Early on, it seemed that a career in law was in my cards.
It may have begun when I was 5 and became intrigued by news coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial, which always seemed to be on at our house. I was particularly drawn to the confidence and articulateness of the attorneys and legal analysts on TV, and I told my family right then that I wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. Through the years, I naturally gravitated toward activities like Student Government and Speech & Debate, trying to emulate the confident, articulate woman I dreamed of becoming.
Then I started college.
As a 17-year-old freshman, I still intended to go to law school, but by my sophomore year, I put my dream on hold. I began believing my mostly well-meaning peers and professors who preached that there were too many lawyers in the job market. According to them, law school was only for students who couldn’t get a “real” job, and they implied that the “right” path for an econ major like me was a career in finance. Besides, as someone who is generally terrified of debt, I was discouraged by the cost of law school. I casually dismissed my childhood dream as impractical and searched full-steam ahead for a good job.
My efforts paid off, and I landed a financial analyst position at Intel right out of college. In many ways I loved the challenges of my job, but after about a year, I sensed something was missing. Number crunching was not my passion, but I felt particularly energized by projects that required me to analyze accounting laws, draft internal policies, and present to management. Every day, a career in corporate law seemed to make more sense, and on cue, my dream resurfaced.
Within a week, I enrolled in an LSAT prep course and took the exam a few months later. But after earning a sizable promotion and receiving my good-but-not-spectacular LSAT results, I again put my law school dream on hold, dismissing the whole experience as a whim. But, intuitively, I knew I was giving up too soon.
In October of 2011, I reconnected with my friend and mentor, Whitney Johnson. Whitney knew that I had taken the LSAT and asked how the application process was going. I opened my mouth, preparing to stammer out the recited reasons for why law school was not right for me, but without warning, I started crying.
A bit embarrassed but really needing her advice, I vented my concerns about leaving a solid job, taking on student debt, and wondering if I was even good enough to get into a decent school. Pausing for a moment, Whitney warmly placed her hand on my shoulder and said with complete sincerity but firmness, “I believe you are choosing not to apply to law school for the wrong reasons. I dare you to at least apply, and then you can decide whether to go. Don’t close doors on opportunities until the doors close.”
Slightly taken aback, I didn’t make any promises, but I thanked Whitney for listening and by the end of the weekend, I decided to accept her dare. With gusto, I applied to over 20 schools and ultimately received zero rejections, a few waitlisted offers, and many acceptances to top tier law schools. By accepting my friend’s initial dare to simply apply to law school, I embraced my very own dare to follow through and start a JD program this fall at Arizona State.
While I don’t regret the three years I worked in finance, I’m glad it didn’t take much longer to identify—with a friend’s help—the wrong reasons I had cited for almost foregoing another dream. Ironically, it was as I was starting a new role as a risk analyst that I realized that the real and imaginary risks of applying and going to law school—the rising cost of tuition, uncertain legal job market, and risk of rejection—were completely dwarfed by the even more real risk of regret. To be sure, I’m quite confident that actually being a lawyer will be much different from the vision of lawyering that was presented to me 18 years ago on TV. And, while I can’t perfectly predict where my career will take me in the next 5-10 years, I am certain that I’m dreaming in the right direction and that the next time I think about prematurely closing doors to opportunities, I won’t.
Megan Nelson grew up in the Los Angeles area and holds a degree in economics. She has enjoyed a 3-year career at Intel in Phoenix and is preparing to start law school at Arizona State University in August 2012. Megan has two sisters and spends much of her spare time visiting family and volunteering at her church.