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Academic, professional, and financial successes didn’t make me happy

Kevin Baum
Happier times: Writer Kevin Baum in New Zealand (Provided photos)

Recently, professors William Baude and Adam Chilton of the University of Chicago Law wrote a series of blog posts providing advice to prospective law professors on their blog, Summary, Judgment. The advice broke down as (and I’m definitely paraphrasing) go to a “great” law school, get great grades, impress the correct people, write a lot, and get a PhD/clerkship/big law job/fellowship/combination thereof.

While this is objectively good advice, it’s problematic as it illustrates the barriers to those non-traditional candidates looking to break into legal academia.

I know this because I used to be one such person.

In 2015 and 2016, I applied, and was interviewed, to be a tenure-track law professor.

The Association of American Law Schools (AALS) runs a Faculty Recruitment Conference pejoratively called the “meat market.” The meat market is basically an OCI for potential law professors held every year in a giant hotel in Washington, D.C., where every law school conducts their first round of interviews.

Prior to attending, candidates fill out a form that includes their education and work history, references, publications, preferred courses they want to teach, etc. — all distilled down onto one piece of paper. Hundreds of very “impressive” people apply every year.

While I’ve never seen how the sausage is made, it’s my understanding that the faculty committees will very quickly sort the submissions into yes and no piles. They will then interview candidates at the meat market and invite a few of those back to the campus for a job talk and to present a paper.

I never made it past the first interview.

Now at this point, I’m guessing you’re wondering what any of this has to do with what I would tell my law student self. Well, reading that advice stirred up the memories of what I went through to put myself in the meat market and what happened when I decided to go in a different direction in my career.

So, I would tell myself this: “don’t conflate academic, professional, and economic success with happiness.”

I knew early on in law school that I wanted to be a law professor. I loved learning the law; I still do. It’s why that I follow so many law professors, including professors Baude and Chilton, on Twitter. Before going to law school, I was a teacher. I liked teaching but wanted something more. After starting law school, I thought teaching law would be the best job ever.

Since I went St. John’s for law, I knew it would be a up-hill battle. During my first semester, I let a lot of things in my life go to make sure I did well. I stopped going to the gym, didn’t see friends as often, missed events, and lived in the library. While I did fairly well, I didn’t do as well I had hope. A few things went wrong.

First, I didn’t know to take a test. I figured that by reviewing my tests with professors. Second, my computer crashed during the middle my Torts final. There’s nothing I could’ve done, but it definitely didn’t help. I was very upset when grades came out. I felt like a failure.

Next semester, things started turning around. I interned for a judge, and my grades went up. During the summer, I was interning for a different judge when the writing competition results came out. I was heading to a law firm meet-and-greet when a friend whose last name is after mine alphabetically texted me to say he got onto the bankruptcy journal — the one I really wanted. I was dejected that I didn’t get an offer.

Fast forward an hour later, I not only received an offer from that journal, I also made law review. While I was elated, it wasn’t until years later that I realized how silly it was to get down on myself without knowing if they had finished calling.

Later in the summer I participated in OCI. It was the summer of 2008; the economy was just starting to implode. I would have been a “marginal” candidate for these huge firms in the best of years. I didn’t make it past the first round.

After spending a lot of time (and money) mailing out resumes to every large and mid-size firm I could find, I got a summer associate position with a prominent plaintiff firm. It was a good job, but it wasn’t the big defense firms that paid better. Even worse, like many grads from my year, I was no-offered by the firm at the end of the summer.

While it was common that year, I again felt like a failure.

I was, however, determined and willing to sacrifice to achieve my goals. I studied hard. I pulled my grades up so far that I ended missing graduating with Latin honors by one person — a half grade higher in any class, I would have made it (I realize now it’s insane that I spent time confirming this). Instead, I found out that I graduated with dean’s list graduation honors, earned if you graduated in the top twenty-five percent of the class, when they called my name at graduation.

I was crushed. It ruined what should have been a great day. The first words to my mom afterwards were “one fucking person.” I am embarrassed by my reaction, but I need to share it because it didn’t matter and still doesn’t. While I still think it’s stupid that St. John’s created this tier of graduation honors, it was still an accomplishment that I should’ve been proud of and now am. I would still go on to get my bankruptcy LL.M. and land that “dream” big law job. The clerkship didn’t happen, but I thought I could do that later.

I started making a lot of money, and the goal of becoming a law professor was in sight. The thing about big law is that they pay you all that money for a reason. I worked all the time. The money and success seemed great, but I was miserable. I gained weight and had panic attacks — my life slipped by out of control. ConEd sent me notice saying that it needed to check my gas meter because it wasn’t reading any use. I just hadn’t turned the stove on in months because I didn’t have time to cook and always ordered out.

This isn’t to say that some people don’t thrive in big law. I’m just not one of them. Ultimately, I was laid off. I again felt like I failed, but I also felt relieved. The whole time I felt like prisoner in a cell. The thing was I had the key to that cell, but I was just afraid to use it.

After a year of working with my brother and as an adjunct, I decided to apply to be a law professor as a lark. I figured, why not? To my surprise, as well as that of everyone I told, I got an interview. My head was spinning, and the interview went terribly. I gave it a try again the next year. While I was much better prepared and interviewed better, I still didn’t get anything. I was dejected. On top of that, I started working as a document review attorney — a job I had looked down upon.

A strange thing happened, though: I was happier.

I reconnected with family and friends, lost weight, started exercising, and generally became healthier. The “failure” job gave me time to work on myself. I made the least amount of money but was the happiest personally. Even though I was broke, I traveled the world. I will never regret having the opportunity to see the sun rise in New Zealand even though I couldn’t “afford” to go.

Over time, I moved on to a new firm as a staff attorney, and now to my current job as a legal analyst, which I love. While I am making more money now, it’s the work and the people that make the job truly great.

I also met the love of my life — we’re getting married in August.

I am a happy person right now, and it isn’t because I’m successful or making a certain amount money. That happiness began when my professional life was at its “lowest.”

I’m also proud of my accomplishments along the way. Professors Baude and Chilton are correct that it’s very difficult for non-traditional law professor candidates. It didn’t work out, but I’m proud I went down swinging. I don’t regret what I did along the way. Good and bad things have come from all my decisions, and I wouldn’t have some of the most important people in my life if things had worked out differently.

It would’ve, however, made it easier along the way if I realized that being financially and professionally “successful” wouldn’t make me happy and that I shouldn’t let that my personal happiness fall to side while trying for that success.

I am grateful for the opportunity to remind myself of that.

Kevin Baum Kevin M. Baum is a legal analyst for a financial company. He has previously worked as an associate and staff attorney at large and mid-size law firms and as a contract document review attorney. He earned his J.D. and LL.M. in Bankruptcy Law from St. John’s University School of Law.