and hard ways to do that. People without a strong sense of direction get pushed or pulled along by the externalities of their situation a lot.

      For example, I went to a small, well-regarded liberal arts college with many, many people who weren’t any more talented than the folks who went to the large public university. And the alums from my school on the whole have better-paying jobs than the public university alums, I imagine, simply by virtue of their school connections. Because they’re not really relying on anything else to drive their direction.

      To say it’s only outliers, superstars, that can achieve without the right credentials is to really sell people short. You’re giving up your innate power if you don’t exercise your creativity to get to a place that’s meaningful for you. Mind you, many people do, tacitly, make that choice. But I really hope that readers here decide to seize their own power and potential.

    • I went to Michigan for law school and got a job in a prestigious DC law firm despite not only going to a cow-town high school, but a college that could best be described as “blue collar.” I have no idea where you’re getting the idea that people care where you went to high school. In my class at Michigan, there were two people that mentioned they went to Exeter (that’s supposed to be a prestigious boarding school, right? Yeah, color me ignorant.), and it didn’t affect their career prospects one way or the other. I guess it’s a good thing I knew nothing about the supposed disadvantages I had. I probably would’ve sold myself short otherewise.

      • See, that’s my point!

        Who cares cow town —–> Who cares undergrad ——> U Mich ——–> $160,000 salary plus bonuses.

        People do it every day all over the country. Just don’t graduate in 2008. Then you won’t get offered a job and your career will crash before it begins.

        Although it works much much better with medicine/dentistry and you get a higher salary along with more prestige.

        Life lesson?

        If you want higher earning potential over your lifetime, choose medical school.

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