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Has Sept. 11 changed the way you think about your career? Are you ready to give up billing sheets and a six-figure starting salary to do something that feels more meaningful than joining the Enron defense team? Back in the bad old days, when law firms didn’t hire women (using the discomfort of their clients as an excuse), government work and public service were a girl’s only choices. Less pay and less prestige meant fewer men competing for those jobs — and of course, no private, paying clients who might take their business elsewhere. By the time I got to law school in the ’70s, the doors were just beginning to open — one at a time — to women. My classmates and I rushed through them. I hadn’t even heard of Cravath, Swaine & Moore when I started school, but all that changed within the first month. I began to understand what kind of work was valued and what kind wasn’t. So, for the last two decades, I have watched my brightest students, regardless of gender, quickly line up for the law firm jobs, compare large with small, check out per-partner profits, and make their choices. “Great training,” they explain to me — especially the women, many of whom know from the start that they will never stay long enough to make partner. But what’s there to do instead? The short answer is: plenty. If you’re not planning to make a career of large law firm practice, why put in the time? Would you rather go to court, try cases, and make big decisions? Become a prosecutor, where you literally get to make life-and-death decisions at the age of 26. I know — many U.S. Attorney’s Offices, especially in the big cities, require some experience. But large law firms aren’t the only places to get it. Go work for the district attorney. If they don’t have a sexual abuse task force, start one. If they do, join it. Work for the city attorney or corporation counsel; in many cities, that’s where all domestic violence cases end up. Apply for the honors program at the Department of Justice, or find out if your state has one. Join the JAG Corps; for better or for worse, military tribunals will likely be a reality in the war against terrorism, so the quality of attorneys in the military will be an issue of international significance. Want to help people who really need you? Head for family court, and represent the children who are caught there. Kids whose parents abuse or neglect them are in desperate need of lawyers to protect them. In Los Angeles, a quasi-private firm, headquartered right at the Children’s Court, handles these duties. Given the pay and the burnout factor, it’s hiring all the time. Patience, and experience with children, are actually valued there. Most of the lawyers are women. And you don’t need big-firm experience. Want to use your legal training not to practice law but to make it? Run for office. Run for state legislature, for Congress, for county supervisor, lieutenant governor or secretary of state. The best place to run is the place you grew up. Don’t expect to win your first time: most people don’t. Take on a safe incumbent, do “better than expected,” and then run again a few years later when he retires. Build name recognition and a network in your first race, so you can win your second. Volunteer to work in a campaign in your future district this summer, so you can learn the ropes. Write op-eds for your local paper. Go to local high schools and talk about careers in law. Find a politically connected law firm to hire you in the “off-season.” And don’t forget to hit up all your classmates in the big firms for contributions. Three years after I graduated from law school, we had a little class reunion in the U.S. Senate office building, where I was working. Barney Frank came over from the House side; he’d just been elected to Congress. Most of my other classmates came from downtown, where they were working in law firms. “You’re so lucky,” everyone kept saying, when I told them how much I loved what I did. By the end, Barney and I had concluded that we were the happiest — albeit the lowest-paid — lawyers in the room. Just because doors are open doesn’t mean you have to walk through them. Just because our culture puts firms like Cravath on a pedestal doesn’t mean you should. Just because government work is traditionally a “last resort” for women doesn’t mean it deserves that place. If Sept. 11 changed the way you think about your career, then go with it. You may discover that doing good, even if you’re not living as well as your classmates, is ultimately the best revenge.

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