I went to Harvard Law School to do one of two things—be a prosecutor who puts lots of bad guys away or defend and protect children. I graduated with a realization that I didn’t really care for the law, per se, and that prosecuting would consume all my time and energy (not what I wanted). I also graduated with a ton of debt, which meant that protecting children wasn’t going to happen – those jobs are very few and far between, and they mean starting out at little to no salary. An independently wealthy friend of mine took one of those jobs after we graduated—she made $20,000 for a year before the organization had to let her go for lack of funding.
Any case, that meant that upon graduation, I just needed a job. Any job. Desperately… the economy was low, jobs were scarce, and because none of the 25+ law firms I interviewed at gave me an offer, I was looking for a job off cycle. God was good and answered my prayers in a way I could never imagine—I got an offer to join the Department of Justice doing work that fit so well with my personality and values (leadership in an internal affairs organization). I had to admit that if I was going be a lawyer, I far preferred being a cop-lawyer. And unlike prosecuting, that job wasn’t excessively time demanding. I liked that job.
Then I got pregnant. At one point, having kids seemed like an obstacle to all I wanted in my (career) life, but now it became SO MUCH MORE IMPORTANT than anything I wanted from being a lawyer. I wanted to stay home. But I couldn’t – my income potential was just too high. Financially it made a lot more sense to outsource weekday mommying to a daycare provider and to continue to work as an attorney.
But that’s okay…I resigned myself to it and set myself to make it work. Once we got the loans paid off, I’d be able to stay home. So work hard, save big, and keep your eyes on the prize—that was how I thought about it.
And that’s about the time I hit a glass ceiling at work. Long story short: they weren’t going to promote me (and pay me more) for several more years because they had a hard time seeing me as anything other than a law clerk. So I found another job.
I joined a start-up government organization and functioned as General Counsel for it. It was exciting for awhile. I still wanted to be home with my child, who was doing mostly growing up without me. But since I couldn’t, I was going to give it my all in this job. Excel, lead, make the most of this opportunity, even if it’s not ideal—that’s how I thought about it.
I had babies two and three in that job. My desire to be at home grew. We also pioneered a church during that time and my husband and I became licensed pastors. My husband left his legal career to pastor full-time. So, much of my heart was outside of my career—my kids, my husband, the people we loved through ministry. And so many demands, too – like taking care of all things that constitute the small business known as “home.” So my evenings and weekends were filled to the max. On top of that, as my success at work grew, so did the demands. What once looked like a perilous juggling act now looked (and felt) like chaos.
I don’t know if you read the article Why Women Still Can’t Have It All published in 2012 in the Atlantic Monthly by Anne Marie Slaughter, former Harvard Law professor and advisor to Hilary Clinton. She chronicles her career as a lawyer and mother and basically concludes, after learning the hard way, that it’s impossible to “have it all.” Something’s going to get sacrificed. In her case, she’s had a brilliant career, but her kids paid for it and her relationship (or lack thereof) with them reflects it.
I think I’ve found the same thing—I can’t have it all, but hopefully I’m making different choices sooner than she did. I can’t have the stellar career, smooth home life, well-parented kids, and healthy ministry. Instead, I’m choosing to re-think how I go about achieving what it is that inspired me to go to law school in the first place.
I went to law school to fight for the hopeless. To advocate for those who can’t defend themselves. To help victims. I was motivated by what modern culture calls “social justice.” But really, it’s the Gospel. In parenting, I’m protecting, defending, and advocating for children (I now have four kids, let alone their burgeoning social circles of peers who I also get to influence). In pastoring, I’m protecting people, advocating for them, bringing them real redemption and hope, helping them to take back what the enemy has stolen from them. The same core values that motivated me to go to law school are now being fulfilled through ministry and parenting.
I’ve also come to realize (thank God, and through an unfortunately painful ordeal) that I’m not that interested in pursuing career advancement as an attorney. Especially because it will come at a great cost – the cost of what I love doing, what I’m made to do (namely, making disciples, loving people, advancing the Kingdom). So I decided to stop pursuing career advancement and instead put that energy into pursuing greater Kingdom advancement. I made some big priority changing decisions—changed jobs, changed career tracks, even went part-time for a season.
On a side note, every female friend of mine from law school, except one, has left the practice of law altogether. Most of them are now stay-at-home moms. One of them is now a historian and professor. My friend who has stayed in the law now works part-time. I’m the only one still working as a full-time lawyer.
What I thought would make anything possible (with a law degree you can do anything you want, right?) actually has felt like it’s limited possibilities—especially in the things I’m most excited about doing. The combination of loan debt with high earning potential means that I have to keep working traditional legal jobs, even if they’re not what I’m really passionate about.
There’s also the “expectations” piece of it. I struggle with a nearly perpetual feeling of being a failure because my life doesn’t reflect the “success” a Harvard Law attorney should have. Other attorneys at my level from law schools nobody’s heard of are far more successful—far more promoted—than I am. I’m not supervising anyone, not leading any departments, not making a lot of money, etc. These are all things my male counterpart Harvard Law graduates have done with their careers (they also work a ton of hours, seldom see their families, and have stay-at-home wives). Even though I’ve chosen not to go that route, I still feel like I’m not living up to who I’m supposed to be. It’s this subtle lie that my degree is my identity…
Can I advance the Kingdom at work? Yes. Are some people called to do that? Placed in positions to do that? Yes. But truthfully, for me I was motivated more by my competitive nature to do the best in whatever I’m doing (including my career) than to make my career my exclusive service/ministry to God. I will love others, serve them, and bring the Truth and Light of the Gospel wherever I am, be it a cubicle, in line at the store, or behind the pulpit. But for me, my career is not an end in and of itself (as it is for most lawyers). At this point, the fulfillment, the meaning-of-life purpose that led me to law school is not being fulfilled as a lawyer; it’s being fulfilled as a pastor.
Sometimes I wonder if I never should’ve gone to law school. I didn’t foresee the radical shifting of my priorities that would occur in my mid-20s through early 30s. Knowing what I know now, I might have skipped the 3 years of law school, enjoyed my limited earning potential, and reveled in a life with my kids and serving God. But it’s a good thing I’m not in control of my life – I believe God had a plan and purpose for my law school education, one I may not know until the other side of eternity. The story of how I ended up at law school – and Harvard Law School on top of it – is nothing short of God. But that’s a story for another time. Suffice it to say that knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t have chosen to go to law school. But I believe God led me there and had a purpose for it beyond what I saw then and what I can see now.
I got some good things out of law school – I met my husband. : ) Still the greatest man I’ve ever known. I made some of my closest, lifelong friends. I developed greater, faster, and deeper thinking skills, which has helped me in nearly every venture since. My writing improved tremendously. I grew a lot spiritually – not in the positive, mountaintop experiences you’d think, but more like the in-the-gutter I’d-be-happier-dead ways. I got exposed to Foursquare and started to become Pentecostal (a transformation that didn’t complete itself for several years afterwards). And, above everything else, I got a degree that says “Harvard” on it. Sounds superficial, but that degree has gotten me a lot of instant credibility, as well as every job I’ve had, until this latest one (at some point your career starts to open doors for you rather than your school).
In short, for women who want to be attorneys, I recommend counting the costs. You can’t know what is going to matter to you in the future, but you can anticipate the nearly universal tension working women feel—if you’re going to add a husband and/or kids to your life, it’s going to get tough, and the career and family will often feel like they’re in tension with (archenemies to?) one another. Is it worth accruing a lot of debt that will lock you into more limited career options? Is it worth pursuing the higher box on the organization chart if your kids become collateral damage (see the Anne Marie Slaughter article)?
In other words, why do you really want to go to law school? Not the job you want, not the field you want to work in – the motivation behind the ambition. For me, it was to advocate for others, help the hopeless, defend and protect kids, make things right. When I think of my life’s call (or career desire) in those terms, there were a lot more options for me than just law. And I’m now working to transform my life to better align with those priorities rather than with my success as a lawyer.