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March 24, 2011 1:47 PM   Subscribe

My dream job with the US foreign service fell through. So should I stick with my enjoyable, decent paying but completely dead end job, go to law school or.. figure out a third option?

For the State department, I passed the written test, passed my mandarin phone interview, but didn't get invited to the oral interview. Maybe my essays weren't so great, maybe my work history is flakey, maybe it was budget cuts, whatever the reason, it's not happening, at least this year. I will likely re-apply but that could mean years before I'd be able to start, if I ever get hired at all.

In the meantime, I need to make some decisions about my medium-term future. Currently, I teach LSAT preparation classes for people who want to go to law school. I actually enjoy this job quite a bit and the pay is pretty good, I make around $45k working 20-30 hour weeks about 9 months a year. I also have a deal right now where I travel around for work, so for those 9 months I get use of a company car and a place to live, just about all my bills paid for by my company. I really enjoy this job--the teaching, the free time and the ability to save money since I don't have to pay my own bills. For the first time in my life, I'm 100% debt free and able to put money into a retirement account and some other medium term investments. I am saving about $20k per year, so financially I feel great. However, there's no opportunity for advancement with this company.

So, I don’t have any other marketable skills, I used to teach high school overseas but don’t think I’d enjoy that long term. The obvious option is law school. I’ve been admitted to Georgetown, UVA and Richmond, the first two at full price, the latter would be about $6k per year if I stay in the top third of the class. I’m on the waitlist at Berkeley. I feel like law school fits my strengths perfectly, I have attended a number of classes while visiting and feel like I could definitely hang in with everyone there. Georgetown and UVA both have okay but not great loan repayment assistance programs which would make $200k debt manageable *if* I could secure a government or non-profit job in the legal field. I’m not interested in a big law firm, but I realize a lot of people say that and end up going to those types of job anyway. My goals would be to work in some sort of social justice work (ACLU, public defender?) or maybe government work if I could get it. Ideally, I’d be able to work in Northern California. I originally planned to go to law school about three years ago, but got scared off by the legal implosion.

So, this is longer than I thought, but.. suggestions? Do I need a career? Has the legal field improved enough to make $200k in debt at a school like UVA sensible? Should I hold out for the Foreign Service? Obviously no one can tell me what to do, I’m just looking for people who have made similar choices to tell me what they think.
posted by skewed to Education (14 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: I left out a lot of important information, sorry. I've felt really stressed out the last few days thinking about this stuff. I'm in my early 30's, I've read extensively about law school so I know that were I to attend Richmond I'd be mostly locked in to working in that market, I've read the infamous NY Times Law School article, I know about the financial problems in California and exploding tuition in Berkeley. I'm eligible for in-state tuition in Virginia, but that's still $42k/year. Loan repayment programs at GULC and UVA would not cover me if I went into the foreign service after law school, but IBR would help out. I have family connections in both the DC area and San Francisco, so I'd be comfortable trying to live in either area.
posted by skewed at 2:02 PM on March 24, 2011 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Have you looked into any of the civil service positions at State? It isn't as hard to get a job through that as it is to pass the FS test.

Also, what about going to an MA program and then trying for the PMF program?
posted by k8t at 2:06 PM on March 24, 2011

The obvious option is law school.

Why is it obvious? Do you want to be a lawyer? You say law school fits your strengths, but that's not a great reason to go get an expensive degree in a field that's seeing record unemployment in recent grads unless you really really want to be a lawyer.
posted by rtha at 2:07 PM on March 24, 2011

Maybe you didn't want to make your question overly long but I find myself wondering what you've considered besides these 3 options (Foreign Service, law school, staying put). Is there something enjoyable you could do that would make you a more attractive Foreign Service candidate in the future, should you choose to reapply?
posted by lakeroon at 2:08 PM on March 24, 2011

I'm sorry you're feeling stressed out. I'm sure you realize that in this job market you're pretty lucky but I know that it doesn't feel that way when you're not happy with your work situation.

Do you want to be a lawyer? What is your dream job? If that question is too difficult to answer, try this - go onto a job site and identify maybe 5-10 jobs you would love to have, either now-ish or about five years from now. What are the qualifications for those jobs? Go in that direction. Best wishes
posted by kat518 at 2:18 PM on March 24, 2011

Best answer: For fuck's sake don't go to law school. Retake the FSOT and choose consular or management cone rather than one of the more popular cones. Lather rinse and repeat until successful. Even if it takes ten tries you are still better off.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 2:25 PM on March 24, 2011 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: My realistic dream job is foreign service political officer. My less realistic but still plausible dream jobs are generally law related: law professor, ACLU, federal public defender, SEC, which are difficult or impossible to get straight out of law school. There are lots of public interest sectors which I would be interested in, especially organizations which represent the rights of the poor. I don't want to come off as someone who has done little research and is just going to law school as the default choice, I chose my words in the OP poorly, perhaps. I've talked to literally dozens of lawyers in different fields, and I've gotten decidedly mixed opinions about whether it's a sensible decision. The truth is, I don't have a burning desire to be a lawyer, but I don't have burning desires, that's just not my personality. Anyway, I appreciate the opinions so far, I'll try not to thread-sit anymore.
posted by skewed at 2:32 PM on March 24, 2011

Best answer: The legal field has NOT improved enough for anyone to count on scoring a job that can manage repaying $200k in debt. By imposing that kind of debt on yourself, you are really crippling your future options. Not to mention, you will very likely hate the kind of legal work that will pay you the biggest bucks (associate/dreg in big law firm).

If you do go to law school and want to work in northern California, put yourself on the wait list at Berkeley. By going to a law school in northern California (apply also to Hastings), you have a much better chance of getting a job in that market than you do by going to an east coast law school.

If your dream is to become a FSO (as opposed to any other kind of civil service employee that involves overseas postings), anchor your life around the 13 Dimensions (by this point, you already know what those are). Find or make opportunities in your life to demonstrate leadership and to work in groups. If these opportunities do not arise naturally through your job, then volunteer for whatever local causes suit your interests. Use the time ahead of you to create for yourself a demonstrable commitment to service. Get involved in event planning for a charity or club. When you eventually make it to the oral assessment stage of the FSO application process, you will have enough anecdotes of instances where you have shown judgment, leadership, planning skills, organization, etc. by getting involved in organizations that interest you, as opposed to landing a legal job and just showing up for work.

If you do opt for law school, don't be blinded by the prestige factor of big expensive schools. They will give you a shiny J.D., to be sure, but you will be steeped in debt and may find that your shiny J.D. doesn't give you the kind of marketable skills you'd hoped for.
posted by chicxulub at 2:38 PM on March 24, 2011

FYI: you can bid on political positions as a consular or management officer.
posted by Gringos Without Borders at 2:54 PM on March 24, 2011

If you want to be a FSO then you clearly want to be able to live in other countries. Have you considered other programs that would include foreign assignments. Peace Corps, with the idea of moving into a supervisory capacity? International NGOs? UN jobs?
posted by mareli at 3:16 PM on March 24, 2011

Best answer: I'm a law student, so take this with a grain of salt. However, I don't think law school is a terrible idea if you're as open to various opportunities as you sound. The attitude around my school is not all doom and gloom like the current trend reporting would have you believe. Thoroughly investigate LRAPs and go to Berkeley if you get in. The real issue with LRAP/IBR, IMO, is the time commitment; even at a place with a good program, you need to be comfortable doing eligible work for ten years.

I'm younger than you, but worked a while after college, had qualms about law school, but so far am fairly, though not totally and always, satisfied with the decision. Let me know if you have any questions.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 5:26 PM on March 24, 2011

Best answer: Have you looked into any of the civil service positions at State? It isn't as hard to get a job through that as it is to pass the FS test.

Or approaching from the other direction, would you consider a non-State Department Foreign Service posting? USAID doesn't use the test. There are other agencies besides State and AID that use FS employment, but I don't know whether they use the examination process.
posted by solotoro at 3:38 AM on March 25, 2011

Best answer: As a lawyer who went to a top 10 school and graduated a few years back when the economy was bad (but not as bad as this), my advice would be this: work for another year, and put another $20 (or more!) into savings while preparing to apply for law school next year. And then apply for a bunch of low ranked schools, and accept your favorite school among those that give you a full-ride scholarship plus living expenses. If you've been accepted to Georgetown and UVA, there's a very good chance this would be on the table if you applied to the right schools.

Having a law degree and being a lawyer is fun ONLY once you have paid off your debts. In this job market, there's no guarantee that will happen before you retire, so be conservative. If it costs you nothing to add "J.D." behind your name, why not do it? Then you'll be back on the job market, looking for a job you like (or maybe reapplying for the foreign service in a stronger position), debt free. Plus, law school will be a lot more fun when you are graduating with no debt and ample savings in case the job market is really that terrible. There's no downside (aside from the loss of earnings potential during the years you spend in law school, but it sounds like you'd consider that to be a worthwhile tradeoff).
posted by gd779 at 4:45 PM on March 25, 2011

Well, I should qualify that last statement somewhat: the downside is that my advice will make it much harder to be a legal academic at a top tier school. But your odds of achieving that dream are pretty minuscule to begin with. Of course, that's up to you.
posted by gd779 at 4:49 PM on March 25, 2011

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