March 17, 2004

Riding The Train

by Jeremy Blachman

Dahlia Lithwick’s advice is right on the money in spirit, but it’s hard to live up to once you take that very first assigned seat, hear the professor call your name, and stumble through an explanation of a case you barely skimmed the night before. She’s right that grades don’t really matter, but let’s face it: nobody is sending his grades home and not looking at them until graduation. Not only would it be an unrealistic exertion of willpower, but in a lot of ways it would be silly. Grades don’t matter much, but they matter a little – and, all else being equal, good grades are better than bad grades. And, sure, it’s great to write yourself a letter before you start law school and then hold yourself to it when you graduate – but even the biggest cynic should be willing to concede that law school can open your eyes to new options, can help you find new passions, and can help you grow as person such that your plans legitimately and justifiably change. They might not. But to close the door before you even start seems silly. And, no, missing one night of reading won’t inexorably change your life (at least I hope not), but if you’re going to go to law school, you probably owe it to yourself to at least try.

A classmate recently shared a conversation he had with one of his professors. “Think about the biggest risk-takers you knew from college. Are they in law school?” Of course not. Law school is the next step for the risk-averse when a college degree isn’t enough. Ever since we started school we’ve been on the express train; we’ve been building our resumes since seventh grade: take the hardest classes you can find in high school; join as many extracurriculars as you can; start practicing for the SAT; fill out those college applications; choose the right major; keep up your grades; join as many extracurriculars as you can; get the right summer internships; start thinking about grad school… do you want to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a rabbi? Well, the first two at least. A friend of mine actually had his parents present those three choices to him: he’s now in his fifth year of rabbinical school.

The hardest thing to realize is that the train won’t stop until we get off. We can keep going: we’re at law school; now try to make law review; get the right summer job; second year on-campus interviewing; third year apply for clerkships; take a job with the most prestigious firm that’ll hire us; get on the partnership track; make partner; retire wealthy; move to the most expensive retirement community in Florida; buy the fanciest headstone. That’s where the train is heading. We can choose that path, if we want to. It’s the path of least resistance. The firms come calling. They make it easy. The salary is high. They have to make it easy, and they have to pay a high salary – otherwise no one will work for them. In one of my classes just this week we talked about how default rules matter – if the transaction costs are high, people have more incentive to find other options. The transaction costs of taking a law firm job are very low: the system is designed that way.

But we can get off the train. Or at least switch cars. At some point, even for the most risk-averse among us, our resumes are impressive enough. We’ve done as much as we can to ensure we don’t end up starving and homeless (although the quality of many law school dorms and cafeterias may indicate otherwise), and the game shifts. Once we’re in law school, I think the battle isn’t so much to grab your seat on the train and hold on for dear life, but to figure out what the right stop is.

It feels strange to realize this, but, personally, law school has opened my eyes to legal careers on both sides of the tracks (I realize I’m carrying this metaphor beyond its reasonable limits), despite the institutional inertia channeling us all toward the big firm life. They make us feel like our only choice is the corporate firm, but they forget that each day we interact with brilliant professors, read opinions by judges, discuss public policy shaped by politicians and their staffers, many of whom have law degrees, read articles by people at think tanks, hear speeches from lawyers at non-profits, surf the web and find writers like Dahlia Lithwick… the law degree really does feel versatile, despite the effort to hide that from us.

I’ve wandered from the point I started out wanting to make: how can law students put Dahlia’s advice into practice – to get the most out of law school, to have a life, to learn but also enjoy the experience, to take advantage of all that law school has to offer but not lose yourself on a path that leads to somewhere you don’t want to be? The best advice I’ve got, a little more than halfway through, is to not be afraid to care – about classes, about extracurriculars, and about people. Too many of my classmates have checked out – sure, 1L year they tried, but once they got through recruiting season this fall, that was it, they’re done. An event on campus draws ten people and it’s a success. Two-thirds of my tax class shows up on Friday and it’s a miracle. I’m in extracurricular activities where no one wants to be President. (Of the organization, that is. They all want to be President of the United States. Someday. Soon.) The best thing about being a student is being part of a community – making lifelong friends, finding fulfilling pursuits, getting involved in things you can care about. And classes have been surprisingly interesting. So go to class. Get involved in stuff that sparks an interest – and give some other stuff a chance too. Talk to people. Engage. Care. Even if the law isn’t your passion, the intramural basketball team might be. Even if you don’t want to work for a firm, working for a professor might be pretty cool. Even if you find Civil Procedure dreadful, some of your litigator-to-be classmates might not be. Give it a chance. I can’t finish without bringing back the metaphor. We may be on the train, but we’re also the conductors – we can change the path. And, hard as it is to remember sometimes, there’s nothing wrong with enjoying the ride.

March 17, 2004 12:00 AM | TrackBack

The two roads...

I've been a retirement community in Florida, and I can't see myself ever willingly retiring to the land of motorboats putting along at 5mph in manatee wake zones. It was probably one of the cheaper retirement communities, but it certainly left me with no interest in any of the expensive ones.

So what can you tell me about the second road, the stop that doesn't involve the stereotypical white shoe law firm on K St., DC or whatever the streets in NYC are? What do ya'll plan on doing with your JDs after you graduate? (Jeremy might have the skills to take over for Dahlia Lithwick when she's retired, but that's a while off). Academia and judgeships can be nice dreams, but the slots are scarce. Think-tanks, non-profits, political staffers... any way of making those roads sound more concrete?

Posted by: Amanda Butler at March 17, 2004 01:28 AM

There was actually a panel on campus here yesterday about merging law careers with politics... an election lawyer, a Republican fundraiser, chair of the Democratic Convention, and Democratic media go-to-guy Chris Lehane. They said start by volunteering. (More in a news article for the Harvard Law Record I've yet to write.) I obviously don't have any answers -- I'm hoping like you are that these paths become clearer and more concrete, once the goals become clearer and more concrete too I guess... but there are people out there doing interesting things with their law degrees, so it's possible. That's the bulk of the point I was trying to make. Stuff is possible. We're active participants in charting the roads to where we end up. I hope. I don't know.

Posted by: Jeremy at March 17, 2004 01:36 AM


If you're looking for a radical departure from the white shoe firm, I'd be happy to talk to you about my path in the Army. You might actually want to talk to those "pariah" recruiters who the protesters shout off of some campuses. And, as my handle suggests, not all of us are right wing arch-conservatives.

Posted by: centrist at March 17, 2004 03:28 AM

I have to strongly disagree with the "grades matter very little" school of thought. Perhaps the higher ranked the law school, the less grades count; however, from the perspective of a recent graduate, meritocracy is still alive and well.

Indeed, that is even more so the case when dealing with what has been termed the "second road." If the Department of Justice, a U.S. Attorney's Office, or Senate Judiciary Comm. staffer's your aim chances are you are going to need top 15% credentials and a clerkship under your belt. If you are aiming for the OLC, OLP, or similar legal policy outfit, bump that clerkship requirement up to a federal court of appeals.

Don't get me wrong, there are other ways to get there but they usually involve luck or contacts.

Even think-tanks and non-profits like the Institute for Justice have fairly exacting standards.

All of that said, I think law schools should do a better job of informing their students of opportunities outside of "big law." As Jeremy notes, it's largely up to the individual to volunteer, attend national conferences of the Federalist and/or American Consitution Society, and don't be afraid to contact people with jobs you find interesting. The worst that will happen is they ignore you. Usually, however, they will be more than happy to talk about their positions, the road they took to get there, etc.

Most law schools give students access to a website called the "Leadership Library" or something like that. It's a huge database of phone numbers and sometimes e-mail addresses of nearly everyone in federal and state government.

Posted by: Brian at March 17, 2004 03:36 AM

I just wanted to say that I loved this post. It really lets us, pre-law students, to think more deeply in whether the reasons we wanted to study law for are the right ones. If we take me for an example, I guess that more than 50% of my reasons to study law are totally financial. The rest, I think, is about how 'cool' it is be a lawyer, althought lawyers are somewhat hated by the public.

Again, great post.

Posted by: Iysam @1 at March 17, 2004 04:41 AM

Perhaps I've had a different law school experience than many so far (I'm a 2L), but I don't feel as though there has been a severe shortage of non-big firm opportunities presented to us for utilizing our law degree, despite the fact that I am going to, and want to be going to, a big firm this summer. The more common problem I see among my classmates is that they came to law school without any desire to be a lawyer or anything related to being a lawyer. Instead, they graduated college and had no idea what they wanted to do, so law school was merely a default that didn't require a commitment about a future career path. Nor does it require organic chemistry as medical school does, or several years of being in the 'real world' as an MBA does. Many of these people are still unhappy with their choice, which is compounded by the uneasiness of looking at the pile of student loans that they are accumulating. So my advice to the pre-law students out there is that if you want to be a lawyer, or at least if you want to go to law school, that's wonderful. It can be a lot of work to get where you want to be in your career, but seemingly limitless opportunities do exist. However, if you are going to law school as a fallback option to defer your career choice for another 3 years, it is a very expensive choice that may not yield the results you want.

Posted by: Scott at March 17, 2004 10:08 AM

"We can keep going: we’re at law school; now try to make law review; get the right summer job; second year on-campus interviewing; third year apply for clerkships; take a job with the most prestigious firm that’ll hire us; get on the partnership track; make partner; retire wealthy; move to the most expensive retirement community in Florida; buy the fanciest headstone."

There is something terribly disturbing about that. Perhaps not for everyone. All we've got is our lives; if the ultimate goal is the "fanciest headstone" our time may well have been wasted. I enjoyed your post, Jeremy. I already realized everything that was written, but it doesn't hurt to see it in writing.

Posted by: Sean S at March 17, 2004 03:38 PM

It’s the path of least resistance. The firms come calling. They make it easy. The salary is high.

Generally speaking, Jeremy, I think you've got the spirit, but like Dahlia, you miss s few things.

This is one of those instances where the Harvard experience is different. At many schools, it's not so easy to get the firm job. I know some of my classmates are still struggling at Georgetown, and I imagine the plight of a law student at a smaller, regional school could be even worse. That student may well have incurred debt comparable to my own and may be as qualified, if not more so, for the jobs we all sought in the fall, but grades and reputation matter a great deal. This is as true in many nonprofits as it is in high-paying firms. What's "easy" enough to be a default at some schools is something fewer achieve elsewhere.

That said, I agree that it's good to look beyond the firms and take control of your career. And I most definitely agree that people should have the nerve to care, as it will make law school a much more rewarding journey.

Posted by: buddha at March 17, 2004 07:49 PM

Hey --

The commenters who've said it's different as far as grades and jobs depending on the school are right; I missed the boat by not making my piece reflect that. I don't know what kind of advice I could possibly have for people at schools where it really is a battle for not just the best jobs but any jobs -- other than to say it sucks to be in that situation, working hard for three years to get the degree and then finding few or no options out there. It probably means the point of critical decision-making moves back -- instead of having the luxury to wait until you're a 3L to decide if the big firm life is for you, or public interest, or something else, I guess you kind of have to decide before you start, and pick the place that really maximizes those chances -- so you don't get as much room for error. But, yeah, point taken. Not every school provides students the luxury of getting to make choices -- and certainly that leads to students that are more qualified and much more equipped to succeed losing out to people who've worked less hard but have a shinier credential. I don't know what else to say.

Posted by: Jeremy at March 17, 2004 08:10 PM

The only thing that can be done is to point out to potential law students that there is definately a point at which school reputation stops. Moreover, it probably stops a lot higher on the chain than they might realize. Buddha mentions Georgetown, I went to Vanderbilt (not as high as a national power as Georgetown but still somewhere around 16-18) and can state unequivocally that unless a student had a GPA of 3.4 to 3.5 (top 25-30%), they stood relatively little chance of landing a big firm job or other similar position in government.

The lesson I would derive from this for students considering law school is the following: Unless you have been accepted to one of the top 8 or so law schools in this country, your GPA at all of the institutions dropping down from there pretty much all the way to 50's or so is fungible. That is, a 3.7 at Tulane is going to be more impressive than a 3.4 from a Vanderbilt or Washington & Lee.

If you, as a current undergraduate, can receive more aid or scholarship money from a lower ranked school, take it. And, although it might be speculation, you probably stand a better chance of performing academically against the cross-section of students at the lower ranked school than the higher ranked ones.

This holds true not just for big firms but for clerkships, government positions, and non-profits.

To that end, and this might go without saying, but you should apply to a lot of law schools. While it's true it will cost you a few extra hundred dollars on the front-end, it's always good to have a larger number of choices.

Posted by: Brian at March 17, 2004 08:37 PM

I'm new here and I'd like to thank the people responsible for this site. Being pre-law, I've found it an intelligent and very interesting discussion - especially this thread.

Anyway, I wanted to throw a question along this line. Not sure if this discussion is still open (it seems the posting stopped a couple days ago - and I'm very unfamiliar w/ blogging - this is a blog, right?) Anyway, I've got the time.

I've split the last two and a half years between working on foreign relations on Capitol Hill and working in a big corporate firm in New York. For me, the juxtaposition in terms of interesting and engaging work could not be more stark. Jeremy's post is right on: ironically, I was just interrupted by an associate who related the exact sentiment I can empathize with: that feeling mid-way down the track. "I was thinking, how the hell did I get here? I was an idealistic undergrad in poli sci, now I'm sifting through decades-old boxes of documents for IBM because they kill people."

I'd like to avoid that. I'm going to NYU in the fall, where I'm hoping that the quality of legal education, or at least the opportunities their reputation obtains, will allow me to do that. Anyway, to my question: Are there any good resources for pre-law students considering public-interest, policy-related careers? Anyway to map out at least a general path to something like that? I realize that the well-trodden corporate track is, to mix metaphors, spoon-fed. But I want to try and have some concrete ideas of alternatives. Any suggestions?

Once again, I feel lucky to have found this discussion. Best of luck to you all.

Posted by: kcc at March 19, 2004 11:07 AM

I seem to recall some book floating around out there that was about non-traditional careers in law. When you get to law school, ask career services for it.

Be proactive early. Talk with professors who teach in areas you might be interested in -- international law to use an example from your career experience. Network. Don't be afraid to contact people out of the blue. If you want a non-traditional career, you've got to go out and get it, it's not going to come to you like big firms do for On-Campus recruiting.

I have a friend who worked in trade overseas before he went to law school. Now he's working as counsel to a U.S. trade Ambassador in Europe. He worked summers in Europe and got the job by calling around and doing the footwork himself.

I really can't give you any specific resources because it depends on what area you want to explore.

Posted by: Brian at March 19, 2004 03:58 PM

My thoughts look like Brian's. Figure out what you want to do and find people who do it and bother them. Easier said than done, obviously. Also I'm sure NYU has career people, in a closet somewhere without lights, that deal with people who want to do non-firm stuff. Probably next door to the counseling office. Or in stall #3 in the bathroom. I don't know. But somewhere. Gotta be some resources for alums who realize five years out that they want to get out of firm life.

Posted by: Jeremy at March 19, 2004 04:29 PM

I really enjoyed this thread. I'm a pre-law myself, and I'm still waiting on where I'm gonna end up going (though right now its Georgetown, of the places to which I've been accepted.)

I really sympathize with KCC's plight. Unless something like trial law or negotiation can replicate the daily thrill I got from working in electoral politics during my year off between UCSD and law school (or even student governemnt as an undergrad), then I'll be forced into a poorer career outside of the big firms. Too bad really, I was hoping to live a life which involved nicer shoes.

Posted by: Colin Parent at March 24, 2004 05:00 PM

I am an undeclared freshman. I want to go into the field of law. I know children and law meet somewhere but I don't know where. Ive done some research and it seems like it would be more along the field of social work. There is no point in going to law school to become a social worker. The field of Social work itself is not what I want to do. My longterm goal is to become a judge. I need some suggestions

Posted by: Elena at April 14, 2004 10:30 AM
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