BY CHRIS SZABLA
In a few short weeks, the current crop of 3Ls will graduate, and make their way into the world. Doubtless the vast majority will be headed to law firms, which have showered them with gifts and dinners in the course of passionate summer courtships, and now promise them the stability of a long-term commitment: an easy entry (or re-entry) into the “real world.” What is less certain is how many of these soon-to-be-JDs had entered Harvard Law School seeking something wholly different from the future they now face.
One’s acceptance letter to HLS reads like a catalog of the blessings a Crimson law degree might bring: “Supreme Court justices, politicians … writers, and even filmmakers” have been among those eating together in the Hark or studying amid the stacks of Langdell. While these vocations may have been listed in the order of importance the admissions office accords them (“even filmmakers” expresses a degree of evident surprise), its implications are clear. HLS is consciously seeking to attract people who aspire to roles that transcend the traditional paths of law school graduates.
So far, this promise has not appeared to be an empty one. OCS, OPIA, and the Law and the Arts Initiative have held countless panels on the subject of, inter alia, “becoming a journalist,” “taking the plunge into a dream career in the arts,” even guiding students through the more easily-navigable waters of the world of investment banking. These events reveal the number of alumni who have, indeed, “plunged” into worlds where fetching coffee for the right editor or exec proved more important than elusive scraps of tort doctrine.
For all the apparent irrelevance of their legal education in such endeavors, these graduates stressed the extent to which legal thought – for example, thinking around every contingency – had proven beneficial for their careers. They also observed that a legal career, albeit not the kind that involves round-the-clock doc review and post-all-nighter showers at the firm, had proven a more reassuring backup than becoming an apprentice in the art of the barista.
All this begs the question: if the law school itself recognizes that its graduates’ pursuit of careers in the arts and letters – among other “fields of dreams” – are valuable pursuits, why don’t more 3Ls leap for them? The first problem that comes to mind is money, specifically, law school debt.
Many, if not most of the featured writers and artists who have come to speak to nontraditionally-inclined students have been forced to admit that their careers would not have been possible without the beneficence of a wealthy spouse, or the generosity of well-endowed parents. Would that we could all be so fortunate. Still others, after realizing their passion in law school or before, slaved tediously at firms, in some cases for over a decade, before they were able to finance their creative endeavors. These ranks don’t even count the number of former law students who found it more prudent to leave HLS altogether than to deal with the consequences of paying back a full three years’ tuition.
Fortunately, today’s HLS students don’t face the same challenges that encumbered Harvard JDs even a few short years ago. One’s alternatives are numerous; a day job with a nonprofit (whether law-related or not) is possible, thanks to LIPP, and so, too, are the reasonable hours such a career affords. If one is seeking to leap into the arts, or publishing, or any number of less renumeratory careers more directly, SFS is willing to work out a loan repayment plan that may make more sense for an editorial assistant than a first-year associate.
None of this is to say, however, that every single option is on the table. Without independent means, an unpaid internship right out of law school -a necessity in some fields in which graduates don’t have experience – would pose a challenge when there are also loans to pay. The law school can do more, much more, to continue its trend toward opening options for graduates who face financial constraints, and try to make some LIPP benefits available to alumni working in extremely low-compensatory settings that are not directly related to law. It could also go out of its way to publicize how its flexible and individualized approach to student financing can make such careers possible the minute a 3L closes his or her last casebook.
For now, however, 3Ls reading this column should consider their options. Those who find themselves in the perplexing position of compromising their hopes out of deference for the demands of the “real world” ought to take a look around. Their safety net is bigger than they may have thought. There is a real world – but it’s not limited to Sixth Avenue, K Street, or even membership in the bar. It’s a much bigger place.