Grads: There are no safe careers

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(MoneyWatch) COMMENTARY Some people love practicing law. But for many young people, it's become a fall-back career of sorts. You earn a degree in liberal arts from a good university. You realize a few years later that it's hard to make a six-figure income based on your expertise in American studies or comparative literature, particularly in a tight economy, and so you sign up for the LSAT. After all, the world always needs lawyers. With law school, there's a clear path between a degree and a career, and at the top firms, you can earn a salary that vaults you into the 1% within a few years (if you survive the brutal quota of billable hours expected for associates).

But the thing about a relatively free labor market is that it's hard for any career to stay safe, prestigious and high-paying for long. Medicine has held onto that distinction by controlling entry into the profession as tightly as possible, though economic pressures are affecting doctors too. Law has been less strict and -- as the bankruptcy filing this past week of Dewey & LeBoeuf has shown -- any thought that it's a safe career with outsized returns is dying fast.

Few firms are loading up on new hires. Big student loan debts are, for many new grads, eating up the salary advantage a professional degree confers. When firms go belly-up, that destroys the value proposition for new associates -- that if you work very hard, you'll reap monetary rewards for years to come thanks to the influx of more new associates hoping for the same thing.

So what is one to make of this? Surviving in a tough job market where nothing is a sure thing requires a certain mindset. For starters, you have to be entrepreneurial. No career path can guarantee you a certain life. Everyone has to figure out what skills he or she has, and how to get people to pay for such skills.

But more importantly, you may as well do what you like. If that's practicing law, then law school is a great investment. If it's something else, why not brainstorm creative ways to earn a high income doing whatever that thing might be? I used to think writing involved penury, but the longer I do it, the more people I meet who are earning salaries comparable to legal associates through a combination of projects -- some of which they love, and some of which they find all right, but still don't find awful. Sure, it's risky trying to make a living as, say, a mural artist, or a tech entrepreneur, or as someone who launches new charter schools, or as a contortionist, but guess what?

It turns out it can be risky trying to build a career as a lawyer too.