Which One is the Sexy Job Again?

A headline on the blog The Careerist earlier this week asks new lawyers looking for work if it’s “Time to Take That Unsexy Job?”  The “sexy” jobs, apparently, are “associate or junior lawyer” positions.

I worked for over eight years at a New York firm perennially in the top 10 (and several years #1) in the AmLaw rankings.  What was the work like?  Challenging?  Yes.  Rewarding.  Check.  Exhausting?  Often.  Smart, dedicated colleagues?  Absolutely.  Sexy?  As a beached whale in summer.

When the legal employment market was better than it is now—and let’s assume that for those entering law school this year or next, it will be better again, though likely not what it once was—a lot of press was dedicated to lawyer dissatisfaction.

A large part of the reason for lawyer unhappiness is that counsel for potential new lawyers about the actual practice of law at the entry level is in very short supply.  Articles about “sexy” entering jobs are poor counsel—there aren’t any such jobs.  I like “The Good Wife” but her practice is like no junior associate’s in this world.  Law schools focus on cases, not the practice of law.  Law school clinics do give a taste of what it’s like to practice law, in the same way that pro bono work at law firms often does.  But most clinic problems are relatively straightforward, designed not to take up too much time, self-driven and generally unpressured.  Clinics are good as an introduction to dealing with law-related problems, and can be very good at helping students develop counseling skills but they don’t—and aren’t designed to—replicate a workplace for new lawyers.

Most first-year litigators spend the bulk of their time in discovery.  First-year corporate associates do a lot of due diligence and drafting of ancillary documents (if you’re thinking of becoming a lawyer in a corporate department and don’t know what some “ancillary documents” are, you don’t know what you’re getting into).  And every new lawyer spends a lot of time wondering exactly what’s going on and trying to figure out how it all fits together, while trying not to appear as mystified as you actually are.  It’s all brand new.  In addition, you’re working on multiple matters, for many supervisors, all of whom have the right to expect your full attention, more or less, and who will give you (and expect you to take) varying degrees of responsibility, but often without explicitly saying so; discerning and navigating workplace expectations is a big part of a junior lawyer’s job.  The same goes (in spades) for clients; detailed knowledge of what each client expects and clients’ individual personalities is crucial but often something you have to figure out—and be right about—on the fly.  Interruptions are constant.  Some supervisors will spend as much time as they can (which isn’t that much, since they are severely time-pressured) trying to teach their subordinates; some are very good teachers, others less so.  And for some, it’s not that high a priority.  Some of your colleagues will be a delight to work with (though “delight” means something less at 2 a.m. than it does at 2 p.m.); personally, I was extremely lucky in this department.  Oh, and new lawyers’ control over their own time: very little.  And you, too, will begin to have supervisory responsibilities, which is a new thing for most beginning lawyers.  (In later years, a lot of that changes for good lawyers (though your control over your time actually decreases) but that’s outside our present scope.)

Sexy it’s not.  Was I prepared for it, i.e., did I have the opportunity to decide whether the demands and satisfactions of the job (including compensation) were a good fit for my personality and abilities?  Yes and no.  I was lucky to have the opportunity to acclimate myself to law firm work during my third year in law school, which is late (my costs and debt were already incurred) but, as they say, better late than never.  I was not as well prepared as those who work as legal assistants before going to law school.  They generally know the score better going in.  Still, I was much better prepared than most and, therefore, less prone to unrealistic expectations and the attendant job dissatisfaction.

A lot of job dissatisfaction arises from the mismatch between expectation and reality.  As you consider whether to attend law school, you’ll be much better off if you project your life as far out as possible.  Before you pay approximately $150,000 in tuition and fees and incur debt in the high five figures, you should have a clear idea of why you’re doing that.  Your LSAT instructors and application advisors generally can’t help you (although there are some exceptional college/university pre-law advisors)—most never practiced law (many never attended law school), did it for too short a time too long ago, or are simply afraid that if they give you the unvarnished truth, they’ll lose business.  In addition, they generally don’t take the time to know you personally in a way that allows them to give good counsel and advice.  If you don’t know a number of lawyers who are doing or have recently done jobs you might do, that’s problematic.  You will have to develop resources on your own or find an advisor who has the experience, integrity and commitment to you to give you real, honest advice about whether a career in the law is right for you, and if so, which one(s).  You’re investing a lot of money in a legal career; more important, you’re investing your life.  You owe yourself an informed decision based on the reality of the work you’ll be doing, not media and popular vignettes or uninformed cheerleading.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 9, 2010.

One Response to “Which One is the Sexy Job Again?”

  1. […]             –once in law school, in addition to being the best law student that it’s possible for you to be, pay careful attention to the changing legal hiring market, and have an early and continuing familiarity with the opportunities available to you and your colleagues; always have a few plans in mind for your first and second summers, and have clear steps to their execution.  Most important, have a clear idea of why you want to follow the tracks you’ve laid out for yourself, what they involve and why you…. […]

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