Random people, decide the course of my life!
July 18, 2007 2:46 PM   Subscribe

Should I quit law school? I was a software engineer for 10 years before starting law school. Now I'm one year in and doing okay (at an upper 2nd tier school), and got a summer internship at a big, prestigious firm. And I absolutely hate it.

I kept the idea of going to law school in my back pocket for years. I made the decision to go at a point when I was feeling burned out on writing software, and good jobs (not to mention a longer-term career) seemed hard to come by. I'd done really (really!) well on the LSAT, so I hoped this would be my calling. My summer associateship pays more than any of my previous jobs, and if I get an offer I can have a stable, lucrative job for the next 30 years.

But I always made more money than I'd needed as a developer, and all my friends still have good jobs (and ask me to send them my resume), and no matter how burned out I felt, I never woke up with a pit in my stomach anticipating going to work.

I've had some people tell me that the problem is the firm (200+ attorneys in this office alone) or the subject matter (patent prosecution). The firm environment probably isn't right for me, but the one thing I like about the job is getting to read about technology. It's the "lawyering" part that feels like pointless semantic hair-splitting, and I don't see how a different environment or a different subject matter will change that.

I have several lawyers in my family, but I have trouble talking with them about this, because it feels like I'm attacking their lifestyles. I do think a lot of lawyers are type A overachieving mercenaries who really hate their jobs, but a lot of them really do like what they do. But I don't feel like one of them. I like making stuff. That's what I like to do in my spare time, and that's why I got into software.

So my questions are, (1) is there any area of the law that might scratch my "making stuff" itch (the only things I can think of are contracts and legislation, which strike me as absurd kabuki shows), (2) is there any way that a law degree could help me as an engineer, (3) if I leave school now and later decide that I really do need to sell off my happiness, how badly will I have screwed myself, and (4) is there any other reason that I should stay in school?
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (24 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You do not have to be a lawyer, there's a myriad of job opportunities at firms who want someone that can think analytically like a lawyer and a software engineer (qualitatively and quantitatively). White sole firms are not the only path out of law school. Consulting and management may be better for you.
posted by geoff. at 2:53 PM on July 18, 2007

Man, it would be fantastic to have a patent lawyer with software experience. It's usually like explaining to a five-year-old. There are no verbal short-cuts and there are plenty of blank stares.

That said, the idea of actually having to practice law kept me out of law school. I'm sure I'd love school but then what? Blech.

Geoff is right: a law degree can be a multi-purpose tool. Use it where you want, how you want, to build the life you want.
posted by trinity8-director at 3:04 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

You may want to try a smaller, boutique patent firm - and maybe on the litigation side of things. My firm has less than 75 lawyers and is very lifestyle-based. If you're doing well enough to summer at a big firm, you could certianly get a job at a patent boutique. My email's in my profile if you want to talk more...
posted by MeetMegan at 3:11 PM on July 18, 2007

I'm a public interest lawyer, so you'll have to take what I say with a grain of salt. But, you might be happier at a small boutique firm. My cohorts who are at smaller places seem happy than those at the giant firms with interchangeable lawyer-cogs.

There's a certain amount of hair-splitting in all lawyering, but I think it's worse at the big firms where there is never a reason not to split the hair. I've read some interesting things about how big firms with big clients with big pockets will dedicate hours and hours to legal "issues" that are just not important. They do it because they can. They bill by the hour and the client pays up. I wish I could remember where I've read a good critique of this style of lawyering.

On the other hand, stuff in my practice is often done on the fly, and there just isn't the time or resources to dedicate to the most arcane hair-splitting. A smaller practice that goes at a faster pace might suit you better. Don't know if that's available in patent law though.
posted by Mavri at 3:13 PM on July 18, 2007

One big thing to consider: Will your debt load be substantially different if you stick it out?

If you're taking out substantial loans to pay for law school, practicing at a [large] firm may be the "easiest" way to pay them back after you're done [holding aside great loan repayment programs that might be available if you're doing public interest work]. If you continue taking out loans, it might be hard to take a turn in another direction after you finish.

That said, if money is no object, your biggest investment is the next two years of your life. Having a law degree can't hurt -- it might open up other options later, and it's something that can set you apart. If you're willing to invest two years into it, and possibly put off a return to the tech world, it's not a bad set of skills to have.

Three more unsolicited thoughts:

(1) There's no shame in leaving law school. An astounding number of people seem to do it. I'm completely impressed by them, given that momentum really pushes folks to stick it out.

(2) If you stick it out with the intent of fleeing the practice of law later on, just don't let momentum talk you out of that. If you decide later that a big law firm job is what you really want, that's great. Just don't let momentum lock you in forever.

(3) If you stay, still take law school seriously. Even if you're doing it with no intent to practice, trying hard will help you keep your options open.

Good luck making the decision!
posted by rdn at 3:15 PM on July 18, 2007

Certainly don't let a few weeks of a summer job decide your future. A law degree can lead you to all sorts of places (one sci-fi writer even recommended it as the best ticket to get to the Moon). See if you can switch now, or just chalk this summer up to experience, and look for something different next year.
posted by Idcoytco at 3:26 PM on July 18, 2007

Get involved with the OpenSource, GPL, and Anti-DRM crowd, I'm sure there's something in there that will tickle your lawyer bone.
posted by blue_beetle at 3:26 PM on July 18, 2007 [2 favorites]

I certainly didn't enjoy law school, nor have I completely loved all my law jobs (in my short career so far - which, granted, has not included much time at big firms). But I have always liked the process of playing around with cases and statutes, fitting the facts to the law, and coming up with winning (or at least creative) arguments that make the best of what I've got to work with. In other words, I dig splitting hairs.

So, here are a few questions to chew on:

Did you enjoy at all any of the things you studied in law school, or ANY of the work you're doing this summer (besides "reading about technology")? Did you find your law school exams even vaguely fun -- applying a new set of facts to the established law to come up with an original outcome? Do you like applying what you know about technology to the existing law, or does that also seem like meaningless "semantic hair-splitting"?

If the answer to all of this is "no," then you might want to quit.

If the answer is "yes," then I think you just need to branch out and think of different places to work besides big 'ol firms -- or at least have some patience while you develop the legal skills to tackle more challenging assignments that put your tech knowledge to greater use. You're only a 1L!
posted by footnote at 3:38 PM on July 18, 2007

(PS: that's my perspective as a litigator. YMMV for other kinds of practice.)
posted by footnote at 3:43 PM on July 18, 2007

It all comes down to money. If you pay $100K for your legal education, you're going to need to spend a few years in a large firm. Period. Full stop. So if you don't like that reality, don't pay the money.

With your opportunities, can you transfer to a school that would give you a full ride scholarship? I don't even know if such a thing exists for transfer students, but if it does, that would be perfect for you, it sounds like. You could then relax for two years, do school (knowing that the outcome doesn't matter much) and then work at whatever you find most interesting - if you don't like law, you can always go back to your old career, and if you ever get tired of computers, you'll always have the door open to practice again. Sure, you might have to take a hit on the "prestige" of your current school, but take it from me: prestige doesn't make you happy.

Whatever you do, do NOT underestimate or discount the cost of your education. This idea that "a law degree can be a multi-purpose tool" is the most pernicious myth out there.
posted by gd779 at 3:49 PM on July 18, 2007

YMMV, but I have personally found it very difficult to get out of the big-firm rut once you've stepped into it. I think some of it depends on the geographic market you're in and how many opportunities it offers, but big firms seem to have a way of sucking you in and creating an atmosphere that is inescapable, at least for a while. (I.e., no time to network to find another job, clients will not think of hiring you away because they depend on that partner who would be mad, you can't get out to interview, the firm throws ridiculous sums of money at you that you grow to depend on very quickly. . . )

As others have said, the biggest question is of money. If you are going to be in debt after law school, you are going to find it tough to break out of the big firm. If you have no $$ riding on it and a high salary is not high on your priority list, you could get your law degree and hope for one of those ever-elusive non-lawyer jobs that appreciate a law degree. I personally have not seen one yet. And on paper I'm not as unqualified as my ask.me writing might lead you to believe. :) If you have money riding on it and you hate your summer experience, I would get out asap. But that's just MHO, and I have only ever practiced at a big firm.

Incidentally, I don't think you will find contract law or legislation to be the answer to your quandry, because they involve a frustrating level of "pointless hair-splitting", and you've already said that you aren't into that. That said, I have heard that patent prosecution is one of the more boring areas to practice. Maybe litigation would be more interesting to you? IP litigation might very well be interesting work.
posted by ubu at 3:56 PM on July 18, 2007

This idea that "a law degree can be a multi-purpose tool" is the most pernicious myth out there.

gd779, where were you a few years ago?! I can't second this strongly enough.
posted by ubu at 3:58 PM on July 18, 2007

Big crossroads for you, and best of luck.

As to question 1, I'm a lawyer, and in my experience, lawyers generally don't make things, whether they're with a small firm or large. You might count contracts, but having drafted a few, I can't say it scratched a creative itch very much. Lawyers help other people--creative people--make prudent decisions, manage risk, etc. If what really makes you happy is making things, and you can make a decent living doing that, is forcing yourself to go through law school really necessary?

As to question 4, though, as an engineer turned patent lawyer, you'd be in a pretty select and marketable group. And though your work now gives you the pit-in-stomach feeling of dread (been there, my friend), it's surprising what a difference switching your practice focus or environment can sometimes make. I've worked with apparently sane lawyers who absolutely loathed their first area of practice but fell in love with another (to my mind equally awful) practice area. So there is the possibility that a change of environment would alter your perspective, though that's far from certain, and would involve the risk of sinking another year into law school.

I would say that the two most important things are the ones I know the least about: whether being a lawyer could help you if you decided to go back to engineering (maybe if you started a business?), and whether leaving law school now would, should you decide to return, brand you in the eyes of legal employers as not the sort of type A mercenary they're looking for.

On preview, also what ubu and gd779 said.
posted by bepe at 4:01 PM on July 18, 2007

It is certainly not a multi-purpose tool, but transition to a business world is more than possible. It might be same shit, different toilet, but becoming a general counsel to a company is a way in, as are Wall Street firms. Your options aren't that of an MBA, and I have heard that venturing into the business world often means your chances of going to a big law firm eventually drops, but I can't imagine your long-term earning potential being drastically different.
posted by geoff. at 4:30 PM on July 18, 2007

geoff, I was hoping someone would speak up. A law degree may not be a multipurpose tool but it is a valuable degree. I don't practice and I have found my JD valuable every day of my life.
posted by MeetMegan at 4:47 PM on July 18, 2007

Regarding patent law specifically: I'm a "zero year" associate (law grad, starting in the fall) and I split my summer between patent prosecution and patent litigation. Without bagging on prosecution too much, since I haven't absolutely sworn off taking the patent bar, suffice to say I plan to focus on litigation when I start.

So, maybe prosecution just isn't for you. You could do other things and still be involved in patent/tech law. First, you could go into litigation; the hours will be crazier, but the work will be more exciting. Or, you could split your practice between prosecution and litigation; honestly you'll probably have to pick one or the other after 2-3 years, but you may be able to straddle for a while at least.

But ultimately you may want to try focusing on client counseling and transactional work. This will be stuff like meeting with a client who has a newfangled thing and advising them on what parts they realistically could patent and to what extent they should even bother. Transactional stuff involves evaluating IP portfolios for M&A and/or VC work. Some firms have this market nearly cornered; since I don't know where you work, yours may not be one of them. But that may be a reason to consider lateraling rather than dumping the profession altogether.

Of course, maybe I'll feel differently in 2 years.
posted by rkent at 5:02 PM on July 18, 2007

Check the article in the current (July 23) New Yorker on Mort Zuckerman, media and real estate mogul, who graduated from law school but never practiced. Going to law school taught him how to deal with lawyers, he says.
posted by beagle at 5:07 PM on July 18, 2007

I've worked in software for many years (but no longer do). It vaguely crossed my mind to try lawyering but what stopped me was:

1. Part of me was attracted just to taking the LSAT and seeing how high a mark i could get. Weird.

2. I've worked with patent lawyers and thought hey that sounds intriguing. But then the patent lawyers I worked were well removed from the techie creative part and way into the wording, legal part. I figured I would go crazy in a job like that.

Is it my imagination or is the creativity you exercise in software deveopment quite different from the creativity required in Law?
posted by storybored at 5:39 PM on July 18, 2007

I tend to agree with those above that say you might be happier with work in a smaller firm, where you might get meatier, more substantive assignments and actually get to do more research, which sounds like that's the part of the job you like.
As far as "making stuff," I don't really have a suggestion for you there, but maybe it's all a matter of perspective that a job at a different firm might be able to help you realize. For me, the fun is all in the problem solving. I find drafting pleadings rewarding because I get to tell a story; I'm given a problem and a set of facts, and my job is to use the facts and the law to tell our client's story in a way that benefits our client and advocates a course of action within the parameters of the given procedural and substantive rules of law; our opponent will use those same facts and rules in a way that will help her client. That's the game of practicing law, and that I think that aspect of the work - being able to achieve a result within certain boundaries and parameters - requires a lot of creativity. You can probably find examples all around you in which creative types give themselves self-imposed or artificial limitations to challenge their creativity; think of examples such as Hitchcock, when he decided he wanted to direct "Rope" in continuous takes. I don't know much about software development, but I would think that part of the enjoyment in that is finding creative ways to work within given rules and parameters; then again, maybe that's the "hair splitting" aspect of the job which you mention turns you off, and maybe that's what burned you out on writing software in the first place.

Also, school does get better after the first year, at least until the 3L "senioritis" sets in, which I think is essentially a different way of referring to the realization that school is kind of a crock of shit. [Caveat: I'm kind of having that experience right now.]
posted by Dr. Zira at 6:04 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

If you like software, you may well like contract-drafting if you can do it at a firm where you would be constructing complex contracts, and especially if you can do software-related contracts. I didn't spend a lot of time doing contracts, but when I did, I found it a lot like programming: you're creating definitions, a change in one section has to flow through to the rest of the code/contract or you'll get errors later, there's a lot of debugging. You may well have a comparative advantage at it, because most lawyers aren't really well-situated to think that way, while it came naturally to me from my programming days. And if I had had more foresight, I would've done that instead of litigating.

I completely disagree with the people who say you should do litigation. If you hate patent prosecution because you hate the semantic hair-splitting, you'll hate the litigation all the more: it's all about constructing fictional narratives and forcing square-peg evidence to fit into those round holes, and tricking people at depositions into saying things that can be construed differently than what they meant, and training your witnesses not to be tricked in depositions, and fighting over whether you'll be producing one million emails or two million emails in discovery.

On the other hand, note that LA law firm Quinn Emanuel is offering huge bonuses for litigators with EE degrees. You might find litigation more tolerable if you're getting $200,000 a year to do it.
posted by commander_cool at 8:29 PM on July 18, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lawyering is pointless semantic hair-splitting. Well, sometimes it isn't pointless.

But commander_cool is right, so is software, on certain levels. At least, I think that's what (s)he was getting at.

There is probably some part of you that does still like this whole law thing, and is getting dragged down by the firm you're at and the mundanities of patent law. Personally, at least, I'd do a hell of a lot of things before I'd ever wade into the modern-day world of patents.

As I re-scan your post... lawyering is also an absurd kabuki show. But most things are. I would ride this out, at least for now. It is one internship, one summer. It really does sound like you're wanting to just throw the whole idea of law out, and there have to be parts of it that still appeal to you.

Think of this as your shitty retail job before you get to the real world. There's only a little bit of summer left.
posted by blacklite at 4:01 AM on July 19, 2007

2nd-ing ubu ... it can be difficult to get out of the big firm rut once you are in it ... seen a lot of friends get stuck in big firms and they firmly believe that they can never leave.
posted by jannw at 5:58 AM on July 19, 2007

You really only get one go round at life. If you're not happy at the law firm, I would say quit law school and find something else to do with your life. It doesn't sound like you need the money, so why continue on a soul-sucking path?

Here's the question you should ask yourself: Is there anything I can envision doing with a law degree that would make me happy?

If the answer to that question is no, start writing your resignation letter.
posted by bananafish at 1:20 PM on July 19, 2007

Original anonymous here. Thanks everyone who replied; there's certainly a lot to think about. A few additional notes:

* I have little interest in business; I'm not really angling for the in-house counsel type of job. Otherwise, I'd have gone into management. This is one thing that (at my current firm, at least) makes me feel like I'm in the wrong place.

* I'm not that worried about getting stuck in a big firm. But when I talk to lawyers and they get all dreamy about someday finding a small firm doing interesting work and not working crazy hours, I think, "hey, that sounds like my old job."

* I'm getting loans from my parents for school, so I suppose money isn't an object. (But pride is.)

* I'm not sure how much I liked school. Between the stress and the fast pace, I didn't spend much time thinking about whether I was having fun. I do like the reading/analysis, although I'm not sure I like piecing together arguments as much as I like piecing together functional things.

* Part of the reason I thought I might like being a lawyer was commander_cool's point about the similarities. I've found that there are similarities, but they aren't as pronounced as I'd hoped. And I recognize that both traffic in trivial hair-splitting, but I think that's true of anything. I'm just not interested in the hairs I'm splitting right now.

I think for me it's likely to turn the issues that bepe noted. What I really want to do is probably most closely approximated by software engineering. If the law isn't going to be a better fit, it can either be a help or a backup. If it can be a help, I'll finish it out. Otherwise, I just want to make sure I don't burn my bridges behind me.
posted by Synonymous at 1:56 PM on July 19, 2007

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