Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

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

Staying the Course

with 11 comments

Total Black: $175.86
Total Red: $252,394.42

Way back in Vindication! I shared an email I had received from a former law firm colleague.  He expressed his encouragement and remarked at my ability to stay the course in the face of many challenges and opposition.  And criticism from commenters.  I haven’t heard from him since, but while channel surfing tonight after work, I stumbled across a program on C-SPAN’s Book TV that featured Nobel Prize winner Muhammed Yunus discussing his latest book Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism That Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs, followed by CNBC’s Maria Bartiromo discussing her book The 10 Laws of Enduring Success.  Both were fascinating presentations and they got me thinking a bit about the beginning of my blogdom experience and my commitment to see it and myself through these challenging times. 

Yunus’s discussion about social business intrigued me.  A social business is  defined roughly as one in which the focus of the business—the profit, if you will—is the betterment of the community.  Making money is not.  Money helps the business continue in order for the business to continue re-investing in the betterment of the community.  It’s an idea I’ve been interested in but just couldn’t figure out exactly how it would work.  For example, back in The Lowly Penny I touched on the penny and how contradictory we are with it.  Quick to toss it in a container at the cash register for use by the next customer.  Or in a fountain if it’ll grant us out wish.  Sometimes in a stranger’s cup.  Some of us even make art with pennies.  But once we have a fistful, we’re unwilling to share those pennies any longer.  If only there were a way to harness that limited generosity I wondered.  In Cashing in My Karma I noted how much and how often Americans volunteer, i.e., work for free.  And then in When I Grow Up I tossed out the idea of microcredit and similar lending institutions in the United States, not only the in developing world, and touched on American’s generosity with everything but money.  We’ll break our backs to help you out—think Habitat for Humanity—but ask for a dollar and you’ll get a taken-aback response.  And perhaps a begrudging generosity.  And we won’t forget—ever—that we lent you that dollar.  I’m guilty myself.  I gave Officemate a dollar a few weeks back to get me a drink from the vending machine; it was out of order.  I didn’t get my dollar back.  But it’s not entirely accurate to say that Americans are stingy with their money because in Times of Tragedy I noted how many Americans will give to charitable organizations when a major event occurs: hurricane Katrina, the Haitian earthquake, the South Asian tsunami.  But often it takes something big to get us to give.  And in Res Ipsa Loquitur I used a cup of coffee at Starbucks as an example of collective action.  If only each of us could forgo one cup of Starbucks coffee—whichever type we buy—one time—we could net upwards over a million dollars.

Where does that take me then?  American are givers.  But when it comes to money we’ll only give if it’s a small amount and then only when our heartstrings are being tugged.  That ASPCA commercial with Sarah McLachlan nearly had me in tears—and ready to dial away my dollars last night.  Otherwise, we’d be giving to various institutions on a regular basis, right?  Because we believe in the cause.  But that’s not nearly the case since many charitable organizations survive because of what are dubbed “major donors.”

So how do we get generous yet ever-so-slightly-stingy Americans to pool that generosity and help each other out?  How do we get social businesses off the ground.  Look at the mortgage crisis, for example.  Put aside for the moment the blame as to whether the family should or should not have bought the home they’re in risk of losing.  Instead let’s assume that it’s better to not have hundreds of displaced families, or millions in business losses incurred by lending institutions for defaulted mortgages since no bank ever recovers the entire amount it’s owed—it at least loses the interest it would have earned if the home owner continued to make monthly payments.  Assume with me that we’d rather avoid clogging the courts around the country with foreclosure proceedings.  So how could we avoid it?  Well, imagine that we had a sort of social business in place that tapped into available monies that then helped to pay down or even pay off  many at-risk mortgages—or perhaps assumed those mortgages, paid them off, and instead replaced them with monthly payments with no interest.  Yes, zero.  Just repay what you borrowed.  The focus of a social business is not to make a money profit after all.

That’s just one off-the-cuff idea.  But I doubt it would fly because in the United States we have this mentality that we’re supposed to, at age 18—as if magically at midnight—wander off on our own and be completely financially independent and successful.  Slip on those ol’ boot straps and off we go, never needing anyone again.  Like the cowboy.  We never saw the house he lived in.  He never carried any luggage.  Curious character, no?  I took a class on the Western while I studied in Germany.  (Yes, odd to take a class in English over there but I couldn’t resist the knew knowledge.)  Had never realized all the embedded and coded messages in the Western / cowboy movies and books.  He’s a very self-sufficient guy.   Superhuman almost.

Which leads me to the other book C-SPAN showcased tonight. I heard enough of Bartiromo’s discussion to understand her story and to be intrigued by her book.  Bartiromo talked about her career and the insights she’s gleaned to date.  She noted her experience being the only news reporter on the floor of the stock exchange and having to endure years of sexism at the exchange.  She got me thinking about what success means.  And that sparked my interest in my former colleague’s comment way back in Vindication!.

What keeps me going?  Why haven’t I just broken down and rent my clothes and succumbed to that tsuanmi of self-pity?  What are the roots of my enduring, quite literally, success?  So many commenters have bemoaned my unwillingness to give up this goal—and presumably this blog—and just accept that I’ll be in debt for years to come.  As if, unbeknownst to me—but knownst to them—it’s been decreed already that I’m doomed to carry these debt shackles for decades.

I guess just yet I can’t say whence comes my stamina and endurance.  I refuse to give in to, or to be taken down by, circumstances.  Even when things were bleak and I was popping pills to make money or toying with perverts for possible late-night gigs—I still pushed through.  Today a law clerk in another chambers asked whether I did “contract work” back in New York.  Shame was my first response, but in an effort to not predict others’ thoughts—as undertaken recently in Declare Your Independence—I answered in the affirmative and asked what I could help with.  Names of temp agencies perhaps?  I thought maybe this clerk, who soon finished with clerking, might have been thinking about moving to New York to do temp work for a while.  Instead my new colleague forwarded me something to look at.  It was a contract!  I had to explain that “contract attorney” didn’t mean attorneys who looked at contracts but instead attorneys who worked on a contract basis.  It made me laugh; it was so innocent and so far removed from the New York legal market and all its drama.  Office Manger keeps in touch with me and I hear from time to time all about dramas back there with the agency I last worked for.  It was a moment today when I realized how low I’ve sunk.  At least career-wise.  Kinda fitting I suppose that Tom the Temp dropped me from his blogroll.  Silly really but he did.  I emailed him about it too.  No response.  But I guess I am no longer a contract attorney.  And just in time as Tom reported recently about an attorney suing a New York law firm for it failing to pay overtime.  He better have that in writing because professionals don’t get overtime.  The law firm he sued is the same I referenced back in Writer’s Block, though not by name, that gave me a horrible borderline-homophobic interview for a temp position.  Glad I dodged that bullet.  If temping is the lowest I sank in my career, I hope this is the lowest I’ll also sink financially.

I’m left then with these two somewhat interconnected thoughts, if even forcibly interconnected: how to pool monies to help others in need and whence the source of my strength and successes.  Maybe this blog won’t ever make me money; something I’ve acknowledged as a passing thought back when I first set-off on this ride.  But perhaps it can help me figure out where to take my life next.

Total red is up because the of the $1,500.00 borrowed from my mother—part of the recent $10,000—that covered car insurance for the year.  Otherwise, the remaining balance will pretty much zero out.  Other debts went down by about $8,500.00 while debt owed to my mother went up by $10,000.00.  Now what to do with the money once I get paid—hopefully next week.  Of course, the longer I wait the larger the check.

11 Responses

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  1. I had to use the link to Tom the Temp because I was unfamilar with that blog. Once I read it, though, I realized the likely reason you were dropped from the blogroll was because you have bright prospects for the future. Most of the bloggers are knee-deep in negativity because of their inability to find meaningful legal work, which seems defined as working for a law firm. I’m just amazed that lawyers so narrowly define what constitutes law practice.

    I understand that temporary attorneys who work in document review may not consider themselves engaged in the practice of law. That’s understandable because of the clerical nature of that work. As a non-lawyer, I’m confused as to why document review or temporary attorneys think that employment as a lawyer in a law firm is the ultimate definition of law practice.

    My neighbor is a retired state worker (clerical) who now volunteers as a domestic violence advocate for a non-profit agency. She never worked as a lawyer for the state, but always volunteered her legal services for various social service organizations. I refer to her as an attorney – am I incorrect in doing so because she never worked for a law firm?

    You have excellent prospects for your future. Don’t let the negativity of others influence you.

    Donnelly

    July 8, 2010 at 08:21

  2. @Donelly
    She’s not a lawyer if she never passed the bar. State bars will punish law students who make the mistake of calling themselves lawyers before they’ve passed the bar, and so a lot of attorneys are careful about the use of the word. Whether or not your neighbor worked for a law firm is not really the issue, I think.

    The reason that temporary work or document review work is considered less than the practice of law is because both are by definition temporary. They don’t lead to permanent positions for the vast majority of the people working them, they don’t pay much better than most lawyers could make before law school, and they don’t engage attorneys in the critical thinking that law school was supposed to imbue us with. Temporary work doesn’t involve any of the glitz, glamor, or client interaction that working for a law firm, the government, or a legal aid clinic does. You’re not helping people or making great money – you’re treading water (if you’re lucky) and helping some law firm improve its bottom line.

    Robert Paulsen

    July 8, 2010 at 09:35

  3. Thank you for the clarification. My neighbor did pass the bar and attends CLE annually. She simply never worked for a law firm and had no desire to ever do so.

    Donnelly

    July 8, 2010 at 09:50

  4. There’s also the fact that a lot of people went to law school thinking that it was a ticket to a steady job with a good paycheck. Many of the bloggers, including Tom, feel like they’ve been sold a fraudulent bill of goods. While a lot of what they have to say about sketchy employment statistics and the poor state of the legal job market is useful information for anyone considering going to law school, many of these folks are understandably bitter about their situation. If someone disagrees with them or provides a counterexample, they may not appreciate it.

    Jim in Chicago

    July 8, 2010 at 10:28

  5. Donnelly, I think you made a really great observation. And like any group, comments and observations of “outsiders” are always insightful, sometimes more so than any you’d have on your own.

    I didn’t go to law school to make money. But once I got there the machinery pretty much put you on the conveyer belt to law firms, especially if you did well academically and were presentable. But having a law degree or being licensed doesn’t mean you have to practice law, technically. And there are other ways to practice. Obama is a lawyer. Bill Clinton is a lawyer. Many senators are lawyers; they’re not in law firms. Instead they’re drafting and passing laws.

    I think many temp attorneys view law firm practice as the pinnacle because it’s the brass ring in their faces every day. They work with the associates—sometimes inside the law firms—and as such suffer from a bit of Stockholm syndrome, maybe? 😛 But law firm associate positions are among the highest paid in the law, especially to start. Having done it, I don’t think I’d be interested in going back.

    If I can help it, I suppose. . . .

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 8, 2010 at 12:43

  6. I think being an associate in any kind of firm is generally what most young lawyers hope to do at the beginning. Money and prestige aside, it’s probably the best type of place to get a breadth of experience in legal practice. Being denied that opportunity, that is, the ability to even get a career started, is maddening for many recent grads. I think it explains the attrition and acrimony that accompanies legal practice.

    Bouard

    July 8, 2010 at 19:01

  7. Bouard: I’d have to disagree a bit. I think I got the most exposure to different areas of law as a federal judicial intern during my 1L summer, then as a summer law clerk to the US Attorney’s Office during my 2L summer, and lastly as a summer associate to a large NYC law firm during my 3L summer. (I got a dual degree so I studied for 4 years.) As an associate at a large law firm, however, I did not get any exposure to criminal law (USAO and NYC DA’s office as pro bono prosecutor) or real estate (final temp position), for example. I didn’t learn about antitrust and DOJ second requests (first temp position). I learned about pro bono work, law firm culture, and sycophants. And internal investigations. And what not to do. Well . . . all my positions have taught me what not to do actually. But I digress.

    But no—I don’t think law firm associate position actually helped round out my understanding of the practice of law. Maybe securities. A bit. But I got more of that while working with the Colleague and having to figure out SEC filings ourselves.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 8, 2010 at 19:07

  8. As somebody who has only had the chance to work in law firms and not for a judge, once I graduated, I only worked for one practice group. As a summer associate, I rotated between the groups at the firm and had a chance to learn about a variety of kinds of laws from people who were experienced and able to teach me. I’d say that the fact that I learned absolutely nothing from law school that I could use in any of the firms means my best hope of getting a rounded legal education/exposure was only going to come from being an associate. If I’d only worked for a boutique firm, for example, I wouldn’t have learned anything at all about construction or employment law, since those things are not in my practice area. From my understanding, the work you do as a judge’s clerk is iterations of the same kinds of research, and it seems like you’d tend to be exposed to the same sorts of filings, even if the disputes change. I’m willing to accept that I might have a narrow view of the court, though, as all of the filings I’ve touched have been essentially the same in the past 5 years.

    Robert Paulsen

    July 9, 2010 at 10:37

  9. Robert I think you identified the “concern” at the outset of your comment when you wrote: “only had the chance . . . .” Doing corporate or larger law firm work, you wouldn’t ever get exposure to probate matters, for example, or a criminal prosecution for drug possession. And even more so if your only area of practice is securities litigation, for example, or business taxation.

    The backdrop question, however, is whether one should have a “rounded legal education/exposure.” I assume we agree that it should be the case. Long-term goal, I’d like to be a judge. Once upon a time I thought Holmes or Posner were the norm until a law professor reminded me that judges are either appointed or elected, both of which involve politics by necessity—not scholarship or the study of jurisprudence. Nonetheless, I’ve pursued, albeit somewhat zigzaggy, paths that would expose me to as many areas of practice and schools of thought as possible. So I took Islamic Jurisprudence in law school and then worked as a research assistant for a professor who writes in the area of Antitrust. One of my summer associate rotations was in Antitrust as well and in Bank Finance. Other examples noted above.

    So it begs the question whether lawyers should be well-rounded. I’d say yes. We don’t have “majors” within the law. We all have to know the basics to pass the bar exam. But there it stops. And as for judges—I sure as hell want my judge to have had a broad exposure to various areas of law. Not to be plucked from the corner office of his securities practice within his white shoe law firm and then plopped on the federal bench and asked to rule on cases involving free speech or voting rights or prisoner appeals.

    With that point, I can say that clerking—unless its for a narrow court like the Court of Appeals for the Armed Forces or an Immigration Court—it does expose you to broad areas of the law. Appeal from granting of employee unemployments benefits, arson, personal injury, and defamation—all examples of cases before my judge right now.

    Maybe with the disruption in the legal field as far as new hires go—perhaps it’s time to implement a more structured apprenticeship program like in other common law countries? Something along the line of what med students have. It may also help strip away the inherent “classism” (for lack of a better phrase) if recent graduates were slotted into a year at a large law firm (not hand-selected by law firms alone), and then sent along to do their next rotation at a DA’s office, and finally a year in the legislature (off-the-cuff examples) before they could “accept” any permanent position. That would certainly ensure well-roundedness.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 9, 2010 at 15:00

  10. I think that many of the “negative” commenters on here have a reasonable point in trying to force you to confront the fact that you are likely to be shackled to this debt for decades. You haven’t really given an indication that you accept that reality, and many of the decisions you have made didn’t seem to have taken that long-view of the situation.

    Let’s look at this from 99.9% of the population’s perspective:

    A $250,000 is a debt that is comparable to the mortgage that many well-to-do people have on their homes, and that is likely to be on a 30 year payment plan. Most people readily accept the fact that they’re going to have that mortgage for, if not the full 30, than at least for 20+ years, and they don’t put much weight in some miracle or lottery winning to pay it off in a year or two.

    On top of that, your interest rates are multiples of what any mortgage is, so that makes it even more realistic to say that you will be tied to the debt for decades, and that is not even mentioning the fact that you will STILL have the equivalent of the 30 year mortgage payment ON TOP OF THAT because you still need a place to live, so you’re going to have your own rent or mortgage payment.

    All that on about $50,000 a year is a long road to travel. Even on $100,000 per year you’re looking at decades.

    This isn’t meant to be a “negative” post, but you ARE almost definitely going to be lugging this debt around until you’re an old man. That doesn’t mean you should live like a pauper or that you should be all down and dejected about it, but I do think it should be the focal point of your financial plans and your employment future.

    T

    T-Bag

    July 10, 2010 at 13:40

  11. To the point of my post, people are justifiably bitter about the lack of options for the average grad at this time. Being unable to even get your foot in the door when it matters the most can derail any career

    Bouard

    July 11, 2010 at 11:27


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