Ever since I quit my law job three years ago, I have noticed a disturbing trend. People seem to have more respect for unemployed JD’s who are looking for attorney gigs than for gainfully employed JD’s who work in non-legal positions. I’m not sure why. Growing up, I got the impression that becoming a “productive member of society” included bringing home a paycheck and paying taxes.
These days, though, people are preoccupied with labels and appearances. A few weeks ago, I was at a birthday dinner for an older lawyer. He got a little tipsy and asked me, “Do you ever wonder what a brilliant attorney you might be today if you just stuck with it?” I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the more appropriate question was how much happier I’d be today had I quit sooner, or never went to law school to begin with. The point is, this man didn’t care what I was doing with my life; he was only concerned with what I wasn’t doing – practicing law. He couldn’t get over the fact that I gave up the "prestigious" title of Attorney. In his mind, the title should be worth it, no matter how much I hated practicing law with every fiber of my being. (His line of thinking betrays a deeper insecurity of many attorneys: Why don’t you want to be like me?)
But what really gets me is that some new graduates look down on me for my choices. Even though I am debt free (no more law school loans for me!) and I make better money today than I did as a lawyer, they still believe in the big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just waiting for them once they land that cushy associate position at a (now mythical) white shoe firm. They probably think rubbing elbows with me might bring bad luck.
Take this past week, for example. I was having coffee with a friend of mine, “Sue,” who’s a lawyer. She’s been practicing for over ten years now as a solo, and she knows how tough it is out there in the current legal market. She understands perfectly why I got out when I did, and why I’m staying out. That day, though, she introduced me to a newly-minted graduate, “Kate,” who recently passed the bar and hasn’t been having any luck finding a job. Kate reminded me so much of myself a few years ago. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of moxie, desperation, and non-dischargeable debt. She looked to be about twenty-eight, with just a few fine lines around her eyes that would surely develop into full-blown wrinkles after a few more months of a futile job search. I complimented her on her soft, wavy blonde hair, which she informed me had recently grown back in after she passed the bar on her second try.
We all exchanged pleasantries and blew on our coffee while avoiding painful truths, like the fact that Kate is gonna have to hang out her own shingle at some point, just like Sue did. I’m no dream crusher, so I simply congratulated her on passing the bar, and listened to her lament the lack of jobs. So far, only one offer.
“It’s for an assistant position,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “I’m way overqualified for that, though.”
I laughed knowingly and sipped my overpriced coffee.
“So, what line of work are you in?” She asked eagerly.
“Actually, I used to practice law, and then I worked as an assistant for a while.”
“Ah…” she replied, embarrassed that she’d just turned up her nose at my line of work. “What made you do that?”
“Um…I think the law wasn’t really for me and I’m kind of focused on other things right now.” It would have been rude to be totally frank with her about the soul-crushing realities of law firm life, so I talked with her about my current work role, and about the writing I’ve been doing in my spare time.
Sue interjected and explained that the lawyer market in California is a bit competitive. “There are a lot of us here, especially in this area.”
“Yeah, you can’t swing a dead cat around this place without hitting ten lawyers,” I laughed. Sue giggled along with me.
Kate bristled. “Wow, that’s really graphic,” she replied, frowning.
“Sorry, it’s just an expression. Nothing against cats; I’ve got two. And a dog,” I explained apologetically.
“The point is, you’ve got to hustle in this market,” Sue said, leaning across the table conspiratorially. “I graduated right after the dot com bust. No jobs anywhere. Spent my days in the basement of the law library, trying to hit up solos for contract work.”
I nodded my head in agreement. “Oh, I know. My God, a friend of mine moved in with his parents for a year after graduation and ended up at a bankruptcy mill. When I was with my firm, a guy walked in off the street. He’d been practicing for over twenty years and offered to do my job for half my salary. I couldn’t sleep for a week, thinking my boss was gonna take him up on it.” I felt guilty for commiserating with Sue a little too enthusiastically, so I turned back to Kate. “Have you gotten any leads for attorney positions?” I asked, trying to sound as upbeat as possible.
“Yeah, there was one for a doc review position, but I don’t know, I’ve heard those can be brutal...” Her voice trailed off in apprehension.
Sue and I exchanged a quick, knowing glance. “Go for it,” she advised. “It might lead to something.”
That expression has become a euphemism in the new economy. “It might lead to something” is a polite way of saying “everyone’s gotta eat.”
After more encouragement on the part of me and Sue, it was decided that Kate would pursue the doc review position, but keep looking for “something more permanent.” (Another euphemism of the new economy: “something more permanent” means “a job where I don’t have to clock out to use the john.”)
Once Sue and I were left to our own devices, we decided to browse the gift shop next door.
“Do you think we were being too negative back there?” Sue asked casually, studying a rack of kitschy birthday cards.
“What, you mean that stuff about the shitty job market? No way. These newbies have to learn, we’re all on the breadline. None of us are beautiful, unique snowflakes,” I argued, sniffing a bottle of pound cake-scented hand lotion, and recoiling. “Besides, I thought we sounded pretty sanguine about the whole thing. All that stuff about pounding the pavement and staying positive.”
“I guess.” She furrowed her brow and held up a card for my inspection. “What do you think? For my little brother?”
“I think it…has elves on it,” I replied, cocking my head to the side and wondering what the punch line was. She laughed and continued perusing the rack. “Plus,” I continued, “that doc review thing will be a good start. She’ll be fine,” I insisted.
Deep down, I knew I was lying. The doc review job would provide a nice band-aid in the meantime, but soon Kate would have to start repaying her student loans. She didn’t tell us exactly how much she owed, but given that she went to a private school, she probably has a balance of at least $100K. Repaying that kind of debt requires a steady paycheck and a healthy number of working years to come, two essentials currently lacking in the legal market. It’s going to be a long time before Kate can breathe again, financially speaking.
I felt bad for her, but also frustrated and resigned. Trying to warn people against law school is like playing a game of whack-a-mole. There’s a momentary victory when you dissuade one 0L, until you realize three more lemmings have shuffled on, undeterred. Consequently, meeting unemployed graduates is old hat to me now, so it’s hard to get worked up over every single one. I’ve met a dozen or so Kate’s in the last year, and I know I’m going to meet a dozen more. I’ve tried to warn the ones who haven’t written their first tuition checks yet, and I’ve tried to give pep talks to the ones who are now stuck with decades of non-dischargeable debt. I do what I can, but what really bothers me is that people like Kate don’t quite get it yet. She looked down on the non-legal job offer, failing to realize that getting offered one of those positions was a gift, considering the huge scarlet letter that’s now on her resume. Maybe a few months of jumping from one temporary doc review gig to another will give her a healthy dose of reality. Even better, maybe she’ll land something besides doc review, “something more permanent.”
In the meantime, I have a few words of advice for all of the unemployed JD’s out there who look down on the non-legal job market. I know I’m just some loser who earns a regular paycheck, but I think George Thorogood was onto something: get a haircut, and get a real job.