Law in Contemporary Society

Making a Decision

-- By SanjayMurti - 13 Apr 2012

In twenty-four months, I will have a license, a practice, and a decision to make. For the last few months, I have been struggling with reconciling what I've heard about large law firm life, and the reality that the majority of our class will do it anyway. More so, I have been struggling with my inability to see myself straying from that crowd. Perhaps part of my problem has been placing too much emphasis in the short-term. I have been trying to analyze whether forgoing a guaranteed $160K salary for independent practice was the right choice. The question I should be answering over the next couple of years is whether temporarily ceding control to a large law firm is a positive investment in myself. To answer it, I need to be aware of the unconscious motives driving me down the path of least resistance. I also need to consider, as rationally as possible, the value of three years of firm life in comparison with the potential loss of three years of professional development on my own terms.

Unconscious Motives

Perhaps the driving force of my internal confusion is fear. There are moments where the decision seems easy. I’m an entrepreneur at heart, I tell myself – risk is liberating. But, like any entrepreneurial attempt, visions of resplendent success can be readily tempered by crippling fears of failure. My fear of straying off the beaten path to large law firm life is two-fold: walking into the wilderness and getting lost there.

First, like most twenty-somethings in law school, I have yet to make a real future-narrowing career decision. Part of the appeal of law school is what is said at every admitted students day across the country – you can do anything with a law degree! My choices thus far, intentional or not, have postponed the need for me to grow up and decide my future. Part of the appeal of big law is that it feels like another couple years of graduate school – a little more time to stay in a structured world where decisions aren’t entirely life-altering. Exit options, oddly, are still a powerful incentive.

Coupled with the fear of having to make a major choice is the fear of making a choice that leads to failure. The visceral and intangible fear of failing, despite my knowledge that it is highly irrational, is a difficult one to shake. At times, in fact, it can be valuable. I’m relatively successful (read: at Columbia Law School) because not succeeding is abhorrent to me. Here, though, it limits my willingness to take riskier paths.

To combat this, I am working to reframe my view of success and my fear of not attaining it. To be frank, my current view of success is too closely tied to compensation, and not closely enough to contentment. I may have been using the former as a proxy for the latter. Both are relevant. With both in focus, I know I won’t feel successful if I’m well-compensated and generally unhappy. Thus, my fear of failure should exist, to some extent, regardless of whether I head to big law or not. It doesn’t yet, but it’s a work in progress.

Three Years of Value

If I can move further away from the influence of these unconscious motives, I will be able to better consider the value of joining a large law firm. The downsides are apparent. As Eben says, I would essentially be pawning my license (albeit temporarily) for a fixed salary and whatever benefits the firm offers. This would mean allowing my choice in clients, positions, and work-life balance to be controlled by an organization whose goals and incentives vary tremendously from my own.

On the other hand, there is an advantage in starting my career in big law - access to a larger group of talented and intelligent people. The benefit is not in having a prefabricated social network – I don’t believe that showing up to work necessarily builds connections. Rather, people are more willing to invest in people they know are worth investing in. The work environment is a particularly good place to demonstrate that you are worth their time. Some of my strongest professional relationships are with people who I worked with who valued my input, and I think the same would hold true in the big law environment.

There are other potential benefits - training, hands-on experience, the “fruit salad” and, of course, exit opportunities. I have spoken with lawyers who have claimed (at least some of) these exist, and I’ve heard from others that it’s nothing more than a recruitment pitch. It seems likely that the latter is true, although it is hard to pass judgment without first-hand knowledge. To that end, I am working this summer at a law firm in hopes I can better inform myself of the real benefits and downsides of law firm life.


My goal for the next two years is to put myself in a better position to make a choice that I am still unwilling to make. Beginning my career in a large law firm would not necessarily be the wrong choice for me. It would be, however, if I ended up there because unconscious motives blinded any sense of choice. Put simply, it would be a mistake if I did not actually make a decision. Thus, I am going to supplement my second year with more practical legal experience in order to quell any fears I have about my inability to practice independently. In addition, I want to spend this summer and the next two years speaking with a more diverse set of young lawyers to see how they view their choices in retrospect.


Webs Webs

r6 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:51 - IanSullivan
This site is powered by the TWiki collaboration platform.
All material on this collaboration platform is the property of the contributing authors.
All material marked as authored by Eben Moglen is available under the license terms CC-BY-SA version 4.
Syndicate this site RSSATOM