How an Internship Saved Me from the Law and Why Everyone Should Try It

Don’t knock internships, either paid or unpaid. These types of jobs can give you a birds-eye view into your future career, and you might not always like what you see.

(Biglaw Investor: The following post is by ESI from ESI Money, a blog about achieving financial independence through earning, saving, and investing (ESI). It’s written by an early 50’s retiree who achieved financial independence, shares what’s worked for him, and details how others can implement those successes in their lives. He is also the author of a free ebook titled Three Steps to Financial Independence and spends a lot of his time interviewing millionaires. We have no financial relationship.)

I don’t remember this ever happening, but it’s a story my mom tells now and then. She was having a conversation with my high school algebra teacher (while I was in high school) about me when the teacher said, “I asked him what he wants to do for a career and he said he wants to make a lot of money. I have no doubt he’ll succeed.” As I said, I don’t remember the story, but that sounds like me. After all, I had been raised in a lower-middle-class family and while I had a great childhood, I knew I wanted a bit more in my lifetime. That’s one factor that made me want to become a lawyer. Of course there were others: the mental challenge, the fact that my favorite uncle was a successful lawyer, and my two wins in mock court (I was able to acquit two alleged murderers) added to my desire. Throw in a dose of speech and debate training in high school and I was set to be the next Perry Mason.

Off to college

So I set out for a small liberal arts college for my undergraduate degree. I figured I’d major in business to give me a one-two punch and that’s what I did. Then in the midst of my junior year, right when I was studying to take the LSAT, I signed on to be an intern with a local lawyer. This was going to be exciting! I would get to see the life of a lawyer up close and personal. Boy, was it going to be awesome! Until it wasn’t. Back in those days, the interns and new lawyers were grunts who researched precedents and the like to help the main lawyers with cases. The was no glamour, there was no excitement, there was no interest — only boring days looking at books with type size I couldn’t even read today and reading court case after court case. Now I realize there are many types of law and this was just one of them, but the experience was so bad that I started questioning my path. I researched more about what a lawyer did (versus what I thought one did) and also talked to my uncle about his job. The results were not what I was expecting. Most law work is quiet, behind-the-scenes, and monotonous (or at least that was my view). (Biglaw Investor: It hasn’t changed much.) This was the exact opposite of what I wanted. It was time to change paths.

What should I do now?

So now I was in trouble. I was attending a school known to send people on to graduate school but not known for finding them jobs. Unless I wanted to work for the state forestry service as a park ranger (i.e. ticket taker) for $18k per year. Yikes! Thankfully I had a mentor offer me some great advice. He was my boss in the alumni office where I had an assistantship. He had been a successful businessman earlier in his life. He asked me if I liked what I was doing in the office. I said I did. He told me that my job was basically marketing, so I should check out a marketing class. I took one the first semester of my senior year and fell in love right away. A year later I was at a Big Ten school starting to work on my MBA. The rest was history — a successful, enjoyable 28-year career that allowed me to retire at 52 with a few million dollars in the bank. And it all happened because I took my dream internship and hated it.

Why I love internships

Now life has come full circle and my daughter is a junior in college. We have been working on getting her an internship next summer. For good or for ill, I hope the internship is as valuable to her as mine was to me. As you might imagine, I’m a big fan of internships. Here are a few reasons why (if they’re not obvious):

  • Lets you try out a profession to see if you like it. The clear point of the story above. It’s a win-win scenario — if you like the profession, you have confirmed your career choice as suitable for you. If you don’t like it, you’ve saved yourself 30 to 50 years of pain and agony.
  • Puts points on your resume. The intent of college (at least the way I see it) is to get the student an initial job in her chosen field. In order to do this, she will have to have some combination of the following: excelled in school, been involved in impressive extracurricular activities with some accomplishments, and have had some worthwhile work experience. The more of these and the more remarkable they are, the better her resume and the greater the likelihood of getting a good starting job. An internship puts something meaningful on a resume and helps separate a graduate from the pack of others competing for the same jobs.
  • Allows insights into multiple fields. There’s no rule that says you can only have one internship. In fact, trying several is a good idea. It allows the student to compare and contrast career options. Sure, he might like the internship in field A, but when he tries a second one he might find he LOVES field B. The student gets to see more options plus puts additional points on his resume (point above). So why not?
  • Can lead to a job. Many companies hire from their intern pool. Internships allow organizations to try out potential hires, making the hiring process much less costly and uncertain. They then often hire the best interns. For the student, the internship allows the same test drive and also gives them an easy path to being hired, making that second semester of the senior year much less nerve-racking. 🙂

A few other career lessons

The story above also taught me a few other lessons that impacted the rest of my career:

  • Test out new things. Thankfully I did test-drive my potential career and it helped me make a better choice. Quite often over the next three decades I tried new things at work and found a whole host of better solutions than I would have without testing.
  • Be flexible and adjust if needed. If you can’t be flexible, you’re dead in the corporate world. Sure, you might coast on pure skill and ability for a time, but eventually inflexibility will catch up to even the highest performer.
  • Mentors are valuable. I didn’t even know what a mentor was when my college boss gave me that advice. But from then on I always had (either by accident or design) a person or two who was older and more experienced giving me advice. They helped me make business decisions, career choices, and even personal, life moves. Without them, my life would not have been anywhere near as great as it was. (BTW, one of my resolutions the past year has been to communicate with each of my mentors, telling them the positive impact they had on my life and thanking them for it. I still have a few to go, but the ones who I’ve already met with have been moved.)
  • Don’t back yourself into a corner — give yourself options. This could have been a very hard lesson to learn if my mentor hadn’t gotten involved. I might have gone on to law school anyway (and probably hated the profession) or maybe taken a job at low pay and no future. I learned from this episode that it’s always good to have a plan B just in case things don’t work out. This philosophy has saved my bacon on more than one occasion.

So if you’re a young person reading this or the parent, relative, or friend of one, please point them to this piece for consideration. Doing so just might help them land their dream job or avoid five decades in a career they hate.

Joshua Holt is a former private equity M&A lawyer and the creator of Biglaw Investor. Josh couldn’t find a place where lawyers were talking about money, so he created it himself. He knows that a good law school budget will set you on the right path to financial independence and that if you want to get smart on personal finance you can read his weekly email.

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    Seven thoughts on How an Internship Saved Me from the Law and Why Everyone Should Try It

    1. I agree one hundred and ten percent. Especially in a down market an internship can be the difference between getting your first job and not. Degrees mean mostly nothing once you get started and even entry jobs want experience in a down market

    2. Ironically, I decided to work as a paralegal between undergraduate and law school to be 100% confident law school as the right choice. The small firm experience convinced me civil litigation was the path for me and the law school loans would be worth it. I think a similar post could be on the benefits of working between undergraduate and law school (or most graduate schools).

      1. You’re probably a much happier lawyer because of it. I see people interviewing for summer associate positions all the time that have no idea whether they want to be a litigator or in the corporate group. That’s like not knowing whether you prefer pickles or chocolate.

    3. I do have to say, my internship in Chicago’s Public Defender Office was exciting and made me want to pursue a legal career. I guess that first foot in the door is a real role of the dice.

    4. It’s crucial to be intentional in your choices, trust your instincts and be willing to actually pursue things you enjoy. There are an unfortunate number of people who get their minds set on becoming a lawyer that they don’t even notice that they don’t enjoy the work until they’re six figures in student loan debt!

      It’s about being able to discern the core elements of a profession and have the self-awareness to know if those elements align with your strengths, goals, interests, etc.

    5. I wish they’d do internships or Shadowing opportunities in High School. Sometimes early college has students picking their career path before they get on campus. As ESI notes, he picked his school with his intended law degree in mind. In high school I was 100% sure I wouldn’t do well in a cube farm (office). Until I did temp work summers between college and realized it wasn’t that bad. While I did spent time in the lab, my job is now at a desk, in a cube, and I haven’t withered away yet. 🙂
      For a high school shadowing or intern program including all types of jobs, and exposure to trades I think could open up opportunities, or at least understanding, and empower everyone to feel comfortable going to an expert, or maybe just being nicer to those we deal with for transactions.

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