Aaron Weber sat down with a lawyer who finished law school just as the economy turned inside out at the end of the decade. Find out how it worked out for him, and get his perspective on legal careers.
Give us some background. What did you study as an undergrad, and how did that lead to law school?
As an undergrad, I did political science and computer science. This was long enough ago that I could legitimately make it through my first 2-3 years before I realized that they were actually related topics. Once I did figure it out, it was still difficult convincing professors on either side that they were related. After that, I worked in software for several years before going back to school.
From college on, I’d had an interest in the overlap of law and software. Once I got out into the real world, I was frustrated at how poorly many lawyers advising technology companies understood the technology, and was frustrated at the treatment people with “just” engineering backgrounds got at many organizations. So I figured it would be an interesting plunge. In retrospect, that was a little naive, but it has worked out pretty well despite that.
How did you pay for law school? What do law students need to know about money?
I had substantial help from my family, thankfully. Lots of classmates needed very big loans, and that continues to limit their career choices. Famously, law jobs pay in a bimodal distribution, meaning there are very high-paying jobs, and jobs that pay a lot less, but not many in the middle. Those high-paying jobs tend to involve incredibly long hours, and it’s nearly impossible to scale back just slightly and take a small pay cut. Instead you find yourself much, much further down the pay scale.
So if you’ve got a lot of debt, you’re trapped. You can’t move a little bit down the pay scale, still pay down your loans, and have a more satisfying job. You’ve got to stay at the very demanding, often unpleasant high-paying jobs until you pay off the loans.
You graduated from law school right as the economy turned inside-out. What was that like?
I had the start to a pretty traditional legal career lined up: Job offer after my second year, get married right after graduation, go on a honeymoon, and come back ready to start a new, high-powered job at a big firm. Unfortunately, I graduated from law school in 2009.
During my last year of school, the firm realized there was no work available for new associates, and asked me to work for a year at a nonprofit before starting a year late. That sounded OK, but the day I got back from my honeymoon, they called to say there was a problem with the nonprofit I’d picked, and that if I went to work there, I couldn’t come back to the firm.
That left me hanging. Also angry.
Fortunately, I was able to find work at a software company where I met a lot of lawyers in my field, and got hands-on experience most of my peers didn’t have. That all led to a lot of further opportunities later on. I was pretty lucky, though. Many of my classmates in similar situations did not have it work out so well for them.
After the software company, you went back and worked at a big firm, and you’ve recently changed jobs again. What’s different about the new gig?
I went from being at one of the country’s largest firms to being in-house at a Web company with a small legal team. It is a very different experience. Among many other things, I went from being a specialist to being a generalist (or nearly so); I also became responsible to one person (the GC) rather than a variety of partners and clients. Of course, I also took a large pay cut; and I am now responsible for a lot of mundane stuff that I could avoid at a firm. These are trade offs I was happy to make—but not necessarily the right thing for everyone.
Do you have a long-term plan for career change?
For the first time since college, I’m not thinking about career change or the long term, and it’s incredibly refreshing. I think it is also somewhat common at this career juncture. If you’re at a big law firm, and you’ve decided you don’t want to become a partner, then you’re constantly wondering about the right time to leave and the right path to take. Once you’re out you can take a deep breath and really drill down and focus on the job at hand, which is nice.
What’s one thing you’d say to someone considering law school?
Everyone who asks that gets the same answer: “Go get some work experience first.” It really helped me a great deal.
If, like me, you’re thinking about being a lawyer with a particular interest or specialization (software and intellectual property in my case), then consider working in that area for a bit on the non-law side. It’ll give you valuable experience, both because you’ll understand the work better, and because you’ll be much easier to hire after graduation.
If you truly feel that the only thing you’ve ever wanted to do is be a lawyer, then go work at a firm as a paralegal. It will help you understand your profession from that perspective.
Most business schools require or at least strongly prefer this sort of experience. I have no idea why law schools do not.
Are you enrolled in or considering law school? Share your thoughts in the comments!