Tuesday, February 1, 2011

There's no Crying In Law Practice

I was recently approached by a law graduate friend who was bemoaning his decision to go to law school.  This past October, he learned that he had passed the Connecticut bar exam.  Nevertheless, three months into his job search he had not found employment that he considered worthy of his status.  He had job offers but none at a salary level he thought he deserved.   Three months and your already giving up on your pursuit of a legal career?  I told him he needed to build up his resume and get some experience under his belt. He broke down to me. "What am I gonna do? 

My eye began to twitch.  Suddenly, I turned into Don Correlone berating his godson Johnny Fontaine. "You can act like a man [slap] what's a matta with you?" I quickly calmed down.  "I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life--I don't apologize--to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those bigshots. I don't apologize--that's my life--but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Law Grad; Governor Law Grad".  But I digress.....
A trending topic on social media these days is that law school is a waste of time.  I have run across countless blogs of disgruntled grads complaining about the job market and the ability to make a buck.  Many complain of empty promises and high student debt. It's an old vintage of whine.  The anti law school flames were stoked further when the Old Gray Lady wrote a piece on how law school is a losing game.   In that particular NY Times article, the paper quotes recent law grads who have had trouble finding a good legal job.  Really, you have trouble finding work in one of the worst economies since the Great Depression.   You can't find a job even though you emailed your resume to all the big firms.  Career services stinks and they don't want to help you?  You made a bad life decision and suddenly no one should go to law school. Excuse me while I play the world's smallest violin to ease your sorrow.  Besides, there's no crying in law practice.  (Unless it's for the benefit of a jury.)
My intent is not to belittle the experience some have had in finding a job.  I am not naive to the obstacles facing recent law grads and that law school debt can be suffocating.  You think you're the only one.  I went through it too.  Many of us did.  I still experience days where I reconsider my choice in professions.  It's tough.  .For solo and small firm practitioners, it can be hard to compete with an attorney whose budget allows them to plaster their number on television, billboards and buses.  You have to compete with do it yourself legal forms sites and a glut of other attorneys.  For Big Law applicants, it can be hard to compete with a slew of job seekers for only a handful of spots.  I understand that there is a real problem.  According to a Northwestern Law study, over 15,000 attorney and legal staff jobs have disappeared.  But let's be frank.  It's tough in every job sector.  So what are you going to do about it?  Are you going to be a statistic or are you going to make yourself stand out from the crowd.   

I recently had this conversation with a handful of recent graduates.  After speaking with them, I was not surprised some did not get jobs.  For the majority of them, their job "searches" were limited to emailing cookie cutter resumes to a hodge podge of firms. They were addressed to "dear Hiring partner."  They relied on their law school's career service listings.  Their resumes mirrored those found in the career services example book.  They never took part in clinics, bar association events or career oriented seminars during law school.  They didn't spend their summers working and networking.  They never approached alumni.   Many went straight from high school to college to law school.  Only a few had any real job experiences.
I could have easily fallen into this hole of self loathing misery.  I graduated from a lower tiered school.  I was an evening student. I worked during the days and took classes at night. I wasn't a law review, cum laude graduate. To make matters worse, I decided to practice law in a state where law jobs were few and far between compared to the offerings in the neighboring meccas of Boston and New York City.  My law school contacts, career service leads and my friends were all in New York.  Here, I was starting from scratch.  (Did I mention walking up hill, both ways in blizzards and that I lived in a log cabin?"  

Granted, it was tough.  When I didn't land a job my first few months out, I decided to take on an internship at a small firm for experience.  To pay the bills,  I spent my nights working as a bar DJ.  Every time I started feeling sorry for myself, I thought of my father coming to this country as an immigrant.  He had nothing.  I wasn't exactly standing in a soup line at the local shelter.  I had a law degree.  I passed the bar.  All I needed was a client and I was in business.
Thankfully, my sacrifices paid off.  I would eventually provide my own salary. I became a rainmaker of sorts.  I joined civic and bar associations.  I did pro bono work for the experience.  I reminded family and friends that I was a lawyer.  I didn't wait for career services to find me a job.  I networked.  I pounded the pavement. I did contract work. As my experience and client base grew, so did my salary.  Word of mouth spread.  The money I made, I put into the firm's marketing efforts.  I gave seminars.  I started a blog. I created a website.  I developed a niche practice.  In two years, I had made partner.  

Law practice isn't for everyone.  It can be very stressful. But it can also be extremely rewarding.  To be successful in law practice, you can't be doing it just for the promise of a big paycheck.  I know several people who entered law school for just that reason.  They never had an interest in practicing law. For most lawyers, it's a love / hate relationship.  And it beats digging ditches.

Besides, since when did a law degree guarantee you a BMW in your driveway and a huge salary in  your wallet.  Neither does a teaching degree, an engineering degree or any other degree.  Would you tell your kid not to go to college because its a tough job market?  A law degree will still open doors for you.  If you think the market is tough with an advanced degree, imagine the market without it.
There is no doubt about it.  Law school can be a miserable experience.  What's your point? Nothing is going to be handed to you.  Not every law student will find work on Park Avenue. No likes hard work.   But hard work can lead to great things.  There are countless directions you can go with a law degree.   Even if you can't find a job you can always hang your own shingle.   That's what is great about having a legal degree.  The possibilities are endless.   To paraphrase Ben Franklin, you are only guaranteed the right to the pursuit of happiness. You have to catch it yourself.