Law carries a high fixed cost (a billion dollar contract is not a million times more difficult to draft than a thousand-dollar one), and the realities of legal work reward a concentration of lawyers...in firms, government, corporations, and other legal organizations. Most new lawyers -- even those who dreamed upon entering law school of public-interest careers -- find themselves seduced by the charms of law firms. There's a good reason for this: Money is charming.
Law firms are the norm. That's where the clients are, that's where the salaries are, and that's where the prestige still is. Is that where job satisfaction is? With a few exceptions (based as much on the individual as on the firm), no. But that's asking almost too much, too soon...and it's skipping to the punchline. First, a quick discussion of some career alternatives:
Public-interest law has arisen out of our greater societal concern for those individuals and groups who have not shared equally in our bounty. Consequently, many public-interest lawyers act as advocates in a broader context than do their counterparts. This is a great attraction, as well as a source of deep satisfaction among most public-interest lawyers. The downside, naturally, is that few such positions afford the same lifestyle as is portrayed as the common image of lawyers. Many public-interest lawyers couldn't care less; most will still earn a decent, if unexceptional, living.
The answer for you is a basic one: if your desire to serve a particular interest strongly outweighs a desire for stratospheric compensation (or fancy offices), you should consider public interest law. Know, however, that the day-to-day duties of the public interest lawyer involve many of the same routines that other lawyers face. If you wish to fight for the little people, that's terrific...but it's still the same game.
Corporations were (and, in some circles, still are) a poor cousin among law firm brethren. In-house counsel were hired only after they had been denied partnership in a firm...and were then expected to move on. Worse, corporations traditionally would allow in-house counsel to do only the most basic work, and farm out the good stuff to...law firms. (This is now sometimes true for the protection of a firm's malpractice insurance.) Thus, the snobbish condescension. Further -- this might seem surprising, today -- very few corporations had many lawyers. Even the largest banks, which now require a heavy concentration of lawyers dedicated to a complex, ever-changing body of banking law, previously employed only a handful of lawyers (and many moved into management).
Laws have become rapidly more complex, and corporations are waking to the economies of sharp in-house counsel -- and to the competitive sharpness of sharp in-house counsel. Work satisfaction? Based on purely anecdotal information, in-house lawyers seem to be happier in their jobs than are law firm associates. Why? The work, for one. It is usually front-line stuff, and it usually consumes less of one's personal life. Evenings and weekends are (usually) free. Benefits are usually excellent. And the work is usually more directly connected to a positive goal, rather than to a redistributive one.
Government has, of course, always been a haven for lawyer-types. The prestige of government service is mixed, depending upon where you serve and for whom. (Judicial clerkships don't really count, because they're training for high-powered law firm, judicial, or academic careers. Still, they are a wise move for any new lawyer.) A position as assistant district attorney is not directly comparable to a law firm associateship, in part because it too is often a training ground for lateral hires (or for politics). In both judicial clerkships and AG positions, however, the experience (and contacts) are invaluable. Federal is, generally writing, more prestigious. Enforcement, legislative, or judicial (as opposed to administrative), likewise.
Work satisfaction? Again anecdotally, government lawyers seem to be happier in their jobs than are law firm associates. Why? The work, for one. Just think who your client is. It is usually bigger-picture stuff, and it usually consumes less of one's personal life. Evenings and weekends are (usually) free. Benefits are usually excellent. And the work is usually more directly connected to policy ideals of law school memories, rather than to the redistributive ones of practice.
Gee. That sure sounds like a vote for Door Numbers Two, Three, or Four. Well, yes, with a very large, looming caveat: Law firms are still the norm. It is easier to go elsewhere from a firm than vice versa. A law firm will provide vital training -- and contacts. Again, a few years as an Assistant District Attorney is considered training for firms, but the effect is often circular as the more prestigious firms feed from, and feed, government offices. In a firm, you'll work (much) harder, but the money's better, as are the prestige and the later career options.
Satisfaction? It boils down to what you want. What's important to you? If you want to be a powerful, wealthy lawyer, and have the temperament (and the grades), you pretty much must go to a firm (and not just any firm, but the most prestigious one your credentials will allow.) If you're not sure whether you'd like to be a powerful and wealthy lawyer, but you have a shot at a big firm...go for the big firm. The set-up for a new lawyer is truly invaluable. Later, after you've decided, affirmatively, what you want...can you make a knowledgeable career move.
Think this through very, very seriously. Talk with lawyers. (If you don't know any lawyer-friends, then go to your local bar association and make some.) And figure out -- before you start out -- what you want. If you've already started, then take advantage of whatever position you hold, and take charge of your career, not the other way 'round.
Thane J. Messinger is the author of The Young Lawyer's Jungle Book: A Survival Guide