There are times in our lives when we reach a fork in the road, and irrespective of obstacles, we need to decide whether to go in one direction or another. Sometimes these decisions are very easy and are easily forgotten, at other times the decisions are agonizing and can return to haunt us in the future.
Since I’ve been working in the law firm library, I have been confronted with regular reminders of a path not taken. I have a law degree (see my questions and answers post for more details) and my original career plan was to become a lawyer. During my final year of law school, I decided that I didn’t want to be a lawyer* and started looking for alternative things I could do, and eventually decided on librarianship. It’s pointless to re-open that decision not to pursue that career as a lawyer, but I still think it was the right choice for me. However since I’ve started working in this law firm, I’ve had more cause to think about that path not taken.
I recently read an article (Lisa Pryor, The gilded cage, Good weekend magazine, 23 August 2008) which seemed to crystallize the good things and bad things about being a lawyer. Well, to be honest, it looks more at the negatives. I would recommend the whole article, and would be interested in reading the book on which it’s from (Lisa Pryor, The pinstriped prison: How overachievers get trapped in corporate jobs they hate, Picador, 2008). The Gilded Cage [see also Mnemonic’s post quoting from this article] describes a lifestyle which is high-flying and exciting but ultimately unenviable. Work hard and play hard is taken to an extreme. The article describes an interesting paradox, how these young professionals are simultaneously exploited and privileged.
The most interesting paragraph of the article was a retelling of a speech by a NSW Supreme Court judge, the Hon. Justice George Palmer.
Recently a very bright young law graduate got a job with one of the largest and most prestigious firms in town. He couldn’t believe his luck when he was told he was going to work directly for the senior commercial partner. He was even more flattered when the senior partner invited him to his home for dinner to get to know him better. The law graduate arrived at the partner’s palatial Harbour-side residence and was shown around. Eventually they went into the partner’s study. The young man was incredulous to see a Picasso hanging on the wall.
“Gosh, sir,” he blurted out. “That’s a real Picasso, isn’t it? It must have cost an absolute fortune!”
“It certainly did,” replied the partner, putting a paternal hand on the young man’s shoulder . “And if you buckle down to hard work, my boy, put in fifteen to sixteen hours a day six days a week, forget about having a life and give yourself body and soul to the firm, in five years’ time, I’ll be able to buy another one.”
There are many lawyers, like the senior commercial partner I told you about, who will tell their impressionable protégés that a successful practice in the law can give you a high standard of living; it can give you kudos amongst your professional colleagues; it can give you a warm glow of satisfaction when you win a case or tie up a successful transaction. They probably won’t add that the warm glow lasts as long as five minutes – if you’re lucky. They won’t say that your legal practice is not a companion and a solace to you when you come home late every night to an empty apartment and you feel that the only way you can get through the silent hours ahead is with a drink – or two, or three, or six.
This is relevant to me as a librarian in a large law firm, because some of the lawyers who ask me to do work are in this situation. It’s good to understand where they’re coming from and know that if they ever snap at me, it’s probably because they’re being shouted at by their superiors.
It’s also relevant to me personally, because it short-circuits those “what if” questions, what if I had become a lawyer etc…** My current job takes me slightly closer back towards that path not taken, and I have a better view of its pros and cons. And I can say for certain that I am happier where I am.
* I was able to receive my law degree without paying for up-front tuition fees and so graduated without an immediate debt. I mention this because I know that if I had been educated in the USA, I would have probably had student loans needing to be paid shortly after graduation and I may not have been able to switch careers into something lower paid such as librarianship.
** Of course, I would be making a grave mistake if I were to suggest that working in a large corporate law firm is the only career path for lawyers. This is digressing and off-topic, but I'd guess that less extreme legal careers would have fewer of the downsides.