I’m sometimes convinced that the reason a lot of people become doctors or lawyers is due to the fact that the path to those jobs is laid out pretty well. There’s sort of a blueprint you can follow – go to college, get good grades, do well on some standardized tests, and so forth, and so forth. When you have things laid out for you like that, it’s sort of easy to find yourself gravitating towards those career paths.
Looking back at my own education and career, that’s probably why I ended up going to law school and becoming a lawyer in the first place. Sure, I told myself that I had a desire to be a lawyer. But a lawyer was also a recognizable job – one that was clearly defined and that had step-by-step processes on how to get there. As a new grad looking for a good job in a bad economy, becoming a lawyer made sense to me. It had direction.
And it’s direction that a lot of us are looking for when we’re trying to figure out how to make a living. When faced between the clear career path and charting our own path, the clear career path almost always wins – even if it’s not necessarily the right path for us. I think it’s just important for all of us to think about why we end up on the paths we choose.
The Appeal of the Clear Career Path
When you think about it, law and medicine are unique in just how structured they are. Obviously, a lot of it comes down to grades and the ability to take standardized tests (which themselves can easily be studied for and gamed). But a lot of becoming a lawyer or doctor is also following a step-by-step process that pretty much anyone with some smarts can do.
Take the example of what you need to do if you want to become a bigshot lawyer. I can pretty much boil it down to these steps:
- Get good grades at a decent undergrad.
- Get a good LSAT score.
- Go to the best law school you can get into – preferably a T-14 law school.
- Get good grades in law school and get on law review.
- Land a summer associate position at a big law firm.
- Do a prestigious clerkship.
- Be an associate at a prestigious firm.
- Make partner or go in-house at a big company.
It’s a generalization, of course, but those steps laid out above are pretty close to what you need to do to become a bigshot attorney. I’m fairly certain that I could take any reasonably intelligent 18-year old and basically guide them into a prestigious biglaw job 7 years into the future. And the process is pretty similar for doctors I imagine – basically get good undergrad grades and a good MCAT score, get good med school grades, land a prestigious residency, and so on (I’m not a doctor though, so this is all based on my experiences with my doctor friends).
For those of us looking for direction, the step-by-step process of law or medicine can obviously be very appealing. I can tell you exactly what you need to do if you want to become a doctor or a bigshot lawyer. But I can’t really tell you how to become an online entrepreneur, start a business, or do some other non-obvious job where the path isn’t really defined at all.
It’s the appeal of this clear path that I think leads to so many doctors and lawyers seemingly finding themselves unhappy and looking to do other things. That’s not to say that people don’t genuinely want to become doctors or lawyers (my wife is a clear example of someone who absolutely wants to be a dentist).
But there’s also no denying that there seem to be a lot of doctors and lawyers (myself included) who are interested in doing things unrelated to their regular jobs. A Facebook group called Physician Side Gigs has over 21,000 members. There doesn’t seem to be an equivalent lawyer group, but those of you reading this already know that I’m a lawyer that does a lot of stupid, non-legal related side hustles. And I’m not definitely not alone.
It makes me think that people found their way into these careers, not necessarily because it made the most sense for them, but because it was there.
Choose The Path That’s Right For You
The purpose of this post isn’t to say that people going into law or medicine are doing it just because the path is laid out in front of them and they aren’t able to figure out other things they can do. I know that there are a lot of people that were just born to become lawyers and doctors. And I know people who love what they do.
Really, this post is just a reflection on my own path. I went into the law because it had a clear direction – a process that I could follow. Looking back, I wish I had thought about it more and used a little bit of creativity to figure out what made sense for me.
Going to law school definitely worked well for my skill set. I’m really good at following processes and I knew exactly what I needed to do if I wanted to become a bigshot lawyer. But whether it was the right career path for me professionally is another thing.
I’m now 5 years out of law school, and 9 years out of college. I’m starting to see all of the paths that exist out there. The clear career path is the one I started out on. But I see so many things out there that people can do to make a living – things like starting up a business, getting into real estate, creating something, or really whatever. The possibilities are endless.
The clear career path may be right for you – and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it! I think it’s just important to really think about why we follow these paths. Question yourself and look deep inside you. Are they really the right paths for us? Or are we just following them because they are there? It’s up to you to figure that out.
Interesting concept, I think it applies to engineering too except it is a shorter path since you only need four years to complete it. I chose my major and never changed it and followed a very predictable path of intern, engineer, senior engineer, supervising engineer, managing engineer, facility manager, Vice President and General Manager which I could visualize from my first day on the job. In my case it fit like a glove but as you point out it does not fit everyone. I had some very good engineer friends quit their engineering jobs and go to law school after figuring out they did not like being an engineer! They became happy lawyers and very successful ones.
Financial Panther says
Thanks for sharing the engineer path. That one probably is pretty structured too. Good to see it fits you well.
Thoughtful article. I’d add to the Engineer discussion that second-career engineer is a tough row to hoe, speaking from personal experience. Wish I’d had more foresight in college.
Bernz JP says
Did not realize that I want to become a lawyer until I was in my mid-30’s. I studied accountancy, and to date, I still don’t know why I took it. Hey, at one point I thought I also want to be a professional golfer. Oh well, no regrets, just sayin!
Financial Panther says
Good to see a happy lawyer here! Second career lawyer always seems to have a better head on their shoulders compared to us K-JDs.
Love your insight! I went for a career in medicine and while passion for the healthcare field played a big role in my decision, the clear-cut path (that many of us just getting out of college were in desperate need of) became the deciding factor for why I chose my career. It’s refreshing to have you put into words what I’ve always subconsciously had in the back of my mind. Thanks for the great post!
Financial Panther says
Thanks Avery! I knew I couldn’t be the only one that was thinking this. In retrospect, I wish I had gone into something like pharmacy – seems like it would have been a better fit for my personality. But I know there are a lot of pharmacists that are looking to do other things too, so maybe it’s just a grass is greener on the other side thing.
Thanks for this timely post! I’m about to quit my “stable” job in academia–mainly because the bureaucracy is growing and making it impossible to do actual work–and I’m trying to decide between trying something totally new or sticking with my general field of expertise and just moving universities. I’m only 3 years out of undergrad so while I technically have more “flexibility,” not knowing my financial situation stresses me out a bit.
Financial Panther says
The great thing is, if you’re only 3 years out of undergrad, you probably can take chances without too much downside risk. Worst case, you will always be able to get a job. It’s important to remember that!
Joe Freedom says
Hey FP. You present a valuable insight here. I have no doubt that I took the law school/attorney route because it was clearly defined. And I really like clearly defined paths. The allure of big money sealed the deal. I second the idea that anyone attracted to this field (or any other) for these reasons should think long and hard about it. If you’re not passionate about your profession–especially one like ours that is going to take TONS of your time–eventually you will peter out.
Financial Panther says
Thanks for the comment Joe. This post got some decent responses from people, so it’s good to see that this nagging feeling I had about why I went into the law isn’t just me. There’s something about the clear path – it’s like a game that you know how to win. In many ways, that clear path is probably why FI is so attractive too – it’s often presented like a game with an obvious way to “win.”
Having done the exact same thing as you, I can sympathize! Jumped right out of undergrad into a dual urban planning/ JD program, which I plowed through in 3 years. Upon graduating, the only thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to be a lawyer! I then did the whole travel thing, before working in some law-adjacent gigs (law library, municipal employee working on legally mandated processes etc.), up until semi-recently. As of a few weeks ago I am officially working as a lawyer for the first time, a modest 7 years after graduating. It’s not lucrative but it’s easily enough for me to live on, and happens to be both a level and quantity of legal work that I don’t mind.
Hi completed my LLM 12 yrs before…. Got married and having two kids, I was doing part time lecturing in college. Due to family responsibility I quit the job…. Now interested to do something where I can manage both family and career.