The road less traveled

BY ALEXA SHABECOFF

At the Office of Public Interest Advising, we believe that practicing law is about more than making a living or representing clients competently and ethically. We believe that what makes law a profession, rather than simply an occupation, is a fundamental commitment to an equitable and fair legal system. A just system should be made accessible to both rich and poor, to those holding political power and to those profoundly marginalized; it should consider both those issues embraced and those rejected by the majority. We also believe that different jobs satisfy different people depending on their unique values, personalities and work styles. We have found that no matter what your ideals are, if you are not in the right job, you will not be happy.

These beliefs imbue our work at OPIA with a deep sense of mission. These ideals make it extremely gratifying to work with those of you who will be the public interest leaders of your generation, as well as those of you who will apply your public service ethos to making a difference by doing pro bono work in the private sector. We strive to help you articulate and pursue a professional sense of self that will enable you to achieve a confluence between your professional and personal lives. Most importantly, we hope that we can help you find the kind of work you will find both enjoyable and fulfilling.

We know that some of you have come here with a good idea of what you want to do with your law degree. But, after thousands of conversations with HLS students, we have realized that many of you may have ended up in law school because you lack a strong sense of what you want to do for a living. Having left college without specific training, and knowing that further education is highly valued, you find comfort in a place that will not only give you more time to prepare for the “real world” but will also give you skills that can be applied in numerous settings.

Yet, despite the many doors that a law degree from HLS is supposed to open, many start to see only one option: going into large law firms. There are some reasons that many of you start to narrow your vision of what you can do with a law degree:

* huge debt loads which make you wonder if you can afford to live on anything less than what the big firms pay;

* the somewhat more challenging nature of pursuing other paths, including but not limited to the public market;

* the pressure of watching your classmates gravitate to big firms; and,

* the added pressure of family or the expectations of others.

All of these factors can create a sense of conflict about the type of work you want to pursue with your law degree. Caught up in the “fall insanity” at HLS, some of you do not manage to find the time to reflect about whether you should go to a small firm, a business, a plaintiff’s firm, government work or the nonprofit sector. We urge you to think about your aspirations more carefully and find a job you love.

Clarify a Vision Behind Your Work

Take time to reflect thoughtfully on what you want to achieve professionally. One alum shared this advice: “Think first about what you like to do – not just what you’re good at, what you think you should do, or what’s the path of least resistance.” Most people who love their work have found jobs involving issues about which they feel passionate, as opposed to work at which they may excel but dislike. In discovering what it is that you really want to do, recognize that your interests do not always coincide with your talents. To find work that suits you uniquely, you need to confront questions regarding what you love to do and what really matters to you in your work. Below we share some of the issues you might want to think about while deciding what you want to do this summer and with your law degree when you graduate.

Decide: Whose Life is This Anyway?

As you begin to think about what direction you want your career to take, be sure to make your own values and passions your touchstones. Avoid being swayed by other people’s expectations of you. For example, if your family expects you to save the world through large law reform cases – as mine did way back when I was in law school – but you’d rather work with one client at a time, follow your own preferences. This can be especially hard for those who go to top tier law schools because often we have grown accustomed to judging our achievements in terms of traditional measures of success such as high grades, big salary and public praise. Until you are able to focus on what you want and what you truly consider important, your efforts at finding meaningful work will most likely be thwarted.

Evaluate Your Ambitions and Values

You alone can decide what will make you happy. Figure out what you find important and satisfying:

* What have you liked and disliked from your prior life experiences?

* What issues do you like to read about?

* What volunteer work do you gravitate towards?

* What academic subjects excite you?

Sort out what motivates you and stimulates you. Be careful to distinguish between what you truly care about and what you believe is marketable – they may not overlap. Allowing yourself to be swayed by the latter without considering the former may result in making an expedient, but unsatisfying, career decision.

Evaluate the Nature of the Work and Work Environment That Fits You

Happy lawyers tell us that in addition to working on issues that engage them, the nature of the work and the workplace setting may be critical to finding the right fit. Drawing upon your prior work, volunteer and academic experiences, think about some of the following questions:

* Do you love to research and write?

* Do you enjoy frequent contact with people? Must it be with clients or are colleagues enough?

* Are you happier juggling multiple short-term projects or spending large quantities of time digging into a few long-term assignments?

* Do you embrace responsibility and autonomy or do you prefer close oversight and a gradual increase in responsibility?

* Do you need to see the immediate results of your work, or are you satisfied with the potential for eventual large impact?

* Do you seek formal training, or will you be satisfied by on-the-job training combined with some supervision and/or mentoring?

* Do you want a formal organized atmosphere, or are you happier with a casual, non-hierarchical setting?

* How important is it for the office you work in to have a great deal of resources at its disposal?

* Do you have strong needs for political/ideological compatibility?

* Do you need to have some political activism in your job?

Learn About What Lawyers Do

Law school provides you with an unparalleled opportunity to explore different options within (and even outside) the legal profession. If you are interested in pursuing any type of public interest or government work, you can start by picking up a copy of our Public Interest Job Search Guide and brainstorming with our attorney advisers and our visiting Wasserstein Fellows. Our attorney advisers are career counselors with backgrounds in a variety of public service legal careers. Our Visiting Wasserstein Fellows can share insights about the public interest positions they have held. To get a flavor of practice settings without even leaving your dorm room or apartment, you can read narratives we have collected from alumni/ae in our Public Interest Job Search Guide, in both editions of Alumni/ae in Action and in Outstanding Lawyers in Action, a compilation of narratives written by our Wasserstein Fellows.

You can read about specific fields by picking up one of our specialty guides or printing it from our website: www.law.harvard.edu/Students/opia. You can attend panels like the World of Law series and hear from public interest lawyers about what their work entails, what they like and dislike about their jobs, and how you c
an pursue similar work if you are interested. You can talk to the hundreds of alumni/ae doing public service work who have agreed to serve as mentors to students and who will often be delighted to talk to you about their work. You can also talk to the faculty in our Faculty Public Interest Directory who have agreed to advise students in their area of expertise.

Create a Game Plan

Try out the kind of work that seems appealing to you. You will never again have such a great opportunity to experiment, so seize it! Naturally, the summers offer the biggest chunk of time for sampling different jobs. But do not underestimate the value of work done through a student group, a volunteer job off-campus, or, especially, a clinical placement, to help you discover what you enjoy in the practice of law. Working for a professor on issues that interest you can help you learn more about those issues. And if you already have a very good sense of what you want to do when you graduate, law school affords you the chance to confirm or reevaluate your expectations, to build a track record that will make you an attractive candidate for the jobs you choose to pursue, and to make contacts in your chosen field.

Figure Out What Money Means to Your Job Choice

Determine how much money you need to afford the quality of life that makes you happy. Different people need different kinds of amenities in order to be satisfied. Most public interest lawyers aren’t “poor.” Early in our careers, we manage to pay the rent, afford a suitable wardrobe, and have money left over for dinner and a movie. Later in life, most of us manage mortgages on nice homes and can afford new cars. We can provide a high quality of life for our children, giving them ballet and karate lessons, and taking them on the occasional exotic vacation. Almost every public interest lawyer will tell you that any financial trade-off they made was well worth it. Whether you will be one of the people who can be a public interest lawyer (or even a lawyer at a small private law firm that does not pay as much as the big firms) and live well depends on your own financial situation. Fortunately, as many of you know, HLS’s loan forgiveness program, the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), was dramatically improved and now is better able to provide those with high debt the opportunity to take a relatively lower-paying public service job.

If you have high educational debt, don’t just assume that you cannot afford to make choices about the jobs you pursue upon graduation. Come to the panel that OPIA co-sponsors with the Financial Aid Office on LIPP and HLS postgraduate public service fellowships. Go to the Financial Aid Office and find out how LIPP will work for you. Find out how much your monthly loan payments will be if you work in a particular field, and figure out whether you can live, according to your own needs, with what is leftover. If you don’t have debt, decide whether you will be happy with the lifestyle you will have on a public interest salary or whether you need more.

Consider How you Define Success and Happiness

Ultimately we all need to take a long hard look at how each of us defines success and happiness. Rather than thinking of power in terms of paycheck or employer name recognition, many of us will choose to conceive of it as the ability to effect social change or to help individual clients protect their rights and dignity. We pick our jobs because we know that we will look forward to going to work.

By shifting our focus away from the perceived expectations of others, we become free to pursue our own values, personalities and passions. For many of us, this proves a difficult thing to do. But try it: take a look at what it is that you truly want to do. By doing so, you can redefine success in terms of finding a career that will be fulfilling. Hopefully, you will join the many alums who call and write to us at OPIA, marveling at the joy they find in their work.

[Alexa Shabecoff is the Director of the Office of Public Interest Advising.]

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