Lawyers: What Goes Wrong?

Lawyers start off so right. They tend to be curious, open, and engaged with the world around them. And a disproportionate number of them want to do something good for the world, which seems like a real possibility during law school. So, why, just a few years after law school, are so many of them disenchanted with their career prospects?

I participated in two lawyer-related events this week that brought all of this home. On Wednesday, I moderated a panel discussion about lawyer/writers for a group called Law: The Afterlife (the name says it all). The happiest folks in the room, it seemed, were those of us on the panel, who had found a way out of the law. (In all fairness, this group is completely self-selecting; the human rights lawyers and law professors who love their jobs don’t need a support group).

The next night, I participated in a career symposium for students at Cardozo Law School. I was placed at the “Alternative Careers” table along with a really nice guy who does recruiting for Shearman and Sterling. The students were terrific, and diverse, and many of them had interesting prior careers before attending law school. But there was an overriding sense of preparing-to-be-jaded that had already set in. A feeling that they knew these years of soaking in the good learning were the best it was going to get. “Alternative Careers” was quite popular, with folks standing around to get a seat at our table.

We’ve got to start getting at kids while they’re still in college, helping them to realize that going to law school isn’t necessarily the career path for you if you’re really interested in being someone other than a lawyer. Sure, you’ll turn it into a path — as is the case with so many of us who have proven that the law is a handy springboard to so many other careers. But that springboard is awfully expensive if you’re just there because you don’t know how to make a career out of what really jazzes you.

At the risk of complaining without offering some solutions, here’s some of what I’d like to see (or would have liked to see while I was a floundering undergraduate, in love with education but mystified about baking that education into a career.)

Some ideas:
1) Liberal arts programs should take a page from the trade schools (and business schools) and offer some classes or workshops on career skills and paths. These programs could do more than the overburdened (and often underutilized) career office can manage. Some things these workshops should touch on: building a professional network, how to build careers that match your values and capitalize on your aptitudes, how to be a lifelong learner, the importance of finding and becoming mentors. They could also invite alumni guest speakers from various fields to tell their own “how I got here” stories. Often. Classes like the introductory positive psychology class at Harvard taught by Tal Ben-Shahar at Harvard and Creativity and Personal Mastery, taught by Srikumar Rao at Columbia Business School are on the right track, and it’s no wonder they are often oversubscribed. An excellent New York Times Magazine article from January 7, (“Happiness 101,” by D.T. Max) takes a look at a few others.

3) Build communities around common interests and areas of study, and invite into those communities people outside the academy so that students get a chance to form real bonds with potential mentors. For a brilliant model of how this works, take a look at the Kelly Writers House at University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater.

3) Incentivize professors to spend time mentoring students about their lives and options post-graduation. If acadmics continue to be rewarded and promoted primarly based on their publishing efforts, they might help their institution’s standing, but are they really helping their students? Sree Sreenivasan, at Columbia University’s Journalism school, is an example of one such student advocate. He’s now officially Dean of Students, but as a professor and founder of SAJA, a journalism trade association, Sree was best known for the way he never tired of mentoring, connecting, and making himself available to students, SAJA members (not to mention countless others, including yours truly.)

Please send me your ideas on this; I’d love to hear more opinions on the topic.
And I don’t think this is just an issue for lawyers.

Once I finished this, I noticed a great post by one of the smartest thinkers on careers today, Penelope Trunk. Read what she has to say about both happiness and law school. {Scroll down to the Sept. 6 entry “20 to-dos now to get a good job later,” paying special attention to No. 6, No. 12. Penelope takes a position a bit more extreme than mine.}

Filed under careers, HeyMarci Blog, lawyers, The Heymarci Blog

2 Responses to “Lawyers: What Goes Wrong?”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    If i’m understanding you correctly your saying that most people are idealistic and genuine before and during law school but as law school ends they become jaded and that this is because they are not truly interested in law but in other fields.

    Your also saying that human rights lawyers and law professors are happy.

    I know i just summarized what you said but I’m wondering what your ultimately saying. Should people scrutanize their reasons for going into law? And if they’re going in should they scrutanize whether they want to go into human rights or becoming a professor? I’ve also heard that enviornmental law is a good option. I dont know much but I thought it would be good to ask.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    Dear Anonymous,
    Growing up is a very hard thing to do. Sometimes mommy and daddy don’t pay the bills until you are 55. Sometimes you have to just gut it out and go to work. Or else you have the luxury of blogging all day. Nice for you. Most environmental lawyers work for corporations, law firms, environmental consulting companies or the government. At the end, corporations pay the bills for all of them. So what does an environmental lawyer do? Advocate zealously the rights of the corporation. If this doesn’t sound appealing, go do something else. There are enough of us already, thanks.

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