Law in Contemporary Society

How Much is Enough?

-- By KatySkaggs - 19 May 2012

How Will I Decide How To Use My License?

As Eben suggested, the question “How much is enough?” is a fair one to ask of oneself when contemplating legal career paths. An ambitious and moderately clever student with an education from CLS has potentially boundless (or at least, to me, unfathomable) earning potential. It’s a challenge for me to even vaguely calculate my future financial needs—I’ve thus far avoided most of the expenses that come with adulthood (owning a vehicle, being responsible for a pet or child, applying for credit other than a federally-guaranteed student loan, possessing more than one set of decent professional clothing). It’s tough for me to estimate those expenses, but the major factor that will determine my needed income after graduation will be my monthly student loan payments (I’m not going to share that figure; suffice to say it will be well into six figures). I have a feeling this is a factor that will impact the vast majority of my classmates similarly. The problem is, money is the last thing I’d want determining the type of lawyer I’ll be.

My Former Plan

As I was applying to law schools, I understood the amount of debt I’d have to take on. And I understood the unprecedented contraction of the legal market meant my employment prospects were rather grim when compared to lawyers who got their licenses before 2007 or 2008. Additionally, I carry significant student loans from college, and my parents took on the balance of the cost through loans in their names. I know that my parents cannot afford to both pay those loans and save for retirement, and the plan has always been that once I had a sufficient income, I would assume their loan payments as well as my own. This plan necessitated the belief that I could and would secure a position at a large law firm, and hold it for long enough to pay off the bulk of my educational debt (and then my younger sister’s). After that, I’d be free to practice as I liked; the misery of life at a big law firm seemed a small price to pay for what would come after (ideally, move the whole family to New Zealand).

A Wrench in the Works

Eben was the wrench. I had my doubts, during first semester exams, that perhaps I wasn’t suited to the kind of long hours and intensity characteristic of the big, powerful firms. Eben’s course was like a 1L Disorientation that became, for me, a Reorientation. I was angry and dismissive, at first, of his insistence that the jobs most students from top tier schools take are rote, miserable, and totally unconnected to the experience of practicing law. His instruction to not take any kind of job this summer at all connected to legal work seemed similarly extreme and counter-productive. But I have, to a very large extent, come to agree with this position. The issue, then, is to determine how to forge a way forward, avoiding the pitfalls of the corporate-sponsored big law track but not getting mired in some vague purgatory between a miserable job and the ability to make sufficient monthly loan payments. Oh, and hopefully find some practice areas along the way that I find fulfilling, and that seem to make productive use of my license.

One of the first lawyers I met at Columbia whose practice really interested me was a speaker in Phillip Bobbitt’s Legal Methods Class. Philip K. Howard talked about his work with CommonGood? .org trying to reform the political process, with objectives of holding in check the hyper-partisanship that has lately made Congress so dysfunctional, purging legal codes of obsolete or duplicative laws, and generally reform and streamline governmental bureaucracies. Suddenly, I was seriously trying to imagine a career other than the one I’d planned as determined by my debt. Other than my now amusing third-grade ambition to become our nation’s first female president, I’m pretty ambivalent about the idea of a career in politics without serious reform in (at the very least) campaign finance laws.

My Current Plan

But, much like my father, I believe there is an (perhaps unknowable) point of diminishing return to the social good government can achieve. Moreover, thanks to the many diverse jobs I’ve held since I was a teenager, I know that I’m quite fascinated by the mechanics of running small businesses well, all the small and large decisions that go into that. And I think smaller businesses are generally far more accountable to their communities, in terms of social welfare or the common good, than publicly traded corporations whose main legal obligation is to make ever greater, eternally expanding financial returns. And I’d like to think that as a lawyer advising small businesses, I would be able to facilitate the sort of social responsibility that seems most effective when the attempts are local and community specific. I’ve seen how small, family-run companies can have tangible effects on their communities without hurting their bottom line; the people for whom I’ve worked understood the importance of employee relations, and showed me how explicit cultural goals can guide business choices. I am (tentatively, given the brevity of my legal education) of the opinion that litigation, as a force for social change, has less impact than could the empowering of communities through the facilitation of local entrepreneurship. This vision of a possible future doesn’t at all relieve the anxiety I have about my expanding debt, but it does give me a serious sense of relief that my career won’t be determined primarily by the paycheck. I have goals, I have principles, and I think I know how I want to and can make a difference with my license. I have a feeling, though, that the hard parts are yet to come.

970 Words

I can't comment very usefully on my role as monkey wrench, naturally. And the next two years will almost certainly see further evolution in the plan for your practice that you begin to follow when you graduate. The important element for me, as I'm sure you know, is that the creation of your practice is your work, not someone else's, and that the compromises (for there are always compromises) and balances are ones you have struck for yourself. That's where the satisfaction will be for you, and why your practice will remain evergreen, bringing you both the chance to have enough, and the chance to make a difference.

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r3 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:00 - IanSullivan
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