One of my clients told me last week he went to law school because he “didn’t want to do an MBA.” Apparently he’d only considered those two options.
Another client told me he’d decided between a PhD in History and a JD, and went with the JD because he “didn’t think there would be jobs for academics.” Fair enough. Unfortunately, there weren’t many jobs for lawyers, either, and at least with a PhD, as opposed to law school, he might have received some sort of “stipend” ( i.e., a meagre handout), or adjunct faculty position (i.e. cafeteria work.) That way, he might not have ended up both unemployed and in hock up to his eyebrows.
Going to graduate school has become a popular substitute for finding a job, especially in this recession. Grad school sounds easy – basically a few extra years of college – but it only puts off a lot of tough decisions that have to be made sooner or later.
The problem here is proverbial and involves carts and horses. In a perfect world, you would explore a career and make sure it is right for you first, then head off to get a degree.
Instead, we have the situation I see every day in my office: young people in their mid-twenties, who grind through law school, then face not only a moribund job market, but the deeper horror of realizing they don’t enjoy the work. They end up fighting to find a job in a profession they don’t like simply because they have to pay off debts.
It would be great if the law schools seemed to care – if they insisted that prospective students work as paralegals for a while and make sure they know what they’re getting into. But law schools are money-making concerns and they’re raking in cash the way things are. They’re not about to start telling the truth about their massive profits on law student tuition or the feeble job market. As they see it, that’s not their problem.
What sent you off to law school, more than any other factor? Probably fear – specifically fear of being a disappointment to mom and dad. When you decided to go to law school, you saw only two options – graduate school or loser-dom. In law school, you would be doing what you’d done your entire life – going to school, which always kept your parents happy in the past. It seemed like a no-brainer. And in your early 20’s, things that happen a few years from now (like paying off student loans) seem far away – they take place in another universe with another person cleaning up. Hey, plenty of people go to law school and they do whatever, and it works out, right?
Now, in many senses of the word, your loans are being called in.
One of my patients says he wishes he’d gone the burn-out route, stayed home and smoked weed. He has buddies from college who drifted after graduation. Some are working retail jobs, or in restaurants. Some have office or sales jobs. Mostly, they’re blowing off work and playing in bands and part-timing as ski instructors during the winter or hanging out and talking about that back-packing trip to Bhutan they really want to do some day.
From where he’s at – an unemployed quasi-lawyer waiting to hear whether he passed the bar exam while he processes the reality that he doesn’t like law – being a burn-out sounds pretty good. As a burn-out, he wouldn’t have loans, so he could afford to spend the whole day studying the lyrics to “Paranoid Android.”
I’d like to suggest a “third path” – an alternative both to the mindless lemming-march towards graduate school and complete burn-out.
It’s called “finding your way on your own” and it’s how people (back in some mythical, golden, halcyon olden days) used to figure out what they wanted to be when they grew up.
First, relax and don’t worry if you’re not making a lot of money. You’re young – there’s time for that.
Second, don’t rush into grad school. If there’s something you’re dying to be when you grow up, and you absolutely have to go to grad school to get some letters after your name in order to do it – then fine, go. But wait until you know where you’re going before you board the train.
Third, take a look at the world around you, and get some real-life experience. Instead of borrowing money to go to grad school, you might try living cheaply at a low-paid starting position in some industry that catches your eye.
Low-paid starting positions – or internships – aren’t much different from grad school. You get exploited financially, in hopes that further down the line it will help you win a job. With a starting position, instead of some useless degree, you get practical experience and a line on your resume.
While I was in law school, feeling superior, two of my friends from college struggled through lowly internships.
One was a temp, answering the phone for a clothing company.
She now runs the place, reporting to the owner. Last year, when I ran into her at a party, she was heading off to Milan and Paris to hit the fashion shows.
The other friend took one of those humiliating barely-paid starting positions at a publishing house.
She’s now a senior editor, hobnobbing with famous authors.
Those two put the horse before the cart, and got somewhere.
Meanwhile, I put the cart before the horse, and I’m not even a lawyer anymore.
If you just graduated from law school and are sitting in a law firm right now struggling to pay off debt – or unemployed and wondering what you’re going to do – this advice might be coming a little late.
But it might also explain how you ended up in this pickle – and give you some ideas for how to get out of it.
I know plenty of lawyers who realized law school was a mistake, managed eventually to pay down debts, then brushed themselves off and went off in a new direction – and found happiness and success, too.
There’s always a Plan B – a way to have some fun and get yourself someplace you actually want to be – if you calm down, stop worrying about what other people think, and remember that enjoying your life is a primary goal, not just an option.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)