The Right Side: Idealism vs. Income


What is it about law firm salaries that motivates us to abandon our ideals and dedicate our lives to the corporate environment?

Most of us entered Harvard Law wanting to use our legal education to help a specific social group. I imagine that many of our admissions essays reflected dreams like protecting children, initiating human rights campaigns, defending battered women or providing legal services to indigenous clients. As the law school years pass, however, those dreams fade away. New dreams of Skadden, Ropes and Cravath are constructed in their place.

Working for a law firm can be a good career decision. Many of us have student loans to pay off or families for which to provide. Law firm salaries go a long way in achieving both of these goals. Some students may even truly enjoy the kinds of work, environment or opportunities law firms provide.

For many Harvard Law students, however, working in a firm is not motivated solely by enjoyment or a feeling of financial need. Students tend to inflate both of these beliefs in order to convince themselves to take a firm job. We rationalize how much we’ll enjoy working 60 to 80 hours a week for clients we may never meet and for causes with which we may not agree. We justify our rationalization with the knowledge of what can be acquired with a $100,000-plus salary.Some students blame the Law School administration for their decisions to take firm jobs. The administration is accused of “forcing” students to work in firms by promoting law firm careers, funding the Office of Career Services and limiting the Office of Public Interest Advising’s resources.

It’s true the Law School makes it fairly easy for students to attain positions as law firm associates, but it doesn’t force students to take such positions. For those who don’t want to work in law firms, and are willing to put in the effort to search for other jobs, many other career options are available.

The main motivation behind students taking law firm jobs comes from within, not without. At some level, every student who takes a firm job wants to work in a law firm. Not counting the people who genuinely love law firm work, it seems students who choose to work in law firms do so partly because they love the money.

Money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy houses, cars, wardrobes, entertainment centers and cellular phones. It can buy the kind of life our parents had or wanted us to have. It can buy prestige and power.

Desire and possession of these things go to the heart of how we define success. If our dreams of changing the world have been replaced with dreams of owning Jaguars, it’s quite possible that we have redefined success for ourselves since our time at HLS. This is not surprising considering we are surrounded by some of the nation’s brightest students, taught by several of the most accomplished legal minds and following in the steps of many great leaders. In this circle, success is comparative to the success of those around us.

Our love of money, and the things it can buy, also says volumes about how we see ourselves. Students’ perception of self worth is often connected to the reputation of the firm for which they will work and the amount of money they will earn. This was not what we believed before we came to HLS. In part, this change in perception could be attributed to “failures” in law school. Grades, law review and favor from professors become the standards by which we judge ourselves. When we do not do as well as our classmates in these areas, we feel disappointed. Securing a high-paying position at a top-ten law firm can help revive our damaged self-image.

Having struggled with the temptation to “just follow the money” myself, these are some decision-making guidelines I have set for my career search: Do not take a job because of how much it pays or its social prestige. Take a job that will allow you to do what you love and enable you to fulfill your financial responsibilities. Define your own success by adhering to your ideals, liberal or conservative, in the face of social pressure to the contrary. Place your beliefs above your potential salary and social affirmation, and make your career decision accordingly. A firm job may be perfect for you, but make sure you’re signing on for the right reasons.

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