Throwback Thursday: Being a fish out of water (Summer 1984)

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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.

4 responses

  1. It sounds like the time in Chicago at least helped you clarify where you wanted to be and exactly what path you wanted to take in your career!

    1. Yes, as I tell my students, using your years in school to cross things off your list can be as valuable as finding things to add to it.

  2. And it’s no wonder that you came back to NYU for your 3rd year all fired up to work on getting the Loan Forgiveness Program established at NYU Law. You were an awesome force, and those were some good times. Great to read your musings!

    1. Patrick, you were our fearless leader on the LRAP campaign! And for callow young folk like me, you were a role model and source of support generally.

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