Saving Their Souls

John Goodell

EVERY FALL AT LAW schools across America, a process occurs called on-campus interviewing, or OCI, as it’s commonly known. The more elite the law school, the more prestigious the crop of law firms that visit, each offering the promise of large salaries to brilliant, mostly young minds. Only students with excellent grades or editorial positions on the school’s law review are selected to interview for summer internships.

Like nearly all graduate schools, law school comes with an expensive price tag, leaving many students with large amounts of debt. Because law students are nearly always type-A personalities and because law firm recruiting is a zero-sum game—there are many more applicants than spots, with even fewer spots at prestigious, well-paying firms—law school tends to engender extreme competitiveness and jealousy. In the pre-internet era, there were legendary stories of pages torn from books to thwart other students’ success.

In the 15 years since I graduated from law school, I’ve noticed an interesting trend. Very few of my peers who began as law firm associates stayed to make partner. Many left to become in-house counsel at corporations. Others became law professors, government attorneys and judges. Long hours, high pressure and unfulfilling work lead many attorneys to tap out of the law firm life, and opt instead for careers that are much less stressful and arguably more rewarding.

Law school is by no means the only graduate school where the most intelligent alumni chase prestige and money, only to end up mired in soul-sucking work. Many top-tier business school graduates head to Wall Street. The best medical students often become plastic surgeons. Some of our brightest computer science minds create technology that negatively impacts countless lives.

A lot of attention is paid to where someone goes to graduate school and what they do after graduation. Not nearly enough emphasis is placed on whether that career will bring them the type of happiness that can’t come from money or titles. For those students approaching these life choices, it’s worth remembering the words of the philosopher Lao Tzu, who centuries ago in the Tao Te Ching wrote the following words:

Better stop short than fill to the brim.

Over-sharpen the blade, and the edge will soon blunt.

Amass a store of gold and jade, and no one can protect it.

Claim wealth and titles, and disaster will follow.

Retire when the work is done.

This is the way of heaven.

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