Self-Assessment Questions

Some students come to law school with concrete ideas about what they want to do with their law degrees, but many do not. Some are passionate about particular issues; others are not. Some will be happy in any setting if they can work on issues they care about. For example, some lawyers will be happy working on children's rights issues whether they are representing individual clients, litigating big law reform cases or doing policy work. For others, the nature of the work is more important than the particular issue they are working on; they are happiest when they have individual clients regardless of the subject matter of the clients' cases. Many people will need to find a combination of the right kind of work and the right kind of substance.

Feeling successful is another key aspect of job satisfaction, but different people define success differently, and conventional "success" is not as important to some as it is to others. A final and crucial element of job satisfaction is lifestyle needs. How much time you need outside work for family or personal pursuits, how much money you need to live happily, and how much stress you can tolerate are all factors that play into what is the "right" job. In order to help you sort through thinking about your job choices, we have outlined a few things that you may want to consider in choosing your summer jobs, time positions and your permanent positions:

Questions To Think About:

How do you like to work?

The nature of the work and the workplace setting may be critical to finding the right fit. Here are some factors to think about:

  • Do you love to research and write?
  • Do you need to have a great deal of contact with people? Must it be with clients or are colleagues enough?
  • What kind of client - will you be happy with a group client? How about a business as a client? Do you prefer individual clients?
  • Are you happier juggling multiple short-term assignments or would you rather spend lots of time on a few long-term assignments?
  • Do you embrace or fear a great deal of autonomy and responsibility early in your career?
  • Do you need to see the immediate results of your work or are you satisfied with the potential for eventual large impact?
  • Do you think you will like litigation - which can be somewhat adversarial - or will you prefer policy work, transactional work or other types of "lawyering"?
What practice setting do you want to work in?

There are many practice settings lawyers can work in, just within the public service arena. They include government (federal, state, local, international and intergovernmental), nonprofits, legal services, public defenders, and private public interest law firms. And of course, there are different sets of options within the private sector, including firms of all sizes, corporations, investment banks, management consultant groups, etc. Questions to ask about setting include:

  • Do you want a formal organized atmosphere, or will you be happy with a more casual non-hierarchical setting?
  • Do you seek formal training, or will you be satisfied by on-the-job training combined with some supervision and/or mentoring?
  • How important is it for the office you work in to have a great deal of resources at your disposal?
  • Will you be willing to take into account the economics of your practice? For example, private public interest law firms often have to evaluate whether a case will make money for their firm, not just whether it is the "right" case to pursue.
  • Do you have a strong need for political/ideological compatibility?
  • Do you need to feel like an activist?
  • What kind of people do you want to work with?
  • How much teamwork do you want versus working solo?
What issues do you want to work on?

If you think the substance of the work will matter to you but have not yet identified an issue area that you want to work on, these are some of the ways to think about a practice area that will grab you:

  • What have you liked and disliked from your prior work experiences and extracurricular activities?
  • What issues do you like to read about?
  • What volunteer work do you gravitate towards?
  • What academic subjects excited you in college or grab you in law school?
What are your lifestyle needs?

Career choices should not be made in a vacuum. Instead, they should take into account the other aspects of your life that are important to you. These are some of the factors you should consider:

  • How much time do you want for friends, family, hobbies, etc.?
  • How much control do you want over when you work and when you have time for other pursuits?
  • How much money do you need to live comfortably? Will you be jealous if your peers have more or better possessions than you do?
  • Geographic considerations - where do you want to start out your career?
  • Do you have geographic constraints?
  • Do you want to work in one of the few cities that HLS grads tend to gravitate towards or would you rather be a "big fish in a small pond?"
  • Are you willing to sacrifice being where the perceived "action" is in order to have a perhaps calmer lifestyle or lower cost of living?
What trade-offs are you willing to make?

There is no perfect job, though there are many great ones. Your goal is to find one you will be happy going to when you leave law school and where you will build skills. You may have to give up something to get the right fit, particularly at the beginning. Some of the items you may need to trade off are:

  • Geographic location - you may need to go to a different city than you had planned to land the right job. Or you may need to go to a different city to afford the lifestyle you want.
  • Money for responsibility - many of the jobs that give you a great deal of responsibility early on do not pay as well as some of the ones that bring you along slowly.
  • Time for outside pursuits or control over own time - some kinds of public interest positions can be very demanding; litigating positions can mean less control over your life as courts often set the time table. Don't assume that it is just large firms that require long or unpredictable hours.
  • Client contact vs. high impact - while some positions offer both, many jobs will give you either the opportunity to work with many clients or the chance to work on class action or law reform work.
How do you define success?

Different people have different measures of success. Try to come up with what will make you feel satisfied with your success level weighing these and other factors:

  • Prestige - what is prestige? Does it have to be an employer whose name people recognize?
  • Helping people - how many people/what kind of people?
  • Making a difference? On what scale? One person at a time? Entire groups of people?
  • Money - how much do you need to feel successful?
  • Fame - e.g. name in paper
  • Enjoyment of Job
  • Balanced life
  • Power

Answering These Questions

You may not know the answers to all of these questions now. In fact, if you have not had many work experiences yet, you probably do not know the answer to many of these questions. We also realize that it may be difficult to understand how the answers to these questions will help you to pick the right job or to shape your career. However, if you use your law school years wisely, you will be able to a) learn how to answer the questions about yourself and b) figure out what job meet your needs once you've answered these questions. Here are some suggestions for how you can go about answering the questions about yourself and what jobs will suit you:

Identifying issues that appeal to you:

Go over what has appealed to you in the past:

  • Look at your resume and think about what you've enjoyed working on in the past in both jobs and activities.
  • Look at the newspaper - what articles are you drawn to.
  • What classes excited you in your previous academic life.

Throughout the next three years, you can try out different subjects through:

  • Identifying what law school classes you gravitate towards and enjoy.
  • Write articles for a law journal or for the independent writing requirement to see if issues that nominally appeal to you are still exciting when you delve into them more deeply. 
  • Serve as a research assistant to a Professor who is working on subjects that seem interesting.
  • Remember though that sometimes subjects that seem dull in an academic setting may seem exciting in a real world context and vice versa. So try to make sure you try out issues in a practice setting.
Trying out different types of work:

There are a variety of ways you can sample different kinds of legal practice and different practice settings while in school. The opportunities to shop around include:

  • Summer jobs - This is the most obvious way to have substantive exposure to legal work that seems initially appealing to you. Summers are usually the only time you can work full-time for more than a month. Some students, though, opt to split the summer between two employers. HLS students who clerk upon graduation sometimes squeeze in a third summer experience.
  • Clinical placements - The clinical program offers a wide array of placements through HLS's own clinical programs and through externships at Boston area nonprofits, government agencies and private public interest law firms. This is a fabulous way to sample another type of practice while working with supervisors who have a track record. And you can obtain credit for your work!
  • Pro Bono placements - The Pro Bono Service Program is able to provide you with information about Boston-area organizations willing to take on volunteers. The Pro Bono Service Program will also provide exciting new projects that you can get involved in.
  • Student organizations - The student organizations, in particular the student practice organizations, offer a way to start to get to learn about different types of law. The practice organizations will often offer you the chance to advocate on behalf of clients. Other groups, such as Direct Action Against Poverty, offer exposure to less traditional forms of practice.
  • Winter term - You can sometimes squeeze in another job during winter term by taking a course with a clinical component, doing an externship through the independent clinical or through the independent writing option. You must meet the Clinical Program's requirements or the requirements for obtaining credit for written work in order to take advantage of these options.
Last modified: April 15, 2014

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