What Changed Our Minds?

It is no secret that the 1L class undergoes a transformation every year.  Large numbers of HLS students begin law school having no intention of working at large corporate law firms, yet without fail, a large majority of students opt for the well-trodden path toward Big Law.  What could possibly account for such a rapid reversal of opinion?  This past spring, under the title “Firmly Refuse,” a group of students suggested that this change is due to what they consider to be the coercive and fear-based approach adopted by Office of Career Services that funnels students into the private-sector Early Interview Process regardless of their actual career ambitions.  

This claim, however, fails to comport with my own experience and the experiences of many of my classmates.  When I reflect on my own decision-making process, I feel as though I made the choice to begin my career at a large firm thoughtfully, and I am skeptical of the claim that I fell victim to the administration’s coercive efforts.  But if it’s not OCS’s fear-mongering that drives people to Big Law, other factors must be at work to explain the transformation.  There are of course many well-understood practical reasons that do tend to push people toward big firms: the greater ability to pay off loans quickly on a Big Law salary, the relative ease of obtaining a job through EIP, and the security of having a summer offer in hand before the first day of classes 2L fall.  Those sympathetic to Firmly Refuse’s mission are unlikely to view these as particularly respectable reasons.  Instead, they’re likely to view them as excuses someone might offer for failing to have the courage or ambition to pursue his or her true calling.

Much of the discussion regarding the evolution of law students’ career ambitions seems to assume that the career goals with which law students enter school are somehow more genuine or worthy of respect than those with which they leave.  On this view, if a student begins determined to work in public interest, but leaves headed toward a big firm job, something must have lamentably distracted him from pursuing his real passion.  I would argue, however, that in many cases, this picture has things exactly backwards.  Rather than law school being a time when people are coerced into forgetting what it is they really want to do, for many, it is a time when they figure out what is important to them.

When I began at HLS, I was unsure about what exactly I wanted to do after graduation.  As a liberal arts major in college, the corporate world felt foreign to me.  My education had taught me that I should follow my dreams, and I felt as though working for a business would constitute selling-out and would be a waste of my education.  I’ve come to view this perspective as naive and wrong-headed.  Learning more about law firms and going through the summer associate process opened my eyes to a world I previously knew little about, and it showed me that there are many aspects of work at a big firm that I would find satisfying.  For one, after having spent many years in academia, I appreciated the professionalism and energy of the law firm environment.  Having been apprehensive about entering the corporate world, now being a part of that world gave me confidence, and I felt as though my work was having an impact in way that my academic work had not.  Though I was most definitely not saving the world, I appreciated being part of a team that was providing top-notch legal services to the firm’s clients.

Ironically, it was not my decision to begin my career at a big firm that was driven by fear, rather fear drove my initial aversion to Big Law.  The intensity of law firm environments is well-suited for the ambitious, type-A students that tend to find themselves at HLS, and this is certainly no small reason why so many students choose the big firm path once they learn more about it.  Choosing a career in Big Law is no more the result of coercion or lack of thoughtfulness than is choosing a career in public interest.  My classmates and I chose to work at law firms, and many of us are happy that we did.

One Foot Out the Door is a column written by an anonymous Harvard Law 3L. The column runs every other Thursday.

The views in opinion editorials, columns, and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of The Harvard Law Record.

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