Wednesday, February 08, 2006

On Having a Quarterlife Crisis

There’s an excellent post today at Bridge and Tunneled, a blog describing itself as “A twenty-something’s take on the ‘Quarterlife Crisis’ from somewhere in the swamps of New Jersey.” The tone is spot-on for the current generation of new law school grads. And the blog author, Nemorino, clearly has good taste, since he links to this blog. Although he also cites Zoolander as one of his favorite movies (check out his blogger profile), so maybe not.

Anyway, today’s post on Bridge and Tunneled is about being a recent law school grad and not being quite sure what to do with your life. The thought is that a lot of people in their 20s feel like they are just marking time. Nemorino writes that for people currently in their 20s, "There's no clearly defined endpoint anymore, no fixed date where our lives as we know them will end abruptly and we'll be forced, like it or not, out into the real world." That's profound and wistful thinking.

Interestingly, though, being in my late 30s I actually do have the answer--or at least an answer. I know where the endpoint is. The endpoint is age 34.

At 30 you're still young. "Cool, now I'm in my thirties!" is a typical reaction. No one seems fazed by 30 anymore. And 31, 32, and 33 are still early 30s, so they’re generally fine too.

But 34? Now that's a whole different story. At 34 you only have one more year to round down your age and qualify as "early 30s." At 35 you are undeniably in your mid-30s, and at 36 you are one foot into your late 30s. 40 is closing fast. This realization hits like a load of bricks, and you soil yourself. Figuratively speaking, of course.

Here’s how it works: one minute you're 28 and have loads of time to figure your life out; the next minute you’re 6 years older and your financial planner (if you have one--which you probably don't because you’re still too young for that stuff, aren’t you?) is telling you you’ve missed several key years of investment compounding.

So Nemorino is right: it is absolutely critical to have a plan for your life when you are in your 20s, even if the plan constantly changes. Because if you do not, you soon will be 34 years old and in crisis. Happy birthday! But if you plan, you can keep your options open. Then, once you figure out what your professional calling is, you will have improved your odds of successfully landing a position in that field.

For me, my chief options were law partnership and law teaching, and I planned for both, even when I was not sure which one I would pick. As a result, I got to make my own choice, instead of having it made for me. I don't offer that anecdote so that everyone can feel really good for me. I offer it because I'm living proof that Nemorino's advice works when you follow it.


T.S. said...

i'm flattered you thought enough of what i wrote to devote an entire post to talking about the quarterlife crisis, though i'm disappointed you don't like zoolander- in my opinion it's highly underrated. but, to each his own.

i've been reading your blog for a while now and i really enjoy it. i was waiting until i had a little more firm experience under my belt before i commented on anything but it seems you've thrown my hat into the ring for me. i think you offer a really interesting perspective for recent law school grads like myself.

i also think your post should frighten a lot of people in my position, in a good way, in the sense that the quarterlife crisis for young lawyers is even more acute. our profession is growing increasingly specialized, which makes having a plan to figure out the direction you want your career to take an absolute imperative. that's probably a subject for another post, but it crossed my mind as i was reading what you wrote.

anyway, thanks again for the link and the mention. i'll be reading.


Gregory W. Bowman said...

Nemorino, thanks for the comment. You're absolutely right that hyper-specialization in law presents a unique challenge to the new lawyer. What if you don't like your particular subset of practice? Are you trapped in that? Do you just start over? In my area of international trade law, which is incredibly specialized, I fought against that constantly. But striving to maintain some breadth to my practice experience made me a far better lawyer.

Some firms are better at others at encouraging breadth of experience (assuming of course that you want to practice law in the first place). Others are not--they want to plug you right in and narrow your focus immediately. That should always be a strong consideration for the young lawyer choosing a firm.

Michael McCann said...

It's interesting that there seems to be a broader pattern of specialization in law careers. Both of you mention how practicing lawyers need to specialize earlier in their careers, and I agree. And perhaps not coincidentally (although maybe coincidentally), the same seems to be true of tenure-track law professors. As both Professor Bowman and I can attest to, law schools now hire entry-level tenure-track persons with the expectation that the person has some sort of specific scholarly agenda already in place. Years ago, that wasn't often the case, save for the very top ranked law schools. But now, if you go into an interview for a tenure-track position saying, "I plan on writing on many topics because I am intellectually curious and want to explore many areas of the law" or "I'm honestly not yet sure what I want to write about"--you will have almost no shot at getting a tenure-track position. You have to have some specific agenda in mind (for me, it's a mix of sports law, law and psychology, and food and drug law), meaning you have to be specialized. Whether that is a good or bad thing is a separate question.

I'm not sure if there is any relationship between the specialization of the practice of law and the academic scholarship of law, save for the fact that fewer jobs may be available in both fields.