How do I reposition myself and jumpstart my life?
February 9, 2008 3:03 PM   Subscribe

A series of interrelated mental and physical illnesses turned my life (and the time I spent in law school) into what can best be described as an out-of-body experience. Four years later, I'm beginning to come out of it--I can see the light at the end of the tunnel, and it's not an oncoming train. It's pretty obvious (to me, if not to a few people who believe in me and/or my talents) that finding a position at a firm is out of the question. Which leaves another question: am I out of my mind to think that I can, via the magic of another graduate degree, reposition myself and get the career I'd hoped for before the psychological bottom fell out?

The short(-ish) version: I was initially diagnosed as being severely depressed several months before beginning law school. Meds didn't help--and we tried several. I'd be fine for a couple of months, but would then crash. The crash left me feeling more depressed than I'd felt before taking the prescription meds; I also suffered anxiety attacks, an inability to concentrate for any length of time...all of which just killed me academically.

Before you ask: scholarship and financial aid issues kept me from taking a leave of absence; all I could do was to try and soldier on and hope things would improve. They didn't. Friends, acquaintances and professors who weren't aware of what was going on would occasionally give me the "What the #@$% is going on with this guy?" look, which I noticed in the manner of someone thinking, "I'm about to be punched; this is going to hurt" a millisecond or two after fist meets face. There was a half-hearted suicide attempt; there were several lengthy conversations with therapists and the Dean of my school, who ended up encouraging me to hang in there, just get across the finish line, you'll feel such a sense of accomplishment at having completed the task given everything you've gone through...and to tell the truth, for one brief afternoon (commencement day) I actually had that feeling. I hadn't done well at all, but I hadn't quit, either. But looking back at it, I wonder what, if anything, I accomplished by crawling across the "I have a law degree from one of the top ten schools in the country" finish line.

Because here I am, a few years later, looks like the medical profession is finally beginning to figure out what has been--is--wrong with me. Some combination of a mild form of MS, chemical depression, and sleep apnea . Those of you in the know about these things are raising your eyebrows at this point, because you know that some of the neurological bits and pieces that mark MS can also be indicators for sleep apnea; the sleep apnea can be the cause of many of the symptoms that can also lead to a diagnosis of depression, et cetera. Is it one? Is it the other? Perhaps all of the above? On the one hand, I kinda sorta have an idea as to what's going on. On the other, I'm more confused (and frustrated) that I don't have a single definitive answer. But I'm getting there. I have a good doctor and two neurologists who seem to be brimming with "I can't believe they didn't figure this out earlier" confidence, and so I'm hopeful that I can get my life back on track--"back on track" meaning that I can start being as productive and mentally aware of things as I was before the bottom dropped out.

Which brings me to the career question. The combination of my having been absent from the legal world altogether since law school and the grades received while attending law school more or less precludes my becoming a lawyer. I went through the usual slew of law firm interviews before, during and after my third year of law school. I'd make it to, say, the visit the firm stage of things when someone would finally say something along the lines of, "You're obviously [fill in the blanks with intellectual compliment here]...what happened during law school?" Well, how do you answer a question like that---how do you tell a potential employer in an area where your brain is the most important tool of the trade that yours was broken for several years, but that it's better now, and you can do the work if given the opportunity? I'm not sure if I can.

So I'm thinking of doing two things: [1] taking the Bar Exam in July, and [2] taking the GMAT. Doing the former is more for personal reasons than anything else--I want to prove something to myself--; doing the latter, I think, will allow me to leverage myself into a consulting position somewhere, jumpstart my career, and allow me to prove to potential employers (via that wonderful piece of paper known as an academic transcript) that I'm normal. I've always been the mediator/arbitrator/counselor in a given situation, professionally and personally; I'm thinking that an MBA with a concentration in something along the lines of change management is the right way to go. And given the economy, this might be the right time to retool/retrain and be ready for whatever comes next.

All of this, of course, assumes that over the next few months I begin to come back around medically. I'm making plans, which I suppose is a good thing. Somebody out there has to have experienced something like this. But even if you haven't, I'd like an opinion or three: am I out of my mind to be thinking like this re: professional planning? Comments? Suggestions?

Please keep the snark to a minimum, thanks.
posted by t2urner to Work & Money (14 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Don't get an MBA just to get an MBA. I know several people who did that without any particular goal in mind and they continue to spin their wheels after getting the magic degree. It isn't an automatic ticket--you have to know where you are going with it.

What about working in a legal aid clinic for a year? Non-profits are desperate for lawyers. I know it isn't glamorous and the pay is probably crap, but what better person than you to understand some of the clients you will see. People getting screwed by landlords and others, people who may have suffered a medical setback just like you did but without the support of family to get them through. There are some desperate people out there facing big hurdles through no fault of their own. While you are figuring out your own way, you could be of tremendous service to those without resources. It will give your perspective and might help you focus on areas of law you haven't yet considered. It is also tangible real world experience you can use when interviewing with firms. Maybe being an advocate for people in even worse circumstances than you will be unexpectedly rewarding for you.
posted by 45moore45 at 3:41 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

Aside from the psych aspects of your situation, you're in a great position to make quite a career for yourself. If you pass the bar and get an MBA you'll be able to write your own ticket in a world of change management in light of HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley, ISO9xxx and any number of truly lucrative and intelligent roles.

No, you're not out of your mind. You're ambitious, which I see as a good thing!
posted by rhizome at 3:43 PM on February 9, 2008

I've been in a similar situation to you ...having graduated law school but been out of the profession for several years.
The thing is, you have the degree and although it will be difficult, you can pass the bar and do several of the things you've mentioned. I've gone back and forth on whether to take the bar several times over the last few months and recently downloaded the application for July and hired a tutor. Do it. We all need some successes in our lives.
I'm working in legal compliance for a life insurance company working on several of the issues that rhizome mentioned. You can email me for more information about how I find the job and what advice I got from others about reentry into the legal field. And FWIW, I've also struggled with dysthmia for many years so I have some idea what you've dealt with.

Also, don't do another degree unless you really want it. It's a lot of work and you might want to concentrate on getting your health issues under control.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 4:00 PM on February 9, 2008

Nthing that you don't have to "be a lawyer" to make very, very good use of that law degree. Philanthropic organizations, grantmakers, foundations, membership associations...these types of organizations LOVE administrators who have a JD.

I'd say to hold off on your plans to get an MBA -- entirely possible that you can get a job that will pay for this schooling for you.
posted by desuetude at 4:37 PM on February 9, 2008

I would say get out there and find that one firm that will work with you - It may be a smaller, less prestigious firm, but all it takes is one 'yes.' But are you sure you want to pursue law? I obtained a business degree simply because I could use it in any field that I pursue, so I can't say and MBA would hurt you, but are you thinking about it to delay getting out into the 'real world'?

Regarding your medical/psych issues, you would be surprised at the number of people that have gone through challenges like this. My husband has just been diagnosed with severe sleep apnea and we are in the process of getting him treated - It has affected every single area of his life. My family owns an engineering firm and we see things like this all of the time from a human resources perspective. What counts is not only what challenges people have overcome in their past, but more importantly, what they are willing to do now.

Don't let anything in your past stand in your way of what you want. I am a firm believer that every single experience you have prepares you for your future. Good luck!
posted by inquisitrix at 5:17 PM on February 9, 2008

You're a great writer. Have you considered putting your skills to use in magazine or other nonfiction writing?
posted by nasreddin at 5:38 PM on February 9, 2008

Securities compliance. No MBA needed, but a law degree would really help.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:00 PM on February 9, 2008

What you've described is very close to what I lived. Check your MetaMail for (probably useless) information on how it's gone for me.
posted by dilettante at 6:22 PM on February 9, 2008

Why not just wait until you really get a good sense of what you would want to do with an MBA before you go get one? You can make a good living doing contract legal work in any major metropolitan market, have lots of flexibility and take classes part time in whatever sounds fun and/or interesting. You don't even have to bother getting barred. I don't know if going back to school right away is the answer. I would just work some boring job, chill in your off hours and explore...
posted by onepapertiger at 6:33 PM on February 9, 2008

Even if you graduated near the bottom of your class, the bottom of the class from a top ten school is often better than top of the class from some lesser respective college.

From how I interpret your tale, I believe that you may still be having a "what do I want to be when I grow up" moment. Which isn't a condemnation or a snark. Heck, I still do it, and I'm old enough to have stopped counting at the same point as Jack Benny.

Point being; at the risk of sounding like a hippy, what's your bliss? What do you want to be doing? Do you want to be practicing law? Is there an area of the law you wish you could focus on? Would you be happier in a management gig than a practicing gig? Heck, would you be happier playing jazz in a smoky underground club? What makes you happy? Then, once you figure that that.

If you feel the need to strap on your paladin suit, I think 45moore45 posited a brilliant idea. There is so much need for things like clinics and legal aid for people who just can't pony up the $500 an hour to pop in to Thompson & Knight.

As to how to explain the grades and the absence, I would suggest being honest....for an attorney's value of honest. (Hee) I don't think you need to give them the entire medical run down, but you could say that there were medical issues related to MS, but that much research, trial and error, and evaluation, have found a functional treatment modality that solves the core symptoms. Or something like that. You know, informative, but not really leaving an opening for more questions that might tread very closely to breaking the law.

I'm sure an MBA would add value, but it doesn't sound like you really want one, so much as you want to be doing *something*.

I wish you the best of luck!
posted by dejah420 at 10:21 PM on February 9, 2008 [1 favorite]

If you want to be a lawyer, doing an unpaid internship at a nonprofit or doing contract work for a small or mid-sized firm (to prove yourself -- these temporary gigs often lead to permanent jobs) is far cheaper and more direct than getting another graduate degree. In my world of law, it's all about the quality of one's work plus one's network of colleagues. Actually starting a gig as a lawyer is the first step.

What about working in a legal aid clinic for a year? Non-profits are desperate for lawyers.

Um, getting a job at a legal aid office is actually very competitive. Stacks of resumes for each opening. But volunteering at a legal aid office is almost always an option.
posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:10 AM on February 10, 2008

PS -- If you are intested, there are several nascent networks of lawyers and law students with disabilities. And see:

EEOC factsheet on accommodating lawyers with disabilities.
Article from ABA president.
Subcommittee on Lawyers with Disabilities.
EEOC/ABA Conference Report (on the employment of lawyers with disabilities).

Also -- fun facts re lawyers with psychiatric conditions:

A 1990 study at Johns Hopkins University found that of 28 occupations studied, lawyers were the most likely to experience depression, and were 3.6 times more likely than employed persons generally to experience depression. W.W. Eaton, J.C. Anthony, W. Mandel & R. Garrison, Occupations and the Prevalence of Major Depressive Disorder, 32 J. Occupational Med. 1079 (1990).

A research study of 801 lawyers in the State of Washington found that 19% suffered from depression. G.A.H. Benjamin, E.J. Darling & B.D. Sales, The Prevalence of Depression, Alcohol Abuse, and Cocaine Abuse Among United States Lawyers, 13 J. Law & Psychiatry 233 (1990).

A survey of more than 17,000 Australians found that nearly 16 percent of those in the legal profession reported moderate or severe symptoms of depression. Beaton Consulting and beyondblue (national depression initiative), Annual professions survey (April 2007).

According to the American Psychiatric Association, the psychiatric history of a bar applicant it is not an accurate predictor of fitness. Clark v. Virginia Bd. of Bar Exam'rs, 880 F. Supp. 430, 435 (E.D. Va. 1995).

A 2004 study at Florida State University College of Law found that law students experienced “plummeting” subjective well-being by the end of their first year, along with decreases in intrinsic motivation and community service values and increases in external motivation and appearance values – each change predicts decreased happiness and life satisfaction. Kennon M. Sheldon, Ph.D. and Lawrence S. Krieger, J.D., Does legal education have undermining effects on law students? Evaluating changes in motivation, values, and well-being, 22:2 Behavioral Sciences & the Law 261 (2004).

Self-reports of anxiety and depression are significantly higher among law students than among either the general population or medical students. Matthew M. Dammeyer and Narina Nunez, Anxiety and Depression Among Law Students: Current Knowledge and Future Directions, 23:1 Law and Human Behavior 1 (1999).

Blogs and websites:

Lawyers with Depression.

Depressed Lawyer.

posted by ClaudiaCenter at 9:18 AM on February 10, 2008

See if you can use your background in working for the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), Job Accommodation Network (JAN), or another mental health (NIMH or NAMI ) or disability advocacy group.
posted by mynameismandab at 10:01 AM on February 10, 2008

I think you've got two different questions in there- "what do I want to do when I grow up", and "which test should I take?" For the first one, others have answered quite well. There are lots of options in the law business besides the 80 hour a week big firm thing. As for the second, I would take the bar if it was me. Taking it will prove to you one of three things:

-you passed, yay!
-you didn't pass but it was close, maybe try again?
-you have no clue, time to take the GMAT

I think you won't be able to make a good, informed decision until you know that.
posted by gjc at 10:09 AM on February 10, 2008

« Older chinese food stall at Berkeley BART?   |   How can I stream Netflix to Argentina? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.