For Love or Money?
July 1, 2008 7:12 PM   Subscribe

Career Filter: have landed a high-paying legal internship at a big firm, but find myself thinking wistfully about a job at the District Attorney's Office. Should I stay or should I go?

For those conversant with the whole law-internship system, I have a biglaw 2L summer gig, that feels like it will turn into an offer at the end of the summer.

I'm in the top 15% or so of a top 25 law school. Interned as a state district court clerk my 1L summer. I've always fancied myself as a bit of a public speaker and a trial lawyer.

If I jump ship, I give up 2/3 of my salary, bar stipends, and security, since the DA's office won't hire until after bar results are in. At the firm, I like the people and the work is fairly complicated, but it doesn't have me at the edge of my seat. More importantly, I can't really get behind the cause (making money for corporations). No debt, FWIW.

Is it worth jumping ship?
posted by craven_morhead to Work & Money (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I have zero experience in this field, but would it be worth going through with the internship? The whole idea of an internship is to figure out if you will like it at BigLawFirm or not. You might like it, despite what you think now. If not, then you know for sure and move on as a better person.
posted by toaster at 7:23 PM on July 1, 2008

Response by poster: Sorry, to clarify, I'll stick with the internship for the summer. I'm just debating about what to do when next summer rolls around and I've graduated law school.
posted by craven_morhead at 7:27 PM on July 1, 2008

At the firm, I like the people and the work is fairly complicated, but it doesn't have me at the edge of my seat.

Be careful not to romanticize the work of a District Attorney's office. As entertainingly rough-and-tumble as the experience may seem, it is a lot of very rote, very menial legal work. You will rarely have the opportunity, early in your career at a D.A.'s office, to do in-depth legal analysis. Depending on the locality, you may not have any significant responsibility until a few years into your career with the D.A.'s office. I spend a lot of time in a big-city criminal courthouse and I don't envy the prosecutors. They spend a lot of time announcing plea agreements to the court. Rarely are they in trial. It's an extraordinarily broad-brush approach to law; in their cases, they rarely have time to interview witnesses for more than a few minutes, and on the rare occasion when a case goes to trial it's a very slapdash affair.

What I'm getting at is that, if you're afraid the Biglaw job won't have you at the edge of your seat, the D.A. job won't, either.

And as to your concern about "not being able to get behind the cause" in a Biglaw job. I know nothing of your social or political views, but there is a moral element to consider, as well. At the lowest levels of the criminal justice system, where you are likely to toil for your first few years, the individual defendant is very demeaned. As a low-level assistant D.A., you will be prosecuting petty misdemeanors (little weed charges, patronizing prostitution, etc.) where you will be virtually certain an abuse of the defendants' rights occurred, you won't believe what the officers are telling you, but it's your job to prosecute them anyway. Does that bother you?
posted by jayder at 7:35 PM on July 1, 2008 [2 favorites]

If you have no debt, then pursue what you love. With a few exceptions*, the only reason to put yourself through the insanity of working for a large law firm is to make a lot of money, and the main reason most law students need to make a lot of money is to pay off their massive debts. Since you don't have any debt, I would say do what interests you and what will be rewarding for you. I would do the same, were I in your shoes (alas...).

That said, you have what appears to be a sure thing going, so I would strongly suggest that you make sure that being an ADA is in fact what you love before jumping ship.

Also, know that your choice might inspire a bit of resentment among folks who were competing with you for the law firm job but very much not competing for an ADA job. In other words, I would be careful about how you spoke to fellow students about your decision. I recently learned from the dean of my alma mater (also top 25) that a significant number of students there take large law firm internships with no intention of accepting a permanent position there. That both astounded and infuriated me. So, don't be that guy.

*There are a handful of specialties that are niche enough that it's very difficult to make any kind of a living off of them outside of a large firm (e.g., certain kinds of international and intellectual property practice).
posted by jedicus at 7:44 PM on July 1, 2008

You might want to check the numbers, too, because if it's BIGlaw you'd be losing waaaay more than 2/3 salary right out of the gate - let alone five or ten years from now. I interned in a Boston area DA's office ten years ago and all of the ADAs were very young, many were tending bar at night, and all saw the work as a stepping stone to politics, or (you guessed it) BigLaw. The idea of raising a family (let alone in grand style) on the ADA salary was out of the question. If you could be happy at the fancy firm then you should think long and hard before walking away.
posted by moxiedoll at 7:46 PM on July 1, 2008

That's just what this internship is for. You'll know by the end of the summer whether or not you want to continue.
posted by thebrokenmuse at 8:09 PM on July 1, 2008 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: As a bit of a follow-up, how realistic would the option of going to the US Attorney's Office after a few years of biglaw?
posted by craven_morhead at 10:17 PM on July 1, 2008

What I'm getting at is that, if you're afraid the Biglaw job won't have you at the edge of your seat, the D.A. job won't, either.

This is not necessarily true, and the degree to which it is not necessarily true can make it completely and utterly false. I worked at the D.A.'s office in Manhattan in the early 90s in the Homicide Investigation Unit (general) and later the Asian Gangs Division, and I can tell you that in the subsequent 15 years, nothing has come close to it in terms of "edge-of-your-seat" excitement. We only prosecuted major cases (here's one), mostly narcotics-related.

I can confirm that the ADAs got paid absolute crap wages. If you're looking to go into politics, however, it's a hard position to top because of the vast amount of access you have to the movers and shakers in any given arena. To give you an idea: within the first two weeks of working there I was having lunch with Robert Morgenthau--and I was only in a lowly support role.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 5:28 AM on July 2, 2008

It depends on the locale, or your perspective, I guess. Cook County Illinois assisstant State's Attorneys get paid a decent wage. I believe they start around $50k and quickly move up into the $70s after a few years. I have a friend who works for them and he's been able to buy a home and have nice things, while paying off his considerable school loans.

(Look for a freedom of information style website for your area- salaries are listed for public servants.)

Maybe that law firm will start you at $120k, but they ARE going to get their money's worth out of you.
posted by gjc at 6:11 AM on July 2, 2008

I think you should think about what you have in loans right now and see what makes more economic sense. You can always work as a district attorney. It might be interesting to see what happens when you take a high paying internship instead.
posted by onepapertiger at 4:38 PM on July 2, 2008

it's 160k, and for who knows how long. take the biglaw job, be thankful if you get an offer, work, save, be sure you can pay back your loans.
posted by anthropomorphic at 2:06 AM on May 29, 2009

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