The Price of Social Change

Whenever I am asked by my parents what I want to do once I leave the booze and sex filled fairytale land that is Duke, and embark on what can only be grudgingly referred to as ‘the real world,’ I give them the same answer they’ve heard for the past five years: “law school.”

But seeing as I take courses more so focused on gender and sexuality as opposed to politics and philosophy, this answer usually doesn’t satisfy them.

“But like, you are going to make money, right?” is often the question that follows. I usually answer defiantly, making respectable fields like “international human rights law” and “gender equity law” sound like taunts, rolling off my tongue with a certain level of acidity that is usually reserved for insulting my worst enemy. My parents are worried that I may be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt after school with no way of paying it off unless I work in a traditional high-paying field.

And I’d be lying if I said I didn’t at least share some of their sentiments.

From a young age I was always taught to value money. Not for the flashy things it could immediately get me, but rather what it could provide if I saved enough of it. An education. A downpayment on a house. Things that my parents considered luxury items but what most consider items necessary for survival. See, my parents immigrated from Czech Republic in the late 80’s speaking no English, with little to no money in savings, and with a young child in tow from my mother’s first marriage. They are the epitome of the American dream, with my mother getting her nursing degree after cleaning houses for several years, and my father working as an HVAC Mechanic for a large pharmaceuticals company after doing basic janitorial work wherever he could. Because of the importance they placed on saving as much money as they could, they were able to send my brother and me to two extremely expensive private universities. They celebrated smart investment decisions last year by buying a third home. In their eyes, going in to low paying nonprofit work would be the ultimate slap in the face because it would mean that the money they spent on my education would be something of a waste. Every decision in life has a cost-benefit analysis. Even during this unpaid internship, my parents have been asking me to come home on the weekends and lifeguard at my old pool club in order to make some extra cash. 

But truthfully, my parents’ disapproval of going in to the nonprofit sector is not the only thing keeping me from engaging in this kind of work. At what point can you say it isn’t worth it to you anymore? If you really cared about ‘the movement’ then you wouldn’t care about money, right? How can you help others if you are struggling so hard to make it yourself? Many of the people I’ve encountered in the nonprofit sector (including the President of my organization) have held corporate jobs first, making enough for a comfortable safety net and then embarking on their ‘true passions.’ Admittedly, this seems like much more of a viable option for me, as expectations for post-graduation have been piling up on my shoulders like permanent cinderblocks. I don’t consider myself a sellout so much as I consider myself a realist. But perhaps that’s just what I tell myself in order not to feel guilt when I see that others are making it happen.

6 thoughts on “The Price of Social Change

  1. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being a realist. I’d offer this about my experience in law school for whatever its worth. Many people (including me) gravitated toward law school out of an interest in and sense of commitment to social justice issues. For a lot of reasons, most of us ended up going to large private law firms after graduation. First, there were precious few jobs in the non-profit sector available to recent law school grads, and they were very hard to get. That’s not to say you won’t be a stellar candidate for them, and some of my classmates in fact did pursue and land these jobs and are happy and successful there. But you can imagine that with limited resources non-profits are only able to employ a small staff who can hit the ground running. Similarly, the perception was (people who work at non-profits can better advise on whether this is true) that working at a non-profit was not the best training ground to acquire a broad base of skills as a practicing lawyer, and therefore it would be more difficult to transition to other jobs. By contrast, law schools have a pretty well-oiled machine that funnels grads into law firm jobs, where people generally stay for a short time, develop a broad skill set, and then leave (unless you’re like me and end up really liking it). Occasionally they go to other firms, but often, as you described, they pay off their loans, save a little money, and use that foundation to pursue their “true passions” in the non-profit sector, teaching, government, and elsewhere. Although this experience is purely anecdotal, those of my classmates who were focused on their path from the private sector to non-profit work from the outset took advantage of all the resources the private sector has to offer (training, networking, support to publish articles, pro bono opportunities, etc.) and actually had more exciting opportunities for non-profit work available to them after they left their law firms than they would have had after graduation.

  2. The good news, from a lawyer with a long career in public service and private practice,
    is that law school will give you many options for activism, possibly in areas you haven’t yet considered. At this point, you can’t know what they are, but you can apply yourself to building your skill set so that you are well-equipped to find the work that engages you. Best wishes.

  3. I echo the earlier responses! Your career is long (and getting longer for most of us!), and thankfully there are now opportunities to have several completely different chapters in your career. So don’t feel pressure to make one decision out of undergrad that will put you on a single path for your career – law school or whatever you decide to do post-graduation is just the first step in your long career. Earning money is a simple fact of self-sufficiency, but its importance might change throughout your career. Likewise, the “weight” you attribute to other areas you value – work/life balance, intellectual challenge, the rewards of “giving back”, etc. – will also change throughout your career. It’s important to be honest with yourself about what you value now and what type of job will best allow you to gain maximum satisfaction in those areas.

    Also, it’s okay to value making money at different points in your career – we all have bills to pay! When I graduated from college, I felt burdened by student loans, so I worked at a large bank and then in a corporate public relations position to earn enough to pay back my student loans in a short period of time. Then I was drawn to “giving back” and greater intellectual challenges, so I moved into the nonprofit sector. Now, I’m starting a family, so my priorities will likely shift to a stronger work/life balance. There’s no right answer – it’s about what’s right for you at a certain time in your life.

  4. One more bit of advice from another (still practicing) lawyer: law school is an expensive 3 year commitment that many recent graduates choose as a “default” option to forestall entering the “real world” or to secure a supposedly readily available comfortable future, without really considering whether the practice of law is right for them. Unless you truly enjoy using the skills that law school and law practice requires, you might want to consider business school instead. I am happy with my choice but have seen far too many of my law school classmates and professional colleagues who feel otherwise. If you are already feeling “permanent cinderblocks” and looking for a way to the future your parents and you hope you will have (which seems to have at least the common elements of job security and comfortable lifestyle), perhaps an MBA would better marry your desire to further your civic ideals while also providing yourself with a better life than that which your parents worked so hard to leave behind them. At the very least, it is only 2 years and less expensive! In any event, these choices are the luxuries your parents wanted you to have and they should be proud that you are exercising your choice in a thoughtful and broad-minded way as you seek out your “true passion” and life’s work. Wishing you well on your journey.

  5. Ooh, this sounds like the classic first-generation-American dilemma. I hope that your brother quickly gets a seven-figure-a-year job, marries well, and produces grandchildren. A boy and a girl. That will take a huge burden off your back and may give you room to figure out how to balance your lifestyle expectations with your altruistic ambitions. Have you considered taking a year or so off before law (or business) school? You could work at a nonprofit and see how you respond when it’s a full-time job and not a summer experience. This could inform the kind of law you choose to practice – and relieve you of the pressure of interning for a corporation after 1L to make sure you get a job offer from a corporation after 2L, taking that job, and then always wondering about the road not taken. And it’s a lot easier to live on no money when you’re 22 than it is when you’re pushing 30. Or 40. Even in New York!

  6. Thank you all for your responses! Even just in a matter of weeks, partly motivated by the experience of this program and partly motivated by my family, I’ve really honed my focus when it comes to post-graduate activities. After speaking with colleagues and friends who have been in my position before, I took the plunge and started an LSAT course. And truthfully, it’s been really exciting. However, I know that just because I genuinely enjoy learning the methods and tactics associated with this kind of problem solving, it doesn’t mean that law school will be easy. I know it won’t. In fact, from what I hear it’s going to be really, really hard. But at least for me, confronting my fear of the somewhat loaded meaning behind what this test represents to me– not only the thought of going to law school, but being done with college in general, taking on more responsibilities as an adult, and becoming more independent, was one of the hardest steps.

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