Escape from the Law

Many of you enjoyed Matt Emerson’s last piece for Patheos, where he looked at Education and the Dubious “Frontier” into which we’re launching ill-prepared students. As a lawyer who chucked it to become a teacher in a Catholic school (where the pay is meager, I am sure) he writes here about how almost no one seems to go into law anymore out of a sense of vocation or calling, and that often leads to being overburdened financially, beset materially and distanced from their faith:

While I am aware of no statistics on this point, Catholics appear no more likely than others to attend law school because they believe it is their vocation to practice law. Neither I nor most of my Catholic friends who joined me at Notre Dame Law School did so. In fact, I went to law school because I was not sure what my vocation was. The practice of law appealed to me, but so did philosophy and the priesthood. I chose law school because I felt that no matter what I was ultimately meant to do, it wouldn’t be a bad option. It was a way to buy time, to experiment, to do something worthwhile without yet making an irreversible commitment.

But that can be an expensive, stressful, and ultimately wasteful way to discern a vocation. If one graduates with significant law school debt (at most private schools, often six figures), one has very few options to change careers until that debt is paid, unless one is willing to live very simply. While law firms generally offer high salaries, many young associates are soon unhappy with the practice of law. In fact, two of my friends from law school, both in gigantic firms in major cities earning well over $100,000 per year, are already looking for an “exit plan.” As one of them told me, “This is not sustainable.” But they cannot leave, because like many other young lawyers they have married, have bought a house, or have assumed other financial liabilities that require a six-figure, or near six-figure, income.

Even worse, some associates seduce themselves into a harmful cycle: they are miserable with the practice of law so they buy increasingly expensive items to compensate for their misery; but because they buy expensive items, they have to remain lawyers to afford them. “If I’m going to be miserable, I might as well drive a Lexus,” so goes the thinking.

It’s a long piece but worth taking the time to read. And perhaps to send around to people you know who are considering stepping onto that hamster wheel.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • craig

    This notion of buying time by continuing school is nothing new. When I was graduating from college in 1988 (with a B.S. in electrical engineering), the liberal-arts majors were already referring to law school as “the big snooze bar of life”.

  • Marilyn H

    I’m not sure why this is targeted solely to lawyers and agree with craig – nothing new here. Borrowing too much money to get through school is a bad idea. Getting on a hamster wheel to keep up an unattainable lifestyle is a bad idea. Pursuing a career solely for material gain is a bad idea.

    The law is an especially apt profession for a Catholic. It’s not for everyone, to be sure, but Catholic thought and beliefs have a positive impact on the promulgation, interpretation and application of our laws. To scare people off from this career (not sure about it being termed as “vocation”) is unnecessary and potentially damaging. Prudence dictates that potential law students, as well as business students, medical students, etc., not get into massive debt that indentures them to a future job.

  • Manny

    Oh hey, comments are turned back on. I can comment!

    My only thought on lawyers being Catholic was, is it possible for a lawyer to be a good Catholic? Afterall, even if your client is innocent, a defense lawyer selectively picks his arguments. On the face of it, that would be lying to some degree. I doubt any lawyer is completely up front on any issue. As in using fetal stem cells to cure people, the ends would not justify the means. So being selective in one’s facts would not justify getting even an innocent man off. Lawyers would be under constant pressure to deceive. Do lawyers go to confession weekly or even daily? :-P

  • Matt Emerson


    The notion of “buying time” may not be new, but it’s still happening. And still relevant to discuss, especially when young people continue to flood law schools without any mature understanding of the world they are entering (see the NYTimes article I reference).

    Marilyn H:

    The piece is targeted to lawyers for several reasons. Lawyers are in the news more than any other profession when it comes to discussions about job prospects, happiness, and debt. The NYTimes alone has written two or three major stories on this subject in the past couple years. I have never seen any other profession–medicine, engineering, finance, etc.–scrutinized in the same fashion.

    Second, as I wrote in the article, I think it’s especially easy for Catholics to mix the theory and practice of law because Catholic theology has such a long and rich history of reflections on the matter. As you know, Aquinas alone has an entire section in the Summa devoted to a treatise on law. But the actual practice of law at a typical American law firm only indirectly, if at all, implicates those legal theories and teachings. It is much more mundane, and Catholics–or all people, regardless of their philosophical orientation–should be aware of that.

    Third, the practice of law at a big firm has a unique capacity to harm the spiritual life because of the regime of billable hours. That’s why Catholics considering law should be especially vigilant about why they are entering law school and how they will act once there. To really appreciate this point, I encourage you to read Prof. Kaveny’s article on the subject. (I can happily send you a copy if you request.)

    Finally, I am not trying to “scare” Catholics from the practice of law. As I said, I am happy I went to law school and I think there is much GOOD about the practice of law. But, like any other profession, it can pose challenges in one’s effort to live the Gospel and a potential law student or lawyer should be aware of that.

  • Yeoman

    Law is a dabblers profession, quite frankly. There’s some studies here and there that tend to support that. Basically, people end up as lawyers quite frequently because they don’t know what else to do. Part of their makeup is that they are not interested in any one thing, but lots of things. Because of that, they end up in the law, which seems to be about a lot of things.

    There’s a couple of bad elements of that. One thing (and I am a practicing Catholic lawyer, and have been for over 20 years) is that there are very few people who practice law who have any love for it. The profession is simply accidental to them. I suspect that in most professions there are a higher percentage of people who have a deep interest in the profession, not so in the law.

    Indeed, in a group of lawyers I very rarely hear any of them talk about the law. This isn’t the case when I’m with a group of people from other career paths. Lawyers generally don’t talk much about the law. It probably isn’t their main interest, usually.

    An additional bad element of that is that because those who enter the law have done so just because they have broad interest means they’re ill prepared to really endure what practicing law entails. A lot of legal work is extremely boring. Some is extremely stressful. But you aren’t enduring the boredom or the stress with a mental sense of gain. There’s a lot of discussion about the niftiness of “challenges”, etc., but challenges aren’t rewarding if they exist merely because they exist.

    Finally, in the litigation part of the profession, being a Catholic raises a lot of questions regarding the nature of what we are doing. We tend to excuse that away by saying we’re serving a adversarial system, but so what. As a litigator, I frequently run into people who would be better served by a Priest, instead we given them a fighter. Not really serving what we profess to be true.

    As a final matter, I’d also note that even without student loans, after you have practiced law for awhile it is extremely difficult to get out. People don’t like lawyers, and they aren’t going to hire them to do much else other than practice law.

  • deacon marv robertson

    Having served as a trial court judge for 25 years (now retired), I may have a different perspective than many other legal practitioners. In the juvenile division, I had the statutory duty to decide cases of child abuse and neglect, and order protection and treatment for victims. With jurisdiction over juvenile delinquents, the court was able to turn a lot of kids around into productive young citizens. With jurisdiction over the mental health code, I was able to order placement of the mentally ill for proper treatment. In family court, I was able to place many children in pre-adoptive homes and order the finalization of adoption with suitable parents. I entered on average over 100 “personal protection orders” annually to protect victims of spousal abuse or stalkers. With jurisdiction over developmentally disabled, I entered many orders appointing guardians for those unable to properly care for themselves. In the more difficult cases, I especially prayed for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Thanks to the grace and gifts of our Divine Advocate, I was very rarely reversed for error on appeal to a higher court. As editor of the state probate judges quarterly law journal, I often authored a piece on judicial spirituality.
    As ajudge, I came to have a strong sense of Christian vocation to serve “the least of my brothers and sisters” in special way.

  • brother jeff

    You can apply this analysis to any endeavor really, medicine, law, investment banking, religious life, blogging, etc. There is drudgery in all of them. There is boredom in all. One problem is that americans im general expect too much from their jobs. No career provides anything close to constant satisfaction. Having said that, id love to see students eschew law school if only because it is vastly over priced.

  • Mimsy

    It seems to me that Mark Emerson was always meant to be a teacher, but he did not realize it until after law school. Did the way he learned to think in law school help him (along with prayer) to discern that? I am sure that his legal training helps him to be a great teacher, especially in a Jesuit school.

    I take issue with his using the Wallerstein experience as a good example of anything except a series of foolish choices: a slacker of a guy decides to spend a fortune at a not very good law school where he doesn’t do that well but thinks he deserves a job. Give me a break!

    I agree with Brother Jeff that Emerson’s perspective can be applied to any endeavor that becomes drudgery. I am not a lawyer, but my husband is a partner in a prestigious firm. He loves his work because it is intellectually demanding. He does deals, and he litigates when necessary.

    I put him through law school; then I became a stay-home mom. That was our agreement–that he would graduate near the top of his class and get in with a good firm. My husband, thanks to my carrying the ball at home, has worked very long hours for 25 years. He did all the dad stuff, too…coaching, camping, driving, etc, and is beloved by our children. Yes, we had to hire someone to mow the lawn, but the money my husband earns allowed us to put the children through private Catholic schools (including being able to afford a Jesuit high school), enables us to pay our children’s college educations completely, to generously support our (mostly Catholic) charities, to help support several family members, and allows me to volunteer many hours for our community. He, and many of his partners, are wonderful examples and mentors to their associates (and many are not, but that is true in every field). What he sacrificed was his personal fun time, but that’s where my wife job comes in– to relieve his stress by being supportive and loving.

    A job/career is what you choose to make it. Everyday life in every way poses challenges to living a Godly life, which we can see that Emerson strives to do. Working with kids in high school is frustrating because it’s hard to get their attention. When a teacher achieves a breakthrough, the spiritual payback may be great, but the actual paycheck is low, which legitimately explains why Emerson quakes every time he looks at his budget. We thank God for fine people like Emerson who choose teaching as their vocations, but demonizing the lawyerly life this way seems like demagoguery.

  • Matt Emerson


    Thanks for your honest and thorough reflections. Your husband sounds like a great man. He sounds like a lot of the attorneys I know from my old firm.

    I would just take issue with your final sentence, when you seem to indicate that I was “demonizing the lawyerly life” and bordering on “demagoguery.” I don’t think that’s a fair representation of my essay. As I said, I remain glad I went to law school, and I am not opposed to returning to the practice in the right situation.

    Moreover, I would point you to my closing paragraph, in which, far from demonizing the lawyerly life, I simply sum up the things of which a Catholic should be aware:

    “In short, I am not suggesting that Catholics should not be lawyers, nor am I suggesting that all lawyers are equally affected by the factors I’ve outlined above. However, a Catholic must be uncommonly mindful of what draws him or her to the practice of law. If one does attend law school and enter the practice, he or she must act intentionally, every day, to strengthen his or her relationship with God. Sunday Mass is not enough. The compulsion to bill hours and its effect on how an associate views life can turn faith into mere ritual or into an impersonal duty that involves no more than writing checks, temptations against which a faithful Catholic must vigilantly safeguard.”

  • Mimsy

    Matt, perhaps I read more negativity in your writing than you intended, but I fear that others may have, too. In any case, may you be lifted up in your chosen field by the Almighty One who allowed His Only Begotten Son to be lifted up on a cross that we sinners might live. I wish you a very blessed Easter weekend.