Now what? Three hard truths about joining the real world


By Alexandra Sumner 

As we turn our heads towards summer and our eyes toward anything but a computer screen, it’s only fitting that we discuss what comes next. That — together — we think about what follows after the casebooks are shut and the highlighters are snap closed for the foreseeable future. I wish it were all beaches and White Claw …

What’s next, though, are three tough realities when it comes to using your law degree. If you’re lucky, you’ll only experience one or two, but the point is never to avoid making mistakes but to learn from them. 

1) You may not like your first job, and that’s OK. Within the first month or so of a new job, you will likely know whether your new position is a “fit.” If things are really uncomfortable or stifling, you may even know from the first day.

While I struggled through my first job after law school I was hesitant to bring my unhappiness up with former classmates — they were making $30k more than me, working terribly long and intense schedules, and subject to the changing whims of senior partners — who was I to complain to them?

In my own mind, I had equated my first job to my forever one. I believed I would be stuck in a position where I was under employed — writing party invitations instead of contracts, answering phones instead of legal questions, abhorring change instead of making it. All of that was negative thinking on my part.

It turns out, if you don’t like your first job after law school, find another one! Switch practice areas, employment type, even sectors if you have to. Once you’ve given yourself enough time to understand what you don’t like about the first position, start looking for a second.

As I slowly started to look for new opportunities, I noticed an enlivening trend: My classmates were starting to do the same thing! Somewhere between the eighth-month mark and their second work anniversary, the classmates I had once envied for their prestigious job opportunities admitted that they weren’t happy with what they were doing — even for top-level pay.

If you don’t like your first job, join the club! Change is a great thing, and it can lead to opportunities you never even day dreamed of during lectures.

2) You probably won’t make as much money as you once imagined. I used to think all lawyers were rich. Like, filthy “I just dropped a twenty on the floor but I’m not going to pick it up because I don’t even need it” rich. Granted, I was nine at the time, but still old habits die hard.

As it turns out, most people start out their legal careers rather humbly — a significant amount more than the average American, but not much when you consider bar fees, professional development, and the two-ton behemoth of law school debt.

That being said, I’m grateful for everything I now have and have gained over the past few years. My only problem stems from my own initial misunderstanding. As a first-generation college (and law) student I imagined life as a lawyer would be some sort of celebrity-level status symbol, with the matching gold car and gold card to boot.

Nope, as it turns out, you’re just a normal everyday person. (Shocker, I know.) You have bills, you have vices and you sure as hell have responsibilities. I’m just saying: You might not always be tipping in $100 bills at the Olive Garden. Prepare accordingly.

3) You will likely have to confront some uncomfortable truths. This one’s rough. As someone who went from high school to college to law school, I never truly experienced office culture.

Sure, I worked part time jobs in retail and food service. I’d been spit on and yelled at and forced to admit that “the customer is always right” (even when untrue), but the opposition in those cases had always come from the customer, never from someone on my own team.

What do you say to your boss who looks at you and admits, “I left you off the invitation to that meeting because it’s very much a ‘guys club’ and I didn’t want you to make everyone else feel uncomfortable.” Or, “You’re great at your job—which is saying something—we typically only hire men for this position.” Or in the case of one of my colleagues, “You’re not here to do real work, you’re here to attend diversity events and make the firm look good.”

As it turns out, office culture is (or at least, can be) awful. In my case, I was prepared for tough work, quick deadlines and long nights, but I wasn’t prepared to fight tooth-and-nail for the privileges so freely given to my male coworkers.

Taking a client out for coffee is a sin, but racking up a $300 bar tab after golf is “just the cost of doing business.” Suffice it to say, there are going to be moments you haven’t prepared for. When you’re forced to make a decision on what kind of professional you want to be and what ails you’re willing to suffer through. Choose wisely.

Law school is tough, studying for the bar is tough, the actual bar exam is even harder. There are so many rites of passage on the way to becoming an attorney it can feel disappointing when you find yourself out in the legal community unhappy with what you’re doing, how much you’re making, or the office culture itself.

Who knows what comes after you find a job that you like? Or what happens when you land your dream job? Or when you get a huge promotion. We may not know now, but at least we’ll be able to find out together.