Career Angst


In February, a young law student’s fancy anxiously turns to thoughts of careers. Not the search for summer jobs, even though that can be stressful at times – we know we’ll somehow end up gainfully employed. The angst I’ve been hearing around campus is about life choices. Do we have to choose between doing something noble and making pots of money? Will we be miserable in big firms? Should we do government work, or try to get a job at a nonprofit? Prosecution or defense? Transactional or litigation? Securities or civil rights?

Much of the angst is about large firm life. Maybe it’s because of the ubiquitous firm receptions, or maybe because it’s the easiest choice – if you never make a decision about what to do with your life, the current will gently push you toward a large firm. Sure, some big firm lawyers are perfectly content, but then there are the horror stories: the late nights, the drinking, the partners who get divorced after twenty years because they never see their families. If you don’t figure out your life now, will you end up at a firm by default, rationalizing that you’ll stay long enough to pay off your loans? Even more frightening, will you be seduced by money and leave behind your idealism? After all these existential questions, I have to admit something: personally, I’m not feeling the angst. I still haven’t mapped out my life, but I’m okay with that. My previous career as a software engineer took me in unexpected directions; I started out at a huge corporation and switched to a small company, worked on projects ranging from educational web sites to arcane memory management techniques, moved across the country twice, and ended up leaving it all behind for law school. I wasn’t always happy, but I always looked for – and found – new and better opportunities.

Careers are long. Look at our professors; many of them have worked in government, at firms, in legal services, with nonprofit organizations, or in other countries. We can move back and forth too. What we do immediately after graduation won’t define us – it’s what we’ll do over the course of decades. Having a plan is good, but not having one doesn’t mean we’re stuck with the jobs we choose as law students. Many of us will ultimately end up with career paths that we can’t imagine now.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who waxed nostalgic about college. He said it was the one time in his life when he felt that he could reinvent himself and start over. “Why stop there?” I asked. “You’re young. You’re not tied down. Move to a new place, get a different job, change your hairstyle, take up hang gliding. Become an investment banker. Crusade against the death penalty. You can always start over.” He liked that idea. I added a disclaimer: “I’m just a 1L, and maybe I shouldn’t be dispensing advice . . . But I think so.”

I’m taking my own advice, anyway, and not worrying too much about jobs. Right now, I’m planning to work at a law firm after graduating. I’m pretty sure my soul will remain intact. And if I feel it slipping away, or if there’s something I’d rather do, or if I just need a change, I’ll make one. I know I won’t get stuck being unhappy. I’ll save my angst for a different subject.

Pia Owens is a 1L.

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