Law Careers: Do You Have to Be a Lawyer If You Go to Law School?
Whenever I talk about law school, I feel like a broken record. I cycle among three stock sentiments: it’s difficult for recent law school graduates, especially those who attended third or fourth tier schools, to find jobs as practicing lawyers; it’s a darn shame; and maybe a law degree just isn’t worth it right now. I’ve developed so many different ways of saying “bummer, dude” that I worry I’ll explode by sheer force of being so bummed out. And I doubt I’m the only one to feel this way.
My new approach is the following. It’s sad (unfortunate, distressing, lamentable) that the state of affairs is what it is, but I reject the inside of the box! There are things to do with a law degree that don’t include being a lawyer. Not that it’s entirely advisable to decide to attend law school on the basis of such thinking (see Jessica S.’ response to the second question), but if you have already gotten your JD and don’t know what to do next, the range of options is not so narrow as you might think.
To that end, I interviewed two non-practicing JDs, both of whom work in legal publishing agencies, about the paths that led them to their current careers. In the interest of garnering candid answers, names have been changed.
Vault: So tell me about how you decided to attend law school in the first place.
Roger M.: Well, I was working as an editorial lackey at a large trade publishing house, and one of my jobs was to shuttle manuscripts between editorial and the legal department for basically libel vetting. There were a couple of lawyers employed by the publishing house whose job was to do nothing but read manuscripts, try to spot libelous passages, and make recommendations about how to work around them or cut them out. I thought that they had the greatest jobs in the world, and I didn’t feel like I wanted to stay at a publishing house, so I went to law school–where I immediately forgot why I went there in the first place.
Jessica S.: There were probably two factors that went into the decision. The most immediate was that when I neared the end of college, I knew I wasn’t ready to enter the working world. So I went through the list of grad school options: PhD, business school, law school. The MBA I ruled out right away. I debated a bit about the PhD. But in the end I decided on law school, in part because it revived a vague childhood dream of being a lawyer.
Vault: As a 1L, what trajectory did you envision for your career?
Jessica S.: This is where I made a mistake that I would recommend others not emulate. You shouldn’t choose law school just because you don’t know what else to do, and that was really how I ended up there. So, when I was a 1L and discovered how little I was inspired by the study of contracts and torts and civil procedure, I thought, “Well, I’m going to get a law degree, but I’m not going to become a lawyer. There are so many things you can do with a law degree!” And there are, but law school itself doesn’t really train you for anything else. I had studied some languages, so I developed this vague idea of doing something international.
Roger M.: I knew that the publishing lawyers had all come there from other jobs where they were established, experienced lawyers; it wasn’t their first job out of school. I was just really naive. I didn’t have any sense of what kind of jobs those were and I was either incurious or lazy enough not to ask them about it. Not that I didn’t know them–I talked to them and they even wrote me recommendations–but I didn’t realize that they were coming out of really top-flight, blue chip law firms before they landed at the publishing house. I didn’t really get that connection; I thought you could sort of do anything. So as a 1L, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer focusing on the classroom subject areas that I liked, which were criminal and con law. I thought that I might want to be a criminal lawyer–a public defender, something like that–as a 1L. I wasn’t someone who spent a lot of time at career services. I wasn’t plugged into the grapevine or conveyor belt or whatever it was that funneled people into firm jobs, with on-campus interviewing and maxing out your GPA and all that. Basically, I didn’t appreciate the make-or-break nature of the first year in terms of landing a law firm job. I’m sure people told me; I just wasn’t listening.
Vault: How and when did that change?
Roger M.: The summer after my 1L year, I ended up salmon fishing in Alaska. I had an old friend who lives up there and does that for a living. I didn’t know I was ever going to have another chance to go live there, and I also expected to make about $25 or $30 grand–and I didn’t have any money at all–which would have taken care of my housing and other expenses. As it turns out, though, that summer was the worst salmon season Alaska had ever seen since they started to keep records. I had to borrow money to get home. And now I was really broke, so I had to transfer to the night program of my law school because I worked during the day. And in effect, that gave me another bite at the apple because I did realize what I didn’t realize as a 1L, and I went out and I got all A’s. Then, when on-campus interviews came around again, I had a much more attractive resume–because it’s all just two piles based on grades; I mean, there’s no real analysis–with a plausible GPA to get hired by a good, high-paying firm. Also, this was right at the absolute peak of the internet bubble, so there were the Silicon Valley companies and all these new start-ups, all of whom were trying to compete for law school talent. So, all the sudden in the year 2000, you had the chance of making $125,000 for your first job. Obviously I had money on my mind, and I decided that I was getting one of those jobs and do it as long as I can stand it, and then I was going to get out and I’d be in the clear. So all these public defender notions just evaporated; all I could see was the number. That’s how I ended up in a law firm.
Jessica S.: In my second and third years, I started taking international law courses, focusing on public international law, and decided that was what I wanted to do. I got an internship to study abroad with a humanitarian agency for the summer of my second year, which was a really great experience. One thing I discovered, though, in talking to people in that field was that most of them either do this work on the side or they come to it after an initial career in private practice. When I asked for advice, it was suggested was that I work for a few years at a law firm, get some private practice experience behind me, and then see about getting a position in the public arena. It was good advice, which I didn’t follow because I just didn’t want to practice in a law firm.
Vault: What made you decide to take your current job?
Jessica S.: I knew I wanted to do something other than work in a firm, but I didn’t know what that something else was. I hadn’t gone through on-campus recruiting; I didn’t work on a journal; I didn’t do moot court; I didn’t do any of the things that are traditionally helpful in terms of getting a law firm job. So I graduated without a job and without an idea of what to do. It was a little bit of a scramble, to be honest, at first, because even though I’d gone to a good school and had decent grades, my unconventional situation was (understandably) off-putting to most employers. But then I found a job with a small litigation practice through a listing at my law school. I worked there for a few years, and I hated it. I disliked being paid to take a legal position that I didn’t necessarily agree with; I hated the hours and stress; and I wasn’t comfortable with the constant confrontations inherent in an adversarial process. I realized there was a reason I didn’t want to be a lawyer, and I quit.
I took some time off, traveled and, when I came back, landed a job in publishing. It was a little bit roundabout, really, since I first took a temp job at the company, but then it turned out they were expanding into a new area for which they needed an editor with a legal background, and they offered me that position. There was something satisfying in finding that I could still use my law degree without having to practice.
Roger M.: I practiced in the firm setting for about two years. I hated it. It was an ill fit for me: I hated billable hours; the clients’ problems bored me (I mean, that’s a problem, right?). And I didn’t like the climate of fear. The junior associates were afraid of the senior associates who were afraid of the partners. The partners were afraid of the powerful partners, and it was just crazy. I have a lot of respect for people who do well in such a setting–maybe it was just my particular circumstances–but I realized I had to get the hell out of there. Somebody sent me a Media Bistro ad for a law editor type of position at a legal publishing company, and by this time I was kicking myself for having left publishing in the first place, so it seemed like a way to justify having a JD and doing something I would find a little more agreeable.
Vault: How do you use what you learned in law school in your current position?
Roger M.: A lot of what I do in the course of my day-to-day job consists of translating legalease into something like laymen’s terms. I mean, we’re still an industry publication and the audience is pretty sophisticated, but they might not be specialty practitioners. So, I have to sift through the language to get what is useful or interesting to an informed but not necessarily specialist audience.
Jessica S.: I think you can certainly be a legal journalist without a law degree, but it’s really helpful to have one. It helps you understand and convey to readers what’s going on in the profession, with respect to both legal issues and the day-to-day practice of law. It also lends you a certain amount of credibility, especially if you’re dealing with law firms, the courts or corporate counsel. There are also practical skills law school develops that are valuable in fields like publishing–for example, learning how to make cogent, well-supported arguments, and to distill often very dense and diffuse information into something persuasive and easy to understand.
–Written by Madison Priest, Admit One</em