How can I use my law degree and still like my life?
July 18, 2008 10:47 AM   Subscribe

I'm getting a law degree but I hate being adversarial. Any ideas for something fun to do with this degree?

I know there are books about this question, but I thought some of you lovely people might have personal experiences you could share, or at least some outside-the-box ideas.

I came to law school because I wanted to be a public interest lawyer -- I like helping people. I have one year left before I graduate and sit for the bar. I have spent the last two years learning about indigent defense and working at the public defender's office. Even though I think the work public defenders do is very important, I think it makes me miserable.

I admire public interest lawyers who fight for good, but the truth is that I just hate fighting! That is hard to admit, and it took me a long time to own up to it, but it's just true. Fighting just depresses me.

If I could turn back time, I would never have gone to law school. I would have opened up an organic coffee cart near the beach, or become a dog walker or something. But now I owe $120K in student loans (and by the end of this year, I'll owe around $180K). So I sort of feel like there is no turning back...I'm going to need to get a decent-paying job just to pay off the loans, which means something in the legal field. ...Right?

(For anyone wondering how my debt could be so huge: tuition is $35K per year, and I get about $25K per year for living expenses. Cost of living in my city is pretty much as high as it gets within the US.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (22 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure it's 100% feasible, but you could always practice another type of law. For instance, my father is a patent attorney and makes pretty good money. It's no where near the kind of cash that big corporate lawyers make, but it's not bad scratch overall
posted by Geppp at 10:57 AM on July 18, 2008

Patent attorney is what I was thinking too. You have to have a "hard science" undergrad degree, though. Do you?

It seems like tax work wouldnt' be that adversarial. Neither would bankruptcy, really. If you stay away from personal injury, property disputes, family law and criminal law, it seems there would still be plenty of things out there to do. You could also be a corporate counsel.
posted by Happydaz at 11:06 AM on July 18, 2008


There are of course lots of mostly non-adversarial legal fields out there. Or you could just drop the whole thing and try to become, like, a computer programmer or a banker or something. It might be helpful if you could let us know more info about your skills and what qualities you're looking for in a career.
posted by phoenixy at 11:06 AM on July 18, 2008

The practice style in a PD's office is very atypical. There are lots of legal functions that aren't nearly as adversarial or stressful. Government lawyering, for example, concerning regulatory issues; tax advising; some kinds of transactional practice.

I can't really speak to whether you made a mistake, or should put your education on hold, but I do think you should do some reading about legal careers and talk to your career office at the school. You are generalizing from a very limited sample. Many lawyers spend their day getting a many fewer scraps than, say, a real estate developer.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 11:07 AM on July 18, 2008

State legislation is usually drafted by lawyers.
posted by JanetLand at 11:14 AM on July 18, 2008

Bankruptcy law might be a notion. You would most certainly be helping people on a daily basis, without having to put on your war face.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:17 AM on July 18, 2008

Too add on to the idea of a patent lawyer, my uncle's a bankruptcy lawyer. For the most part, he has to do little arguing or persuading. It's usually people coming, "Yea, I'm broke. What do I do?" and filling out financial forms of which there is little ambiguity.
posted by jmd82 at 11:20 AM on July 18, 2008

Perhaps Law Librarian?
posted by nightwood at 11:21 AM on July 18, 2008


Lots of lawyers don't litigate at all. They do corporate deals. They do real estate buying and selling. They draft wills and trusts. They give tax advice. They guide clients through divorces and other traumatic events.

When you get out of law school and start to work as a lawyer, things change. You no longer think much about law school subjects. Furthermore, being a lawyer involves things you don't learn in law school: how to deal with clients as people. The goal is helping clients get what they want, and not doing "legal" or adversarial things.

Practicing law is a lot like practicing medicine. (My father and brother are doctors.) You listen sympathetically to your client or patient, asking occasional questions to find out the legally/medically significant facts. But you also have to let the client/patient tell his/her story, show that you care about the person and the story, and suggest how to get from here to where the client/patient wants to go.

Sometimes this is simple. A client is buying a house or needs a will written. Sometimes it's anything but simple. A client has gotten in debt and needs to decide what to do to get out. A mid-high income client (say, a young doctor) needs to set up an estate plan that will protect his/her spouse and children and yet doesn't want to hear about putting LOTS of money into insurance and trusts. A client will have been arrested and needs you to negotiate with the DA, both to stay out of prison and (very often just as important to the client) to clear his/her name. A client wants a divorce, or has gotten hit with a civorce action by his/her spouse.

That is, a client's goal nearly always includes things that your legal training didn't teach you how to get: vindication; revenge; relief from debt. Every divorce case is as much about taking care of the client's feelings as it is about the details of the divorce agreement.

If you can't be a client's trusted advisor and live with trauma, find a position in a big firm, put in the 80 hour weeks that these firms require. That's also where the big money comes from.
posted by KRS at 11:25 AM on July 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

Estate planning, wills and trusts. Real estate law.
posted by amro at 11:26 AM on July 18, 2008

Compliance officers generally have law degrees and don't litigate—they make sure that a company is acting in a way consistent with the laws that govern it. I've also seen ads looking for ethics officers with law degrees.
posted by klangklangston at 11:26 AM on July 18, 2008

Most lawyers don't do adversarial work. You'll find something.

Every divorce case is as much about taking care of the client's feelings as it is about the details

Take the word divorce out of that sentence and you have the practice of law in a nutshell.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:29 AM on July 18, 2008

I'm not sure what you mean by you don't like arguing; if you mean simply the oral argument part, then you can get by pretty far as a lawyer without ever getting into an oral argument.

If you don't mind drafting legal arguments and doing legal research, many law firms hire lawyers just to do that; write papers (like appellate advocacy firms). No oral arguments involved.

But if you're totally adverse to any sort of argument, then your choices do become more limited as an attorney. Every aspect of being a lawyer involves you being an advocate, even transactional law (negotiating contracts), bankruptcy (dealing with receivers, judges and creditors) and tax (dealing with shady clients).

You might consider doing document review. It requires a legal degree, pays really good hourly (can still make $100,000+/yr) but offers flexibility for you to develop other skills that might lead you to employment you enjoy more.

Having a law degree is fabulous for a number of non-adversarial positions. Your Westlaw / Lexis reps usually have law degrees; so do legal recruiters. I know a former attorney who is now a human resources managers making great money.

Good luck.
posted by jabberjaw at 11:38 AM on July 18, 2008

You might be able to clerk for a judge. You would mostly do research, document review, and write opinions. If you can get a clerkship for a federal judge, it can be a fairly cushy position. I'm not sure if you would be required to have experience first though, but it might be worth a shot.
posted by boomchicka at 11:48 AM on July 18, 2008

It really depends on what you mean by "adversarial." I am a lawyer, and my practice is almost completely litigation-oriented. But only a small part of my time is actually spent in any kind of "confrontation" with anyone - arguing motions, cross-examining witnesses, and so on. The majority of my time is spent counseling clients - educating them about the law and the system, advising them of their options, creating and implementing strategies, and doing factual investigations. Obviously, if you're not comfortable with "adversarial" roles then you probably wouldn't want to swap seats with me, but the point is, even the most conflict-oriented slice of the law is focused on solving problems, not creating them.

I strongly recommend you seek out one or more mentors in your community who can show you what their actual practice is like, so you have a better idea of what type of work you might want to do.

You say "I came to law school because I wanted to be a public interest lawyer -- I like helping people." I would suggest that you go visit your local Legal Aid clinic and pitch in there for your last year. You'll see what kind of counseling roles lawyers can play. That said, being a public interest lawyer is almost certainly not compatible with your student loan situation.

Good luck!
posted by mikewas at 12:10 PM on July 18, 2008

Teach College?
IANAL, but I am a Law Student, and I can at least vouch for how helpful/inspiring I've found some of my better professors.
posted by shadowfelldown at 12:45 PM on July 18, 2008

You sound like my mother. She is a lawyer who is passionate about social justice, but she's not really very adversarial - she has a much more cooperative, intuitive style. For the first twenty or so years she practiced, she mainly did family law. I recall her taking a lot of adoption and foster care cases. She did some divorces, too, which are not always confrontational. Family law is, in some ways, more like social work than anything else. Also, a big part of her practice at the beginning was lead paint cases, which, of course, is somewhat adversarial, but she got a lot of satisfaction from it, and helped a lot of families.

Later on, she transitioned into estate law, which may be up your alley. She basically helps people plan for their retirement, and for how they will care for their families once they are gone. It sounds boring, but she really enjoys the aspect of helping people figure out what's important to them and what kind of legacy they want to leave. There's still a social justice aspect, too: helping people leave assets to non-profit organizations, helping gay couples get around marriage laws in planning.

The other thing, IANAL, but I know a lot of lawyers, and I think you could stand to re-evaluate how you're thinking about this. I know a lot of my friends who have been public defenders really hated it, because, well, many of their clients were guilty. And even though you believe everyone deserves an advocate, it can be draining to be that person, and to know that even if you are successful, your client may well be going right back into a horrible situation that'll bring them right back into the system. Public defenders play a crucial role, but there are lots of other ways to help people.

Finally, if you do come up empty in your search to find a kind of law you like to practice, remember: you are under no obligation to practice law or even get a job that requires a law degree. That $180K in debt? Sunk cost. Jesus, I feel like half the people in the world who open up coffee carts or start doggie daycares are burnt-out lawyers. Definitely find a way to pay those debts off, but know that the Law School Police won't be coming after you if you don't join a firm.

(And I feel justified in saying this because I have a Super-Expensive Professional Degree too)
posted by lunasol at 1:56 PM on July 18, 2008

Estate planning. Im in the EXACT same position, only Ive been on the civil li side rather than criminal. A friend's dad is in estate planning and its essentially 50% drafting lawyer documents and 50% counseling old people and their children about money. You'd be helping people on a personal level, without much in the way of adversarial process.

You know, unless there's problems with the will and the children sue each other or something. But its kind of your job to avoid that.
posted by T.D. Strange at 2:22 PM on July 18, 2008

Community mediation.
posted by availablelight at 3:16 PM on July 18, 2008

Before you give up, try some other things. There's a lot more to public interest than indigent defense. That's intense work and certainly not for everyone. Public interest lawyers also help people who are being evicted, who are trying to get and/or keep benefits, people with child support issues, debt problems, and tons of other stuff. As someone else said, check out Legal Aid and other non-profit legal services in your city for non-criminal public interest work. It's still adversarial, but less intense than defense work. (I do civil legal services, and am not someone who loves a fight. Like mikewas, my practice is litigation-oriented, but I don't do anything adversarial on most days. Most of the job is research, writing, fact gathering, counseling clients, etc. You've got to do hours of that stuff before you get to the actual adversarial-in-court part.)

There's also impact litigation and policy work, which tend to be more abstract and less about individual people's lives and stories and individual battles with opposing counsels. It's big picture. It moves slower and (imho) can be kind of dry. Doing that kind of work, you're not in the trenches doing the one-on-one adversarial stuff that sounds like it's not your thing.

Personally, I've found the few family law situations I've had the misfortune to be involved in to be the most bitterly adversarial and draining cases I've ever had. Landlords and tenants may hate each other, but not as much as people who used to love each other. Man.

(Also, being a public interest lawyer can be compatible with her student loan situation if she goes to a school with a good loan repayment assistance program. But she probably already knows that if she went into school planning to do that kind of work.)
posted by Mavri at 6:32 PM on July 18, 2008

Look into "elder law" (touched upon by previous answers that referred to estate planning), and also real estate work. Both of these make money, which you will need in order to repay student loans. Doing public interest work is worthwhile, if that is your schtik, but it doesn't pay.
posted by yclipse at 7:07 PM on July 18, 2008

Doing public interest work is worthwhile, if that is your schtik, but it doesn't pay.

Many places have student loan forgiveness for when you choose to work in the public interest, so this is not necessarily true. However, securing quality jobs in the public interest can be quite difficult, so it may be a wash overall. Ask around.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:55 AM on July 19, 2008

« Older Canadian Repatriation   |   Dividends in lieu of salary Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.