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Please Calculate Badly

By Adam Liptak

The last time I took a job that did not involve a pay cut was in 1988. That was the year I graduated from law school. I went to work at a Wall Street law firm, and I stayed there for four years. I learned a ton. I worked hard and was surrounded by very smart lawyers. We spared no expense. We scorched the earth. It was exciting.

But the experience tested my ethical compass, and it coarsened my behavior. I was sometimes a jerk in dealing with my adversaries. I was sloppy in accounting for my time. I managed to care deeply about whether associates at the firm across the street were making a few dollars more. I did almost no pro bono work.

Don’t get me wrong. You get excellent training at big law firms. Many of the lawyers there do good and honorable work. But the big firms are built on a set of ethical tensions.

One of them is rooted in the adversarial system. If better lawyers get better results—and they do—the justice system is easily warped. Justice should not turn on the quality of the lawyer you can afford, but it does.

A second pervasive problem is hourly billing. It leads to punishing work schedules, unhappy lawyers, ill-served clients, over-lawyered cases, perverse incentives, and outright fraud.

I get a lot of calls from young lawyers looking for advice. Here is the most important thing I tell them. Get the best, highest paying job you can. Try it out. But don’t get used to the money.

Don’t find yourself in this position: You are terribly unhappy in your work (and a lot of lawyers are). You want to make a change. But you are locked into a mortgage and lifestyle that will not allow you to do something else, something that brings you satisfaction, if not joy, and something that makes the world a better place.

If you’re locked in, you won’t be able to be flexible and to think straight when the phone rings and the voice on the other end is talking about a great job in the government or in education or in public service. Leave yourself able to say yes when the phone rings. Leave yourself free to follow your heart.

My heart told me to leave my law firm. So I took a pay cut to go in-house. For a decade, I was a First Amendment lawyer in the legal department of the New York Times Company, which was then a thriving media conglomerate. I gave legal advice to journalists, tried to help them get access to information, and fought subpoenas and lawsuits. It was a sleepier job than working at a firm, but I admired my clients and was happy to help them.

You probably have a dream job. I confess that mine was to be a reporter for the New York Times. You may think I’m crazy, that I could have picked a better dream. But hey, dreams aren’t supposed to make sense.

I didn’t quite know how to achieve my dream, which is why I practiced law for 14 years before turning to journalism. But I did know that I could at least get in the neighborhood of journalism, so I concentrated on First Amendment law and then worked in the Times’s legal department. I once heard a great piece of advice from Judge Robert D. Sack of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit. He was asked the secret to getting your dream job. Here’s what he said: “Hang around the hoop and hope someone gives you the ball.”

One day I got the ball and I grabbed it. And I took another pay cut to do it.

All three jobs—at a firm, in a corporate law department, in a newsroom—were good jobs. But each one made me happier than the last. Each one was more satisfying than the last. Each one was I think more valuable than the last.

As a purely economic matter, I suppose I made stupid choices. But life is not a purely economic matter.

You’ll make your own calculations. But you will be making a mistake if all of those calculations are financial.

Adam Liptak covers the Supreme Court for the New York Times.

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