This post is part three of a three-part series of guest posts by Larry Law Law, an adviser and tutor to law students who want to get top grades in law school.
Note: In Part 1, Larry Law Law argues that knowing rom-com tropes may save your life as a law student. That is, in rom-coms, someone usually falls in love with The Crush, a sexy stranger who turns out to be a psychopath, cheat, or Raiders fan. Similarly, many law students love the idea of certain “sexy” jobs while knowing little about them.
In Part 2, Larry Law Law covers the consequences of getting a legal job version of The Crush (depression, alcoholism, unhappiness), and what “true love” might mean in the context of law jobs.
In this final, Part 3 of this 3 part series, Larry Law Law returns to rom-coms tropes for a potential solution!
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While I mentioned that I find rom-coms stupid, the Hottie-in-Disguise trope in rom-coms is by far my favorite.
What is the Hottie-in-Disguise trope? Basically, a gorgeous actor/actress puts glasses on magically and -- voila! -- you are supposed to suspend disbelief and find them ugly.
Leading examples are Rachel Leigh Cook in She’s All That, Christopher Reeves as Superman hiding as Clark Kent, or Marilyn Monroe in How To Marry A Millionaire.
(Though they have no glasses, this is Kristoff’s role in Frozen, and Paul Rudd’s in Clueless.)
The main character sees this supposedly plain Hottie-In-Disguise every day, treats her like an Anti-Crush. The main character feels utterly comfortably with and really likes the Hottie-In-Disguise but doesn’t notice her at all.
Later, the glasses come off, revealing an outright Hottie.
Then, the pants fly off, and happily ever after.
In the movies, the Hottie-In-Disguise always gets discovered, and the glasses always come off.
In reality, Hotties-In-Disguise tend to remain disguised or their love unrequited.
Likewise, some of the best jobs are there, disguised, right under our noses, wearing glasses.
And the biggest losses are sometimes those opportunities we never knew about.
But what kind of opportunities are these?
They are especially those jobs where the titles and outward function of these places may boring:
You want me to be a lawyer at the Department of Agriculture? Department of Interior? National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration? You want me to work in trusts and estates or tax?
Don’t just go by what seems sexy. These places don’t involve the same outward trappings.
Their websites won’t involve collages of super attractive, multi-ethnic associates in Italian suits.
There is no set of Vault or ATL rankings for “best government or off-beat law jobs.”
But if you ask lawyers who do these jobs -- especially those (like me!) who left supposedly “sexy” jobs for these apparently boring jobs -- they have a different view.
There are lawyers who practice in areas that seem boring to law students but contain many or most of the Nathan and Pink elements to sustain a satisfying – even exciting, sometimes – long-term career.
By “satisfying” I don’t mean “happy” in the “wheeeeeeeeeee-Disneyland!!!, chocolate-hot-tub sense.
I mean “happy” in this sense: “my work is interesting, I make enough money, but my life is not overly stressful, and I want to stay here.”
In my experience and in observing my friends, there are a bunch of different careers where lawyers appear to be fulfilled:
- government lawyers who work on policy or regulatory stuff
- criminal lawyers (whether for the government or not)
- law firm lawyers who do more obscure work,
- “private” public interest lawyers,
- lawyers in smaller cities, and
Most of these jobs -- with one or two exceptions -- are less-tainted by the brush of prestige.
Which is why many students don’t notice them.
So, I beg of you: notice them. Give them a look.
Especially if think you know you want to do corporate or litigation or human rights, read the descriptions below and try to imagine yourself doing something else.
See if something resonates with you that isn’t a job you had thought of before.
- Government lawyers who do policy or regulatory work
I left New York recently, and live in D.C. now. I can’t trip without running into a government lawyer. D.C. is filled with geeks, geeking out on policy.
More than other cities -- especially New York -- people in D.C. pursue purpose-driven jobs more than money (although they get those when the kids and mortgage arrive).
These lawyers are regulatory, legislative, or policy lawyers who work analyzing policy and trying to translate policy into laws, regulations and rules. (Harvard Law has a great guide on this work. It also talks about criminal law, which I think is quite different, but it’s a useful guide.) Environmental lawyers, international affairs lawyers, securities lawyers, banking lawyers, etc., etc.
If you had a life before law school or you studied something you love, chances are there is a government agency dedicated to that thing you enjoyed studying.
Or, along the Daniel Pink lines, there is likely to be purpose up the wazoo here in part because you choose to work at an agency where you believe in the policies pursued. The agency is the client, and your purpose is to make the agency’s work possible.
Government law jobs usually provide a lot of autonomy and at least the challenging end of mastery. They are often understaffed and junior attorneys get lots of responsibility, quickly. For instance, one friend in the Legal Adviser’s office at the Department of State was negotiating embassy land deals directly with foreign governments his first year out of law school. (He is now the top lawyer at NATO). This may seem exceptional, but many junior government lawyers are doing very high level work on their own.
And, to reemphasize, these jobs can be in almost any area of work you imagine -- but you have to look for these jobs. And some of the jobs are not simply there for the taking after graduation.
I found some funky geeky jobs on USAJOBS.gov. Want to work for NASA and help astronauts? Or for the Army in Japan, doing international law? Or the Department of Labor (stop friends from working too hard)? The Farm Credit Administration, helping farmers get financing? The Drug Enforcement Administration, to impress Rachel Leigh Cook?
Don’t be afraid to geek out. Let the inner nerd step forth!
- People who practice criminal law whether in government or private practice
Almost all lawyers who practice criminal law -- whether in government or at private firms -- love their work. Some of these jobs are do not lack prestige -- many law students I know want to be prosecutors. (And, as I mention elsewhere, if your ultimate career goal is to be a successful Biglaw litigator, start out or become a federal prosecutor. The litigation department at my old firm was run, and overrun, by them.)
Whether prosecutor or public defender, your work is filled with purpose (taking down the bad guy/defending the innocent or protecting the weak from powerful, overreaching prosecutors), autonomy (you have a supervisor or team, but when it counts, it’s just you up there in court), and mastery (while it can be scary to do a trial or negotiate by yourself, people can do it -- a close law school friend defended in a murder trial by herself just two years out of law school). If you can take the stress -- sending a person to jail, or trying to stop that -- this is a great job.
- More obscure Biglaw practices
There are more obscure practices in Biglaw or at small firms that I have seen lead to more satisfaction than the straight-up corporate or litigation work.
White Collar Criminal Internal Investigations. This is work performed by Biglaw litigation departments that is not litigation. Basically, a Big Company does something bad. The Department of Justice or state prosecutor investigates. A harsh penalty can end Big Company, so Big Company hires a Biglaw firm (usually one filled with former prosecutors) to investigate and find the wrongdoing, and report to a special committee of the Board of Directors of Big Company, or to Department of Justice itself. This is odd work: companies work hard to uncover their own wrongdoing. Heads roll. On two investigations I worked, the CEO was forced to step down. All this to persuade the government to impose a less massive fine.
This work touches on all the Pink factors. It has purpose. Unlike other Biglaw work, your job is to root out corporate wrongdoing and and report on it. There is real autonomy and mastery on these kinds of cases. Associates have room to take responsibilities they would not normally -- making decisions and interviewing witnesses. Also, associates can become masters of the facts, and thus indispensable to partners. For instance, as a junior associate, I ran a sub-investigation of company’s operations in a big Latin American country (the investigation was multi-country).
I did a lot of this work in general. I wish I had noticed how much I liked it at the time -- I did like it. I didn’t hate it so much as have the idea that I wanted to do actual litigation work, and when I got it, I quit in about a year (I was working for the screaming partner I mentioned). If I had stuck with investigations, I might still be doing it. It does not give you much personal autonomy (long hours, jet around the world with zero notice), but the job was fulfilling and interesting. And more and more, at Biglaw firms and in-house, this is becoming a full time job.
Regulatory practices. Some industries -- pharma, banking of any kind, securities and investment advising, and communications -- are highly regulated. (So are certain sectors affected by everyone -- ERISA and tax). Entire government agencies (see above) do this regulating.
Enter the regulatory attorney at a private law firm. Often former government lawyers (but not always), these are often the happiest lawyers in Biglaw. They get to geek out and get paid Biglaw bucks for it. They have autonomy because regulatory work is almost purely advisory (research and client advice, no fighting with opposing counsel in court or in negotiations). Mastery is possible for junior attorneys because this involves complex information (laws and regulations) that can be learned through study (you’re good at that, right?) rather than experience the firm will never give you (you don’t run deals and trials unless you have gray hair). So a junior attorney can really learn the pertinent regulations, and can add value immediately.
Purpose is the open question here. You can’t help if banking law is boring to you. But most don’t even consider it. Take a look and find out if this is your bag! If so, you’ve got a great career ahead of you. And maybe, you are the type of person that just likes mastering complexity, whatever the topic is. Good for you. While everyone else is chasing sexy careers, you’re here . . . alone, with relatively little competition for work.
Trusts and Estates. I know nothing about this work. I can only tell you that it seemed like the one of few (perhaps the only) lifestyle-friendly practices in Biglaw. At my old firm, partners and associates were not around much. Associates drank heavily, but in a fun “whooooooo, party!” kind of way, not a “I must drown the infinite sorrow of my law-darkened soul” kind of way. They took weekends off, for chrissake! So even though I haven’t the foggiest what they did, you should explore this.
- Private public interest law firms.
Some law firms that do good for money. Harvard Law has a guide on these firms. I once interviewed one -- the only law firm in the United States authorized to represent Cuba. Basically, these firms used to be the private law firms to unions and labor. Since unions basically died in the country, these law firms shifted to doing more public interest impact litigation.
Some firms are super-prestigious and most are small: Altshuler Berzon (all appellate clerks, many Supreme Court clerks), Bredhoff & Kaiser, Strumwaser & Woocher, Rabinowitz, Boudin, and Gupta Wessel. The big difference with Biglaw litigation is purpose. People are true believers at these firms.
There may still be issues with autonomy and mastery (I worked at a small law firm and am skeptical that they give you more responsibility as an associate), but you will not lack for purpose at one of these places.
And while it’s not Biglaw money, but you can pay your loans and eat brand-name cereal in boxes rather than generic stuff in clear bags if you want.
- Smaller city law firms
Many law students set out to work at big law firms in New York, Washington, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Houston. Of the many friends I had who went to these big cities to practice Biglaw, very few have lasted. Some made partner, most do not.
But more friends I have who moved to law firms in smaller cities stayed and made partner in greater proportions than those in big cities. Places like Raleigh, Charlotte, Nashville, Portland. Liveable, or even great cities (who doesn’t want to live in Nashville or Portland?).
Quality of life in these cities tends to be much better. Billing pressures are lower, weekends are more safe. This does not mean a stress-free life, but it does mean you can sustain these lives for longer periods of time. Life is doable, there.
- Legal academics
I have written elsewhere about the uselessness of law professor advice to law students, but: you cannot deny that being a law professor is great.
Decent pay, lots of purpose (you do research you want to do), autonomy (you have to teach class but mostly you report to no one), and mastery (well, you have no supervisor telling you your law review articles are stupid, anyway, just peers who will rip on your work).
Still, this is a tough gig to get, and you have to usually clerk and practice law for a couple of years OR do a PhD in another field, too, on top of getting top grades and to kick the crap out of law school. This is a good job to aspire to, but you need to have other plans in place.
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Since you, dear reader, are here at Fox LSAT’s blog, let me take a wild guess:
You want to be a lawyer.
Or at least, you think you do.
And maybe you have a Dream Job in mind.
I’ve got 4 immediate action steps you can follow through on TODAY:
- Watch Nathan’s video.
- Read Paul Graham’s essay,How to Do What You Love.
- Read Drive by Daniel Pink.
- Check out USAJOBS and type in “attorney” to see what kinds of interesting jobs come up (last week, I noticed legal jobs with NASA, the Army, the Farm Credit Administration).
And only somewhat less immediately (start TODAY but you won’t finish), do two more big things:
Do serious due diligence on your Dream Job. In corporate law, a company does due diligence on a company it is about to buy to make sure it is worth the price it is about it pay.
Practically speaking, due diligence for you means finding out if the job you think you want really is all the things you believe it will be.
To find this out don’t just read. Talk to real people who have done exactly the job you want. They know better than anyone -- better than you -- if your Dream Job will live up to your ideals of it. This is not easy work. you have to ask awkward questions about the bad parts of the job. Often people don’t want to bad mouth their old employer or admit they made a mistake in taking a job. But keep looking until you find someone who will talk freely and frankly about these jobs. One tip: use LinkedIn to find people who quit the job you want (search for “previous employer”). Find out why they left.
Do internal research. Search your feelings, as the Jedi say. We live in our own minds but we do not know ourselves as well as we think. Even if we spend a lot of time navel-gazing, we don’t know ourselves as well as we think.
If you have a legal job you think you want, think hard about why you want that job.
If money and prestige are big factors for that, seriously think about trying to find another job you’d be willing to do despite the money and prestige (or if you’d still do corporate or litigation work without the money or prestige).
Hardest of all is to look for evidence contradicting your beliefs.
Sometimes we don’t kick tires because we don’t want to fall out of love with what we love.
But if your Dream Job is more than just a wispy dream -- if it is something you should and can do as a career -- it can survive a good tire-kicking.
Larry Law Law teaches law students to kick the crap out of law school and writes about law school, legal careers and legal creativity. Visit him here or write him here.
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