How I did not Make It And other lessons from a non-linear career trajectory

How I did not Make It And other lessons from a non-linear career trajectory

Bar & Bench

I am an advanced doctorate student in sociology at Stanford University where I study and teach inequality and social mobility in the global organizational context. I wasn’t, as you might have guessed, always a sociologist. In fact, I did not know I wanted to train in sociology until a few years ago. And when B&B asked me to contribute to this column, my first thought was I did not have a career yet to be able to look back and share a story about how I got here. What career advice could you possibly want from a perennial graduate student?

As I write this now, I remain unsure as to how my non-existent career can offer reflection. But when you have been out of law school for 8 years, your career (and/or the lack of it) necessarily encounters some of the same crossroads as others before and after you. And so I share these anecdotes in the hope that they might resonate with your own journeys, offer you perspective as you make (or re-think) your decisions.

Here is my story (or at least, parts of it): it begins, unlike Shantaram, with a woman, four cities and a lot of luck.

1.             The Art of NHP (Not Having a Plan).

A few weeks into my first semester of teaching at NALSAR, a student came to my office to discuss the results of her first test. She had, I remember distinctly, scored a 7/10 and wanted to know why I had “ruined” her test score. Given that it was her first semester in college, I mistook the sentiment to be a high-school mark obsessed hangover, but after half an hour of a tear-filled discussion, it was clear it was not. She was worried about her CGPA, the debilitating prospects these lost 3 marks could have on her getting into a top firm on graduation, and the threat to her overall chances of law-school success.

Barely a month in, the student already had a set version of this “success”: and within this framework, “success” in law school was to get into a top corporate law firm. In turn, she assumed (perhaps rightly) that the top firms cared about a certain grade point average; and every single test score counted towards this coveted goal. This dogged determination surely has its merits – I am sure the student now is in a top law firm – but it was surprising to me then because of how different it was from my own experience at law school or the years after.

Unlike this said student, I had no such set perspective when I started law school more than a decade ago (and if I keep your attention to the end of this piece – you will see why I continue to escape this perspective). I certainly had no idea what a “top law firm” was, leave alone know of a game plan that would get me there. Like most of my cohort, I joined NALSAR in 1999 for one reason above all else – I got in. I was not interested in medicine or engineering – the traditional scapegoats – and this “law school thing” seemed like a “safe, professional choice”. My parents certainly thought it was better than getting a “random Arts degree” and since I had no pressing desire to do anything else, it seemed tempting enough to get away from home for college. Besides, The Practice (ok, and I’ll admit – Ally McBeal) had romanticized lawyering in the public eye and who did not want to cash in on that?

Now that I look back on it, this lack of perspective was a blessing. Like I said, in 1999, there was no template for “making it” in law school. And as the guinea pig cohort, we certainly were not cognizant then of the fact that our choices were creating what future students would think of as high prestige career outcomes. In turn, because I had no real understanding of what it meant to “do well”, I did what seemed meaningful (read: fun) to me. I mooted because it was an interesting outlet (and it offered an academic reason to not be in class). I did well enough in school (because what else was there to do in the middle of nowhere?). And I did internships every winter so I could get a preview of what my life would be when I graduated (and to be in Delhi that time of the year). As graduation loomed, I was crippled again by the lack of a concrete plan. I wanted to study more – perhaps do an LL.M – but I had no clue what I wanted to study (and no real means of paying for said study). I gave litigation a thought, but I just was not committed enough and while I was moderately motivated about a range of causes, nothing really mattered enough to justify my living a life of NGO-proportions. So I made another entirely un-premeditated decision, accepted the best offer of employment I got and moved to Bombay to start work at what was then the prime pick of the RCC market: Amarchand Mangaldas.

Just to be clear – I don’t mean to be flippant about the things I did in law school or act like they came to me naturally. I just wish to emphasize that I had no idea how they would all add up – and I certainly did not do them all to get somewhere – mostly because I had no idea what that “somewhere” was.

2.             Not Making It (and why failure mattered)

Naturally, this strategy of Not Having a Plan does not always work. And it certainly did not work for me at Amarchand. Sure, I got in and loved Bombay – but it did not take me very long to realize this was not my calling.  There might have been many reasons for why I did not make it in this particular corporate law firm setting – but none of them matter. What mattered was that it pushed me to really think about what I wanted to do with my training: what I wanted to do with my life. In turn, it made me make my first proactive Planned Act – I left Amarchand in 2006 to teach and apply for graduate study.

In retrospect, this is probably what made every career decision after that fall in line – but at the time, it was just a matter of exploring new prospects. I did not hate corporate law in general – and I certainly did not have any animosity against my firm – I just knew I couldn’t go on the way I was. So I left Bombay and taught corporate law and legal methods in NALSAR for a year to see if I liked teaching (and before committing to a PhD). That extra year at NALSAR might not have confirmed what I wanted to do with my life but it gave me a clearer picture of what I did not want to go back to doing. Everything that followed after – the LL.M, my year as a research fellow with the Program on the Legal Profession, my PhD application and admission – all stemmed from the fact that I did not make it in a corporate law firm. I often wonder if my life would have been different if I had been a “star” at Amarchand: if I had worked under a different team, started on a different matter – the variations of that possibility are endless. As Julian Barnes might offer: Would I have had a completely different life if not for the fact that I was so unremarkable at my first job? It is certainly the unanswered, unanswerable question about the lives we could have led and didn’t that make us who we are. I am not suggesting that every failed career phase has a determinately exciting prospect just after – that would be naïve – but I do think that not “making it” in the traditional sense of the term can sometimes offer a useful jumpstart for other trajectories that are more personally meaningful.

3.             Hindsight is 20/20. 

First at the Program on the Legal Profession at Harvard and now at Stanford, my research pursues a familiar agenda: I study lawyers and legal systems. I study things you must sometimes idly wonder about. Rather, I hope the things I study are questions that you think are interesting enough to wonder about. At the very least, these were issues I spent a lot of my time wondering rhetorically about before I realized my day job could be to actually study them. My research is concerned mainly with stratification within professional and higher education models in the developing world: simply, I study legal education and the legal profession in India. On the axis of legal education, I am concerned with issues of social and cultural capital and how they intersect with what we think of as “deserved” professional rewards. I ask: How have new models of legal education (e.g. national and global law schools, access to LL.M programs) changed access to rewards within the profession? Have these seemingly merit-based and egalitarian access points in fact changed the inequality within the profession? Or have they only included a new elite to further stratify the legal profession? If what used to be “who-is-your-dad” is now being replaced by “who-is-your-dad” and/or “where did you go to school” – how much comfort does that offer to someone without either familial or educational networks and benefits? On the axis of the legal profession, my research has recently become more focused on the careers of women lawyers. Along with other colleagues who are studying similar issues for the Harvard GLEE Project, I am concerned with how globalization affects domestic careers for Indian women. Specifically — In light of new and progressive institutional changes within the global legal profession (law schools that fuel critical thinking, global-style law firms, international career prospects), what is the nature of these female legal careers in the developing world? What compromises are expected of them? Are these compromises (e.g. threats to work-life balance) seen as acceptable because these women see them as the only true entry point into the system? I am currently working on what I hope will be a longitudinal study of lawyers’ careers to tease out some of these mechanisms more fruitfully.  

As you can imagine, much of my training in law and my experience in practice continues to influence my research and I think it always will. In retrospect, it seems like everything that happened, really came together to mesh what I know think of as an academic career – and I recognize I am overusing clichés here – but hindsight is only 20/20. And while I am thankful for the events that lead to where I am now, I am also acutely aware of the fact that they did not all organically add up because I did X, Y or Z.

And this is the bit of the story that I cannot stress enough: no matter how structured someone’s career looks from the outside, it helps to remember that so much of it is subscribed by factors entirely out of their control. It can look like they had it planned all along – but (and this is especially true in the case of non-linear, alternate careers) it could always have not worked out just as easily. Take, for example, the start of this story – my parents thought that sending their daughter to law school was better than a random B.A. degree – but recall that they were not sending their kid to today’s NALSAR. They were sending me to rural Shameerpet, to a school that was not yet constructed on a belief that it would all work out (and thankfully, it did). And this was only the first leap of faith (in what, I am still not sure). I was leaping when I left a highly respected, well-paying job to take a temporary teaching position (it remains the most rewarding teaching experience of my life). I was leaping when I held out for a research position after my LL.M (the position I eventually accepted was not even in existence when I began “leaping”). And I am leaping now as I spend six years training to be a social scientist when my classmates enter secure law firm partnership tracks. Each of these phases could have ended very differently. NALSAR could have become another law college with no functional rewards for its alumni; I could have hated teaching and never have “found my calling” (whatever that means); at the end of these 6 doctoral years, I could have a few more degrees but be entirely unemployable because of a market I have no control over. I am not trying to be pessimistic here, just offering that even as I am leaping and encouraging you to do the same, I recognize how much of the noise in my regression (excuse the statistical metaphor) is unexplained by simple variables like effort, hard work, education, etc. Besides, it goes without saying that even the leaps that have worked – have worked at a price. I have to believe the price was meaningful for me: and when the time comes, so must you.

In the end, making the jump to do something different with your career is not always a premeditated process – and it does not need to be. Sometimes, you just have to follow your gut and jump. At the same time, doing something different just for the sake of doing it is not all it is cracked up to be either. When you are on a non-linear path, there isn’t a clear “if you do well in x years, you get y” trajectory to success and failure: the ambiguity of the process can be taxing and the rewards can be few and far between. I don’t have much advice to offer here but another borrowed bout of wisdom – this time from Kenny Rogers: “You’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold them: know when to walk away, know when to run.”

I wish you all luck in the process: may you hold, fold, walk away and run in ways that only bring you closer to “making it” in a path that matters to you.

Swethaa Ballakrishnen is currently an advanced doctoral candidate at the Stanford Sociology department and an Affiliate Fellow at the Program on the Legal Profession, Harvard Law School. She was was an Inlaks Scholar to the Harvard LL.M class’08 and a ’04 graduate of the NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad. In 2008, she joined the Harvard Program on the Legal Profession and the East Asian Law Society as a Joint Research Fellow with a South Asia specific research agenda. Before coming to Harvard, Ms. Ballakrishnen was an international finance lawyer with the Mumbai offices of Amarchand Mangaldas & Suresh A. Shroff & Co., and also spent a year teaching international finance and legal methods at two national law schools in Hyderabad and Bhopal, India. At Stanford now, she researches educational inequality, gender and stratification in the South Asian context. In the Fall’12, she is scheduled to teach her first core class for the Sociology department (Introduction to Social Stratification). 

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