My dream job is "corporate lawyer." Am I nuts?

What is it about 80-hour workweeks, cutthroat competition and soulless toil that attracts me so?

By Cary Tennis
Published October 19, 2011 12:00AM (EDT)
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I've been reading several of your columns from the last week with particular interest. Like the young lady who only wanted to play with kids and babies, I was also drawn in by your answer to the woman who found herself dismayed by her dream job. I have something of a different problem – intellectually, I know that I would not enjoy my dream job and that it would make me miserable. Yet, that has not made it any less my dream job.

You see, like the young lady from last Friday's column who was good at seeming OK, I went to an expensive, elite college and graduated with mediocre grades and many more acquaintances than actual friends, although I was never quite as miserable as she was. I came from a working-class background and went through my four years there believing that going to an Ivy League school or equivalent on scholarship and becoming a professional was one of the few avenues of social mobility left in America that did not require nearly miraculous amounts of luck or once-in-a-generation-level genius, and that by doing so I could become, if not part of the 1 percent, then the 10 percent. Well, it turned out that I really was not very good at either science or math, only good enough to be better than my classmates in high school (many of whom did not go on to college), and that meant that I would never be a doctor or an investment banker or a strategy consultant like most of my college classmates. And for a while I didn't know what to do, and spent most of my days sitting around in my room. I was, however, still a competent writer, and ended up majoring in political science and going to law school in large part due to what I felt was a lack of any viable alternative although my mediocre grades meant that my law school was slightly less prestigious than my undergraduate school.

I've recently graduated from law school. I did reasonably well there, not at the top of my class but better than I did in undergrad and well enough that students who did about as well could have (and did) expected to get a job at a big corporate law firm. Unfortunately, these corporate firms only really hire entry-level associates after they were first summer associates for the firm during the summer after the second year of law school. Hiring for these positions occurs during the end of the summer before the second year of law school. And for me that summer happened to be the first summer after our economy went up in flames and the great recession started and while I got my share of interviews and callbacks and I think would have gotten an offer in a normal economy, I wasn't interviewing in a normal economy.

And yes, as sad as it sounds, corporate lawyer is my dream job. And like I said earlier, I think that if I'd actually gotten the job, I'd hate it. I'd hate the 80-hour workweeks, I'd hate the often mindless tasks. I'd hate being chained to a BlackBerry, dreading that I'd be forced to check it to find out on a Saturday that I have work to do. And I'm a progressive and even if I never was an idealist who went into law wanting to be Atticus Finch or to save the environment, I also don't like the idea of carrying water for big corporations and Wall Street. This isn't just sour grapes on my part; when I talk to my friends from law school who did get these jobs, they mention these very things and it's pretty much universally acknowledged even by the ones who do enjoy their corporate big firm jobs that an insane amount of hours is required and that work-life balance is tipped so heavily in favor of work that to call it a "balance" is to make a mockery of that word. And yet, hearing all of this said still makes me envious and I'm not completely sure why.

Part of it may be the social mobility theory I talked about before, but I really don't think it's about the money. I only spend about 60 percent of my comparatively much smaller current paycheck right now and apart from eating out a little more often, which frankly I could probably afford right now, I honestly can't think of what I'd buy if I did have that larger salary, and if I were offered a big firm associate job at the same salary as my current, much lower stress and fewer hours job that I don't love but am fundamentally satisfied with, I would take it in a heartbeat. Another part of it is probably that I'm frustrated at coming up just short in everything, being good enough to get into an elite college but not thrive there, good enough to do OK in law school and get corporate interviews but not get hired, and personal ego in believing that I am good enough to work there. And part of it might be that I'm just a jerk who's insecure enough to have gone to the highest ranked college and law school that I got in to, chose a profession where there is a publication that puts out a ranking of the top 100 law firms USNews-style that is taken seriously, whose dream job is to work for one of those firms and who puts too much stock into all those rankings and into prestige. So, my question is, I know all the reasons why I shouldn't feel this way and should be grateful for my current job, that the world I want to join so much would not make me happy, and that I sound like an entitled whiner – but how do I apply all of this and make myself stop feeling this way?

Confused Corporate Tool Wannabe

Dear Confused Corporate Tool Wannabe,

So complete is the corporate takeover of the American psyche that we find ourselves unable to imagine ourselves outside of it. Such is the evidence of its victory. Rather than imagine ourselves as apostates, the best we can do is imagine ourselves as high priests inside the kingdom.

Yet the corporate takeover of the American psyche has not yet gone quite deep enough to dislodge the ever-present dream of setting out for a better land.

What better land is left? Where are we to go now? Where is there an America for us to flee to? We fled here and now this is turning into what we fled. That is why we are camping out in our own downtowns, for there is no more America for us to flee to. We must flee to our own hearts and find America there. We must sail into the rough seas of our own selves to find the farther shore. There is no other frontier.

And then, that America we must bring out to the downtowns of our cities, to put on display not like a museum display of Native Americans and pilgrims but as a living, breathing town, a living, breathing nation: a dream embodied in the rabble.

You know me. You know how I think. For me, every desire is a symbol of another desire, every symbol a symbol of another symbol. Every longing for a corporate job looks like a longing for citizenship; every request for a raise looks like a request for recognition by the king; every longing for class acceptance looks like a longing for love.

So forgive me if I insist that your desire to be a corporate lawyer is a stand-in for some other desire. I suggest that what you long for is not necessarily a job as a corporate lawyer per se, but a decent place in the American firmament. So you, my friend, have to find within you what is more primal. What is it that you desire? I would guess you desire to be told that you matter, that you count, that you are a full member. But you don't want to hear it from me. You want to hear it from your own land and your own people, your motherland, your fatherland, your homeland. You long for America to finally say to us, yes, I see you, come sit at the table with the prime rib and the roast duck: You matter; yes, we respect you; yes, you are a part of all this! You want to hear it said loud and clear that you matter and that your natural inclinations and personality matter, that you are not provisional, that you are a full member, that you don't have to earn your citizenship, you already belong.

Your ambivalence and torment are a part of it. Don't you see? The savage wounding of history and the bright summer night full of fireworks, these two at war in your skull: That's American too. That's as American as Mitt Romney eating a corn dog.

And you know what else is American? The right of a writer like me to say such things and not even know exactly what I'm saying. Progress not perfection, my friend. We walk around with longing in our hearts and we express the longing before we work it all out. That's the American way, too.

This is who we are.

So you know what the Occupy Wall Street people look like to me? They look like pilgrims. The soul of America in whiteface setting out to sail into themselves, looking for what they lost. Like a baffled bar patron looking for her purse, they are looking for an America that was there a minute ago and somehow vanished.

The world of Brooks Brothers and pedigrees is not the America your soul is looking for. That America is nothing more than a Hollywood England, a backlot stage set of public-school snobbery, repressed sexuality and stiff upper lips. It's American in fashion but not in spirit; in spirit it is old snobby England.

So how do we find that America that we really are looking for, that America of the dream, warm, embracing, large of heart, free, equal, meritocratic but egalitarian, energetic, kind, not warlike but strong? The America that says you matter not because of your college rank or your company rank but because you are endowed with certain inalienable rights, among them the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

You go look for it, man. And when you find it you write to your friends. End of story. That has been good enough for millions before us and it ought to be good enough for us. You have the right to live the life you actually want to live, and you have the right to be proud of that life, and the corporate takeover that has sucked the marrow out of our bones and left us confused as to our heritage and our progeny and purpose, that corporate takeover is coming to an end, as we finally wake up and see what we have allowed to happen, and begin to assert ourselves once again.

We are indeed not Wall Street. We are more street than Wall Street. We are the proud rabble who would rather eat hard tack and risk scurvy than live under the lash of fat despots. That's who we are. And we are setting sail. We are sailing into ourselves, looking for America.

So I don't think a corporate lawyer job is what you really want. I think it's just a symbol of what you really want. The real search is harder. There is no application process. There are no internships.  Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are broad enough to encompass the dreams of any soul in the world. Somewhere in those few words is your dream. Go find it.

Cary Tennis

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