From Lawyer to Grad Student?
July 31, 2012 7:30 AM   Subscribe

Can you tell me about legal anthropology? Am I foolish to leave a secure career to pursue it?

After two years as a litigator, I have realized law is not the field for me. However, I continue to be fascinated by the way people talk about the law; how the framing of legal questions impacts legal decision-making; and how the way the larger public discusses and interprets legal decisions influences judges and juries.

From some poking around, I see that the relevant field of study appears to be "legal anthropology." I have never taken an anthropology course. (I did major in cultural studies and wrote my thesis on how portrayals of the legal process in media impact U.S. court decisions.) The largest thing giving me pause is that I would have to leave a very high paying job (albeit one I dislike) to return to student loan land, and in a cutthroat field (academia). Another is that the major focus in this field appears to be developing nations and human rights work in other countries, and I am primarily interested in the American legal system. A third is I would be pressing restart on my career in my late twenties and so would be in my mid-thirties by the time I finished a PhD.

Does anyone have experience with this field? How is it regarded within the anthropology community? I plan to read any books I can find on the subject and perhaps ask to audit a related class; should I be doing something else? (I've seen this question, but I'm hoping for additional information.)
posted by sallybrown to Work & Money (15 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Whoa! Slow your roll.

Absolutely take a few classes at night to see if this is the sort of thing you think it is and to see if you enjoy it and would be good at it.

The other thing you might want to consider is: if I do this, will I ever make enough money to justify it?

Do you have any outstanding student loans now? If so, pay them off before starting over.

Another question is: do you have to be a litigator? Is there some other way to use your current education in a way that you might enjoy?

Life is too short to do work you don't enjoy, but it's not long enough to recover from some of the student loan debt some people have incurred.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:36 AM on July 31, 2012 [3 favorites]

I am now debt-free but don't have large savings or other assets like real estate (the bulk of my earnings thus far went to student loans), if it makes a difference.
posted by sallybrown at 7:48 AM on July 31, 2012

Legal anthropology is well-regarded within the anthropology community, partly because it's also useful currency with many of the communities with whom anthropologists work: Native American groups, for example, often appreciate someone who can help them with land claims, and consequently give preferential access to legal anthropologists than to cultural anthropologists.

I would recommend that you not think of yourself as leaving legal practice behind, since it's such a useful skill both for earning a living and for earning others' respect & gratitude. Instead, see anthropology as something that is going to make legal practice more interesting and rewarding.

If you really want to leave legal practice behind entirely, be aware that anthropology is not a field where training leads reliably to employment. (Student loans are less of an issue, as you shouldn't accept a graduate program that doesn't offer you full tuition and a stipend.)
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:49 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

better access to legal anthropologists than to OTHER cultural anthropologists, I meant to say.
posted by feral_goldfish at 7:51 AM on July 31, 2012

On the legal side (not the anthropology side) -- many/most legal academics research and publish without a Ph.D. They might only have a J.D. or an L.L.M. They might have a J.D. and a post-J.D. teaching fellowship year. So, if you're interested in writing academically about US law and legal history, you don't necessarily need to get a Ph.D.

As well, "regular" lawyers, J.D.s, publish articles all the time. So if your interest is intellectual curiosity more than becoming a trained academic, you could pick a topic, write an article and try to get it published.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 7:52 AM on July 31, 2012

The legal job market is atrocious. The legal academic market is worse. But the non-legal academic market is made up largely of non-tenure sharecroppers.
posted by valkyryn at 7:53 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

My gut advice is do not quit a stable job to become an anthropologist. I'm a graduate student in an anthropology department right now (though not one with a focus on legal anthropology; my department is very biologically oriented) and job prospects are bleak. Is there any way you can remain a lawyer and incorporate an anthropological perspective into your work? Or leverage the training you already have to do something similar? Especially if you're interested in working in the US - you might be better served looking at organizations that act as go-betweens for lawyers and the public. Policy thinktanks, maybe the ACLU, but an organization where you would be interfacing between lawmakers and the people who are actually litigating and legislating and interpreting law?

I'll address your other questions, but I really really advise against it. That being said, there is a woman in my department with a JD from Washington University who is now getting her PhD in anthropology after being a practicing lawyer for a while.

I have never taken an anthropology course.
Before you quit your job and start applying to anthropology departments, try to take some anthropology classes at a community college and definitely audit that class. An anthropology PhD involves training in the four subfields of anthropology with a pretty decent amount of coursework in all of them, even if they're not your particular interest. Ask me sometime about the origins of agriculture.

The largest thing giving me pause is that I would have to leave a very high paying job (albeit one I dislike) to return to student loan land, and in a cutthroat field (academia).
There are many more people graduating with anthropology PhDs than there are tenure track jobs, even in specific specializations like legal anthropology. If you have to take out loans to go to grad school in anthropology, it is absolutely not worth it. Only accept an offer from a school that will pay your tuition and a stipend. Do not take out loans for a PhD in anthropology.

the major focus in this field appears to be developing nations and human rights work in other countries, and I am primarily interested in the American legal system.
This may be something you could work around with your advisor. There are many cultural anthropologists interrogating aspects of American culture and I assume that, if you had a project that was sensible and feasible in the US, with a flexible advisor (even though he or she may not work in the US) you could do your project there.

I would be pressing restart on my career in my late twenties and so would be in my mid-thirties by the time I finished a PhD.
This is less of a problem from a PhD perspective - I'm an exception in my department in that I went straight to grad school from undergrad. I'd say about 2/3 of people in my department had real-world jobs before becoming grad students. However, you are looking at a bare minimum of 6 years to complete your PhD and average time to degree for anthropology programs is more like 8-10 years. It's a huge time commitment and you're not going to be saving a whole lot of money from your stipend, and you'll likely be putting lots of personal goals on hold (things like buying a house, having kids, moving to a particular location - all very difficult to do on a grad student salary and schedule).

And now I'm off to go cry about my life choices.
posted by ChuraChura at 8:09 AM on July 31, 2012 [4 favorites]

Legal anthro is well-regarded and well-respected by anthropologists more broadly, certainly. The sorts of research questions you mention would certainly not be out of place for an anthropologist to look to into, although I don't know anyone working on those issues off the top of my head.

This link should take you to projects recently funded by the NSF's Law and Social Sciences program; they should give you a taste of what some contemporary research looks like as well as who is getting funding (not that NSF is the only source of grants or that some might not be funded through Cultural Anthropology or other NSF subsections). Note that only some of these projects are by anthropologists and that some are by doctoral students (although the "PI" listed will be the student's advisor.)

You seem up on just how bad the job market is in academia: yes, it's very bad and you are right to think two or three times about leaving a stable career for life as a PhD student. As an economic choice, it is almost certainly a bad one, as you'll be forgoing many good earning years. ClaudiaCenter's advice may be good on this front.

But you really shouldn't be returning to student loan land, though, as feral_goldfish mentioned. Some of the best programs do have somewhat patchy aid, but most of them are quite solid.

Finally, your JD and legal experience could be a leg up in the job market. Among other things, they mean you will be eligible for law school jobs on top of regular academic postings. I know of several anthropologists with at least joint appointments with their universities' law schools, and many of them don't have research fields as closely related to legal education as yours would be.
posted by col_pogo at 8:10 AM on July 31, 2012 [2 favorites]

While ChuraChura's advice is excellent in general, not all anthro PhD programs are "four field" (that is, they don't all require you to take courses in biological/physical anthro, linguistic anthro, and archaeology on top of anthropology). Do pay close attention to those requirements if and when you apply, though!
posted by col_pogo at 8:13 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:14 AM on July 31, 2012

While I'm neither a lawyer nor an anthropologist, I think just from a purely practical standpoint you need to be thinking about how to utilize your current asset (the law degree) to work yourself into a job you want and not just quit wholesale. There must be some intersection of law and anthropology where you can use your legal background without actually spending all day in a courtroom. Maybe set up some lunch meetings with people that do understand the landscape and try to find a niche that will work for you without jumping off the cliff, so to speak.
posted by COD at 8:18 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

At the college where I work, there are people in the legal studies concentration in political science whose graduate degree is a JD. We are a smaller public college focused on undergraduate teaching, so we don't have a lot of research demands and can pretty much research whatever we find interesting, so a JD researching legal anthropology would not be out of place at all.

If that sounds at all interesting to you, and if you think you might like to teach, you should put together a CV and start applying to schools looking for adjuncts to get some teaching experience.
posted by hydropsyche at 8:32 AM on July 31, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you so much everyone! This has given me a couple ways to dip a toe in the water without actually jumping off the cliff (nice to fantasize about while clocking billable hours, but probably not practicable).
posted by sallybrown at 8:59 AM on July 31, 2012

To be blunt, getting a job as an anthropologist is pretty much a fantasy, unless you are very very brilliant and/or a very saavy operator.

I think the problem here is that you are in biglaw, not that you are done with law. There are plenty of ways to have a more intellectually satisfying legal practice short of going for a phd. Policy and advocacy work; working in a smaller firm where you get more responsibility; developing a niche ...
posted by yarly at 9:58 AM on July 31, 2012

Never ever take out a loan for a phd. Never ever pay a dime for a phd. If your department admits you on the condition that you pay *any* of the tuition it means that are not very impressed with you and don't think that they will be able to get you an academic job. You should really only go to a program that promises you teaching assistant-type work to support some of your living expenses while you're there.

I don't think that becoming an anthropologist is necessarily a fantasy, plenty of people enter Phd programs in their late 20s after doing other work, that's quite normal. But it is a tough path. And you should only do it if you can get into a top program with a full financial ride -- if you have no anthro background whatsoever and no recommendations from anthro professors than that may be a fantasy.
posted by zipadee at 10:21 AM on August 7, 2012

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