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telling it like I think it is: sunili’s blog

Posts Tagged ‘law firms

career choices (advice from Michelle Obama)

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Ohmygod you guys!!

We just had to select our preferences for the first year rotation at The Firm next year, and have been invited to end of the month drinks to meet everyone, right, and just I randomly found this article from the WashPo – an exerpt from Michelle: A Biography, that is totally speaking to me right now re my life choices as mentioned the other week (and also here).

I am currently flipping out.

Since I can’t really put any coherent thoughts together, I will copy out the relevant bits, but you might want stop reading now because I am about to gratuitously compare my life to Michelle Obama’s.

Here we go:

A driven, focused student, Michelle had propelled herself into the Ivy League and, as a summer associate at Sidley, was starting to reap the benefits. Along with 60 or so other law students, she spent the summer of 1987 being courted by the firm’s highly paid partners — going to baseball games, lunches and happy hours. Her stint there led to a full-time job offer and a stark choice: Work as an associate at a big-name law firm earning about $65,000 a year, or look for something more public service-oriented but likely to be less lucrative.

GAH!!! That’s MY stark choice RIGHT NOW!!!

…she acknowledged that her years at Princeton had changed her. She entered the university, she wrote, determined to use her education to benefit the black community. But by the time she was preparing to graduate, she was not nearly so sure where her obligations lay. “As I enter my final year at Princeton, I find myself striving for many of the same goals as my White classmates — acceptance to a prestigious graduate or professional school or a high paying position in a successful corporation. Thus, my goals after Princeton are not as clear as before.”

GAH again!! I wanted to save Sri Lanka and stuff!!! But then I accepted the fancy job!!!!!!

In Michelle’s case, Sidley Austin was offering a prestigious name and a lucrative starting salary. Michelle had grown up with parents who lived paycheck to paycheck. She had student loans to pay off. In the end, she went with the private firm, a conventional choice and one she would eventually urge others not to make.

OHMYEFFINGGOODNESSSSSSS!!!!

I should stop now, but then there’s this, which is TOTALLY ME RIGHT NOW THIS YEAR and therefore makes the previous stuff MORE APPLICABLE:

She was, White recalls, “quite possibly the most ambitious associate that I’ve ever seen.” She wanted significant responsibility right away and was not afraid to object if she wasn’t getting what she felt she deserved, he says.

At big firms, much of the work that falls to young associates involves detail and tedium. There were all sorts of arcane but important rules about what could and could not be said or done in product advertisements, and in the marketing group, all the associates, not just the new ones, reviewed scripts for TV commercials to make sure they conformed. As far as associate work goes, it could have been worse — “Advertising is a little sexier than spending a full year reading depositions in an antitrust law suit or reviewing documents for a big merger,” says White — but it was monotonous and relatively low-level.

Abner Mikva, a former congressman and federal judge who is close to the Obamas and was an early mentor to Barack, finds that account of Michelle’s 20-something impatience amusing. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” he says. Michelle is “clearly somebody who likes to make decisions and likes to be involved in exciting and important stuff. I can imagine writing memos for other lawyers — I don’t think that would have been her favorite dish of tea.”

Well at least that totally disproves the Whiny Gen-Y theory! Victory! I’m just an ambitious person, just like Michelle Obama, that’s all. No need to categorise that work/ambition/whinging thing any further.

Moving on through the article, on to the life/career choices stuff… there’s this bit about when Barack took her to meet a group of people he had worked with as a community organizer before he started law school:

Barack stood up that day, and he spoke words that have stayed with me ever since. He talked about the world as it is, and the world as it should be. And he said that, all too often, we accept the distance between the two, and we settle for the world as it is, even when it doesn’t reflect our values and aspirations.”

Yes. The crux of my dilemma.

The next bit of the article goes through the cutesy stuff about them going out, having a long distance relationship while Barrack was studying, getting engaged etc — she she kept nagging about getting marred.

Um. Nope. Totally not the same as her on this bit at all. I have not ever waited for boyfriend while he was studying far away NOR nagged aforemention boyfriend (of nearly four years) that we should just get married. Nup. Never.

Anyway. That’s not the point. The point is about careers:

… Michelle was ready to revisit the choice she’d made when she graduated from Harvard. At the time, she was still reeling from the death of her father in 1991. Fraser Robinson had died while getting ready to go to work, felled by what Barack, in his book “The Audacity of Hope,” describes as complications from a kidney operation. This was an event of enormous emotional and psychological magnitude for Michelle and the rest of her family. At the Democratic National Convention, she described her father as “our rock. Although he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his early 30s, he was our provider. He was our champion, our hero. But as he got sicker, it got harder for him to walk. It took him longer to get dressed in the morning.

“But if he was in pain, he never let on. He never stopped smiling and laughing, even while struggling to button his shirt, even while using two canes to get himself across the room to give my mom a kiss. He just woke up a little earlier, and he worked a little harder.”

His death made Michelle aware of how short life can be and prompted her to reflect, she has said in interviews. “If what you’re doing doesn’t bring you joy every single day, what’s the point?”

Her father’s death wasn’t the only one she was grieving. In 1990, one of Michelle’s closest friends from Princeton, Suzanne Alele, had died from cancer when she was only in her 20s. Alele, a computer specialist at the Federal Reserve, had always followed her heart, doing what felt right rather than what was expected of her. She was described in her alumni obituary as a “free spirit” who was much loved by her classmates.

Michelle resolved to live her own life in that vein. “I wanted to have a career motivated by passion and not just money,” she would tell the New York Times years later.

(emphasis added.)

Ok, truly, I am lucky that my dad nor any closest friends have died (touchwood), but that point is still pertinent to this whole dilemma.

And learning from other people’s mistakes/misfortunes/lessons is the best thing ever, right?

Ok, this is also something I worry about about, CLRLY making me even more the same as her:

In a 2004 interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, Michelle also expressed a lingering sense of guilt about enjoying so much material success as a big-firm lawyer while others who shared her origins and upbringing were not doing as well. She remembers asking herself, “Can I go to the family reunion in my Benz and be comfortable, while my cousins are struggling to keep a roof over their heads?”

Moreover, she wasn’t enthralled with the work at Sidley Austin and apparently didn’t think many of her colleagues were, either. “I didn’t see a whole lot of people who were just thrilled to be there,” she told Newsweek earlier this year. “I met people who thought this was a good life. But were people waking up just bounding out of bed to get to work? No.”

Yup. Same. I have lots of guilt about that stuff (like here) and, in the last few weeks, even in my non-corporate-law-firm job but that is still dealing with boring-corporate-law, I have been raaaather miserable.

Anyway, then: Michelle went to work at Chicago Department of Planning and Development:

Michelle’s new job was “economic development coordinator,” which city records describe as “developing strategies and negotiating business agreements to promote and stimulate economic growth within the City of Chicago.”

Hello! TOTALLY wrote my thesis on something in that broad general field!!

So now, having established that I AM JUST LIKE MICHELLE OBAMA, let’s have a look-see at what she has advised young people to do with their career choices:

After three years of toiling on behalf of Barney [as in, “The Dinosaur”] and Coors beer, Michelle was working to bring new jobs and vitality to Chicago’s neighborhoods. It was a turning point in her career and in the way she would later frame her life story. Michelle didn’t just leave the world of corporate law; she would go on to publicly reject it.

We don’t need a world full of corporate attorneys and hedge-fund managers,” she said earlier this year as she campaigned in South Carolina.

She and Barack both make a point of talking about how they left corporate America (After graduating from Columbia University, Barack spent one year as a researcher for a Manhattan financial firm before becoming a community organizer) and devoted themselves to public service. “We left corporate America, which is a lot of what we’re asking young people to do,” Michelle said at a campaign event in Ohio this past winter. “Don’t go into corporate America. You know, become teachers. Work for the community. Be social workers. Be a nurse. Those are the careers that we need, and we’re encouraging our young people to do that.

So there you have it. The advice from Michelle Obama, THE WOMAN TO WHOM I AM TOTALLY JUST A MINI-HER, on THE VERY DECISION I AM LOOKING AT MAKING RIGHT NOW.

Oh gods. I need to lie down.

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Written by Sunili

8 October 2008 at 9:30 pm

The Pinstriped Prison

with 8 comments

I read this book in less than 24 hours. For someone who’s spent MONTHS reading just one particular book, that is indeed a little unusual.

But I had quite the impetus to get though this quickly:  for me, it was an A Christmas Carol-ish story of my life past and what could possibly await me in the future. (But also it was written in a very conversational manner that made it super easy to read)

A few weeks ago, M forwarded me an article from the Melbourne Age’s ‘Sunday’ magazine. It was an excerpt from a forthcoming non-fiction title by Lisa Prior about how the best and brightest university students in Australia (who had mostly gotten into Law at uni by being freakishly over-achieving high school students) get sucked into corporate firms.

Hrm.

Sounded kinda familiar. I had to know more.

I picked the book up on Friday and devoured it the next day. But sometimes I had to stop and breathe.  It’s a surprise when you find that the book you are reading actually seems like your biography.

At one stage I had to shut the book after I mentally ticked nearly all the boxes of the mini-quiz entitled  “Could You be A Neurotic, Status-Conscious, Overachieving, Workaholic Control Freak?”

Um.

Shut. Up.

The book’s chapters outlines each aspect of Pryor’s argument about the way over-achieving wunderkinds get shipped into law school and then seduced by the Big Firms into dreary, horrible jobs they end up hating.  Each chapter ends with amusing quizes or points of information that help you figure out if you’re at high risk of turning into a pinstripped inmate.

Pryor became my Ghost of High school Past when outlining the way private school darlings who do way more than anyone really needs to lock themselves away

amid swimming carnival ribbons and inter-house debating pennants, highlighting and cross-referencing, juggling sticky-notes and flash cards, recording the number of hours study this day and this week devoted to each subject in hand-drawn rosters, carefully calculating the minimum mark they will need to get in their Othello essay to maintain the number one rank in the top English class, before running off to senior school choir practice, hockey, flute lessons, dance eisteddfods or rugby training.

If that paragraph had had Medea instead of Othello, school production instead of choir, netball instead of hockey (and no dance or rugby or any mention of winning ribbons of any sort) I would worry that Lisa Pryor spied on me as a teenager.

But. Oh fuck. I really was that much of a tool, wasn’t I? Yeesh.

Anyway. Back to the book.

Pryor continues from that breathless list with the following observation:  “In every activity they will be scored, marked and ranked, ranked, ranked against their peers.”

And, you see, it is this trait of constantly competing and ranking and fighting for top spot that makes kids like us (who get into Law — the course that only allows students with the top-top marks — and then graduate with prizes and honours and what have you) the perfect fodder for the law firm recruitment rigmarole my friends and I only know too well.

The chapter entitled “Recruitment Brochure Bingo”, which outlines how Every. Single. Firm describes themselves as “unique, dynamic and diverse”, would be gut-splittingly hilarious if it didn’t gut-wretchingly make me realise that I got so totally sucked in by it all:

“The recruitment brochure is a weapon in the propaganda assault that big firms unleash on graduating students.  The genre is as manipulative as military recruitment material, only with a whole lot more stock photography of skyscrapers.”

The brochures are, of course, supplemented with the “information evenings” aka canapés and champers nights, coffee outings and all the fancy breakfasts, lunches, dinners you get while on vacation clerkships.  There is a thought-provoking question related to all of this:

Big firms are terribly eager to make the jobs they offer seem fabulous and desirable.  They go to expensive lengths to bribe students with free food, twilight drinks and sponsorship money. For all the questions overachieving braniacs ask during the recruitment process, they seem to miss the most important one: if these firms are really so brilliant and do offer a life beyond compare, why do they have to work so hard to convince people to join?

Dun dun dun! Sounds foreboding, doesn’t it?

Pryor also makes the connection between the way the firms use corporate sponsorship of law school competitions and events to get themselves known to the kiddies and the lack of money available to student guilds and associations in general.  I won’t get into the voluntary student unionism thing here, but let me just say this one thing: the Law Student Society at uni always had more money, and did the best events and services, which benefited a small proportion of the uni’s students, while the Student Association that was supposed to cater for the whole campus had to scrimp and beg and forgo. She’s not making any of this up.

The Ghost of Law Career Future scared me a heck of a lot more. I am standing at the precipice of starting as a law grad at one of the very firms Pryor paints as hell (there is a rather funny fable about vacation clerkships at the start of Chapter 7).

Just to dilute my panic a little, I am making a fellow Over-Achieving Nutjob (whom I love dearly) who went to high school with me and will be starting there with me next year read this book so that we can pow-wow about it. Because there is a lot to take in, and many, many, many variables that I need to consider, and I will leave them all for another post.

It is sufficient here to say that Pryor has stories from several people who have been sucked into the corporate black hole. Some came out alive, some are still there. But we all know about the dramatically high rates of depression and anxiety (and often, self medication) among lawyers, and that is something all law students need to think really hard about.

But one thing needs to be noted at this point: Law is NOT for everyone. For the ones who don’t drop out of law school and end up in the Big Firms, there will be some who love it, want to be there, have always wanted to be there, and are meant to be there.

(M, my sweet darling boyfriend, is one of those people.  That kinda absolutely freaks me out, but fact that thoughts of being A Partner’s Partner makes me want to throw up, is, also, another story.)

And then there will be others who do not feel the same way. They get in and realise much too late that they hate it, and come out with the stories of woe and misery.  They will hate looking up archaic points of law or figuring out if that conjunction in that contract should be an “and” or an “or”, and will go home every night and cry themselves to sleep, before they jump off a building or write the next Hell Has Harbour Views.

I got a feeling from the book that one of the biggest problems here is the nature of the education system.  The way tertiary entrance is merely a process aimed at ranking everyone to compete for a few select spots in a few select courses that, somehow, are deemed to be more worthy and respectable than others means that kids who aren’t supposed to be lawyers end up studying law, and then end up in jobs they hate.

Again, though, the despicablility of the way tertiary education is heading is another story for another post.  But I hear the Uni of Melbs is making law post-grad only and I think that’s totally the right idea.

There is another thesis in the book which impacts everyone, not just the Over-Achieving Law Nutjobs.  And this is essentially that the cream of the clever country’s clever cookies were being stashed away in private cookie jars to only be chewed up by partners and clients of law, banking or business consulting firms. The public didn’t get the benefit of what these kids have to offer, and Pryor asks:

What does it mean for us as a nation when so many of our cleverest people are being siphoned from careers in which they could be doing something useful?

As I consider myself quite the Tim Tam, and, at that, one who went into law school thinking it was the first step in my journey to save the world (because we all know, Tim Tams fix everything), this is quite the conundrum. But, again, enough about me.

Generally speaking, on one hand, I reckon the fact that we have to pay for our own bloody degrees now means that if we can work in A Firm and love it and rake in the cash, no-one should tell us otherwise.  If, however, we didn’t have to pay back HECS or HELP or whatever acronym the next government comes up with for the privilege of a tertiary education, then there might be some more merit in an argument that the firms are sucking up the brains of the clever country. (I wonder how busy Jenny Macklin’s office is at the moment? I think I have some submissions on The Future Of Higher Education to write.)

There is also a chapter on the massive problems about getting women up the ranks in these firms.  Disheartening stuff.  I’ve spoken and written on this issue before and, again, I have suggestions for  proposed solutions which I’ll put in another post. This is a book review, people, focus.

After outlining who gets sucked in and how, Pryor provides a few ideas for how to break out of jail, along with the stories of others who’ve done it before. (Did y’all know that cool “Flipside” burger bar in North Freo is run by a Firm Escapee?).  It wasn’t too preachy or anything, but this is the closest thing to a self-help book I’ve actually read (cf bought. Which I do. A lot. Because I’m neurotic).

While there are times when the author seems rather bitter and spiteful about private school kids and law firm princess, I have to admit there is still truth in the stereotypes, and Pryor’s cautionary tale is of the sort that tells you to learn from other people’s mistakes before you make them yourself.

Just a final note: I have not yet made any decisions about the next few years of my life. I have to survive the next few months, first.  Damn you to hell, Alan Bond. But first, may you die a pauper, you smarmy git.

Ahem. That is all.

The Pinstriped Prison
Lisa Pryor (Picador, Sydney: 2008), 272pp.

Written by Sunili

30 September 2008 at 6:34 pm