Robert (gurdonark) wrote,
Robert
gurdonark

I'd Like that Life in the Hermetically Sealed Bag, Please



I admit to the vice of reading internet careers message boards. Law message boards have the usual flaws of the genre. One portion of the participants are folks in undergraduate programs who think of attending law school. These folks divide into roughly two camps. One camp is comprised of genuine seekers, who really want to learn about law school. The other camp is comprised of folks who have read two career guides and ten message board postings, and now are "qualified" to pontificate at leisure on the topic at hand, laying down commandment upon commandment in a fashion that would bewilder Charlton Heston's Moses. Another portion of the participants are law students trying to justify or denigrate their choice of law schools, or very young law associates trying to do the same. A material portion of the participants are non-lawyer hangers-on, who finished law school but never latched onto that first job, and now set out detailed rules about the need to attend a top school and make top grades that, if true, would exclude essentially 99 percent of all practicing lawyers who do have jobs from the profession.

Law's a funny business. Law employers do care about things like school rank and law school grades. Law schools, by contrast, attach frantic importance to the Law School Admission Test, which is applied in a weighted formula with GPA to determine most admissions decisions (a sizable minority are admitted based on discretionary factors). Each year we see the sad spectre of kids with 4.0 GPAs failing to get into top law schools because their LSAT score was 159, while a kid with a 3.3 GPA but a 170 LSAT gets into a great school. Law is an odd duck business at entry level as well. Some folks don't thrive in it, because they would rather do deals than represent the players in deals or litigate them. Some people don't enjoy the conflict and stresses of the job, or realize that the initial years of more sophisticated practice can be very document intensive and involve less courtroom/deal time. A lot of folks don't get that a lawyer is this curious professional specialist, a sort of odd bike wrench to turn the unconventional bolts our legal system has in its design. The market for law work fluctuates a great deal generally, but individual success in that market fluctuates wildly. Since modern lawyering has existed, some lawyers make a huge professional success of it, while others earn merely a good sensible living, and a few souls never find a job at all and must do a different profession.
This has been so for hundreds of years--it's not some new revelation.

Yet reading the law message boards always has me intrigued.
If only life could be as simple as the world of the message boards. In the message boards, all one has to do is go to a "top 14" (don't ask me why 14, for I have no answer, other than that the No. 14 Georgetown grads get touchy if we talk of a top 15) law school, get top grades, and one is made for life. The message board theory goes on to say that unless one does these things, one ought to refrain from law.

Although school rank and grades are important in law hiring, I am always a bit amused by the notion that the message board posters would tell all of the most successful lawyers I know that law school would not be worth their while. In our city, as in many, most of the lawyers at the top firms went to law schools outside the top 14. Many top lawyers did not go to top law schools or top law firms, but instead made their names with trial or deal skills they picked up at small firms or in government work. The formulae in the message boards are simplistic in the extreme. They also ignore the many kids who get out of law school at the top of the class in a top school and then lack the real interest, or in some cases, the aptitude, for law practice. Career success does not come in bottles like detergent does. You don't just go to the shelf and hunt for the blue bottle that says "Guaranteed Wealth in Profession", or some catchier name, like "Cash!".

My observation from the message boards is that people want their lives hermetically sealed, like products. "Teach me the incantation for the career success charm, so I will never be in danger of failure, worry or stress". Ah, but life is so much more dynamic than that. Life is a gun with no safety switch on it. There is no one career code that will solve all problems. Sure, it's harder to get a position as a musician, an actor or an English professor than it is to get a position as a lawyer, an optometrist or a welder, but that doesn't mean that one can attend the "right" school, make the "right" grades, get the "right" entry level job, and suddenly, life works.

I guess what intrigues me the most is that these kids--and really, the non-kids who are disaffected because they chose the 'wrong' detergent bottle--want lives so free of risk.
Wealth is not something these kids see as a matter of fortune and pluck. Instead, someone should have a roadmap--go to x school, make y grades, get a job at z firm--so that they can instantly qualify for that home in Mission Hills or Highland Park or Beverly Hills.

In my life, I've known only a person or two who actually followed the "formbook" to go to a top law school, get a top job, and make partner at a megafirm. Similarly, I've only known a few people who got their PhD and then did academic research and landed a full professorship, a few people who became MDs, and a few people who got their MBA and then simply climbed the corporate ladder. For almost everyone I know, school and careers have been a matter of advances and setbacks, of success and failure. I once knew a man and his wife, both lawyers with top firms, that had "ascended" from being two midwestern school teachers through law school success together to two partnerships in prestigious downtown law firms. They moved into a home in the best neighborhood, where they had built a palace that would have made Jay Gatsby blush. They had it all. Within 5 years, a change in the law relied upon by the man's key client, coupled with various problems with some investments they had made, had essentially laid them low. I believe that they ultimately took bankruptcy. The man stopped practicing law. The couple divorced. All 52 cards now lay flat on the floor, even through their particular house of cards looked to the casual observer as though it had been designed like one of those Fay Jones outdoor churches--amazing, natural, eternal.

I worry that high school kids and college kids are raised now with more pressure in some ways than we were when I was that age. That's not all bad--in some ways, I feel that my generation was not told that in our cold economy the "rubber hits the road" on vocational matters, and one must learn a trade or skill with which to earn a living. Now, though, the kids seem to be pressured that there are only a handful of "right" ways to do things. Also, I believe that they are told that unless one is "making the big bucks" or "really saving the world", then one's career is badly flawed. The reality, of course, is different. Most of us will not be career dynamos. That doesn't mean we can't make good money, have a nice home, and all that. But the gerbil wheel of big dollars, predictable results, immunity from economic downturn, guaranteed success doesn't really exist. Every one is another leaf in the economic winds.

I think that life doesn't come in neat packages. I'm a huge believer in economically geared career planning, don't get me wrong. Just wishin' it were so, or cursing the gods, will not make it easy to get a job in liberal arts academia or sell a novel or ensure that one can take a college degree with good hiring prospects while taking nothing but face painting classes. But there are so many ways to succeed, and so many avenues that don't lead to success.
Most educated folks end up in the middle or upper middle class, not rich. As the book The Millionaire Next Door illustrates, most millionaires live relatively modest middle class lives and acquire their fortune by running successful small businesses and not spending their money.
Many folks succeed in trade skills rather than through education. Some folks with multiple degrees lack any skill but school, and fail.

My chief worry is that we endlessly send the message that "there is only one road--take it or be damned", when the reality is "there are many pathways. Money is not everything. Careers are fluid. One frequently has many careers. Hard work is often rewarded, but not always. Life comes without a warranty. It's okay to be quirky--everyone else is, too. Thrift, rather than genius, is often the best way to live on one's income. It's okay to try to succeed, and yet more people are hoisted on their arrogance than are hoisted by quiet hard work. The goal is not riches per se, but a livable life. Material things do matter, but it's also nice to sleep at night". Maybe if people got more realistic that most college grads have good, but not stunning, work lives, then we will stop people feeling as though life is an endless choice between being a multi-millionaire corporate chief and a failed actor. There are thousands of careers, and yet career education focuses only on the obvious and the glamorous.
The seals are broken, though, the air breathes into career life, and I wish careers talk for collegians and high schoolers was more extensive and less rigid.
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