If you graduate from law school and didn't land a job via OCI, you're certainly not alone, particularly in this economy (ITE). Unfortunately, while misery may love company, knowing that others are in the same predicament doesn't put food on the table.
While there may be other reasonable options, I can count four general paths an unemployed law graduate can take (assuming he passes the bar). (Unreasonable options that are not mentioned include fleeing the country to escape one's creditors, going on welfare, turning to a life of crime, and taking a swan dive off a tall building.)
I'll analyze the pros and cons as well as how each path has been affected ITE.
Small Firm Employment
Most people will assume this is where you will end up after law school if you didn't go to one of the elite schools. You'll be using your law degree and license, so you won't feel ashamed of wasting your education. Depending on the type of law you practice, you may actually do "lawyerly" things such as take depositions, interview clients, and conduct trials. You may be able to build skills and establish a client base that will allow you to eventually move to a better firm or open your own practice.
While small firms are often touted as a "fallback option" if you fail to get an associate position through OCI, this isn't really the case. It's true that smaller firms are less concerned about grades or journals than the prestige focused elite firms, but what is also true is that they don't really have an accessible hiring process. Small firms tend to be small for a reason. Either they don't have a lot of resources or their business model is based upon only one or two attorneys offering legal services out of a small office.
Moreover, small firms don't have the resources for recruitment or training. Finding a good small firm job usually requires very good connections, luck, and/or prior experience in an area of law. The small firms that tend to hire entry level attorneys most faithfully are the personal injury and insurance defense mills. They tend to have high rates of turnover because the working conditions aren't very pleasant.
Most small firms pay low salaries - usually less than $50k and nowhere near the promised "average starting salaries" of $70-120k so many law schools advertise. Benefits are also rather limited and the work environments are notorious for being unprofessional and disorganized. Cities that have the most available openings for small firms tend to be large and expensive (e.g. NYC). This makes it difficult to balance loan payments and personal living expenses.
As job options at the top firms have shrunk considerably, the entire legal industry has been affected. Students who once wouldn't have deigned themselves to chase ambulances, are now chasing these lowing paying jobs. Small firms have their pick of law review, moot court, and first tier law students. This has made positions that were once relatively easy to secure far more competitive.
Contract "Temporary" Document Review
For some people, document review may be the ultimate job. You can get paid a lot of money to do very little work. Sometimes doc reviewers can get paid as much $40 an hour and over $60 for OT. (The usual rate tends to be around $35 in New York City.) Not all document review is the same, but usually it consists of reviewing electronic documents using different computer programs and marking files as "relevant" or "irrelevant". A person who is able to line up a number of consecutive document review projects (some lasting as long as a year) can usually earn between $75k and $100k a year (depending on the pay rate and OT). Not bad for clicking a mouse and having no real responsibility or work related stress. Some positions even include perks such as meal and transportation vouchers. A few temp agencies even offer benefits such as health insurance, dental insurance, and 401k retirements plans. A few years of frugal living and many document review hours may even be able to wipe out your entire law school debt.
There are whole blogs and articles dedicated to the trials of suffering through document review projects (see the links to Temporary Attorney and Big Debt, Small Law). The most offensive places to work seem to be in New York City. There are nightmare stories about terrible working conditions, beastly supervisors, and duplicitous temporary agencies. Many times the document review projects are conducted in the subterranean floors of major law firms. Some projects prohibit "attorneys" from eating, speaking, or using the internet while on the job. The work is almost always tedious and redundant. Projects can often end without warning forcing temps to quickly scurry to find other work. Associates and permanent staffers at the law firms usually look down on temps with disdain - apparently knowing how to solve some puzzles on a standardized test makes you a king among men.
The worst part is that you don't gain any appreciable skills by doing this work. If one works for too many years on document review, many legal employers will automatically reject them from consideration for more meaningful jobs. It also won't help build a resume for someone seeking to leave the law. Even if one can pay down his debt, he'll still be left with few job prospects except for document review, but how much of this work can a person take and is this really what somebody wants his life to be like - clicking a mouse until retirement?
Big firms and the financial sector have been hit hard and this has greatly affected document review opportunities. At one point anyone with a J.D. and a law license (sometimes only the J.D.) could find a document review position. Temporary agencies and their clients can now be more selective. Not wanting to train new "attorneys", most advertisements for document review work list previous experience on document review as a prerequisite. Moreover, rates have reportedly plummeted. Many assignments have rates of under $30. Some cities have rates under $20. ITE, document review work is no longer as accessible for entry level candidates as it once was nor is it as lucrative.
If you're sick of working for "the man", going solo could be a dream come true. It means setting your own schedule, practicing the law you want to practice, and owning all of the firm's profits. Hanging one's own shingle is dream of many lawyers. If you have a network of people who need legal advice, representation, or documents drafted, you can take their cases and build your reputation in the community as a competent attorney. With the right mix of marketing, networking, and legal skills, for the right person, this could be a very lucrative and exciting venture.
I actually tried to acquire practical legal skills in law school. Honest. I, however, would not feel comfortable writing a basic will, representing someone in traffic court, or suing to get a security deposit back. If med school was anything like law school, nobody would survive surgery. Law school doesn't teach you how to do anything practical. It's pretty much all theory (with a trial advocacy and civil pretrial class thrown in there every once in a while). Going solo right away can be a very precarious move. Unless you invest some serious time in learning one or more areas of the law and/or have a solid attorney mentor, you're asking for trouble. Missing deadlines, having an IAC claim, or making accounting mistakes can spell the end of your attorney career.
Even if you can avoid a malpractice claim and the disciplinary committee, there are still many other hurdles. You need to find clients. If you don't like networking for jobs, good luck find referrals, etc. You can start off working from home, but you'll eventually need some meeting space and/or office. This can be expensive. You'll also absolutely need malpractice insurance. There's also a steep learning curve for court procedure and using the appropriate forms. You'll need to be very cognizant of your state bar's accounting and ethical rules.
This isn't to say it's impossible, but it's definitely not a default position.
This area may be the path that's the least affected by the recession because people's demand for personal legal services hasn't declined (though their discretionary income has). Still with more seasoned attorneys having this same idea, it certainly doesn't make surviving any easier.
Non Legal Work
Maybe now you see why I'm in this camp. Legal jobs (at least the one's accessible to most of us) really stink. They aren't necessarily easy to get. There's a whole world out there of other, better careers. Plenty of people have done well for themselves who are not attorneys. If you don't love the law, or think it's going to be lucrative, or feel that you're just following it to a dead end, find a job that will serve you better. There's no law that law school graduates need to be lawyers. If the other options aren't for you, it's better to bail out now rather than dig yourself further in.
Pride and the perception of others may stop many a law graduate from fleeing the legal industry. To go into another field is to admit defeat. It means three years of your life and a ton of money have been wasted in pursuit of nothing. Friends and family may be disappointed in you (particularly if they gave you financial support). Your mom may want to announce to her friends that "her son is a lawyer". Your neighbor might want to "come by the office" for legal advice. Friends may want to know when and where you'll be establishing your practice. People may have been rooting for you during the entire law school/bar exam process. I'll admit, being recognized as an attorney makes you feel important. (Being unemployed, chasing ambulances, or sitting around in the basement of a law firm, however, probably will make you feel less important.)
There are also less superficial downsides to leaving the law. For one thing, a J.D. may make it tough to get a non-legal job. If you can't explain why you want to be an accounts receivable clerk when you're educated to be an attorney, you're not going to get the job even if you're the most qualified candidate. Another problem is that (unless you have significant non-legal work experience) you're not going to even have a chance at the big bucks you may have anticipated. You'll have to start off in an entry level position like everybody else. There are few jobs where a J.D. will enhance your marketability that are not specifically attorney positions.
I read another blog post created during better times about finding a non-legal job - I'll link to it after positing this. The author said he got a lot of interviews and calls just because employers were curious about a guy with a J.D. who wanted to be an entry level [fill in the blank]. With double digit unemployment, employers are so swamped with applications that they probably don't have time to be curious anymore. Sadly, if you're sending out resumes, the best thing you may able to do with your resume is re-label you "Education" section as "Relevant Education" and drop your law degree. I know, it hurts. (More on this later.)
None of these options are particularly appealing, but they're better than pan handling...I think. Good luck to everyone else in the same predicament. Am I missing something? Am I too generous towards any of the career paths? Too harsh? Let me know in the comment section.