Help me be less ambitious.
February 18, 2010 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Help me be figure out the proper level of ambition. I am in my second year out of law school. I have a year of big firm practice under my belt and am halfway through a one-year federal clerkship. It's about time for me to start (thinking about) looking for a post-clerkship job and I am torn between prioritizing prestige or my personal/family life.

I'm older than the average newly-minted lawyer -- I had six years of work experience before I went to law school. I've also been married for several years. Though my spouse and I thought about having kids while I was in law school (something I more and more regret not doing), I was very concerned with doing as well as I possibly could in order to maximize my career prospects. And I did well -- I had a prestigious journal position, I published an article (on my own, not my comment), my grades were quite good, and I had many job offers back when the economy was booming. I worked for a year at a very good law firm and left to clerk for a very highly regarded judge. In other words, I was all set for the prestige track. I wanted to make a name for myself, do something amazing, possibly teach. (I actually still really, really want to teach.)

But now, halfway through my clerkship, I'm not so sure I want to stay on that track. I very much enjoy the reduced stress of this job. The hours are good, there's always something interesting to do, and the salary is quite livable. I also really want to start a family, spend time with my future kids, and not constantly worry about whether I'm billing enough or bringing in enough business.

My old firm will likely let me come back after my clerkship (that's not certain right now because work is slow, but I suspect things will continue to pick up this year). Even if they don't, I can send out resumes to other firms and I think my credentials are strong enough to get me a big law (or highly regarded mid law) job. But as I said above, the thought of going back to living my life in 6 minute increments is really not appealing.

So I'm also looking at various federal attorney positions. Having worked in a pseudo-government job before law school, I know how nice those jobs can be -- good benefits, lots of security, reasonable hours. But they are also mostly not super-prestigious. (I am not referring to the actually prestigious DOJ attorney positions which I would totally take if I could even apply, which I can't because I don't have the extra year of experience required.) They are also not necessarily intellectually interesting to me -- for instance, while I like employment law, it's not my main area of interest. But most of the federal attorney positions out there (at least right now) involve a high percentage of employment and labor issues. I don't necessarily want to take a job that basically defines my future career as one in employment law.

I need help resigning myself to the fact that I can't "have it all." I want the super-prestigious job and to start having babies and work reasonable hours and continue enjoying my new hobbies (I've become a crazy domestic person -- I knit, I sew, I bake cupcakes, for heaven's sake). I don't want to give up my dreams of academia (or at least of being known for something) but I'm afraid I'll have to in order to have the family and personal life I also want. Help me find a way to emotionally be OK with giving up (or seriously rethinking) my dreams.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Your kids will not give a flying fuck how prestigious your job is. They will, however, care quite a lot if they never see you. And when you die, the people who love you the most will not get up and speak about your professional accomplishments; they will get up and speak about your personal ones.

Seriously, when seeking resolution to work/life balance issues, choose life.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:14 AM on February 18, 2010 [9 favorites]

seems like one path will make you happy. one will make you known.

It's up to you to decide which is more important.
posted by French Fry at 10:18 AM on February 18, 2010

Lawyers are about as prestigious as accountants these days, so go with the family.
posted by four panels at 10:21 AM on February 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

It sounds to me like you do plan on having children – of all the dreams you’ve listed, that’s probably the one dream you’re not willing to give up. So then, given the fact that you will (health considerations aside) have kids, how do you see your life unfolding? How involved do you want to be in your children’s lives? Make up your mind based on that.

Also, most parents can probably attest that actually HAVING the children makes these kinds of decisions much, much easier. They have a way of clarifying your priorities.
posted by yawper at 10:25 AM on February 18, 2010

I will say you won't know what career you can and can't make work for sure until you actually have a baby, if having a baby is definitely in the plans. And after you have a baby, you may realize that that the prestigious job is not something you want any more. Or after you have a baby, you may be a little more fueled for the prestigious job, but in a smaller area where the same prestigious job is less intensive --- but no less important -- than it may be in a major city. But regardless of whatever decisions you reach, if you do have a baby, you'll discover that you're just in so much less of a hurry than you were about so many other things because if it's one thing babies do, it's teach you that an empty water bottle on the street can the most interesting thing in the world, and a blade of grass is worth a much closer examination than you could have imagined.
posted by zizzle at 10:27 AM on February 18, 2010

I'd apply to the DOJ jobs anyway. Know a lot of people there and the federal hiring process is often not as advertised.

More importantly, what kind of work do you want to do? Litigation? Contracts? That would help me give you more advice.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:29 AM on February 18, 2010

Why aren't you including the possibility of trying to go academic now? You published an article, you've got good credentials -- apply for fellowships or visiting-assistant professorships if you don't think you can get a permanent appointment right away.

That life is not easy, but strikes me as a compromise position that preserves more of your values than government work.
posted by grobstein at 10:31 AM on February 18, 2010

Over in the why-do-rich-people-kill-themselves thread we had a discussion about the correlation between money and happiness. I think most attorneys often use "prestige" as a nice way to say "money." I'm not sure if you're doing that here or not, but I don't think you'll necessarily be happier at a more "prestigious" job. I was a summer associate at a well-respected midlaw firm, and now I'm a state judicial clerk. I'm convinced by the studies that show a correlation between money and happiness up until around $60k or so, and then things flatten out. I'm also unsure of what perks a prestigious firm job carries with it that are unrelated to money. FWIW, I say go for a lower-stress job, since it sounds like that's what's going to make you the happiest.

Oh, and as for your concerns about academia, biglaw isn't the only path to becoming a law professor. From my experience, it's far from the most common.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:33 AM on February 18, 2010

I wanted to make a name for myself, do something amazing, possibly teach.

If you mean teaching law school, then you'll have to get a lot more research under your belt, probably unique research, and that's not fun.
posted by anniecat at 10:34 AM on February 18, 2010

You know, re-reading my comment, it comes off as a bit flip. I didn’t mean it that way. Kids really do change your perspective on things. It's amazing the way parents change for their kids, and without even a second thought. It just HAPPENS. Suddenly you have this amazing little person in your life who you would do ANYTHING for, even die for – that’s no joke. It’s utterly life-changing. I’m not trivializing the sacrifices parents make for their kids – it’s definitely not easy – but many things that we might agonize over before having kids become inconsequential after having them. What I am trying to say is, having kids will probably make this decision easier for you.

Or what zizzle said (more eloquently).
posted by yawper at 10:38 AM on February 18, 2010

And your kids will respect you if you respect yourself and the decisions you make. They'll want to spend time with you and prefer you to a ritzy summer camp. Pretend you like yourself and fake it til you make it. Also, you're a person with needs and it's actually better to not be known for anything because when people are impressed by you, it's only a fleeting feeling they have towards you until they go on with their lives and are perfectly happy not being you. When someone is impressed with you because you seem oh so amazing, it means they don't know you or care about you personally. I'd rather have people care about me because I'm ordinary like them.
posted by anniecat at 10:40 AM on February 18, 2010

It's a very personal decision (MeMail me if you want to take this off the forum). I've been in BigLaw for all of my career, and "prestige" is surely overstated. No one particularly gives a shit about what I do, where I work, or who my clients are (though I try to associate with as few lawyers as possible).

The main attraction, I have to say, is the money. Assuming you are able to return to your old position (or a comparable position) that pays a Wall St. salary, that's big bucks. Do you have loans? Yes, there are LRAP programs for public service, but it's nice to pay off the loans quickly. It also helps you to save a nest egg for a home, education etc. Two of my junior colleagues have gone off to teach after working for short of three years, which seems pretty sweet to me (though I don't aspire to teach).

Is it worth the stress for the big bucks? Possibly, provided you get in an out quickly and then do what you really want to do. As I'm sure you're aware, though, it's generally a strict regime of diminishing returns--if you start at the bottom (or the middle), you're probably not going to make it back to the top later.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:40 AM on February 18, 2010

To clarify, Admiral, when you say that starting at the bottom or the middle makes it tough to get to the top, you're talking about salary, aren't you?
posted by craven_morhead at 10:43 AM on February 18, 2010

I want the super-prestigious job and to start having babies and work reasonable hours and continue enjoying my new hobbies

This is, to put it gently, not going to happen. People in "super-prestigious" legal jobs work long hours and often do not have time for multiple hobbies.

Prestige is overrated, but necessary if you want to go the teaching path, although you may already have "enough" for that path such that more years at a law firm will not help. Use this time during your clerkship to work on 1-2 more articles for publication. Apply for fellowships. If your judge has relationships with local law schools, take advantage of any teaching opportunities they may have. You don't say where you are, but if you do decide to go the teaching route you will probably have to relocate at least once, probably multiple times.

You need to ask yourself what the point of accumulating prestige is for you. What psychological need are you fulfilling? What tangible effects on your life will more or less prestigious paths have? Is there any point where you'd get off the hamster wheel?

You can memail me also. On preview, agreed with Admiral Haddock re: loans.
posted by amber_dale at 10:48 AM on February 18, 2010

My college honors 3 highly acclaimed alums every year, and I went to ceremony each year to hear each of these alums talk about her path to greatness (in a huge range of fields like writing, archaelogy, medicine, etc.). The theme I took away, year in and year out, was that these alums didn't plan a career per se, they took one job that they found fascinating and stayed at that job (project) until another more fascinating job (project) came along, and they followed that where it took them. So while you may be right that there is a path that is a pretty good bet for recognition in the legal field, I think you might find that if you choose a next job that you find fascinating and rewarding (even if it's not 'prestigious' or highly paid) it may lead to you something else that ends up being prestigious or getting you recognition. If there's something you're fascinated by, for example, maybe you'll gain expertise, publish about it, become a clinic professor on that subject, etc.

Re big firm life v. family and a quality of life balance in general here's how I think about it. This is my life. My one life. No amount of money or prestige (above basic middle class life) is worth the hours I would have to spend at a big firm, because each of those hours is precious time I could spend with the people I love or doing the things I love. (If big firm lawyering was something I loved above all else, well that would be different.) For me, happiness is all about balance. I strive for happiness (for myself and my loved ones), and so for me the big firm track is an absolute crock I would only do if I were desperate.
posted by n'muakolo at 10:53 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Craven_Morhead, yes, I'm talking about tiers of "prestige" / money. If you start at Cravath from Harvard Law, finding your next job is pretty easy. If you start at Doofus & Doofus LLP with a JD from East Virginia School of Law and Refrigeration Technology, it's going to be tougher. There are exceptions to every rule, of course. Everybody starts at the bottom of the totem pole; I'm talking about opportunities when you want to switch totem poles.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:55 AM on February 18, 2010

There is so much to do besides big firm practice. I think that law school fosters a very narrow mind-set as to what jobs are worthwhile and prestigious, and that once you stop judging yourself based on the view that the other students at law school and the lawyers at your firm hold, you'll feel marvelously free.

I think I'm arguing that there's a third way, and that you have to start looking for a job that fits it. This post surprises me for one reason--you sound kind of isolated in terms of the information you have about jobs, even though you're a person who did well at law school and currently are working for a judge. You have a great-sounding resume, you obviously got recommendations from professors and lawyers, and work directly for someone who has tons of connections. You should be able to find out about plum DOJ jobs, certainly, but you also have access to resources who know quite a bit about the job market and may even have connections who are looking for someone like you. If you do go back, at least temporarily, to your law firm, see if you can get seconded out to a client so you can look around at another kind of business. Your hours will also probably be better there.

Other coping mechanisms: think about different offices, and cities. Think about in-house. The big drawback to in-house, at your stage of career development, is that you won't receive the great training that most big law firms do provide to young lawyers, or that you'd get at the DOJ or in a prosecutor's office. But you have to look and see what the individual situations involve.

I think if you keep your career going in a sustainable way you will have many more options for "prestigious" positions than you think you will, down the road. I've seen that with many of my friends, one of whom is now a law professor, another has a job in civil fraud at the DOJ, and another is in-house at a big asset manager.

One more thought--if you want to be a professor, eventually, look for jobs where you have time and/or partners for article-writing.

Good luck!
posted by Wittamer at 10:57 AM on February 18, 2010

Have you considered moving to a 2nd or 3rd tier city and practicing there? It's much easier to be a big fish when you're in a small pond. My husband started in Big Law but the work/life balance didn't work for us. He's a hard-core litigator and he's home by 6 most nights, by 8 when he's litigating, and the office is 7 minutes by car from our (nice) house, so the baby and I can drop by for lunch. (I am also an attorney but I am not currently practicing; I'm home with the baby.) I ran for local elected office at age 30, after living in town about 5 years, and won. We're both on the boards of community agencies. We get interviewed by local media as experts. We get invited to meet-and-greets with politicians. And the housing is dirt cheap, the work is diverse and interesting, and the pace of practice a lot slower.

If you aimed at a lower-tier city with a decent law school, you'd stand a good chance of doing some teaching on the side even if you kept practicing. And $80,000 in, say, Des Moines goes a lot farther than $140,000 in New York City.

So, Big Fish, consider the small pond, where you can have family life AND community prestige, if not necessarily national prestige -- although there are definitely routes to national prestige from smaller communities.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:40 AM on February 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Eyebrows, I think that sounds like heaven, personally.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 11:45 AM on February 18, 2010

The legal profession is a client service business filled with ambitious people. Thus, it is all about (1) responding to client demands, and (2) turning out lots of thorough, flawless work product. Both of these things take a lot of time. The ambitious people you will be working with, whether they are clients or more senior lawyers, tend to be very judgmental if you do not respond to their demands quickly, and if your work product is not flawless. This inevitably eats into personal and family time. It is also, in my opinion, why talented female attorneys who want to have families leave law firms in droves, as described in this detailed report (pay special attention to the discussion of non-partnership tracks and their very deep flaws).

You are right to have concerns. I wish I had answers.
posted by A Long and Troublesome Lameness at 11:46 AM on February 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Are these DOJ positions your dream job, and would allow you to have a good work/life balance? Do you think there is something you could do for the next year that would maximize your chance of getting one? If so, you might consider doing that, even if it means another year of working pretty hard. Beware the temptation to do this for more than just one year though. Have a backup plan that involves you switching something that you want at a certain time rather than slogging away at biglaw until you are fed up.
posted by grouse at 11:55 AM on February 18, 2010

You might also want to consider the position of permanent clerk. Some places have that. It pays a lot more than a clerkship, I believe, and you get to keep doing the interesting stuff you're doing.
posted by shivohum at 6:43 AM on February 19, 2010

I'm a lawyer who was in circumstances very similar to yours a few years ago. Big law firm and federal clerkship; also tried to get into law teaching. Eventually, I went the non-prestige route and am very happy with it. MeMail me if you want more details.
posted by crLLC at 8:20 AM on February 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

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