Confessions of a Laid-off Lawyer

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

Meet George Jetson

with 10 comments

Total Black: $2,364.76
Total Red: $270,000.16

Talking with Officemate yesterday got me thinking about my plans after clerking.  Officemate will be finishing up soon and moving on to something new.  I feel confident that I’d have the opportunity to continue for a second year here.  Whether I want to and whether I should are two separate considerations.  But I got thinking about my career path.  I don’t know that I have one. 

At least not yet anyway.

Like many American youths, I went to college.  Because that’s what you’re supposed to do.  You’re completing high school and you’re a bright student.  So that’s what you’re supposed to do.  Like the conveyor belt in the Jetsons that took George everywhere, Life, in a sense, but really just the people around me, waived as that same conveyor belt whisked me away.  No one asked if I really wanted to go to college.  No one sat me down and forced me to me to map out my plans.  I didn’t run various models of my life: assume four years of college studying engineering, then two years at AT&T, then lateral to a firm in Texas for four years and by ten years from college graduation I’ll be an executive.  Nope.  Didn’t happen.  That sort of long-range planning and strategizing wasn’t a requirement.

I touched on this in Tears for Tiers.  And perhaps even a bit back in When I Grow Up.  Many of us out there are enduring recession-related existential exegeses of our lives.  And I’m one of them.  Reading through First Tier Toilet‘s post: Raise. Your. Voice. and then commenting there as well, got me wondering whence the disgust though.  Confusion I understand.  Even a salty attitute perhaps.  But disgust and acrimony?  That I don’t get.  Third Tier Reality, for example, makes it a point in nearly every post to include a vile photograph of a feces-filled toilet or a puked-upon garbage can or some equally revolting image of waste.  Clearly he’s not happy being a lawyer.  Likewise many out there aren’t happy in their “chosen” professions or trades as well.  Why?

Initially I wanted to get my bachelor’s degree in theatre.  Not surprising I opted for another theatrical art: lawyering.  Lawyers seem to come in two types: introverts and extroverts.  The Johnny Cockranes and other grand-standing performers.  She’s the all-eyes-on-me type, constantly motioning to the followspot operator to swing that limelight her way.  Having worked at New World Stages with actors, trial lawyers are very actor-like in their approach to practicing law.  Very self-centered.  Performers.  The other type of lawyer is the bookish, quiet type.  He likes patent law, perhaps, or transactional law: drafting contracts or writing up loan agreements.  Making an argument before any court renders him anxious and gassy.  Alas, like much in my life, I’m smack-dab in the middle of those two types.

Once my acting teacher / honors-society mentor, who did a piss-poor job at both, had advised me to have a back-up plan in case acting fell through—and all but frightened me away from the field—I opted instead to pursue full-time my other interest: literature.  Having been a child of the politically-correct boom, and being at a state school as well, I relished the occassion take different classes on all sorts of topics.  I took a Romanian Literature course, an African Drama class, two or three Women’s Studies classes.  I wanted to study Swahili when I got to Penn State’s main campus but my advisor—also the German teacher—steered me into her class.  That eventually led to my interest in Philosophy.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  See, no one sat me down and asked me: how will you convert your degree in Comparative Literature into a job.  Penn State advisors didn’t wonder about my post-collegiate plans.  Which is why I take issue with the rhetoric of the scambloggers—I think it’s a larger higher education crises in the United States today.  The pursuit of advance degrees has become a lucrative business.  Many don’t want to get students thinking about their futures.  They might decide an advanced degree—or two or three—is not for them.  I had enough sense early on to realize that literature wasn’t a field but rather a discipline.  I couldn’t get a job “doing” literature.  I could teach it.  I could try to be a literary critic.  Maybe I could master a language and translate texts into English.  Swahili, and not German, may have come in handy there.   But graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Comparative Literature would not, on its own, usher me into a profession and bring a paycheck.  Rather it would most likely require more schooling and more debt.  Instead of following the lead of many of my peers, who either got jobs doing something or who bummed around doing nothing, I got a job that allowed me to get a job bumming around: I entered the United States Peace Corps.

Ok fine . . . we didn’t bum around.  It was difficult too.  Many rally around the troops but no one mentions the lowly Peace Corps volunteer without Doritos from the commissary or Skype access to phone home.  It’s often a requirement to live far away from any other volunteer so you don’t get other service personnel to relate to.  But Peace Corps workers aren’t facing death every day either.  I digress, however.  The Peace Corps did allow me to travel while also doing something professional and resume-enhancing.  I was building my career.  Just what I was building towards, I didn’t know then.  And again, no Peace Corps transition worker asked me what I intended to do after completing my assignment.  So, just as I was approaching the end of my tour in the Peace Corps, I started thinking about next steps.  I had tried my hand at the Foreign Service, passing the written exam on the first try.  Unfortunately the interview phase of the exam happened on September 11, 2001.  In Washington, D.C.  The exam was stopped.  We were evacuated from the State Department building.  When I sat for it a second time a few weeks later, I think my concentration was off.  I missed the cut-off by a few decimal points.  But the Foreign Service was just a jiggle of the door handle; let’s see if this opens.  It didn’t.

I liked college.  I enjoy reading.  I love learning.  So I assumed a graduate degree was my next option.  While looking through applications for graduate schools I noticed they asked for a lot of information: list any publications, note research conducted, degrees received, licenses held, and so on.  Alone in my flat in Poland I assumed those were prerequisites.  All I had was a college degree and the Peace Corps on my resume.  So I searched for a study-abroad program.  Found one that put me in Germany for a year.  And then in Germany, after September 11th, while listening to the Ambassador of Pakistan to Germany speak to the Model United Nations conference at John F. Kennedy High School in Berlin, I hit upon law as my way to go.  I had been interested in philosophy but couldn’t figure out what to do with an advanced degree in that discipline.  Not many philosophers around these days.  At least not paid ones anyway.  So in November 2001, I scrambled to get my LSAC profile ready, ordered an LSAT study book via express mail and registered to take both the GRE and the LSAT albeit not until February 2002, the last date possible for the LSAT before applications are due.  I printed numerous law school and graduate school applications for multiple top law schools.  And applied.  And sat back to wait.

A wise advisor would have made me slow down and prepare correctly.  If I could turn back time, I would have taken LSAT and GRE prep courses, polished my resume and writing samples (I had to read a work of philosopy and write an essay just for the application process because I didn’t have any philosophy papers on me), and worked with recommenders to get good letters of recommendation drafted.  Instead everything was rushed in a panic because that same conveyor belt was about to launch me into the Great Unknown after my year-abroad in Germany finished.  And?  That wouldn’t have been so bad to go back home and just chill.  I could have taken a year-off, right?  But I didn’t.  See, I’ve been on that belt since kindergarten.  Up through elementary school.  No break between those two, of course, nor between elementary and high schools.  Same with college.  I used to take classes in the summers during high school and college.  Before starting high school I took Pre-Algebra and Pre-Latin classes at Scranton Prep.  Between sophomore and junior years I took an SAT prep course.  Between junior and senior years, after the realization hit me that I had, in my mind at least, fallen behind my peers if I truly wanted to become an actor, I took acting lessons, signed up for an acting summer camp, for dance classes, and even sign-language courses.  Hey—if someone needed an actor who could sign I’d have a leg-up, right?  Even between senior year in high school and freshman year in college I took six credits.  And six more credits the next summer.  Twelve credits in my last summer.  I think the only summer off was between freshman and sophomore years in high school.

My point to all this?  I’ve been tired of this conveyor belt for some time now.  I just don’t know how to stop it.  Or how to steer it.  One subpoint to this blog was to put my career on hold for a period of time so that I could focus full-time on bringing my debt down and to give myself a chance to just live.  But the Great Recession wasn’t the best time to commence that goal.  Curious that the only out I allowed myself was a clerkship.  And what did Life present me with?

I suspect that many people are frustrated and disgruntled about their post-academic lives and career paths because many, like me, never thought it through.  No one asks the French major how he’ll put baguettes on the table.  We dont’ inquire of the psychology master’s student whether she’s analyzed her balance sheet lately.  Schools just take students money and send them on their way.  Very bootstrapping mentality.  We assume everyone knows where they’re going.  But then something happens.  No one plans on being laid-off or unemployed.  No one fantasizes about collecting public assistance.  So what then?  If we did a better job getting our young adults to think critically about what they enjoy doing and whether they’re good at it, we might have a happier—or at least more content—workforce.

I don’t regret law school.  The Law provides me with rich ground for stimulating intellectual discussions.  It’s an integral area to our lives.  There are many different fields to working.  In fact, as an aside, I thought to myself—when I was tempted to call in sick and go continue my scuba certification course as well, mentioned back in Scuba Sunday, that the certification company, PADI, must have an in-house counsel department.  If I were so inclinded I could try to work as the scuba company’s lawyer.  Sounds pretty cool.  Aside over.  So yes, I’m glad I went to law school.  But I wish that I had had along the way advisors and mentors and career counselors who instigated critical career strategizing.  Goals are important, especially when working on getting out of debt.  If you don’t have a vision of where you see yourself in five or ten years, it’s hard to convince yourself why you should pass up that coffee or that meal.  The app I mentioned in What a Mint! got me to see some of the silly “treats” I allowed myself over the past few weeks in St. Croix: approximately $175.00 on three meals.  Fine I’m exploring the local cuisine and meeting people but that’s also one student loan payment!

So, what’s next for me?  Officemate wants to work in the area of international human rights.  I can’t say that for myself.  I’m not up-in-arms about the rate of crime nor about the railroading of criminal defendants.  Likewise I’m not shaking my fist at manufacturers and their defective products but I’m also championing tort reform.  You won’t see me in any downtown protesting Guantanamo Bay but I’m also not signing up for JAG.  I’m sort of stuck on that conveyor belt waiting to see where Life takes me next.  I’m used to it.  The steady hum.  The repetitive machinations.  Like the mighty Mississippi it keeps rolllin’ me along.  And it’s undoubtably taken me to interesting places: Malta, Germany, South Africa, Poland, St. Croix, Washington, D.C., New York, and on and on.  But the time to step off it is approaching.  I’ve ridden the escalator up and down for a while now; time to make a purchase.  Pick a practice area and a town and just live and work.  I guess I’m going to do just that for the next year.  So perhaps the conveyor belt has stopped for the moment.  But soon enough it’ll start up again.  Not sure where I’m off to next.

10 Responses

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  1. My knowledge of the law is confined to the effects of the economy on the legal market. I know you have the credentials for a “big law” position, but have you considered being a solo practictioner? Forgive my ignorance, but could you work at a large law firm (by day) and do something else, like entertainment law, on the side? Or, is there an organization like Lawyers for the Arts (we have one in Philadelphia) that you could join in New York? Just some random, albeit jumbled, thoughts.

    Donnelly

    July 28, 2010 at 18:44

  2. Interesting question. Most law firms prohibit freelancing, whether paid or unpaid, because of the potential liability. I guess the argument being that the firm’s malpractice insurance could somehow get roped into whatever after-hours work you do. Plus there’s the drain on your readiness and availability for the firm’s work. Ushering did reduce my availability some for the contract attorney work. But I didn’t work for that law firm just at that law firm. But I think I’ve concluded that I want some sort of non-legal job while I work anything legal. I like the balance.

    There are lawyers / arts organizations in New York. I never looked for them though. The larger question is whether I want to return to New York. The entire state is open to me. And with Pennsylvania licensing as well, I could set up shop near the border of both states. But do I want to live in the sticks of Pennsylvania. Binghamton is only about an hour from Scranton. Not like I’d have to travel that far.

    And then there’s DC. And I’ve thought about sitting for the VI bar in February.

    Sometimes I wonder if it was easier years ago when people didn’t wander too far from home. Or maybe if I were married and had someone else to constrain my options.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 28, 2010 at 19:09

  3. Hi LOL-

    I saw this today and thought that you and your readers might find it interesting: http://www.hulu.com/watch/91604/vanguard-maxed-out
    It is a brief documentary about our generation and debt.

    I understand your struggle for balance, I’m still searching for that too….I’ll let you know if I come up with anything good.

    -K.

    -K

    July 28, 2010 at 23:51

  4. 1. “No one sat me down and forced me to map out my plans” … “long-range planning and strategizing wasn’t a requirement.” Yeah, what a shame. Imagine what a difference that would have made. If there’s one thing this blog has shown, it’s that you’re great at formulating and sticking to an intelligent, well-thought-out course of action. Hey, how are you enjoying that new car? How were those three $60 meals you “treated” yourself to?

    2. Third Tier Reality “clearly isn’t happy being a lawyer.” How could a comp. lit. major completely miss the point of TTR’s entire blog? He isn’t unhappy being a lawyer, he’s unhappy that he ISN’T a lawyer (not an employed one, anyway). TTR would be thrilled to be unhappy being a lawyer, because that would mean he was earning a paycheck. Instead, he’s 150K in the hole, with no job, no job prospects, never having worked a day as a lawyer. And you wonder why the “disgust and acrimony?” Probably because he has a firmer grasp on reality than you. I don’t entirely back TTR on this because, as I’ve commented before, I think anybody who agreed to go 150K in the hole in order to attend a crappy law school is a victim of their own bad judgment, but how you can express bewilderment that people like TTR (and there are many of them) would feel anything more than “confusion” is beyond me.

    3. I’m a former Peace Corps volunteer. Please don’t ever compare our experience to the military. There’s no comparison, even when it isn’t wartime. Every time I think the way you perceive the world couldn’t be more skewed, you say something to prove me wrong.

    Blade

    July 29, 2010 at 08:38

  5. There are many ways our experiences are similar to the military. 1) we’re all Americans, right? There’s a similarity. 2) And we’re all not in America, right? There’s another similarity. 3) We all know the pain of being alone, celebrating holidays away from family, not being there for important family events. Yup—another similarity. 4) We all know the difficulties of adjusting to a foreign country, language issues, etc. And on and on and on. Lots of similarities.

    See, Blade, you find the differences and highlight them. Bet you didn’t even think about that most basic one that soldiers and volunteers are both human, both alive! Lots of similarities if you look. And meaningful ones at that too like #3 and #4. I find the similarities and try to high light them. My point above was that there are many similarities between the loneliness and isolation that volunteers and service members feel, just that no one in the media pays attention to that. No, there’s hardly a similarity between being in a warzone or not and being in a village in Africa—to cite the stereotypes. But there are still similarities.

    As for Nando: don’t be so quick to champion him. He’s only $37K in debt, according to his own comment. I guess you can “afford” to not have to work a legal job if your law school debt is really your wife’s and much less than that of a college education. Like I said in Breakfast With Narcissus and in a comment on Knut’s blog, I think Nando is doing a vital service to the industry. I just don’t think he needs to be bitter about it. And he certainly doesn’t have to attempt to insult people who may have a different approach or a different take. And besides that, there are plenty of ways to continue working as a lawyer without getting paid. Yeah, I did it. For six months. I got a lot of experience out of it and though I didn’t get a paycheck I felt like a lawyer everyday. There’s night court in many places. Judges may welcome pro bono help. Any of us can try to get some sort of legal work. Attend CLEs or conferences even to keep legal skills sharp. This entire debate is highlighting the difference between the haves and the havenots, and by have I mean have some sense of how to survive. Survival of the fittest, I guess. Hell, move even! I’ve now moved over 1,500 miles away from family and friends for a job. I trust it’ll turn into something. But who knows. Perhaps AIG will go under tomorrow and everything will come crashing down. But the point is to try. Instead many people have just sat back and bitched. At least my blog chronicles daily my efforts, albeit flawed at times, at trying to get my career and my finances back on track.

    But you wouldn’t ever credit me for that. You’d only see the downside, the bleak, the black, Blade.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 29, 2010 at 08:44

  6. @-K: Thanks. Good show. I started watching it but work got in the way. 😉 I hope to finish it soon. Tonight I’ve got a local event to go to.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 29, 2010 at 11:29

  7. I think you’re overlooking one big advantage you had over Nando (and his kind) – you were able to work at a large firm for a few years, so you at least had that on your resume while you were looking for your next job. Even with that, look how difficult it was for you to find something; now imagine how much more difficult it would have been if you had absolutely no real-world legal experience on your resume, no relevant jobs to discuss in interviews, and so on. You say “there are plenty of ways to continue working as a lawyer without getting paid” and that may be true, but remember – Nando isn’t trying to CONTINUE working as a lawyer, he’s trying to START working as one. Those are two entirely different things and I suspect the latter is much more difficult than the former, particularly since they’re now competing against people like you with Biglaw experience.

    It’s absurd for you to frame this as dividing the world into those who have a sense of how to survive (you, presumably) and those who don’t (Nando, et al., presumably). The only reason you’re not living in a cardboard box is your mother’s charity, not because you have some inner strength that others lack.

    Blade

    July 29, 2010 at 23:26

  8. @Blade: I must admit at first I was shocked. I was reading and reading and thought, “Whaaatt?! I don’t know how to respond to a ‘real’ comment from Blade.” But then came the bitch slap at the end. And the world was right again.

    I don’t overlook that advantage. Rather it’s the other way around: they do. I graduated from what is factually-speaking a third-tier ranked law school. And I still went to BigLaw. As an associate. And worked there for two years. Probably would still be there if the economy hadn’t started tanking. My point, in part, is that just that, that the scambloggers over look me and my experiences. I don’t fit their paradigm. They don’t allow for variations. In their books, all third-tier schools are swill and bunk and need to be dismantled. They’re all misleading prospective students.

    Listen, I don’t know Nando’s experience. I don’t claim to have walked a mile in his shoes (unlike him, who claims, at least inferentially, to have walked a mile in all TTTers shoes). But what I’m arguing for is the acknowledgment that nothing is all or none. “Always” is almost never accurate. He may not have obtained legal employment, but that doesn’t mean his law school is to blame. And even if we allow some culpability there, when do we cut that off? Two years out from graduation? Five? Seven? I wax Republican on this point: there comes a time when you must take your career by the horns and own it. Sit for another bar exam and move to that state. Maybe write up your family’s wills and then put that on your resume. You don’t have to—and probably aren’t allowed to—“disclose” your clients, so no one needs to know whose wills you wrote up. If you are unemployed, take a day of the week (or more often) to attend court and watch—as painfully boring as that might be. At least familiarizes you with the process, the players, the terminology. Ask a nearby law school—or your own if you still live in the area—to sit in on a class like bankruptcy or some other substantive class—just to learn a new area of the law. Take a law school essay and try to get it published. I feel like I’m one of those “rainy-day activity books” coming up with a list for unimaginative children who complain to mother that they’re “bored” because they can’t go outside and play. I know that even working for free has gotten difficult to come by that’s why I’ve not referenced it. But Americans like survivors not whiners. How do you explain the gap on your resume? Clearly Nando has the time to write, he’s been blogging for a while. Why isn’t he in night court instead, for example, just watching arraignments. Brooklyn has evening division small claims court. Maybe people could volunteer to work for the court there. Hell, go to a library and read Supreme Court decisions. You heard about August Wilson and his efforts at self-education after he dropped out of high school? You can tell a prospective employer that you read every Supreme Court decision, and took copious notes, on antitrust or libel. There are alternatives to just throwing your hands up.

    Some do have a sense of survival and some don’t. That division already exists in the world. It’s not clear-cut however. Rich people end up homeless. Homeless people can become rich. It’s not so simple. But what I do say is that I think a part of the matter involves attitude and approach. How you problem-solve. I resorted to: 1) working for free, 2) sitting for a new bar exam, 3) taking on a former pro bono client, and 4) contract attorney work—all before something “substantive” showed up. That right there encompasses nearly twenty months of my life post-layoffs. And I’m not biting your mother-bait. I’ve survived because I’m a survivor. Period. In part that includes having her help and her love. In part that means trying other avenues, having been the type of person others want to help, and so on. Others may have crawled back home to die. Or perhaps just given up on the law all-together. I never saw that as an option. Even sitting for the Pennsylvania bar exam was a way to expand my possibilities in the law when they may have contracted in New York. But now I’m tasting bait . . . .

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 30, 2010 at 02:43

  9. I’m a little confused about your background. You say you’d probably still be at the firm if not for the economy going down the drain, but I recall an earlier post in which I believe you said you were laid off several months before your firm did economic layoffs. That post indicated you were let go for personal, rather than financial, reasons (though you were eventually – and primarily out of convenience for the firm – folded into the larger economic layoff that ended up coming later). It’s possible, of course, that your layoff was in fact based on economics but the firm tried to paint it as performance/personality; partners have been known to lie.

    Blade

    July 30, 2010 at 10:44

  10. That’s correct. I did acknolwedge back in A Bad Review that I was told to get packing before the layoffs. But what I believe I hinted at back then, if not stated outright, and what I meant above, is that but for the downturn I doubt I would have been laid-off either prematurely or with the others when the time came. Before I was given the “it’s not working out” talk, I had been working crazy hours. Then the matter died. I can’t get into much of the internal law firm politics, but suffice it to say that I don’t think associate efficiency is so important when the hours are pouring down.

    It’s the hypocracy of the law firms. If you’re inundated with work, you don’t let go of your workers because they have time management issues or their writing isn’t the greatest. Or because they’re fidgety. When I arrived, there were like 11th year associates. Now that’s unheard of and I suspect won’t return. My point: it’s only once the firm started leaking capital that “efficiency” became important. Sadly. So my impression is that but for the economic downtown, the firm would have had steady work and would have kept us all on-board.

    That’s all I meant.

    Laid-off Lawyer

    July 30, 2010 at 11:47


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