Sometimes in the flurry of law school admissions, students forget that eventually they will be in law school. What then? We've got tons of advice on what to expect in law school, from the importance of first-year grades to kickstarting a rewarding legal career. And that's just for starters.
Why so many big law firm associates are pursuing different jobs.
Recruiting lunches at expensive restaurants, hot stone massages at the annual all-attorney retreat, box seats to the local sporting arena, and a starting salary of $160,000*. Not too shabby for law students with little or no work experience and just three years of graduate school under their belt.
Such perks are often synonymous with large law firm associate positions (a.k.a. Big Law jobs) and contribute to the attractiveness of the legal profession for many of the 90,000 or so law school applicants each year.**
As a 2L law student at Duke Law School, fellow law students and I engaged in the on-campus recruiting process and accepted summer associate Big Law jobs (law school loans aside, former law students might have preferred jobs protecting California's bald eagle nesting grounds or South Dakota's tribal gravesites). And upon graduation, each of us commenced our legal careers in law firm offices situated at least thirty-two stories above the ground.
But five years later, none of us former law students have Big Law jobs at those firms. Only two still work in the private law firm sector altogether, and they are both at the same firm in Boulder, Colorado. Several more have given up on law jobs altogether.
So why would anyone go through the process to eventually be on the market for law jobs — beginning with the LSAT, continuing with law school and culminating in the notoriously anxiety-provoking bar examination — simply to leave it all behind?
While I'm no sociologist (because that would have required statistics classes, which is way more intimidating than being a law student), the culprit may be due, at least in part, to a singular or monochromatic view of the legal profession. For a variety of reasons, law students tend to equate professional success with Big Law jobs.
However glamorous Big Law jobs may appear, the reality can sometimes be less than alluring. I'll never forget looking down at a packaged container of wilted lettuce and realizing that I had eaten my last seventeen meals in front of my firm-issued IBM ThinkPad™.
Or the despair I felt at 3:37 a.m., furiously drafting a brief that had to be completed, proofread, cite-checked and bound by 8:00 a.m. Or my disappointment (read fury) when a message marked "urgent" buzzed through my blackberry to say that I better postpone my vacation to Costa Rica. Moments such as these are not the stuff of happiness and career satisfaction, and many for law students, including myself, ultimately decide to leave Big Law jobs behind.
For a variety of reasons, law students tend to equate professional success with Big Law jobs. But while big firms may not agree with all law school graduates, it doesn't have to be the end of work in the legal sphere. A myriad of alternative legal careers exist in the private, public, and not-for-profit sectors.***
Small to mid-sized firms are a significant part of the legal landscape (and provide plenty of law jobs for former law students). Local, state, and federal governments need lawyers to prosecute drug lords and defend America from corporate monopolies. Organizations such as the ACLU, NRDC, and NAACP (acronyms clearly required) are constantly in search of brilliant young minds right out of law school to help ensure protection of free speech, beluga whales, and equal access to education. And there's always the option of hanging your own shingle outside and starting your own practice.
So whether you're deciding if law school is right for you or you're eagerly pondering your big law firm exit strategy, be sure to take whatever time is necessary and research the copious law jobs your Juris Doctor confers. Because while that 32-story-high office view might be great for some, it's not the only view in law worth having.
* See http://sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2007/05/05/BUGU0PLI6O1.DTL for a discussion of the recent salary increases for first year associates.
** In the fall of 2005, 93,500 law school hopefuls submitted applications, whereas 87,700 followed suit in the fall of 2006. See http://lsac.org/LSAC.asp?url=lsac/LSAC-volume-summary.asp for more detailed statistics on law school applications, and http://lsac.org/LSAC.asp?url=lsac/tests-administered.asp for information concerning the number of LSAT test takers.
*** See http://www.vault.com/nr/hottopiclist.jsp?ch_id=351&&cat_id=1184 for resources on alternative legal careers.
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