Many law students end up in law school because it can function as a catch-all graduate school with the promise of gainful employment upon graduation (of course, anyone who has been paying attention to the legal market this past decade knows what a generally dubious line of reasoning this has turned out to be, even among middle-tier law graduates). They aren’t entirely sure why they are there, or what they want to do with their legal education, they just know it is a “useful” degree , and that going to a good law school and getting good grades is a relatively straightforward set of next steps for the average overachiever who isn’t sure what else to do with themselves.
Even those who go into law school with a purpose may find that their anticipated or desired goals simply aren’t realistic and/or won’t pay the bills (wanting to be an “international human rights lawyer” is one of the most common instances I see among aspiring would-be and current practicing attorneys). Yes, there are many jobs out there that require a legal education, including hanging your own shingle, but in terms of being personally rewarding and achievable, it is very surprising to me how little thought most attorneys give to both their short- and long-term career plans, and what will bring them both financial success and/or personal happiness.
An incredibly simple, useful, and astonishingly underutilized thought exercise, no matter where you are in your career, is to look for those attorneys who are at least a couple years, if not 5-10 years, ahead of where you are on your current path (or who have taken the path you hope to take moving forward in your career), and take a hard look at the positives and negatives of what they are doing in terms of their work and their life.
For instance, pretend you are a 4th year litigation associate at a mid-size or large firm. Your current career path will take you on the road towards partnership, with the obvious caveat that you perform well and start to develop business. Don’t just look at the partner mentor at your firm that you like and enjoy working with. Look at all the partners, the type of work they do, the tasks their days are consumed with, the hours they work and the life they lead. Will you be happy in that situation?
Yes, the pay can be great, there is a great deal of associated prestige that comes from making partner, and you might not have to trudge through tedious document review or write research memos anymore. But the flip side of the coin is that the hours can be just as long (or sometimes longer), there is a lot of extra work on top of simply litigating (billing, collecting, delegating, partner meetings, client development, being the bottom line for the entire case and not just a couple aspects of it, etc.), and there is a never-ending pressure to attract and retain more clients and to bill more work each and every year to expand the firm’s profits.
If you are realistic about what lies ahead on your current career path, and it is something you feel you will enjoy and be able to accomplish, then by all means, continue on! Based on my experience, you are one of the lucky ones. But if you look down the road and things do not look rosy, it may be time to consider another firm, or another career path. It can be easy to put in the time for a couple years just to collect those paychecks, but in the legal market, there always comes a time where you must go up or out, or when you simply cannot take it anymore, and you will thank yourself if you have been thinking about this issue and have a couple exit strategies in mind.