Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

Just Your Average Joe Blogging Away His Debt—In One Year or Less

Vacancies Vacanies Every Where . . .

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Total Black: $237.20
Total Red: $228,519.06

Significant drop in total black.  I bought food.  Yesterday’s post about my Bob Barker daydream probably spurred me on to go to the grocery store and buy some.  But that’s ok.

I noted in previous entries that I receive daily emails from USAjobs.gov and Idealist.org.  So, I went trolling the depths of USAJobs.gov again earlier today.  I applied for a position with the Department of Justice in the Civil Rights Division in Washington D.C. and with the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit in Philadelphia.  One thing that I’ve noticed though is that there aren’t many positions available at my level.  The bulk of the positions advertised require upwards of five or more years of experience.  Where did all those people go in order to create these vacancies?  And why are these vacancies mostly at that middle level?  Did everyone flee . . . er . . . leave the federal agencies once President Obama took office?  It’s the same in the non-profit sector too.  Did Obama’s election clear house at the non-profits?

Check out this opening currently on Idealist.org

The National Association of Attorneys General seeks a staff attorney for its Tobacco Project.  Duties include: legal research, analysis, negotiation, writing, training, and oversight of the Project’s wiki portal.  Salary range & experience: 3-5 years at $75K – $90K.  Must handle multiple tasks at once, meet applicable deadlines, work as a team member, and demonstrate strong technical skills.

Or this one.  I had to follow the link reference to figure out who the employer is (not that I’ve ever heard of the Vera Institute . . . but maybe that’s just me).

The Vera Institute of Justice is a private, non-profit organization that combines expertise in research, demonstration projects, and technical assistance to help leaders in government and civil society improve the systems people rely on for justice and safety.  Vera is dedicated to making government polices and practices more fair, humane, and efficient. . . .  The ideal candidate will be an attorney with at least ten years of experience as a prosecutor (preferably with supervisory experience) who possesses a demonstrated interest in criminal justice, civil rights and matters relating to racial justice.  Strong interpersonal and communications skills and public speaking ability is required, as are excellent writing abilities.  S/he must be skilled at facilitating meetings of senior professionals and able to work effectively with a broad range of people, from prosecutors, community leaders to social scientists.  Preference will be given to candidates with experience working with data and performance measurement.  A successful candidate will have a demonstrated ability to manage multiple tasks, work collegially and be willing to travel outside of New York City up to 2 to 3 times a month.

Technically nothing in those two postings demands even a law degree, let alone anything beyond two years of experience.  Yet to do legal research (something first-year law students do) and manage a wiki portal (something I’d bet teenagers do) the Tobacco Project requires that you first go to college for four years, then to law school for another three, then obtain—let’s pick the middle range—four years of experience, all before you can even apply to manage that wiki portal?   That’s a total of eleven years from first stepping foot on your college campus to getting hired as a staff attorney.  And the Vera Institute wants you to have seventeen years in before you can apply to facilitate their meetings of senior professionals.  Please!  I was doing that at twenty-three in the Peace Corps.  Check out this other ad:

Children’s Rights, a national children’s civil rights organization based in New York City, seeks to hire an attorney to play an active role in class action litigation on behalf of abused and neglected children throughout the country. . . .  The ideal candidate will have at least five years of active litigation experience and will become an active member of Children’s Rights’ legal teams, often working in conjunction with pro bono big-firm co-counsel and local advocates and experts.  Children’s Rights attorneys must possess outstanding litigation and writing skills, demonstrate wise strategic judgment, and be interested in the broader aspects of systemic reform and its policy implications.  The successful candidates will be expected not only to perform at the highest level of practice, but also to take advantage of opportunities to further develop professionally.  Preference will be given to applicants experienced in complex class action litigation and with federal court experience.  Knowledge of children’s issues or social service systems is a plus, but is not required.  Travel is required.

So . . . it’s absolutely fine if you know absolutely nothing about the area of law you’re applying to work in, just as long as you have at least five years of experience and are interested in systemic reform and its policy implications (whatever that double-talk means).  A good friend of mine does class action and complex litigation on behalf of migrant farm workers in Florida.  He’s pretty much the attorney for many of his non profit agency’s clients.  Yet he wouldn’t meet minimum qualifications for this Children’s Rights position because he’s only been practicing for four years.

What are these places thinking?  I have to say that it seems like most of the non-profit world is carefully crafting their job descriptions so as to avoid any responsibility for all of the displaced and out-of-work attorneys.  Look at this ad for a pro bono attorney:

The Reproductive Rights Project of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) — the New York State affiliate of the ACLU — is seeking applicants for a four-month pro-bono attorney position beginning in September of 2009. . . .  The pro-bono attorney will participate in all aspects of the RRP’s work, including: litigation, legal analysis, legislative analysis, public education and advocacy regarding a broad range of issues including: abortion, family planning and emergency contraception, reproductive health care coverage in public and private insurance, confidentiality in health care, HIV/AIDS and sex education, pregnancy and sex discrimination, defending clinics against anti-choice actions, contraceptive equity, childcare and reproductive technology.  Applicants must meet the following qualifications:

A law degree from an accredited law school and admission to the New York State Bar;
At least one year of litigation experience;
A demonstrated commitment to one or more of the following: reproductive rights; civil liberties; health and disability rights; women’s rights; minors’ rights; lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, transgender rights; the rights of low-income women, youth and women of color; and
A demonstrated ability to advocate effectively, including strong research, writing and oral advocacy skills.

A month ago I applied for that same position when it was listed on Idealist.org as a temporary contract attorney position.  A paid position!  NYCLU subsequently delisted the position and reposted it as an unpaid pro bono position.  Insane.  It feels like I’ve walked through the looking-glass.

For anyone not familiar with the latest events affecting the legal community, large law firms are paying their incoming attorneys half their salaries and deferring them for at least a year.  But they also don’t like the prospect of a whole class of attorneys starting a year late with a year’s worth of rust on their skills, so some large law firms are requiring that deferred attorneys find legal work.  Most are turning to non-profit agencies or public interest groups.  As Kathleen Kingsbury reported in a recent Time article “Why Rookie Lawyers Get $60,000 Paid Vacations,” organizations, like the “Legal Aid Society, now have their pick of top law school graduates — most of whom will arrive with a paid salary and health benefits attached.”

Non-profit and public interest attorneys are known to pound their chests and lament and wail and gnash their teeth at the disparity in incomes between themselves and large law firm associates.  Thus, it seems, they feel entitled—at least institutionally speaking—to leech off law firms without any shame.  If the non-profit organization can’t afford to pay for legal research, they just get a law firm to do it for them.  If they can’t afford to conduct the litigation for a client they’ve agree to represent, they’ll outsource it to a law firm as a pro bono case.  And now yet again non-profit organizations and public interest groups stand to reap a windfall from law firm displacements.  I find it ironic really, and just a bit too curious, that these same organizations just happen to only have paid positions available for attorneys with just enough experience so as to be unaffected by the massive lawyer layoffs.  And those positions that they did have are “all of a sudden” now available just for pro bono attorneys.  What did NYCLU do with the money it had a month ago to pay a temporary attorney?  It’s a four-month position!  They can’t afford that any longer?

Forgive me if I’m a bit bitter, but it’s really difficult stomaching all these closed doors.  And, as previous entries note in detail how much uncompensated work I do, even now, plus years of internships while in law school, two years in Poland in the United States Peace Corps, and thousands of dollars in donations during my years at the firm, and well . . . I feel I’ve paid my dues to the non-profit world and earned the right to air my grievances.  I understand fiscal responsibility.  I know that charitable contributions are down across the nation.  But I have to wonder whether these non profit organizations and public interest agencies feel any responsibility to the displaced attorneys, some of whom—like me—were donating thousands of dollars to them just a year ago.  And no, I don’t count providing “safe harbor,” so to speak, for deferred law firm associates as helping out in times of trouble.  Sure the non profit world will have to train and supervise, but they’re not affected financially by these free attorneys now working for them, except perhaps in normal business expenses like electricity or office supplies.  I have to wonder if any of them will make room on their payrolls for those attorneys affected by massive layoffs and the Wall Street debacle.  Same theme I seem to keep repeating in these posts: if each non profit agency hired just one more attorney, even at a reduced salary, that would help a great deal.  I’m just left boggled by the complete lack of foresight in how this all is being managed.  What happens when Papa Big Firm recalls his baby lawyers because the market has turned around?  Or if he kicks them out of the nest in a year because things haven’t improved.  Where will the non-profits land then?  Will they too kick their safe-harbor attorneys out of their adopted nests?

But enough about them.  I just couldn’t help but recall, this afternoon while job hunting, that line from Samuel Taylor Coldridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner:

Water, water, ever where
Nor any drop to drink

Vacancies everywhere but no jobs to be had.  In other news, I got that position with the Recession Art Sale.  News came through this morning.  If you want art, let me know.  I’ll have to get started on my marketing strategy.  It’ll definitely be an adventure, that’s for sure.  The gallery is on 43rd Street and 3rd Avenue.  I’m sure I’ll be posting more detail.  Stay tuned on that.

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