OPIA’s Advice on Choosing Jobs


Every year we write a piece for The Record on job/career exploration. This past year was unprecedented because of the many changes to the legal market and to the Harvard Law School job search process. To be honest, it was stressful for those of us in career services because we were facing uncharted territory, even for those of us who have been doing career advising for 17 years. But we learned some lessons from last year and the best one of all is about the resilience of the HLS degree. The percentage of HLS grads that were employed at or soon after graduation was virtually unchanged from the year before. And every person pursuing a public interest job or fellowship was able to land one, and one very close to their “dream” job.

While a few 3Ls and 2Ls, landed jobs through some form of on-campus interviewing, most had to put more effort into landing the right job. In fact, many of the 3Ls and clerks searching for postgraduate public service work had to put a lot of time and sweat equity into getting the “right” public sector job. We realize the irony that it takes more work to obtain a lower-paying job – but we believe that the extra effort is worth it to discover and land something that will be satisfying to you. And if anyone can do it, it’s students with all the access and resources that HLS has to offer.

We are sometimes stumped by the fact that students work really hard to do well in college and law school but sometimes don’t work as hard to figure out and land the job that will make them happy. After all, a large part of the goal of schooling – especially a “professional” degree – should be paving the way for a rewarding career. We encourage you to take the time and effort to find a good match, not just for your interests but also for the way you like to work. Below we offer some factors to contemplate when thinking about what you want to do with your summers and beyond.

I. How Do You Want to Use Your Law Degree?

At OPIA, 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 personal commitment to equity, fairness and the common good. 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. They 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, by serving on boards and through philanthropy. We strive to help you articulate and pursue a professional sense of self that will enable you to achieve a confluence, not a contradiction, between your work 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 to Harvard 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 do not yet have 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 diverse doors that a law degree from HLS is supposed to open, many students 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 more challenging, less-defined nature of pursuing other paths, including but not limited to the public service market;

  • the notion that you have to work at a firm for the “training”;

  • the pressure of watching your classmates gravitate to big firms;

  • the added pressure of family or the expectations of others; and

  • the perceived prestige of large law firms.

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 pressures at HLS (pressures prevalent at all top tier schools), 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, a government agency or a nonprofit organization or, if you choose a large law firm, to evaluate their pro bono practices.

For those of you who genuinely think you may want to work in a private firm at graduation, we think it is a very good idea to try a firm out for the summer. However, if you are quite sure that you do not want to work at a firm at graduation, we urge you to be thoughtful about whether it is the right choice for your second summer. Nonprofit jobs, fellowships and government positions have all become more competitive as interest in them has been rising, and therefore there may be important trade-offs in spending your summer at a law firm. While working at a law firm will not preclude you from pursuing public interest work at graduation, it may put you at a competitive disadvantage for some public interest employers or fellowships. In addition, if you are not sure what you want to do at graduation and are skeptical that you want to work at a large law firm, a 2L law firm summer will involve the lost opportunity cost of another public interest summer to figure out the right fit.

So we urge you to think about your aspirations carefully and find a job you love.

II. Clarify a Vision Behind Your Work

Take time to reflect thoughtfully on what you want to a
chieve 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.

A. 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. 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 salaries and public praise. Until you are able to figure out what suits you, your efforts at finding meaningful work will most likely be thwarted.

  • Avoid being swayed by other people’s expectations of you. This can mean your parents and even your classmates (maybe especially your classmates).

  • Focus on what you want and what you truly consider important.

B. 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.

C. 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 on-the-job training combined with some supervision and/or mentoring satisfy you?

  • 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?

This kind of self-assessment is a critical part of ending up a happy graduate and should start now, if you haven’t already been wrestling with these issues. Both OPIA and OCS have self-assessment materials on our respective websites and can help you, through individual advising appointments, think through the many factors that lead to job compatibility.

D. Figure out what kind of “training” you want during your summers and when you graduate

Many people say that they “must” go to a law firm in order to be well-trained even for public sector work. While there are some public sector employers who do believe that private sector work provides good training for public interest work, there are many who believe that the skills are not easily transferable. While law firms may offer good supervision of research and writing, document review and contract analysis, they typically do not offer much exposure to, for example, handling responsibility, making decisions, taking depositions or trial work.

Moreover, it is never a good idea to pick a job just because it is a stepping stone. (If you will inherently like it, that is a whole different story.) Spending 40-plus hours per week doing something that you do not enjoy will be emotionally taxing, even for a few years, and you may ultimately find that you cannot quickly reach the next step you were shooting for.

We do urge you, however, to pick public sector employers – both during the summer and at graduation – who will give you the level of mentoring and supervision that you need. Some organizations do offer formal training programs, usually trial training, either in-house or with an external provider. Yet much of your training in the public sector will come from having good mentors and supervisors who will teach you the ropes and provide you with consistent feedback. Some employers take a more hands-on approach; others may “throw you into the deep end of the pool.” It is important to figure out which style of supervision you need.

E. 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 work, you can take the following steps.

  • Start by reviewing the overviews of practice options on OPIA’s website.

  • Brainstorm with our attorney advisors and our Visiting Wasserstein Fellows. Our attorney advisors 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.

  • Read about specific fields by picking up one of our specialty guides or printing it from our website.

  • Attend panels like the Legal Practice Settings series and hear from public interest lawyers about what their work entails, what they like and dislike about their jobs, and how you can pursue similar work if you are interested.

  • Contact 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.

  • Talk to the faculty listed on our website who have agreed to advise students in their area of expertise.

F. Sample What Interests You

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 pro bono placement, 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.

G. 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.” Starting salaries range from mid-thirties to $70,000, and, of course, there are salary increases as the years progress. While this is obviously strikingly less than what large law firms pay, it is not poverty wages. Early in our careers, public interest lawyers 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, give them ballet and karate lessons, and take 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 and lifestyle needs. Decide whether you will be happy with the lifestyle you will have on a public interest salary or whether you need more.

Of course, the majority of HLS students graduate with at least some debt, which must figure into your thinking. Fortunately, HLS’ loan repayment program, the Low Income Protection Plan (LIPP), enables almost all Harvard law students, even those with very high debt, the ability to “afford” to take a relatively lower-paying public service job. And those of you who are 2Ls and 3Ls will have all of your 3L tuition waived in exchange for a 5-year commitment to public service work at graduation or after a clerkship. Those of you who are 1Ls will have the chance to tap into the $1 million dollar per year Public Service Venture Fund.

When students say they cannot “afford” to do public service work because of debt, it is usually because they do not know enough about LIPP or because they really want the lifestyle associated with a higher disposable income. If you are not sure whether you can do public service work with debt, go to the Student Financial Services Office and find out how LIPP and the PSI will work for you. They will provide you with an individualized assessment of what your monthly loan payments and tax liability will be and how much money you will have to spend after fixed expenditures. Then decide whether you’ll be happy living on that amount.

H. Consider Your Lifestyle Needs Beyond Money

Money is but one factor in how a career will affect the kind of lifestyle you will have. Other major lifestyle drivers include location, time demands, ability to control your own schedule and your employer’s attitude about having a life outside of work. For example, while public service employers do often offer better work-life balance and control over your schedule than most large law firms
, that is not always the case. Public interest litigators, for example, sometimes find that there is a huge boom and bust phenomena and that when they are in trial mode, their life is not their own. Location can also affect many parts of your career – for example, if you choose a “smaller” market, you may find you have more room to earn a “lower” salary, may have a shorter commute, and can be a bigger fish.

I. Take Some Risks

HLS students and graduates have all the advantages in the world: a degree that opens doors, great financial support (like guaranteed summer funding and LIPP), an unparalleled network and, if we do say so ourselves, an abundance of career resources. If you can’t do what you want to do, who can? So take some chances – explore things that sound exciting to you even if they don’t seem like the “norm.” One great example is our President who bucked what was expected of him as the president of the Harvard Law Review to go back to Chicago and work for a small civil rights firm.

J. Consider How You Define Success

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, to help individual clients protect their rights and dignity, or some other way to act for the public good. 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 out of a career. By doing so, you can redefine success in terms of finding a career that will be personally fulfilling.

III. Your Career Will Evolve

While we very much hope that you will pick your first job out of law school wisely, as life is too short to spend time doing things you do not like, realize that your first job out of law school will not define your career. We have seen hundreds of alums switch from the private sector to public service and many others have gone the reverse course. We have seen countless alums end up in jobs they hadn’t anticipated they would want, or even knew existed, later in their careers. For example, a public defender moved into an advocacy position with a human rights nonprofit and then was hired into a prominent position at the Department of Justice. An HLS degree really does “keep your options open,” especially if you build useful skills and connections while here and when you graduate. So keep reevaluating your interests and needs and make sure that you pursue new opportunities that fit those interests and needs. You can end up with a terrific, rewarding career if you stay on top of your evolving needs and pursue new opportunities, even if they involve a bit of risk.

Hopefully, you will join the many alums who call and write to us at OPIA, marveling at the joy they find in their work. No matter where you land, we hope that you will be happy with your work and find a way to “give back.”

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