The Big Law Trap

The following is a guest essay by Ranjit Saimbi.

I remember a kid called Rupert saying that he wanted to be a “corporate lawyer” when he grew up. We had this conversation at age fifteen, and Rupert knew as much of the world as I did. That’s to say, not very much.

When you have conversations at this age, they are necessarily flights of fancy. There is no first hand experience to draw on, most statements are flippant, and none more so than this one.   

The words “corporate lawyer” meant Italian suits, shiny shoes and slicked-back hair. It meant striding purposefully through high-rises, and of course, that snake-like, but charming sensibility, that lawyers from films seemed to have. It wedged itself in my subconscious, and when it came to the decision of choosing a career, this image bubbled back up, along with all the usual rationalisations of “interesting work” and “international opportunities”.     

The decision to become a corporate lawyer happened with gravitational subtlety. I found myself writing out applications and attending interviews in my final term at university, and from that point, continued doing so. 

After attending a jobs fair at university, it seemed to me that the only careers were accountancy, banking, consultancy and law. I didn’t see myself as numerate, having studied English Literature for the last three years, and I couldn’t wrap my head around what consultants actually did. I briefly thought about advertising, but the road seemed too unclear, and so I threw myself into the process of becoming a lawyer. 

It made sense. When another student asked me about my plans after university, I had the solidity of an answer. It had suitable gravitas, and communicated that I was a serious and intelligent person. 

The great thing about choosing a career like law is that the steps are laid out for you. Life’s existential fears are traded for certainty. Even the uncertainty of winning a training contract was off-set by how formulaic a process it was to land one: attend work experience, attend a summer scheme, talk-up made up extra-curricular activities etc. 

University had finished, and I had been rejected from the firms I had interviewed at. I was looking down the barrel of a very empty summer, and if things didn’t change, an empty life. I was in bed facing another empty day, when I received the phone call from a partner at a prestigious American law firm. The news was good. I yelled downstairs to my mum that I had got the job. 

The mythos of my achievement continued unabated: a prestigious university, a prestigious degree and now a prestigious job. 

In the end, after five years at the same law firm, I quit. The work was uninspiring, the hours were long, and the money didn’t really make up for any of it. 

Looking back at this “decision making process” (if you can call it that), I feel the naivety of my younger self. I was ignorant of the world and how it operated,  but I was also ignorant of my inner landscape. I was ill equipped to make big decisions. 

I found the lack of autonomy difficult to deal with. A big transaction coming through the door, whilst making the partners’ eyes roll with dollar signs, filled me with dread. Even holidays were filled with anxiety. The buzz of the phone became a constant torment. Just that little vibration could pull me from wherever I was to the office. I was a slave. Virtually no time in my waking life was safely my own.  

It was claustrophobic and all encompassing, and left little space to consider my real drivers and motivations. Creative impulses that I had had throughout my life lay abandoned, and I didn’t have the emotional or imaginative energy to think about the existential questions that I had dodged as a graduate. 

The likelihood of being the person who is compatible with the life of a corporate lawyer is small. Yet, law firms would have you believe that the job is all client meetings and drinks. The graduate recruitment machinery is a slick operation, with shiny presentations and canapéd drinks receptions. There is a lot of talk about “interesting work” and “international opportunities”, but little of the grind that lasts, for most, for whole careers. 

I wonder now, if a generation of graduates will make the same sorts of decisions made with similarly shaky reasoning. Will they be more discerning, and will they look behind the glossy words that these sorts of institutions are so good at spinning out? More so, though, I hope that young people coming out of universities don’t feel compelled to wander into decisions.

You have time, you can take risks. You can explore, and you can be curious.

Ranjit is currently working as a developer while he finishes his first novel. You can find him on Twitter or LinkedIn

About Paul Millerd

Paul is a writer, creator, and curious human that is passionate about how people can reimagine their relationship with work to do things that matter. He published The Pathless Path in 2022.

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