Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Guerrilla Tactics for Remaining Unemployed: Legal Networking

Most readers will recognize the title of this post as a playful twist on Kim Walton's "Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams". GT is a "so-so" book often touted by career service offices in law schools as the definitive guide to gaining legal employment. For my twenty five bucks, it certainly was worth more than the career services office.

At some point, I plan on issuing a review of the book, but for the time being I'm just going to more broadly discuss its key concept: Networking.

Before criticizing this tactic for securing legal employment, I'd like to advise you to read a pro-networking post: Here's the link. Its author is a guy who goes by the name of Matthies on Law School Discussion. He wouldn't know who I am, but I used to sporadically post on that board back when I had a more sanguine view of law school (a view shared by most posters). Matthies has done well for himself despite attending a non-elite law school and not being in the top 10% of his class. His secret is in the aforementioned link. He built a strong network of attorneys and judges and tapped into it to gain access to a wealth of employment opportunities.

I congratulate him, and I wish him well, but if you read the post carefully you'll realize that his strategy certainly isn't feasible for everybody and isn't the same sort of networking Walton, et. al. advise. You see, what he did wasn't just throw his business card at some lawyers at a cocktail party or wait to strike up a conversation with a sympathetic employer at a CLE. What he did was actually become friends and even colleagues with the people in his network. I'll let you read the post itself for more details.

There are, however, some problems with this post. For one thing, you need to start this process early - either before or soon after your first day of class your 1L year. If you wait longer, you'll have less time to foster these connections. If you wait until you graduate/take the bar, you'll be unemployed for a long time before you see any fruit. For another, this tactic doesn't really work too well if you don't want to stay in the area after law school.

It's also important to note that Matthies had somewhat of a unique situation. He was a full time-part time student. This gave him a lot more time during the day to make these connections and one more year to see them develop than a full time student. He also went to law school in a fairly populous state with only two law schools. Furthermore, he came into law school knowing what he wanted to pursue (some sort of natural resources/environmental law). This also limited his competition a bit.

Not only would this be harder to pull off in some of the more attorney saturated states in the Northeast, it's also a difficult proposition from the outset. Most 1L's from the first tier down to probably the better 3rd tier schools are very interested in doing well their first year in order to have a chance at the coveted summer associate positions at Big Law. If you're going full time, there isn't a lot of room for Inn of Court, charity events, or playing racket ball with a local solo practitioner.

It's also questionable just how effective attending these events are for building a network. For example, a friend of mine was involved in the Inn of Court near our law school. She said it was worthless because most of people were either semi-retired or too far out of the loop to have any real contacts for the student. She did, however, have to waste her time performing in some stupid play about criminal procedure for a ridiculous competition.

I, myself, went to a number of CLE's - not with the intent to network but to pick up some of the basic skills they neglected to teach us in law school - and with one exception, I never saw the same two people ast any of these CLE's. Also because they were introductory legal courses (why would I attend anything more advanced?), the bulk of the audience were solos trying to pick up an extra practice area, newbie lawyers trying to learn the ropes, or other students.

I tried talking to some of the panelists, but most of them were tired and while they didn't mind clarifying advice they gave in their remarks, you could see them shudder when they got the "How can I get into X law" question. I sincerely believe most of these guys (at least in areas with lots of law schools) have been hit up repeatedly with thinly veiled attempts by students to weasel their way into a job.

I could go with the anecdotes (and I'll save some for my GT's review), but at the end of the day, I'm not sure that even if Matthies' advice works for you, it exonerates the law school cartel. If you go into law school accepting that you need to get out there on day one and build this network and that law school and the bar are just a sideshow you need to pass to get the legal credentials to practice, fair enough. Most law students, however, don't go in with this impression and this advice certainly isn't stressed in law school. Also, if this is what it takes to get a job (or at least a good job) for what exactly are we paying a small fortune?

This brings me to my rant for today. Feel free to stop reading if you don't want to be exposed to some Esq. Never rage.

/* Begin Rant

When we accept admission into law school and agree to pay them (or borrow against our future) to teach us the law, we don't do so because we're merely curious about the American legal system. Nobody borrows the equivalent of a first mortgage to satisfy his/her intellectual curiosity. We made this agreement because the skills they were supposed to impart to us would allow us to make a better living or earn our living in a more interesting and rewarding field.

No, this doesn't mean we're guaranteed a job. It certainly doesn't mean everyone with a J.D. is entitled to six figures upon graduation. It's perfectly reasonable that slackers at the bottom of the class without any initiative struggle to find legal work and that people who went to small, local schools will have to stay nearby after graduation if they want attorney positions. What is unreasonable is that the result of this agreement for so many students (including those who did well and are from good schools) is of no discernible benefit (and even an actual detriment) to their career.

It's all well and good that some outgoing people have learned to work the system and met the right people to help launch their careers, but I'm sorry, this shouldn't be necessary. If students are required to borrow as much as $50k a year alone JUST for tuition, suffer through three grueling years of school and exams, and then take the king of all exams (the bar), they shouldn't have to also play politics to have a CHANCE at landing a real job. They shouldn't have to play dodge ball with judges, pay to go to CLE's, or make fools of themselves acting in Inn of Court plays to avoid being sentenced to the bowels of Big Law document review. What's next, should we volunteer to babysit a small firm partner's kids or mow his lawn just to keep us fresh in his mind?

Yes, I know plenty of things in life are about who you know and not what you know. I recognize that plenty of law students just work for dad or one of his connections after law school, and if we aren't fortunate enough to have this path available to us, then we have to blaze it ourselves.

Again, however, if this is the case, what exactly are we paying for? Six figures worth of tuition (which could easily reach as high $200k at some point) isn't enough for us to be credentialed for a decent job without three years of brown nosing? We sure as heck don't learn any practical skills that are marketable either to existing firms or potential clients. How many law school graduates know how to write a simple will, represent a DUI client, or write a sales agreement? Do most students have any idea how to set up their accounting system properly without getting disciplined?

What other sort of program operates like this? Maybe an MBA program, but at the very least it's cheaper and more flexible than a J.D. Even PhD's at least learn how to be professors, and even if there are a lack of professorial positions, most of the time their education was subsidized. Once we get into more practical programs like M.S. degrees in accounting and computer science, we see that people do actually pay money to learn marketable skills that are important to employers and clients.

I could probably keep typing until the end of the night, but here's the bottom line: If getting a legal job costs an arm and a leg in tuition/expenses, requires a ton of work in school, AND requires a politician's dedication to networking, then law schools should tell us that up front. Of course, as we all know, they don't care as long as they have our money. That's why we "whine" and that's why these blogs exist.

End Rant */

Matthies' advice for networking is pretty good if you're willing to take the same initiative he did. If you're not and you're not going to one of the elite schools, do yourself a favor, don't go.


  1. It occurs to me that if you have the stomach, moxy, and hustle to put in that amount of effort networking, you may as well just become a salesman and make big bucks without an advanced degree.

  2. That's a good point. I guess the only exception would be if someone really wants to be an attorney, but aside from maybe being a DA or something, is this really anybody's dream job?

  3. The other day I was looking through my dog-eared copy of "Guerrilla Tactics" and wondering how useful it would be today. Auntie Kimbo wrote a colorful and fun-to-read book that defied the conventional wisdom with clever job-seeking strategies, but she was writing in the go-go 90s when law firms were still hiring. Would any of her guerrilla tactics work in today's economy?

  4. I hope to review Walton's book at some point, but I think her tactics would certainly work better in goods times (as would OCI, etc.). She has some decent advice, but when people aren't hiring or know people who are hiring, a lot of those tactics are going to lead to dead ends.


Web Analytics