My useless law degree

My Harvard Law School diploma is hanging in my basement, framed, just above my sewing table. When I used to sew, back in those halcyon days of ample free time before I had a baby, I would sometimes glance up at my diploma and think, “Huh.” Then I’d go back to sewing and forget about it, at least until I looked up again. The truth is, that diploma (and the degree it represents), which I spent three years and many tens of thousands of dollars earning, is now pretty much useless. I suppose it looks nice (not that anyone ever sees it, since, as I mentioned, it’s in my basement), but I’m certainly not using it for anything. And you know what the weird thing is? I’m totally okay with that. I wasn’t always. But I am now.

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When I graduated law school, lo these many years ago, I was pretty proud of my sparkling new J.D. degree. For one thing, that degree (and my subsequent passage of the California bar exam) was my ticket to gainful employment in the D.C. office of a large, international law firm. That degree ensured a smooth, uncomplicated path of long-term employment as an attorney, if I was willing to stay the course. Also, like it or not, my degree said something about me. At a bare minimum, it told people the following two things about me: I attended a prestigious law school, and I did the work required to graduate from that law school.

But there are also other assumptions about me that are baked into my Harvard Law School degree, I think: that I’m ambitious, that I’m smart, that I am the type of person who can make it in a tough, competitive environment. So, when people find out that I’m not practicing law (or doing anything law-adjacent, for that matter) and that I don’t plan to ever return to the law if I can help it, they’re surprised, and maybe — just maybe — a little bit judgmental. Now, it’s entirely possible that I am projecting my own insecurities about my career choices onto other people. It could be that no one gives a fig that I’m not using my J.D. to do lawyer stuff. But when I tell people that I’m no longer practicing law, I feel like they’re all wondering why I’d waste a perfectly good HLS degree to try to hack it as a writer. I used to worry about this more, this concern that people might be judging me for letting my lawyer skills go fallow as I try, unsuccessfully, to get a novel published. But as time goes by, I care less and less. This, I’m sure, is a good thing.

When people ask me what I do now, I always say that I’m a writer, period. I rarely mention that I’m also an attorney, barred in two jurisdictions, because it doesn’t seem relevant to who I am, professionally, today. But when I first left lawyering for writing three years ago, when people would ask what I did, I would always mention the fact that I was an attorney, too. I suppose I felt compelled to let people know that I was a serious person and not some artsy-fartsy weirdo sitting around writing stream-of-consciousness essays while staring moonily out the window, or whatever non-writers think it is that writers do all day.

Back then, telling people that I was a writer without also mentioning my lawyer bona fides felt inadequate, incomplete, and perhaps a little false, as well, since while I do write professionally, I’m certainly not making a living at it, and might never do so. I used to feel that to be taken seriously as a writer, I had to bolster my credentials by letting people know that I once had another professional life, one that involved wearing blazers and using two computer screens and writing on stationery with my name and my firm’s name emblazoned on it. I had a serious, structured, lawyerly life, and I left it for something completely different. I wanted people to know, though, that I was still that serious person, with serious ambitions, but I was channeling all of that seriousness into writing.

I don’t know why I cared so much about people’s impressions, mistaken or otherwise, of my career path, but I did. Maybe it was because I didn’t think people would take me seriously as a writer if I didn’t prove to them that I used to hold a prestigious professional services job, as if the two things are connected. In any case, I worry about this less now, at least partly because I have been writing (and not lawyering) for three years, and writing feels less like a fun lark and more like an honest-to-God career at this point. But mostly, I’m not bothered by the current uselessness of my law degree because I’m happier not using it. I’ve figured out that when my law degree was hanging on the wall of my office at the law firm, it wasn’t any more fulfilling to me than it is now, hanging above my sewing table. Using my law degree to be a lawyer wasn’t nurturing me as a person because, as it turns out, practicing international investment arbitration law was not the right career path for me. Writing, whether or not I am ultimately successful at it, is.

So, I’m at peace with the fact that my law degree is not being pressed into use. I don’t regret getting that degree. I loved law school. I met Al when I was there and we even overlapped for a year at HLS. I had great summer experiences as a pre-attorney. I even grew to love Boston (and that’s saying something). I would never take back any of the choices that led me to getting and using that degree, because all of them were the right ones for me at the time. But life changes, and sometimes you have to course-correct when things start to go wonky. Now, six-and-a-half years after graduating from Harvard, and three years into my career as a writer, I look at that useless law degree with abundant fondness and zero regrets. I’m glad I have it. And I’m just as glad I don’t have to use it.

3 thoughts on “My useless law degree

  1. Linda

    Thanks for this article. I went to law school too (although not Harvard) and practiced for a few years before I realized I hated it. I tried different areas of law and nope it just isn’t for me. It was a very expensive lesson to learn. I’ve been employed in a non-traditional legal career for the past ten years and am OK where I am at but am considering another career change. I have no idea what and need to be able to make ends meet. I am having a hard time figuring out what I love to do. Who knows? I love sitting with a cat an reading. LOL. But I don’t get paid to do that. Any advice you have on figuring out how to discover your passion would be helpful.

    Reply
    1. Stephanie Post author

      Hi Linda, thanks for your comment. When I was first deciding to leave my law firm job and trying to decide what to do, I read a lot of the usual fare about finding your passion, including What Color is Your Parachute? I found a lot of that helpful in sorting out what, exactly, I wanted to do. But for me, writing was always The Thing that I felt pulled to do. I started out college as an English major and my favorite class was creative writing, as a kid I always said I was going to be an author when I grew up, and I have been writing for fun since I was a child, so it made sense for me. Good luck in figuring out what you’re meant to do!

      Reply
  2. Jarrod

    Got my degree 18 years ago. Grand total of 3 years of low paying legaljobs. None of the three small firms still exist and two owed me money when I left. I can make more money in construction. The most successful “lawyer” I know moved in with his parents and he sells antiques on ebay. It’s a 20th century degree in a modern world. Glad you’ve found something else that works for you.

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