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I Wish I'd Known - Elie Mystal

Elie Mystal

I Wish I'd Known - Elie Mystal

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It’s called typecasting. It happens when you repeatedly get picked to do the same type of thing because the people doing the picking can see you in only one role.

When they tell you that you can do “anything with a law degree,” they don’t tell you about typecasting.

They don’t tell you that “anything” means “the most legal version of” everything. Legal training is useful because “the law” impacts every corner of society.

It’s important to every type of business. You could argue that every person’s career is enhanced, at least a little bit, by a working understanding of the law, their rights, and the basic legal concepts that apply to their field.

It’s because of this utility that a law degree is thought to be one of the most versatile types of education money can buy. No matter what you do, knowing some law can help you do it.

NFL? Cheerleaders? I'm in!

But if you put your three or four years of legal education on your resume, no matter what you do, you’ll always be typecast as the “law” person. It takes a lot of time, effort, experience, and strength of will to overcome the presumption that you’re good at “law things”... and not anything else.

The law degree’s versatility can therefore become a bit limiting, especially if you don’t really like studying or practicing law.

My introduction to this problem came at my law firm. My firm did work for the National Football League.

One project was to review the privacy policies of the teams’ websites, with special attention to their third-party affiliates.

Put another way: My job was to review the cheerleader websites to make sure they were in compliance. On the surface, this was great work. I liked football, I liked cheerleaders, and I liked the internet. I had, in fact, been given the project as a kind of reward for hard work on other cases.

There are worse things you can do in BigLaw than spend two weeks looking at NFL websites. But once I got into the work, I was just looking at boring policies, checking them against model boring policies, and making boring comments about how one policy or another could be amended. Sure, the policies were on exciting-looking websites, but it turns out that reading the small print on one website isn’t all that different from reading the small print on any other. It didn’t really matter that I was reading NFL privacy policies.

The difference between reviewing policies for your favorite sports team and reviewing policies for your isn’t nearly as great as non-lawyers make it out to be. Even once I left the law, the law followed me. At my first actual interview for a job in journalism, the editor told me, “We don’t need another court reporter.”

“Good,” I replied. “I don’t want to be another court reporter.” I tried to explain that my experience in local politics before law school was good standing to be a city government reporter. I...didn’t get the job.

What was particularly frustrating was that they did in fact need another court reporter. Their guy had no legal training and didn’t know what he was talking about most of the time.

Two can play that game

Eventually, I came to accept my typecasting (obviously) and make it work for me. I figured out how to leverage my legal training to compete with other journalists who had spent three years building professional experience while I spent three years building an antipathy for former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia.

For instance, I was never involved in criminal defense work. I know the difference between murder and manslaughter only because I needed to for the bar exam. But media outlets now let me speak with “authority” any time some celebrity gets busted with an illicit substance.

Sean Bean might be typecast as the guy who gets killed in every movie. But man, there are so many interesting ways to die. You can do “anything” with a law degree, so long as you like doing law things.