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What ‘Can’t’ You Do With a Law Degree?

There’s a really funny post up on Constitutional Daily, in which the protagonist — who holds a J.D. from NYU Law and was laid off from Biglaw during the recession — recounts his inability to secure a job at Target. It got me thinking of that other great lie that law schools tell incoming law students: “Yada yada, you can do anything with a law degree… also, I’d like to interest you in partial ownership of the Brooklyn Bridge.”

But many J.D. holders have found out the hard way that holding a law degree only opens doors to “law” jobs. They aren’t degrees of general utility.

If anything, they close more doors than they open….

People with law degrees are often viewed as “overqualified” for many menial and blue-collar positions. Employers believe lawyers will jump ship the minute a better opportunity comes along. Or they’ll be constantly gunning for a promotion. So don’t try to work any job where you are expected to be seen, not heard, and generally content. Holders of J.D. degrees can’t get jobs as secretaries, or receptionists, or bellhops, or retail clerks.

My colleague Staci Zaretsky has a good story about being a retail clerk at Victoria’s Secret. Before law school, they were happy to employ her; after law school, they had no more use for her. As she puts it: “Too intelligent to fold a pair of panties, but not intelligent enough to hit a button repeatedly for eight hours a day in Biglaw doc review.” Once you get the J.D., employers of the young and dumb start looking for somebody younger and dumber.

Another problem is that you get typecast as a “lawyer.” When I was making my transition from law to whatever this is, I couldn’t get a job to do political reporting (despite the fact that I had done it in college and had done press for Congressional campaigns). But people were very interested in hiring me to cover the courts. Mind you, the entire time I was in law school or at Debevoise, I’d been to “court” perhaps twice? Maybe three times? I didn’t know where the “court” was, and I’d tell people that, but they’d see the J.D. and say, “We just hired a court reporter,” or “Our beat reporter at the courthouse just got a promotion.” When I’d say, “I just got out of law, why the hell would I want to cover it?,” they’d just ease my résumé to the bottom of the pile, and shuffle me out of the office. I had to take an unpaid internship at a political newspaper to try to break the typecast (you know, before I started here, where I cover law all day, because God thinks he’s a funny mutherf***er).

Breaking out of law is not impossible. But a lot of lawyers will have a difficult time making mid-career changes to business or finance, journalism or writing, and lots of other “professions.” When they say you can do anything with a law degree, they really mean you can be any type of “lawyer.” Because when you are trying to move from law to something else, the first thing potential employers are going to think is: “Great, another freaking lawyer. I wonder how much this conversation is going to cost me.”

Even if you are not typecast, sometimes getting a law degree raises your expectations to the point that you can’t just cast yourself down back with the plebes and start over on another career path. Take David Lat: in a different life, he wanted to be a talent agent. His experience at Wachtell Lipton didn’t close that door. But after he left the firm, he did a summer internship in the mailroom of CAA in New York — an experience that drove him back into the arms of the law, leading him to join the U.S. Attorney’s Office (where he started his blogging).

“I went from making a Wachtell salary and bonus to making New York minimum wage,” Lat told me, describing his stint in the agency mailroom. “I went from having people fetch me coffee, to having to fetch coffee for other people.” Then his voice trailed off, and Dobby the ATL house-elf went to fetch everybody espressos.

Even for people who don’t have to take a salary hit (because maybe their J.D. never paid off in the first place), feeling like you are starting at the bottom after obtaining an “advanced degree” is too much for some people. You can’t go home again. That minimum-wage job you had after college just doesn’t look so hot when you are three years older, in debt, and feeling like you should be doing better than you were in your early twenties.

So, what else can’t you do with a law degree? I forget who said it, but there does come a time in a man’s life when he realizes that he’s not going to play center field for the New York Yankees. For lawyers, there comes a point when they realize that they are going to be a lawyer, unemployed or otherwise, and there isn’t anything they can do about it.

Then again, whenever God closes a door, he (allegedly) opens a window.

140 Things You Can’t Do With a Law Degree [Constitutional Daily]

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