Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Career Choice

I was in my fourth year, about to be forced out into the real world, and I had my arms and legs splayed against the door, toes curled against the edge, head pushed against the threshold, fighting to stay in. What, a student of liberal arts armed with Nietzsche and Kakfa who's not ready to be tossed out into the world?

For fortitude (or for some marker that I really belonged), I turned to cigarettes. On an evening 30 below with wind-chill, I wrapped myself in my long sleeved shirt, two layers of cashmere sweaters, a wool jacket, a down coat, two layers of gloves, and a twelve feet long scarf wrapped around my bulbous head to track two blocks down to Walgreens. There, I scanned the rack. The Marboro Guy and I didn't mix. Not slim enough for Virginia Slims. And Camels don't belong in the middle of the South Side of Chicago. No on Lucky Strike because luck just wasn't enough. I settled on Dunhill because it seemed pretentious enough to compensate for my lack of pretenses. With enough baby fat for confit and my stylish bowl haircut, I'm sure Dunhill would have paid me not to be seen with their packet.

I locked myself in the once Elvis frequented hotel now turned dingy dormroom overlooking Lake Shore Drive with the window cracked open wide enough to offset the smoke alarm, and I took my first couple of puffs, wondering how the hell people blow rings. Before I'd barely had a chance to choke through the first stick, a first year knocked on my door to talk about his roommate dilemma. He learned that his roommate is gay, and should he stay in his room or somehow escape the obviously pernicious threats of homosexuality. And I was the Resident Assistant, the ordained King Solomon of these dilemmas.

As he sat down to talk, he sniffed. With his jaw dropped and his eyes popping out, he accused,

- Are YOU smoking? Not, you, my dear Shinyung. Oh, my goodness, when did this start?? Don't you know this causes cancer?

Sheepish, feeling unworthy of my position and having lost my sense of 22 year old authority to an 18 year old, I vowed never to do it again, and my encounter with tobacco leaves ended as a fling.

But how to brace for the upcoming year and the looming question of what to do for the rest of my life? Why could I not stay in college forever and just learn? Do I really need to pick a career, and only one? So what was the point of studying all those different thinkers, writers, theories and methods - to be pigeon-holed into one little corner of life?

In the computer room, I drafted a short letter to the editors of each of the magazines I loved. Please hire me, I begged. I need a job.

A typical response came from the Atlantic Monthly.

- Dear Ms. Oh,

We would be delighted to have you intern with the Atlantic Monthly. Please give us a call when you are in Boston. After a few months of internship, we can discuss whether we could hire you for a paid position.

In a fury, I wrote back, words after words of how I could not take just an internship, I needed a paid position, I could not live off of my parents who toiled in a dry cleaners 12 hours a day and how ashamed I would be if I had to ask them for money, how I work really, really hard, what an asset I would be, etc., etc., etc.

The Atlantic Monthly sent a one line response.

- Ms. Oh,

Then we suggest you look elsewhere.

At the end of the school year, they pried my arms and legs off of the dorm door and gave me one good kick in the rear. I landed in my parents' home, where I did an admirable job of warming the couch. Finally, with a friend's mail merge program, I applied to law firms for a paralegal job. After a few months at the firm, I began to suspect that not all lawyers are ogres.

More than fifteen years later, I find myself in the same place, without a direction for my career, having received another kick in the rear, fretting about what to do with my life, and once again wondering if lawyers are ogres after all. So what do I have to show for the past fifteen years of my life? I have no job, no baby, and ten pounds of left over fat that hang like pieces of a dead chicken. I own a house with a mortgage that exceeds the cost of several houses in the mid west. Oh, right, at least I can put "Esq." behind my name.

I've been spending the past month baby sitting our five year old yellow lab, and every time he sighs at me, I wonder if I've fallen in his estimation somehow.

What would have happened had I not opted for security above that big life dream that I harbored back then. Why did I not go for it? Who's to say I couldn't have become the next Michael Pollen?

So I'm sitting here, raising one finger after another, conjuring up all that I could muster of my dormant and perhaps now defunct imagination, reaching deep inside cobwebbed crevices for sparks of creativity, and praying to some non-existent god for inspiration and luck. Because I'm not dead yet and because you never know...


  1. Sadly, I can relate. I think your dog still adores you though. If you don't mind, I'm going to place a link to your blog on my blog. Best.

  2. Trust me, your dog loves and adores you unconditionally. If only people would be that way. I am sorry to hear about your miscarriage. Things must look really bleak now but know that you have a wonderful husband, a great dog and friend who will help you get through this time. And, while you might not believe this, there are lawyers out there who are not jerks. I will keep you and your family in my thoughts and prayers.

  3. You rock! So refreshing. I think you should to the law school speaking circuit.

  4. Care to finish my book for me?

  5. If you haven't already, you should definitely check out a blog by a like-minded woman, Melissa Lafsky --

  6. Just a note to say I think you're great and you did the right thing by refusing to shut up. I'm a 27 year old woman about to enter the big law world myself, and I already know I won't be there long because it's hard to be a thinking person and work in big law for any length of time. The profession won't change until more people like you refuse to put up with it.

  7. you're awesome, girl--keep writing!

  8. First, your writing is absolutely incredible. You paint a picture I can almost 'touch.'

    But that being said, life is about opportunities coming from the most unlikely of places including profound disappointment and unemployment.

    I hope your writing this blog is both cathartic and part of a bigger plan for your future...and that you have the vision to see it.

  9. great writing - i have struggled with the direction of my law career, and your experiences have really helped to guide me away from big law. it seems that you have been able to learn a lot from past mistakes, and i am sure that you will find something perfect very soon. good luck!

  10. Just know, you are not alone. And it is never too late to try something else; I know I'm going to!

  11. From the perspective of quite a few more years, may I suggest you read the book of Ecclesiastes written by Solomon the wisest man in the world who may help you relinguish your god of luck and find the God of eternal life. Now that will give your life meaning and fulfillment. God bless

  12. As a fellow alum (undergrad), who also didn't (and still doesn't) have the luxury of working for free, i can relate. I just finished my first year of lawschool and have never really loved the idea of working for a bigfirm. It seems that i don't have a choice and will proceed cautiously. I commend you for what you did- taking a stand is hard to do and wish your family the best.

  13. I had a similar experience, where after a time at a firm, and stellar reviews, they fired me, stating that it was poor performance, and after analyzing the situation for a few months, realized that it was the economics. What did I do? I opened up my own firm. I now have tolerable hours, fantastic clients that I enjoy, and make more than I did before. the joys!

  14. It'll sound trite, but I think your firing will later be viewed, by you, as a blessing.

    I think you know that now.

    You're going through a rough spell, to be sure, in all sorts of ways. But I doubt you were committed to the law in the first place. We like to speak of "Big Law", but truth be known, "Big Law" and regular old lawfirm law is pretty much the same thing. The law, quite frankly, is not that nifty of a profession. And a lot of us enter it because we're generalist who don't know what we want to do at that.

    I suspect that some pretty high percentage of lawyers wish they'd been fired early on. Not having been, they've kept on keeping on. At some point, it's too late. That firing was a door out violently opening up for you. It's spooky, but a lot of us no doubt wish that'd happened to us.

  15. As in house counsel about to journey back into firm life, this time as a partner, your story has inspired me to reflect on what type of partner I want to be. I am lucky this time to be going to one of the "nice" firms but have been at a couple of firms like PH and have heard and seen similar stories play out (none quite so publicly). Thank you for reminding me that my new life as a partner is not just about billables and originations but about humanity and courage too.

  16. I am 64 years old, have had my own boutique firm for 20 years at a "sustainable" level, after being with two big law firms and a corporation, and running my own publishing company for awhile. The trick is to not be dependent on the employer, realize you have to become a profit center yourself - wherever you are, BIG or solo - and make the system work for you. No one wants on her tombstone: "She worked hard...."

    Many buy into the illusion of the big firm as the end-all. Yes, such firms usually produce quality advice and work product. They likely provide darn good training on how to pull rabbits out of hats, punt to short deadlines, drafting, presentation, production, perfection as the standard. One's creative side does get a bit neglected: law is not a right-brained Martha Stewart or Kandinsky art form. Servicing that side is up to you. There are lawyers who play in bands at night, write novels on the side, go sailing to maintain perspective, tend gardens (at night with a flashlight maybe, but they get it done).

    Law as a profession is a business - surprise - there are many ways and levels to make it work, from running one's own figurative mobile lunch cart practice to maintaining a 5-star hotel in Paris (BigLaw), and so much in-between. You have an academic credential and bar admission that can take you many places - teaching, general practice, legal aid, small firm, your own firm, a web-based firm, a cross-border firm. Move on from this first experience, which in fact opens up new vistas for you....while you are still young and vital.

    This challenge IS an opportunity - to decide what is important to you and weed out the myths of "success" that oh so many have adopted and confused with their personal true happiness. You have a great start with the dog. Relax and please try again with the baby.

    Sell the house(yes, sorry, the markets are down now in many places), buy a "5th wheel trailer" and a pick-up to tow it, park it on the beach in Baja or Vancouver Island, B.C., and write your book...jogging with the Lab will certainly help you shed the overweight quickly.

    You don't have to be BIG to be GREAT!

  17. I found your blog through the ABA website and it has certainly inspired me along with others. I almost immediately created my own blog. See I am a working corporate attorney but I also write in my spare time and maybe one day it will be my escape from a sometimes dreadful profession. Or, for the manic-minded like me, a way to change it from the bottom-up. See my blog, inspired by you: