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The choice of making a Career in law or otherwise

published February 05, 2007

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<<These words of wisdom were given to me by my Cajun paw-paw, and they have proved to be good advice in many different scenarios. Everyone should have a paw-paw—someone who will tell it like it is and give him or her the simple advice needed to make sense of a difficult situation. Whether or not you have such a person in your life, let me explain why my paw-paw's little aphorism sums up how you should approach your job search.

As a law student, you have to make some critical choices about how your career will take shape upon graduation. One of the biggest decisions you will have to make will be determining whether you want to work for a law firm or whether you would prefer to take another avenue in life and work for the government, a corporation, or a public interest organization. This is a critical decision because working for a law firm—especially a big national or international law firm—means adopting a lifestyle that can and will affect every area of your life.

The hours that you will work at a law firm will be intense, and the mental strain may be extremely draining. You will also have to navigate firm politics and learn how to develop relationships with the right associates and partners in order to keep a steady stream of work coming into your office, without taking on so much work that you crumble beneath its weight. You will be tired, you will have to bow out of events that you had planned to attend, and you will find that you cannot divide your attention among too many facets of your life and still perform at the level necessary to succeed at a major law firm.

However, if you work at a law firm, you will undoubtedly be exposed to very bright partners and associates with whom you can engage in fascinating, intellectually stimulating conversations that very few people outside of the legal industry could follow. You may also have opportunities to work on some of the most cutting-edge cases and developments in the law.

Thus, there are clear pros and cons that you must weigh when deciding how you would like your career to unfold after law school. This is why it is crucial for you to be honest about what you want out of life. Jobs are a lot like relationships; it can take awhile to find the right fit, and the process of finding that fit can be infinitely frustrating. However, if you go through the process with honesty and a commitment to finding the best environment for your strengths and temperament, you will likely find your niche, and you will probably love your job. On the other hand, if you begin making moves that are not in keeping with what you truly desire but based on ulterior or otherwise less-than-truthful motives, there is a good chance that you will find yourself in a job where you are miserable because day after day you have to keep up the charade you began playing during your interview.

Before you begin your job search, take an honest inventory of yourself and clarify what kind of job you want to look for and why you want to land such a position. Then, move forward courageously, being as honest with yourself as possible as you take all of the steps toward landing your position and trusting that this process will lead you to a position that is tailored for you.

If you truly want a simple, peaceful life that gives you time with family and friends, pursuing a "Big Law" position is not the right move for you. If you are dishonest about what you want and you decide to seek a position at a major law firm for hollow motives such as money, power, or prestige, you will be robbing yourself and your employer of what is best for both of you.

You will rob yourself because the thrill of working at a prestigious firm will rub off on the first Friday that you get that dreaded 5:00 phone call from a partner who hastily tells you that you must research a thorny issue for a major case and draft an explanatory memo for him so that he can advise the firm's client about case strategy during their teleconference Monday morning. You will receive this call just as you are putting on your jacket and stacking files on your desk so you can get out the door and on your way to a weekend function that you have been looking forward to for weeks.

When you receive this call from someone far more important than you within the firm, your heart will sink and will feel like it is beating so hard that it will break. But you will find yourself forcing cheerful words out of your mouth about how you look forward to drafting the memo and how you will definitely have a beautiful, rock-solid memo written by Monday morning. Then you will hang up the phone, close your office door, put your head down, and start bawling. You will be so frustrated with yourself, your job, your future, your ruined weekend, and the sadness and resentment in your loved one's voice as you call to explain that you have to cancel your long-awaited weekend plans.

Then, as you try to do the research, you will find that it is next to impossible for you to think clearly enough to unravel the tangled legal issues because your head is spinning from all of the angst, regret, and frustration you are experiencing as a result of taking a job that was not right for you. And as the hours and days tick by and you find yourself in the firm's library late Sunday evening still unable to begin your memo, you will realize that you will not be able to draft the kind of legal exposition that your firm's client deserves, considering that you have worked countless hours so far and are being billed out for somewhere around $100 per hour. The misery that you will feel at being stuck in this situation will surpass anything you can imagine. It will become crystal clear that in your haste to get money or enjoy the prestige of working at a top law firm—even though you knew that the work environment was not the best one for you—your dishonesty led you astray. And you will realize that you have robbed yourself, your family, and your employer.

You will then be back at square one, and you will have to decide how to gracefully exit from a situation that was not right for you in the first place. You will have to go back and figure out what kind of work you actually want to do; then you will have to find job opportunities, and you will have to explain in interviews why you want to leave what appears to be a perfectly good job. What's more, you will have to do all of these things while maintaining your work performance in a demanding environment.

I have said all of this to make the point that when you are a law student, the choices you make may be less important that the process you go through to make them. If you know that you do not want to work in a big law firm or for a major government agency, don't strain for what ain't there. Don't try to make something work out when you know it is not the best fit for you. Refuse to be swayed by fellow classmates or pushy career services counselors who try to tell you that you will be an abject failure in life if you do not work for a Big Law firm. The majority of junior associates leave major law firms within the first one to three years of practicing, anyway, so by choosing what is best for you early on, you will be well into a satisfying career when your angry, burned-out, and downright miserable colleagues are frantically searching for the first opportunities they can find to escape from the terrors of billable hours and last-minute memoranda.

On the other hand, if you do decide that you want to work for a major law firm, determine in your heart that you are going to do it the right way. This means that even as a student interviewing for a summer associate position, you must put your best effort into your job hunt. Pick out your best suit for the interview, or if you don't have a good suit, go buy a new one. The cost of your law school tuition far surpasses the cost of a decent suit, and you will need a classy suit once you start working. Then, get a haircut, trim your nails, and have your suit pressed. On the day of the interview, make sure your shoes are shined and your shirt or blouse is fresh and crisp.

When you get to the interview, use sense and discretion in everything you do and say. Give the interviewer a firm handshake and thank him or her for taking the time to meet with you. Show that you are earnest, positive, willing to work hard as a part of the firm's team, and excited about moving forward into a position with the firm.

Most importantly, accept that playing a role during the interview process is part and parcel of being an adult in the working world. There is no sense in trying to rebel against this by deciding to "be yourself" if it means using casual speech or slang or discussing controversial topics. Demonstrating an understanding of protocol for any given situation is a sign of respect and illustrates that you have the maturity to accept that adapting one's behavior to make it easier for everyone to work together toward a common goal is the mark of a thoughtful, well-developed person, not a sellout. You will need to continue in this frame of mind once you are offered that outstanding position and you begin work at the law firm you have decided to join.

While you may realize upfront that you do not want to work at the law firm you have joined forever, it will behoove you to decide before you even begin working there that as long as you are employed at that firm, you are going to do whatever is necessary to do the best job possible. Further, give yourself permission to decide that when things are no longer working for you at the firm, you will accept this and begin to look for something else rather than trying to make a broken situation work for longer than is appropriate.

The bottom line is to learn to trust the flow of life and to understand that in order for you to remain in the currents of life that are best for you, you must behave with integrity. Listen to what your gut instincts are telling you, and refuse to try to fight against these truths by pushing for something that just is not meant to be.

That's what my paw-paw meant when, on a hot summer day, he told me something very simple that has helped me make sense of the most trying situations: "Don't strain for what ain't there." When I asked him, "Why's that, Paw-Paw?" he told me in his simple way something I will never forget: "When your motives are not right, nothing can be right."

My paw-paw was right—all the time. His advice is solid, whether you are looking for a job or at any other major crossroads in life. Sometimes it takes something simple to make sense of something complicated. In life, it's best to go with the flow and remain true to yourself.

published February 05, 2007

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