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Ode to First World Problems, Part 2

alec vanderboom

(why I got the way am I about the virtue of poverty)

The story I saw often in Law School was bright, creative people choosing to go into a very boring job they hated in order to get paid well. It seemed strange to me in my twenties because I actually liked Law School and I thought I'd really enjoy practicing law.

One type of conversation I had with fellow students was so common, I nicknamed it the "Wistful Dream." As a 1 L (as we first year law students were called), I had a conversation in the library with a 3 L. He mentioned something about not liking Law School. "Oh, its really not that bad, surely" I said. "You're a 3 L, your past all the hard stuff and you've already got your job offer in hand," I said the wide-eyed innocence of a newcomer.

I remember this man's face. He was tall, and handsome and a strong, self-confident African-American. I'd never seen this guy falter before. His voice got all choked up. "You don't understand Abby. You don't understand what I had before I came here." He told me that he had a full ride scholarship to Princeton to get a Masters in Economics.

Now, I'm a daughter of an academic. It was completely inconceivable to me why someone who had a full scholarship to study Economics at Princeton would be a State Law School in Wisconsin when he didn't want to be. So I rudely started asking questions--even though I barely knew this guy who sort of floated above us 1 Ls on a cloud. The most I got from him as an explanation was that his Mom wanted him to be a lawyer so that he could get a job. He had to be able to "make money."

That was an answer that left me even more confused. I mean, this guy wanted to study Economics. I totally understand that English Lit and History were seen as "impractical fields," but Econ? Econ seemed like a sure thing--especially in the late 1990s when banking was a hot industry.

The more the guy talked, the more mystified I became. At the same time, I could see real emotional pain. It was horrible. I left the library that day feeling so flummoxed.

Another conversation that was really sad, happened on the way home from Moot Court. This was an elite program where students in their second year got to practice arguing a mock case in front of real Judges. In my 3rd year, I served as a coach. My team did really well. We were driving home from some Law School in Chicago, and our spirits where high. We won! This was a really big deal because it was something tangible to brag about in a job interview and theoretically was proof we "made it" into a great Law Firm job.

In the middle of this happy car ride home, the guy I tutored started a "Wistful Dream" conversation. He was a natural in Law School. Great grades, Moot Court and Law Review. Yet all he really wanted to do was be a high school history teacher in his small home town of Wisconsin. This guy is maybe 24, and his whole life is already "over." He kept talking about how great it would have been to be a history teacher and "if only I could do that."

I was in the passenger seat, and at one point I turned around in my seat and stopped making eye contact. "Sheesh," I thought. "If its really that important you. Drop out of here. Go teach. Teachers are important and they make decent money. You're smart and social. You can get a job in your home town. Why are you set to drift off to the big cities of Milwaukee or Chicago as a Big Firm Lawyer if you're going to be so miserable there?"

So I ran into some pretty depressed people in my ride through Academia. It really put into my heart the start of a love for poverty. I was going to get detached from my love for wealth. Or at least, I wasn't going to NOT chose the career of my dreams just because I wasn't sure at the start how to  cover my rent and my law school loans. I saw to many people give up before the start of their jobs. I just felt "they might all be right. This might be totally impossible to find a public interest law job that will cover my rent. Those jobs might really be only reserved for those rich students' with no debt and large trust funds. All the same, I'm going to try my hardest to just see what is possible, before I quit on my dream and "drop out" into a well-paying but very boring garden variety law job."

At the start of my Law School, my class of 300 had tons of people who wanted to do interesting things with their Law Degree. Three years later, 97 % of my class had a job lined up before graduation. (Those were the days, huh). But only 3 of us, had a public interest job. That just seemed crazy to me. Public Interest counted as everything--working as a District Attorney, a Public Defender--very common legal jobs that I knew a lot of my classmates wanted their first and second year in school. Yet, my school was a feeder into the Big Law Firms of Chicago. They just came in mass--we had massive, massive rounds of job interviews during second and third year. At the end, there were inside my jaded head "there are only three of us left standing."

Oh, and my starting salary that was "pathetic" in my classmates minds was $32,000 for a Legal Service job in rural Ohio in 2000. In my graduation year, the starting salary for new associates broke $100,000 for the first time because of competition in Silcon Valley with the tech bubble lawyers. So there were a few classmates who at a $110,000 to $120,000 job in Chicago or New York. Most other new lawyers started at $80,000 in Milwaukee. A regular job for a new lawyer would be $50,000.

This "don't let the money cloud your dream" has just always been there inside my heart. Jon jokes that I took small starting salary as a new lawyer because "that was the door closest to the exit." He is so funny. He started dating me my last semester of my last year in law school. He got a Masters of Fine Art after we met. People at his Grad School were always like "Oh, your wife's a lawyer! She must be so smart." He'd joke back "I was smart enough NOT to go to Law School." I love him! He's so perfect for me.