For a lot of law students, a big question that they face pretty quickly after starting law school is whether to apply to a firm. The talk starts in first year when firms - in particular large firms - start visiting the school, culminating in a total frenzy by the beginning of second year when it's time to apply for summer jobs (clearly there are variations, this can happen in first year if you're out East/in Alberta or later if you're in a four year program).
Unfortunately when many students are still trying to get their head around law school, they're faced with deciding what they are going to DO WITH THEIR LIFE. The decision seems especially stark for students who went to law school with the idea of pursuing some form of public interest career (rarely expressed in those terms then but you know what I mean).
So if this is you, let me give you some advice. Take a deep breath. Your career will inevitably take many twists and turns and the decision to firm or not to firm is simply one decision of many that you'll make. Tune out all the noise coming from your fellow students and think about (i) why you went to law school and (ii) where you want to be in ten years. Contact some lawyers (including non-practicing lawyers) who are doing what you eventually want to do and ask their advice. Most people are generous with their time and are happy to talk about how they found their way - especially if you're not asking them for something (this is NOT the time to ask them for a job).
And for what it's worth, here are some arguments for and against going the firm route out of law school when you think you will likely eventually end up somewhere else.
The main argument is to get some experience at a firm. This is often framed as the safe option: If you go to a firm, you keep your options open. This point is true to the extent that it is generally more difficult to later get a job at a firm if you're coming from an NGO or government (although I'd argue that there's a fair bit of fluidity to firms from government at more senior levels).You will get good experience assuming you're working with good lawyers. In particular, you should learn good research skills, to write well and succinctly, to pay attention to details (or get excoriated) and hopefully gain some expertise in an area of law. Also, you will get reasonably to well paid at a firm, so if you have a lot of debt, this may be your only option. And you'll have the opportunity to decide whether working at a firm is for you - although you should be aware that every firm has its unique culture and some may be better fits than others (and that's an understatement!).
Is this what you want to be doing?
Working at a firm (and by firm, I mean a traditional firm) doing general corporate work or drafting wills isn't going to get you the experience you need if you want to work for the UN or the ICC. You almost certainly won't get your dream job by sitting at your office computer applying for cool jobs online. Also, if you know you never want to work at a firm, you will likely find working at a firm very unsatisfying. And you certainly aren't doing a firm any favours by joining the firm with the intention of getting out as soon as possible. Finally, life will get in the way. Partners, mortgages, babies, aging parents will all conspire against your leaving the firm.
Or is this where you want to be?
At the end of day, you have to decide. Whatever decision you make won't be your last so it's not the end of the world if you think that you made the wrong choice. And remember, law school isn't only about preparing you for a career, it's also a time to learn, explore and have fun. If you need reminding, check out this video by law students from l'Université de Montréal. Clearly they know have to have a good time!