Love or Money? A Question for English Majors and/or Future Lawyers

TCS with Quote and Line

[WordPress has reminded me that it’s my blog’s anniversary! I set it up on June 9, 2012, and my first true post was on June 10th. It’s hard to believe that four years has gone by so fast. Happy Birthday, The Misfortune of Knowing! Okay, back to the post:]


In my comments on Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, I discussed Sugar’s graduation speech to a class of writers, a group tired of being told that “being an English major prepares you for law school.” Instead of that typical advice, she said:

You’re going to be all right. And [] not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way. […]

You have to do what you have to do. There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.

That’s right: “There is absolutely nothing wrong with law school, but don’t go unless you want to be a lawyer.”

The conventional wisdom is that lawyers are a particularly unhappy group of people, even though satisfaction surveys actually indicate that many lawyers are pleased with their careers. However, some are not. Of the unhappy lawyers, how many are people who never really wanted to be lawyers in the first place? How many had an unrealistic impression of what “being a lawyer” really means?

As I said in my post on Strayed’s advice:

No two lawyers are alike. The only thing a law degree does [in the United States] is give us is the ability to sit for a 2-3 day-long bar exam in the state(s) of our choice. Then, if we pass, we can say we’re lawyers, members of a profession that is so diverse that the term is almost meaningless, like if every oncologist, dentist, immunologist, and veterinarian was called “doctor” without any further delineation.

Imagine a person who went to law school because they wanted to be like To Kill a Mockingbird’s Atticus Finch (pre-Go Set a Watchman, presumably). How happy is that person when they find themselves representing Wall Street upon graduation? They’re making more money than the real-life Atticus Finch-types are, but job satisfaction and money aren’t necessarily correlated.

I thought about this topic when I read Clare Ashton’s That Certain Something, a novel I included in my Diverse Books Tag. This cute romantic comedy (which takes place in the UK) raises a couple of issues, including:

  • When it comes to relationships, do you prioritize love or money?
  • How about when you choose a job?

With both romantic relationships and occupations, it seems that prioritizing money rarely results in happiness.

When it comes to careers, many people don’t have the luxury of choosing a job. Options are limited in our current economic climate, even for lawyers from prestigious law schools. However, it seems like the lawyers with the greatest number of career opportunities–the ones who went to top 10 law schools–are among the least happy lawyers.

That is, if they joined “Big Law,” the large private law firms that typically represent huge companies in transactions and litigation.

The ones who went into public interest law (as I did) tend to be happier at least in part because the work is meaningful. It’s easy to love your job when you care about the work you do, even if the pay barely covers law school debt.

With Big Law, as Professor Organ noted in What Do We Know About the Satisfaction/Dissatisfaction of Lawyers? A Meta-Analysis of Research on Lawyer Satisfaction and Well-Being (PDF), some of the lawyers’ dissatisfaction stems from how hard it is to see “how they are contributing to the common good” (because, quite frankly, they’re usually not).

I also suspect that there comes a point when these lawyers look around their swanky 19th floor offices at 10 PM and think, “Is this all there is? Is this why I went to law school?” They can afford a very comfortable lifestyle, but they don’t have the personal time to actually live it.

Money definitely isn’t everything.




  1. First, happy blogiversary!

    Next, wow, what a thrill to see you linked to an article by one of the professors at the law school where I work! I’m in the library and since the law school bubble burst a few years ago, there are fewer students overall but the ones who are here want to be lawyers. Though some think they do when they start and then change their minds by the end. With all the debt a law student ends up with and very few of them making three-figure salaries, it definitely has to be something you want to do. Not many of them majored in English as undergrads I find. I did and have a grad degree in English too and I am not a lawyer and definitely doing ok 🙂

    1. Thank you! What a nice coincidence that I linked to an article by a professor at the law school where you work. It’s great that you’re seeing fewer people in law school who went simply because they didn’t know what else to do. I feel like a lot of my classmates would have been happier had they followed their hearts. There were a lot of English, Philosophy, and History majors in my class (I was a History major). I considered pursuing a History PhD, but I’m glad I changed my mind about that.

      1. I briefly considered history as a degree option but went with English lit instead 🙂 There are still students with English, history and philosophy but many of them seem to have political science or business degrees. A very few have science degrees and hope to get into patent law. Almost all of them are interested in going out into the world and making a difference which is really heartening.

  2. Oh my goodness, I couldn’t imagine taking on something huge like law school or medical school if I wasn’t really passionate about it.

    I think the best we can hope for is to make enough money not to be worried about making ends meet every day, while working at a job that makes us feel good at the end of the day!

    1. “I think the best we can hope for is to make enough money not to be worried about making ends meet every day, while working at a job that makes us feel good at the end of the day!”

      So true! I know far too many people who went to law school because they just didn’t know what else to do. In some cases, their parents strongly encouraged it. That’s technically true in my case, but it wasn’t a bad decision for me.

      Have a great weekend, Lindsey!

  3. I always wonder how people with high-pressure, demanding jobs that last long hours feel at the end of things. I suppose some are happy, even if they end up losing their families because of it, but I’m guessing many realize they worked worked worked and have little to show for it but a flush bank account. What is important in life is an individual decision, and it probably changes as the years go by. I never chose work. 😉

    1. It’s hard. Last week, I was at a meeting where a powerful partner at a large law firm lamented how she’s never home for dinner with her kids. I can’t imagine missing that part of my children’s lives. I’m dedicated to my job, but thankfully, it doesn’t force me to make those kinds of sacrifices. At the same time, though, it’s a nonprofit position that doesn’t make the kind of money a law firm partner would. What makes it worthwhile is that I work on issues I care about.

  4. Happy fourth! My daughter, who graduated with a BA in English last May, took to heart what John Green said when he came back to Kenyon a couple of years ago: “you don’t have to go to law school.”

    1. Thank you! These last four years have been a lot of fun. John Green’s advice is good. I wish more people realized they didn’t have to go to law school. It’s an expensive mistake to make!

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