Monday, June 21, 2010

For Shame

The other day I was talking to an elderly lady I knew. Sadly, she felt compelled to ask the question I dread hearing the most these days, "So, how's the job search going?" I tried to brush it off by saying I was still looking.

Nevertheless, she persisted. She wondered how I was supporting myself, and I was again forced to remind her (and myself) that yes, I am a 28 year old with both a college and graduate degree who lives at home with his parents. She continued to lightly reprove me by reminding me that this was a long time to be out of work and that I needed to find something soon.

Had this not been an old lady, who probably thought she was being helpful, I probably wouldn't have tolerated this line of questioning, but in truth, she was only expressing in words what I'm sure many people are usually thinking when they learn about my situation.

What acceptable response can I possibly give? The myth of the law degree permeates society (at least for people who don't make hiring decisions). Nobody understands just how few legal jobs exist - and just how crummy most of them are. Few people realize that the J.D. will automatically exclude you from many non-legal positions.

It's next to impossible to explain that because of the dearth of attorney positions and the difficulty of transitioning into another field, many law graduates are left in unemployment purgatory where the odds are stacked against them in finding any work at all during a recession.

Over the course of writing this blog, I've written about most of the woes related to attending law school: the debt, the lousy employment prospects, toilet law, doc review sweatshops, arrogant professors, all of the incidental costs associated with attending LS, etc. These are all bad, but the worst part is the shame.

When expectations are so high for law graduates and opportunities are so limited, people are confused. An unemployed lawyer? Something must be wrong here! And guess what? In the eyes of most of these people, that "something" is YOU.

It's amazing the number of people who ignore first hand accounts of just how bad the job prospects are out of law school. I had a friend who went to a TTT law school (and is continuing after his first year) even though he knows all about my situation and that I went to a better ranked school than him.

It doesn't matter if you went to a good school, had average to good grades, or a strong resume, these prelaws "know" that they just have to do better, and they'll be fine.

In the same way, people who don't go to law school will judge you based upon what they "know". Can't find a job? You must either be a real loser or you're just not trying hard enough.

The latter assumption has underscored what many people seem to feel about my job search. It doesn't matter that I've submitted tons of resumes, gone on interviews (which plenty of JD's can't even get), gone to job fairs, and networked with just about everyone I can. This is practically a full time job to me, but no, if other people don't see results, they assume you're just sitting at home watching the Cartoon Network instead of trying to find a job.

There's nothing I can really do to rectify this problem. It isn't like I've been particularly picky when applying for jobs. I've told temp agencies I would accept clerical positions. I've applied (and begged for) entry level positions designed for recent college graduates. I've been willing to accept salaries south of $40k.

The shame game doesn't necessarily end after finding employment either. Suppose I did land one of those low level positions, that's not exactly the sort of thing that's going to be trumpeted in my law school's alumni newsletter. Even if I could get a decent $40k a year, corporate job with room for growth, that still wouldn't impress too many people (even though it'd be a dream come true for me). Heck, if I became a corporate VP making $100k, I know some people would still be disappointed in me for not being a lawyer.

For those who do become attorneys, there's still plenty of shame to go around. If you're paying back loans while finding yourself in small law, people are going to wonder why you don't drive a fancy car and live in a luxury condo. If you're chasing ambulances, you better believe people are going to make fun of you.

How about being a doc review prol? Trying to explain what you do to a non-attorney probably isn't exactly fun. "Well, I essentially click a mouse all day in a windowless basement. Those three years of law school really were necessary for this."

Going to law school certainly is a good antidote to pride. It's hard to be arrogant when you're in your late 20's or early 30's and either living with your parents or barely squeaking by while working a job that doesn't require a GED. There's not too much room for boasting when you spent three years in law only to make less money than you could make with a college degree.

If you're somebody who hasn't been able to reign in his ego through any other means, give law school a try. It'll certainly help bring you back down to earth (and even lower). For everyone else, unless you want to be filled with shame every time anyone asks you about your career prospects, please stay away from law school.


  1. Amen and amen! I faced a six month period of unemployment in 2006, and I mean absolute unemployment. I couldn't even get a job at McDonald's. Every callback I'd get from a non-law recruiter would include this question: "what happened, law not working out for you? Just curious."

    A friend would call me everyday at noon for the sole purpose of tormenting me. He would say things like your elderly friend said, "You gotta find a job, man. It's not good to be unemployed." As if I didn't know that already.

    My girlfriend would also call around that time to nag me, since she knew I'd be at home and awake. Almost everyone she passed my name along to thought I was a head case. They couldn't figure out why someone with an advanced degree wasn't using it. F-- them all.

  2. Esq. Never, my theory on this particular issue is that we live in a capitalistic society that has no room for failure. If you are a successful businessman(person), you get interviewed in magazines and talk shows, people buy your books, and you go on the lecture circuit. If your business fails, you either fade into obscurity or get the reverse of the above treatment.

    The kicker is that if you are successful, it is all attributable to you. You were awesome, brilliant, insightful, and general all-around DA MAN!!1!!1! If you were unsuccessful, it was clearly all your fault. The grey-areas of good connections, financial backing, hard work, and a little bit of luck never get factored into the anaylsis - it's binary WIN! or FAIL!

    Betamax was techinically a better product, but it didn't survive. There is all kind of debate out there as to why, but in the dustbin of history Betamax failed.

    Careers are no different, and the critics are no more sympathetic to a struggling lawyer than they are to HD-DVD losing out to Blu-ray.

  3. *See fundamental attribution error, I've mentioned it in a couple of my posts regarding the idiocy of seeing a person in a particular circumstance and saying "Brought this on themselves." The fun with stats, is that once the numbers start getting so ridiculously high in terms of unemployment, etc. it helps people objectively view their f.a.e. bias,

    Susan says to Ted, "Ted, did you Stewart is an unemployed lawyer. He's such a loser!"

    Ted responded, "Really Susan? Because I heard a story on NPR saying that a lot of Georgetown Law students can't find work."

    Susan tilted her head in surprise and said, "Georgetown? That's an amazingly great school! Huh..maybe Stewart isn't such a fuckup..."

  4. I used to be an arrogant associate when I had my BigFlaw job. Since I've lost my job and now work doc reviews 2/3 of my former salary and get bossed around by little 20-somthings associates, my ability to be humble has drastically improved. Every Ivy-Leaguer should get tossed out on their a** so that they can fully understand the plight of the common TTT attorney. Don't worry Ivy-Leaguer, your day will come too!

  5. Who cares what people think? I just want to be able to support myself. I'm in the exact same spot as you, 28 years old and living with my parents, never thought it'd come to this but it has.

    My dad is a doctor. He didn't buy a house until well into his 40s. He still doesn't drive a luxury car, just a mid-level sedan, which he only bought because of the cash for clunkers program to trade in his 94 Nissan.

    I never wanted to make a lot of money or to be able to brag. Maybe a little bit of me, but the far more practical side just wanted a $50k a year prosecutor job, and to just build from that.

    If I could get the doc review gigs before the economy collapsed ($35/hr+OT) I'd gladly have gone with that. That was actually my backup plan, I thought those jobs were easy to get. You should be able to clear around $90kish or so max if doc review existed as it did. That's a good amount of money if you are smart about it, I went into law to raise capital for me to invest with, not to perform it as a career. I planned on being out by 35, so I didn't care in the least if doc review didn't lead to anything better.

    But those jobs are gone now. Not only do they not pay that amount, but most of them went over to India anyway. Thanks ABA!

    Now it doesn't matter how intelligent you are or if you had a gameplan to get out of law, throw all of that out the window. Good luck getting doc review gigs! They want a year of exp and top 25 law grads now!

  6. You've touched on perhaps the worst part of the law school scam: how it rapes and pillages the souls of its victims.

    It's one thing to be in debt, to live at home, and to eat Ramen all the time. That really sucks, but I can live with it, I guess. It's a lot harder to live with the "shame," the feelings of failure, and the inability of nonlawyers to understand your plight. It's little consolation that there are tens of thousands of other recent law grads suffering through the same thing, or that there are millions of unemployed or underemployed college grads eking out a sorry existence as well.

    We all went to law school because we wanted to become something. We wanted to be lawyers, work hard and craft a professional skill, and hopefully achieve some measure of stability in our lives because of it. Instead, we've been hung out to dry.

    The worst part is that no one, except maybe some centenarians at the nursing home, know what it's like. No one can lend a sympathetic ear. Our parents lived during a time when you could throw a dart and hit a job, doubly so if you had a college degree. Both parents getting decent jobs and being able to afford a modest home and middle-class life was very doable.

    What the hell are we supposed to do now, having more education than our parents, exponentially more debt, and no jobs? There are no legal jobs, and there are few jobs period that demand our skill set (and are willing to pay for it).

    I have three friends with bachelor's degrees who have real jobs, two of them are trying to go to law school. I used to think hard-science degrees were the way to go, but even my friends who got engineering jobs have been getting laid off lately. It's shocking to go around my town and run into dozens of people from high school that went to college, got a four-year degree, and are working as cashiers.

    People like me thought we could avoid this fate by doubling down for more degrees...the education arms race. When you graduate after putting in three tough years and $100,000, and are just as worse off as those cashiers...what the hell do you do? They probably have an easier time getting interviews because they don't have to put "J.D." on their resume when applying for a job at the hardware store.

    Every damn day there is some brutal reminder of how we've been scammed hard.

  7. Esq,

    I have enjoyed reading your blog, and just launched a blog of my own about the law school scam. Take a look, if you are so inclined.

  8. Duped Nontraditional makes a good point. Americans have been indoctrinated with the dogmatic notion that the world is a Meritocracy. Good people get what they deserve because they trained to succeed and worked hard. Likewise, unworthy people end up as ditch diggers. The logical corollary of this belief is that if you cannot find a job you must be an unworthy lazy bum.

    This belief is deeply ingrained in the American psyche and it is part of the uphill battle the unemployed face. "You couldn't find a job as an attorney? You must be a loser!"

    Lawyers of course have faced employment difficulty for at least two decades, but now people in a great many other professions are facing it too. Even in spite of this, non-lawyers and older people have difficulty understanding the situation. After all, everything worked out for people in our parents' generation. People eventually found jobs in their fields or white collar jobs in other fields and everything was OK.

    However, today we live in a radically different time where the U.S. economy is transforming into that of an impoverished third world economy. To borrow the tag line from the movie A Scanner Darkly, "Everything is not going to be OK."

  9. Weed and liquor dulls the shame. Niquil too.

    If you can't take reality anymore but you feel street drugs are too pedestrian, proletarian, and downright beneath your social station, you can always choose to die with honor and prestige like a medieval crusader.

    That or cut open your cuts with a kitchen knife like a Samurai. Thats even more respectable; absolutely nothing illegal there. But you must die painfully and slowly in front of a lord appointed witness, or you will spread the dishonor to your family, law school, and ancestors. No painkillers, no ether. Just honor.

    Knife goes in, guts come out. Breath. Meditate. Focus. Die. Honor.

  10. Esq. Never, you should always look at the social circumstances of the one excoriating you. You will see that most struggling young people are on your side. I have provided a rudimentary analysis for some of the problems we face on my blog:

    Please read it. Do not be ashamed.

  11. EN, I was tired of answering the following question during law school: "How is the job search going?"

    I then lived with my damn sister-in-law for 6 months after graduating from Third Tier Drake. Now that I have a non-law job, my wife's family wonders why I simply don't take the bar and make serious money. I show them the local yellow pages and the sheer volume of attorney ads. Sometimes, it penetrates their brain. Often, it does not.

    During a recent trip, some family members kept asking about the "big shot with the law degree." When they asked how much I make, I was flat-out honest: "It's a crap wage, but it pays the bills."

    Some of the men are dentists, and they then tried to tell me how they have the fear of God in them when they receive a letter from a lawyer.

    The layperson simply does not understand how people with advanced - or "professional" - degrees can be in this situation. Those from a prior generation are perplexed. Of course, when they went to school, they were often paying $500-$1000 a school year for an undergraduate degree - which then allowed them to enter the business world making good money.

    We must be honest with all those we come into contact with - even when it is painful. We cannot put on a mask of happiness.

  12. Eh, being honest doesn't really get you anywhere. I think it's better to just lie and pretend you're a big shot. That way if they ask for free legal help, you can pretend you are too busy and they can't afford your bills. Let them think you think you're too good for them, that way they respect you.

    Or you can do what I do, and just don't talk to anyone. Everytime somebody asked me "how is the job search gong?" I've just glared at them and just walked away, and refused to talk to them. Now nobody asks me about it. At the most they'll ask "do you have any good news?" and if I say "nope" that's that. Ironically, back when people would ask me how my job search was going, I'd ask them to pass around my resume and they'd never do it. Now that I blow them off, occasionally I get calls and e-mails telling me they've passed my resume to so and so law firm. It isn't leading to anything, but that is an improvement.

  13. My own mother doesn't even understand and I know she reads the paper/watches the news day in and day out. She hurt me to my soul one day when we got into a small argument about being unemployed. She basically said that anyone who has been unemployed for years has a serious problem i.e. which does include ME! I've been unemployed for 2 years and 6 months. Then she said she didn't care about the job situation because she's retired and doesn't have to worry about having to get a job ever again. And she wondered why a few days later I was holed up in my room sobbing away about to have a fucking nervous breakdown! Thank God I have the JD blogs to read or I probably would have by now. I feel all alone in this unemployment game.

  14. Where do you get the raw list of law jobs to interview for? Job boards? 12 years ago, in a much better economy I got a list of about 200 jobs from the job boards, sent out resumes, and got nowhere.

    6 years ago, a law grad family member of mine took a Sullivan's Directory (or was it Martindale Hubble?) and put every Chicagoland small firm & solo lawyer's information in an Excel program. She then did a Word mail merge and sent an unsolicited letter and resume to every solo & small firm lawyer in the Chicagoland area. Even after she got a job, she would get random phone calls for months for interviews.

    In the solo & small firm world, they don't use headhunters and have formal recruiting programs and only a handfull of people post to the law school job boards. It is all done informally. People just "ask around" and find someone to hire. As a complete outsider, you are not presently part of these informal networks.

  15. How do you handle the student loan debt payments?

  16. 2 years, 8 months unemployed. Living with parents, life passing me by. Alienation, isolation, panic. I'm strapped to my tier 1 JD and bar membership concrete block and I'm drowning. (Pan to bored and annoyed crowd of family and friends watching demise of said lawyer and occassionally shouting, "you know, you really need to do something about this, that large gap on your resume just doesn't look good." Meanwhile, large concrete block drags said lawyer under.)

  17. One of my most fundamental realizations of my adult life has been that people judge because they are afraid. It's human nature to think we can avoid the terrible outcomes that happen to others. We pass a car crash and assume the person was driving too fast or recklessly. Young people die, and a part of us is relieved when we find out that it was from a very rare disease or a freak accident, because we think that means it can't happen to us. Likewise, people see someone who is unemployed and struggling and assume they must be different from them somehow - that they are not smart enough or that they're just not trying hard enough. We judge others (especially peers) in order to avoid the realization that bad things could just as easily be happening to us. Stay strong, and remember, you only need ONE job to work out for you.

  18. 11:45 - Glad to see my CSO is checking in...I should have been more specific in the post, though. I don't really covet anyone's sympathy. I'm merely trying to demonstrate yet another cost prelaws can expect to pay when they graduate.

    8:38 - Assuming you're addressing me (and not one of the others who are going on a couple years of unemployment), I am in forbearance, and I plan to soon apply for the IBR.

    PC - I can believe that was true 6 years ago - though the person's school and class rank may have played a role. Also, as I've mentioned, many of those small law jobs aren't very pleasant - even when available.

    I know plenty of people who engaged in the mass mailing strategy and got nothing out of it.

  19. The shame is definitely the worst part about it. I am looked at like a failure and it has tainted every relationship I've ever had with every human-being that knows my name. I thought feelings like this were reserved for rapists, cheats and traitors. But it's not.

  20. Rising student numbers in recent years, combined with the current economic state, mean that some Law graduates must find work outside the legal field. Unlike many other professions, there are too few jobs for the number of graduates, so competition for graduate positions is more intense than ever.

  21. You think you have it bad, try being unemployed for 10 months with two mortgages, a wife, kid on the way after having worked 8 years at BIGLAW and having graduated from a shitty law school. I was untouchable. Had to temp after 10 months and found that I was the elder statesman of the temp crew and all of them went to better schools than me. Finally, after 17 months of un or underemployment I found a decent in house job making 50% of my former BIGLAW salary. I can't complain that much but EVERYONE is fucked, not just you. My advice, do no ever buy a house, ever and only buy used cars, never a new one and if you're girlfriend busts your balls about being cheap, dump her ass and find a new one.

  22. At least you have a wife and kid, many of us will never get to have those joys. Life will pass us completely by. It's one thing to purposely choose to be alone by being a bitch like a lot of the career women that refuse to compromise (every relationship needs compromise, but these women don't get that), those of us that went to law school and have poor employment prospects just don't have a choice. Some of the women might be able to get away with it, but most of the men are royally fucked.

  23. I really related to this post - I left law school after the first year to take a gov't job. No one understood why I was leaving - esp. my crazy (extended) in-laws who have a daughter at a TTT. I stand by my choice, and I am a hell of a lot happier to be working with no debt and a pension than to be miserable in law school.

  24. SJ - You're a wise man. I'm sure many of us envy you. Feel free to pass these blogs onto your in-laws. Though, they'll probably understand when their daughter starts living at home when she graduates.

  25. Very wise, SJ. I flirted with leaving after 1L to take an "average" job, and have regretted not doing so ever since. Now I will be lucky to find the same kind of job, at the same salary, with a J.D. and two more years' worth of debt.

  26. after applying for 2 months now, I am starting to get fed govt interviews. The feds take a long time to hire. Not lawyer jobs, but hey, they will pay the bills, if i can get one. Being a wartime vet helps, I am sure.

    I never got any response from the private law firm market.


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