In a job market as dismal as this one, you would think that I would advise taking anything you can get. You would be wrong. I recommend carefully weighing the desperate need for a paycheck against the prospect of selling your soul, or at least performing work that you despise.
I am not talking about doc review, or procurement law here. I am talking about going to work for a Catholic organization when you are agnostic, or taking a gig in a firm that does work that is abhorrent to your belief system. It is easy to preach when one has a job, but I am routinely asked about obtaining in-house positions, and my experience (when I was too stupid, or afraid, to say “no”) gives me a certain gravitas when it comes to this issue….
When I was an undergrad thinking about law school, I wrote to some very high-flying attorneys who I thought might give me insight into how they could represent tobacco firms, criminals and the like. Like I said, I was an undergrad, and undergrads have an annoying trait of thinking they can do “good” in the world. I was practically laughed at by an exceedingly famous attorney and author who told me, “you represent zealously whomever is paying your fee.” And you know what, he was dead right.
When I was litigating, I represented some reprehensible folks and entities. Arguing that Native Americans had no right to land that was taken from them by more educated encroachers is a terrible memory for me. I am part Native American, and here I was racking up billables fighting for something that I knew to be incorrect. In fact, when I finished my first memorandum on the topic, I came out the “wrong” way and was gently corrected by the partner, “David, we represent the other side.” Changing a few verbs and other words in my memorandum, I ended up arguing against the Native Americans — job well done. But my conscience was bothered. Not only bothered, but I could not continue to work on that immense project; one that would have kept me in easy billing for years. Just like I couldn’t take a gig with the white shoe firm that had Big Tobacco as a major client. Knowing that I would be expected to work on cases that defended the only legal product in America that has only deleterious effects was a prospect that I could not take on.
Which brings me to yesterday’s news about the ACLU’s suit against Catholic hospitals. And, tangentially, to the (women primarily) who work for such hospitals or for the Church, and who sue when they are fired for having babies out of wedlock, or for having abortions. I will not go down the Tabo rabbit hole on those issues at large, but I will say that those folks shouldn’t have taken the jobs in the first place. I know, the hospital suit is about treatment and not employment, but the umbrella issue is one of religious freedom. It is interesting to see the ACLU fighting against a church in this way.
My point is simply, if you can’t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen. And if a job opens up to you after years of searching, make sure that you can handle the moral underpinnings of what you will be asked to do. Walter White (fictional character, I know) went down a slippery path with the best initial intentions, to provide for his family. He ended up poisoning a little boy, because it was his job. Ensure that before you uproot your family unit for a gig out of state, that the job is one you can stomach. There truly is more to a legal career than just a paycheck.
After two federal clerkships and several years as a litigator in law firms, David Mowry is happily ensconced as an in-house lawyer at a major technology company. He specializes in commercial leasing transactions, only sometimes misses litigation, and never regrets leaving firm life. You can reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.