Thirty summers ago, I was a summer associate for a large corporate law firm in Chicago, doing legal research and writing assignments under the supervision of attorneys representing commercial clients. The work was challenging, I was being paid handsomely, and I was working with very good lawyers who happened to be down-to-earth folks.
And yet…it didn’t feel quite right for me.
For those uninitiated in the lingo of the legal profession, “summer associate” is the usual job title for a law student who is working at a law firm for the summer. At large law firms, summer associates are brought on board with the assumption that they will be considered seriously for offers of full-time employment as associate attorneys if their work is of high quality. The pay is very good, approaching the weekly equivalent of a first-year associate’s salary.
I secured one of these jobs for the summer following my second year at NYU Law. Although I went to law school to become a public interest lawyer, I decided to give the corporate legal world a try. Also, having grown up right outside of Chicago, I wanted to see if returning to the Midwest was the right thing for me.
Even before I started, however, I knew in my heart that I was not meant to be a corporate attorney. The night before leaving for Chicago, I went to a classic Broadway musical, “42nd Street,” starring Jerry Orbach:
That show captured it for me. I didn’t want to go to Chicago.
But I went, and I worked very hard at that law firm. I tried to fit in and to be a part of it all. My law student colleagues were smart and friendly, and the firm treated us very well. Nevertheless, within a few weeks, I found myself regretting that I had passed up several offers to work for public interest legal organizations that summer. I also missed New York terribly.
How much did I feel like a fish out of water? Well, as the summer wore on, I found myself dodging the friendly “round ups” of summer associates to treat us to lunch. Instead I would grab a quick bite to eat and spend lunch hour in a bookstore. I also made excuses for not attending some of the firm’s social functions, preferring to visit various historical sites in Chicago or read the books I had purchased during my lunch breaks. (Had I been more self-aware, I also would’ve realized how those patterns revealed an introverted side that only in recent years I have come to acknowledge and value.)
Still, my objective was to secure an offer of full-time employment, as I knew it would be a good thing regardless of whether I accepted it. So I gave a maximum effort.
I got the offer soon after my summer stint ended, and for a few weeks I sat on it. But I knew I had to go a different route and declined. During my third year of law school, I accepted an offer from The Legal Aid Society in Manhattan. It turned out to be the right decision.
Since then, I have tried to be true to myself in terms of vocation. However, with a bit more maturity under my belt, I also now understand that enjoying a span of work and career choices is a huge privilege. “This above all, to thine own self be true,” wrote Shakespeare, but when it comes to earning a living, not everyone has that luxury. It’s something to consider when assessing one’s blessings in this life.