Practicing law, like most professions, requires a certain level of passion. Unfortunately, the legal profession often sees high rates of depression, unhappiness, and general job dissatisfaction among its practitioners. The question arises: at what point does a lawyer no longer enjoy the practice of law?
Surely, this question has thousands of answers (probably all correct, to a degree). From my own experiences, however, the single thing that most lawyers who reported some degree of unhappiness had in common was that they were practicing in one field of law, while wishing they were practicing in another. Most of them blame the process and circumstances, and often rightfully so.
But how do we improve our chances of ending up where we are the happiest?
Legal education has come a long way since being an apprentice-based system. Law schools educate us in the law and the thought processes of lawyering, we earn grades, distinctions, and accolades during our tenure there, and (hopefully) gain offers of employment based on our accomplishments. But for many who follow the schematic, their opinions change drastically in the first few years of practice. A few years into practice, the newly-minted lawyer who excitedly accepted an offer to practice family law at a top firm become the unhappy, stressed-out lawyer that regrets not following a passion to practice consumer protection law.
Although the career switch can always be made, it’s not always practical. A lawyer may stay at their firm as result of something (good pay, decent location, maybe a nice office with a view?), become “too invested,” then feel “pigeonholed” down the line.
When I started law school, I had a very different fear than most. Most of my classmates feared poor grades, cold-calling, and interviewing with employers. My greatest fear was that I would earn a doctorate degree and end up in a job where I would be less happy than a job I could have accepted after my undergraduate degree.
For me, law school would ideally open doors and allow me to practice a career that I was most passionate about. With the advice of great mentors both in school and outside of school, I formed a plan to make sure that, come graduation, I was as close to certain as possible about what type of law I was most passionate about – what field of practice I was the most excited by.
The only way to do this accurately was trial and error, and the only way to accomplish a true understanding of the practice of different areas of law was to spend as much time in the practice as I did in the classroom.
I am lucky to have attended a law school that emphasizes experiential learning as much as traditional theory. I had a wide variety of internships and opportunities to exhaust while earning academic credit. Time, however, was limited – six semesters to learn as much as I could. I knew that if I took one internship or clerking job in each of my four remaining semesters and one remaining summer, I could only experience five areas practice.
As I looked at my list of practice areas that I had general interest in…well, suffice it to say it exceeded five. The only option? Overlap. I made it my mission that each internship or part-time clerking job would expose me to two areas or styles of legal practice, ad minimum. I sought advice, discussed with mentors, and drafted my own playbook. The hard part? Execution.
After hours days weeks of planning, I laid out a master calendar for my remaining two years, then I continuously met with my school’s office of clinical education (advisers) to arrange and rearrange my strategy. First, I interned for a state circuit judge. In her chambers, I experienced three facets of practice simultaneously; family law, litigation at the trial level, and specifically, trial at the state level. Next, I interned for a state agency where I experienced two additional practice areas; litigation at the appellate level and criminal law. Afterwards, an internship in the chambers of a federal bankruptcy judge where I experienced litigation at the federal level in general and bankruptcy practice.
During the summers, I clerked for law firms, varying from consumer protection to medical malpractice, criminal defense to personal injury, and, finally, a firm specializing in transactional practice, real estate law, and contracts. My goal remained simple: experience practice areas and determine, before graduating, what I wanted to practice. Not merely what I enjoyed, what I disliked, or what I would be amenable to practicing – what I truly wanted to practice.
In sum, my advice would be this: if you have the opportunity to intern and work throughout law school, do it. Endeavor to experience vastly different areas of practice before you graduate. In my experience, the areas of practice I enjoyed learning about in the classroom did not impress me as much in their day-to-day realities. On the other hand, practice areas that I was originally hesitant to even experience turned out to be, in their practice, the areas that I could truly spend my career doing and remain passionate about.
As “lawyer-types,” it is natural for us to be risk-averse, but take a chance – learn as much as you can from those who have come before you, make a calculated plan, and put in the overtime and extra work to execute it. The dividend could be the very difference between enjoying your career and loving it.