Tuesday night I found myself embroiled in a conversation wherein my companion set forth that the U.S. is unique. Here, people with very public images can reinvent themselves and the public finds the changes credible. His examples were abundant and convincing, and I found myself completely agreeing. Yes, I thought, it really is possible to change here!
Except, of course, in one's employment.
The one question that I have been asked in every single interview is, "Do you think that you will be happy in a non-firm environment?" Translation: "You worked at a big firm, and we assume that you are just applying to this job because you happen to be unemployed. Can you prove us wrong?" After years of being told that working at a firm for a few years opens an infinite array of doors, I find that it is actually slamming them shut in my face.
I am not going to apologize for working at a large firm. It was a good career choice at the time, and it may well be an environment to which I return. However, the first day that I worked for a big law firm was after I graduated from law school. Before law school I worked for several non-profit organizations, and even during law school I took a slightly less common route, choosing a mid-sized litigation boutique my first summer and working in management consulting my second. In short, I've never lacked for diversity in my career path, so you would think it unsurprising that I would continue that trend.
Let me take a different approach: Why are teams of attorneys so good at trivia night? We are not inherently smarter or better educated, but we are more diverse. If you took a team of attorneys and asked for their undergraduate degrees, you would find chemists, art historians, psychologists, literary scholars, and of course a fair share of political scientists. On the other hand, if you take a team of doctors and put them to the same question, you will find almost entirely science backgrounds. Fortunately for us, variety is key to success in trivia games.
There is no single path to becoming a lawyer, and most of us had careers and interests established long before attending our first law school class. For example, the University of Virginia listed these, among others, as jobs previously held by my graduating class:
... rocket scientist; constructing jumping courses for horse shows; development assistant for Harvard; editor of Venture Capital Journal; farm hand; cook and first mate on a yacht; editorial assistant for the New York Law Journal; assistant editor of an architecture magazine; tax accountant; lab technician in a genetics lab; national security consultant for Booz Allen; media buyer; executive director of the Tennessee Forests Council; press secretary for Rep. Dennis Cardoza; farmhand on an organic farm ...
We are all a product of our experiences, and those experiences vary considerably, so why do we all become uniform the moment we begin our careers as attorneys? Public interest lawyers are branded one way, firm attorneys another, and government employees a third. Perhaps one person chose to work for the government after law school because he did not want to spend the first two years of his career as a litigator handling document review, but is now interested in breaking into the private sphere. Another may have worked in non-profit organizations in his youth, but chose a firm following law school, intending to acquire the best training possible but return to "fighting the good fight" at a later date. And some genuinely do not know what the correct path for them is until they are on one and discover that it does, or does not, fit.
Individuals' motives are complex and wide-ranging, and in employment, as in life generally, people should not be defined by one choice. Given the economy, I understand employers' concern that a candidate is only considering a position with them because there are no other options. Unfortunately, when this worry is weighted too heavily, an organization might just lose out on a fantastic employee.