Defending My Law Firm Job

The other day, I was sitting with a few friends of mine. One is a 3L in law school, currently working at the public defender’s office, but the others are not in the legal profession. We were joking around about what it would be like to defend criminals, and as that discussion came to a close, one of the girls said to me, so, still planning on going into corporate law? I told her that, yes, I had a law firm job lined up. Another girl immediately began going on about how miserable her friend who currently works at a firm is, how this friend is constantly working and stressed out, how all she does all day is “contracts.” Eventually, this friend told me, her law firm friend would go into pro bono. As most people in law school will tell you, this isn’t a particularly unique discussion, especially among women. It seems like every discussion about law firms ends up focusing on the hours, the misery, and, of course, the exit strategy. Already on this blog, women are talking about the “work life balance sales pitch,” and how women leave law firms “because they can.” I think a great dialogue is being fostered, and, like everyone else, I believe that law firms need to change the way they do business if they want to keep young associates around, male or female. But this time, I’m not sure what it was—perhaps that the criticism of law firms was coming from someone who had no personal experience with them—the conversation kind of got to me. Suddenly I became a walking law firm advertisement—I talked about how I took this job because I would be working with smart people, getting great experience in my practice area, working on big deals, and how I could use this job as a launching pad to something else (read: something with better hours where I’m actually helping people and have time for a family). In the end, though, my defense of my choice bothered me even more than the implication that my choice was a bad one, because it was not only disingenuous but unnecessary. Why should I have to apologize for taking the highest paid position I could land out of school? Isn’t it a simple, rational economic choice to seek the job with the most compensation? I know as well as anyone else that this isn’t going to be a 9-5 job, but then, the money isn’t 9-5 either. Why isn’t it assumed that I looked at my options and made an informed decision? A bigger question, of course, at least is this forum, is whether men would ever be having this conversation. Would they be like me—explaining away their choices, or, like my friend, explaining away her friend’s choices—by saying that the job is only temporary, until they can find work that is more acceptable in their social group? Or is working at a law firm the acceptable choice to begin with, something that they don’t have to defend at all?



I sort of wish I had your experience of having to defend going into law firm work.  My experience has been that I have to defend why I am NOT planning to stay at a law firm long term.  Nearly everyone at my school goes the big corporate route- there is huge pressure to do that- it’s just the route you go if you graduate from here.  I often find myself faced with the question of why I would give up the money.  Being at a law firm is an acceptable choice; your friends are probably somewhat jealous because you are actually interested in that corporate work that pays well. I would give anything to WANT to practice corporate law.  It would certainly make my life easier.  It’s a hard choice to throw away a six figure salary even for a career you love.


Thanks for the comment!  I’m not even so sure that I want to be in a firm long term either—that’s part of why I felt so strange defending it.  I just want to go into the job with a good attitude; I think that’s why the conversation affected me—because the last thing I want is to start out on the wrong foot in what’s obviously going to be a tough job.


In almost every profession, the jobs that pay the most require a lot of hours.  Top doctors and business executives often work similar hours with the added demands of being on call even when they leave work or having to travel most of the time.  It’s easy to find cons in any job—the more important question is whether or not you like what you do such that the cons are outweighed by the pros.  I have a lot of friends who love their firm jobs.  They find the work interesting, they like the support provided by a firm, and they enjoy collaborating with other attorneys in a firm environment.  Some firms are better than others, so there’s always the question of finding the right fit, but I think the real problem is that recent graduates go to firms even when they hate the work because they don’t see any other options.  At my school anyway, firm opportunities are the easiest to find, and it’s difficult to identify an alternative path if law firm work isn’t for you. There are so many interesting law jobs that are completely out of sight to law school students; I wish there were a better process to learn about options.


I wish I was in a market where firm jobs were easy to come by.  It seems like public interest is the way to go in the Pacific Northwest, and I often find myself defending why I want to do corporate law.  I worked for quite a bit in high tech business before going to law school, and corporate law is what I am really driven and passionate about.  That seems hard to explain in a culture which seems to view corporations and the “big evil” (for a city which has several corners with at least two Starbucks on one corner, I’ve never seen so many people who adamantly hate the place).  I completely agree with anyone who wants to work at a firm because they enjoy the work, enjoy the challenge, and want to do.  I’m not sure, however, I agree with just doing it for the largest paycheck possible.  If you hate the job, no amount of money will ever be enough.


I'm on my way to a large firm - once I graduate next Friday.  I have had to defend my choice against so many people, although I think the questioning has mostly come from legal insiders.  I find it funny in many situations, because the people who are saying these things to me  ("I hope you're ready for the long hours;" "oh boy, are you sure you want to do that?" or worse )  are mostly people who are working much more than 9-5 - whether it be at a small or medium sized firm, a public interest organization, a courthouse or a public defender's office. 
 I'm bound and determined to see how it works for ME, to see how much it matters that my firm is ranked in the Top 10 Nation-Wide as a "firm for women" and to see if maybe, just maybe, I'll be able to my two daughters through college (they're 9 and 11).  


Consciously and subconsiously, a lot of law school is about competing and comparing one another, the hunt for the best grades, the awards, the prestigious journals, and eventually, the coolest jobs.  (In the beginning of law school, as someone who would much rather be collaborative and who thinks the endless resume-padding is very tiresome, I really tried to ignore this, hoping it was all hype and wouldn't be true.  I still don't put a lot of stock in the trend, but I've given up denying its existence).
I bring this up because I think no matter what job you're going into, whether you decide to go be a sculptor or work for the government or become partner at Latham & Watkins, you're going to end up in conversations with other students comparing what you're doing and where you're going.  Everybody ends up defending themselves, just like the women who leave practice to spend time with family and the women who work all the time and don't have kids.  There's not supposed to be unity of purpose within the legal profession. 
However, good point taken about men having these conversations on similar levels.  I wonder about that myself.  My totally unsubstantiated suspicion would be that they do, but less.  They do because, like I said, everyone is always comparing one another all the time - my male colleagues even more than females, I think, - so it seems unavoidable.  They might defend themselves less though, because I think men are not tokenized like women are, the social message they receive is that they'll be a lawyer and make it to the top, wherever that may be, and their choice doesn't make them a representative of male professionalism the same way as it does for many women. All that said, here's my defense.  No, not defense: my plug for being a public interest lawyer.  I don't want to criticize anyone's choices, but I'll tell you mine because maybe they'll inspire someone.  I am going into public interest law for some reasons that I think are really important:
Like the vast majority of law students that I have enountered, I am from a comfortable, middle or upper middle class family that doesn't need me to support them financially, but is there to help me when I need support, emotionally, physically, financially, etc.  From such a position of privilege in the world, I really believe it is my moral obligation in life to extend the privileges that I enjoy to other people who aren't as lucky.  Yeah, some people call it 'liberal guilt.' That is perhaps a pretty accurate term, but I don't see why it often has a negative connotation.  I think it's right-on what everyone should have. 
It doesn't require being a public interest lawyer, or a liberal either.  It might mean providing a healthier or happier childhood for your kids than you had, or it might mean running your own farm, becoming a teacher or professor, or making cheesy Hollywood movies and then raising money for NGOs in Cambodia, or fighting to ban abortion, if that's what you believe will make the world better. 
People shy away from being sanctimonious about public interest law, because self-righteousness is often pretty irritating, but I don't want to be ashamed of it.  I want to be a public interest lawyer because I personally would feel abysmally selfish coming from such privilege as a white American and choosing to do anything else.  It's a big world of inequality and injustice, and it seems to me of paramount importance to do what I can in my short lifetime to remedy that.  So I want to stand up for what I do and what I believe and convince other people to join me.  No one needs to defend themself to me, they make their own choices and it's not really my business.  But I'll still be out here evangelizing.

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