First, I'd like to thank the editors at Faculty Lounge for inviting me to guest blog. I've always enjoyed this blog and I am honored to be a guest blogger. I plan to offer a variety of posts on topics ranging from the legal job market (this post) to the dynamics of peer review. Well, enough with introductions - on to the post!
If you graduated last May and are not employed yet, then I have a pretty good idea of what your life is like right now. You possibly have a part time or full time non-law job and are either living on a string with roommates who await back-rent or have moved back in with your parents. You watch too much syndicated television at odd hours and the email in-box, post office box, and telephone message machine are no longer your friends. You avoid contact with people who will inevitably ask you how your job search is going and sheepishly duck into your law school’s career service office to leaf through the new job postings.
Okay, that last one might be a relic of someone who suffered this fate a good while back. I imagine that today, most of the career service job postings are online. But, much like Bill Clinton, I do “feel your pain.” That’s right, your guest blogger and member of the ivory tower was an unemployed law graduate. In the paragraphs that follow, I offer some consolation and advice for the recent unemployed law graduate. I also offer a gift. If Elton John’s gift was his song, then my gift to you, recent unemployed law graduate, is a set of pathetic and awkward stories of my interviewing during these days of post-graduate unemployment.
First, consolation and hope – Robert Duvall’s character in “Apocalypse Now” assuaged the troubled soul of a young soldier by telling him “son, some day this war’s gonna end.” I say to you, “some day this economic downturn is gonna end.” It may not be tomorrow and it may not be this month, but it will end. More importantly, this portion of your life, which feels endless, will in fact end. Assuming that you are diligent and industrious, you will find a legal job. I was unemployed in the early 1990s and, at that time, it looked like there was no end to the nation’s financial woes or my own personal failed existence. But, eventually, I found a job. And, eventually, the economy turned around. By the mid 1990s the economy had improved, this thing called the ‘internet’ was taking off, and not too much later a (relatively) small firm in California stunned the legal world by raising the bar for associate salaries by nearly 50% - happy days were here again. While I do foresee some fundamental changes in the legal market, legal education and the legal profession coming from this economic downturn I also believe that better times, both for recent graduates and the legal profession, are not that far away.
Second, advice – I’ll keep this short and to the point - if I could wish one thing for you it is that you fail. What kind of a human being says such a thing? Please hear me out on this matter. I do not wish failure for you in the general sense. What I do wish is that, at some point (or points) in your life you strive for something with everything that you have and come up short – that you don’t get the outcome you wanted. This sounds horrible, but trust me on this, it will, in the long run, improve your life. While some would make a generational argument on this (railing on Gen Ys) I will not – I think that we as a society we have lost our appreciation for failing. My high school wrestling coach once gave us a summer goal to get 100 wrestling matches under our belts before the season started. Notice that nothing was said about winning – in fact, the idea was that we should lose a substantial portion of those matches because to win too many would mean we weren’t being challenged sufficiently. You can learn a lot from failing. The experience of failing at something at which you tried your best and being able to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and give it your best again, adds a valuable set of skills to your toolbox. I’ll add a few pieces of specific job seeking advice at the end of this post, but that’s my main point – learn from this experience.
Finally, your gift – first, some context is in order. As a first generation college graduate, my experience in law school and legal recruiting could perhaps best be likened to Andy Griffith’s character’s experience in the movie “No Time For Sargents.” If you haven’t seen the movie, then rent it – it’s a timeless classic and the rest of the post will make much more sense. More to the point, while I am not now known for being smooth by any means, I was really awkward and unpolished back in the days from which these vignettes are drawn. My point here is not to rail on any specific employers or situations, but to provide something to amuse you, the recent unemployed graduate, and provide a little schadenfreude to make you smile, if only for a moment. Trust me when I tell you this: these interview vignettes provide only the tip of the unfortunate iceberg that was my life at this time. I could provide, much, much more, but I’d probably have to charge for that experience.
Some further context – I graduated from the University of Tennessee School of Law. While I was not order of the coif, I had pretty good grades, was on moot court, and had solid clerking and research assistant experience. Bill Henderson has a pretty good take on what the salary structure looked like at that time here (the median was about 40k). While large firms and most government jobs post their salary levels, many small and medium firms (with which I had most of my interviews) often do not. They typically ask you how much you are looking for in compensation. Even though I was horribly naïve, I knew that the appropriate response was to say something along the lines of ‘a salary that was commensurate with the responsibilities of the position.’ You get the idea. They would then tell me to state a number. While desperate, I was not willing to say ‘minimum wage’. I had a solid history of fast food and grocery store experience in high school and college and assistant managers at that time made around the low 20s. I was determined to do better – surely, the time and money spent on college and law school would pay off. So, my standard response became ’28 to 32 thousand depending on some other considerations’ (e.g. partnership track, benefits, etc.). Okay, on to the stories:
Vignette #1 – small law firm
Interviewer: “what was your exact class ranking in high school.”
Me: “Um, I’m sorry do you mean my law school class ranking?”
Interviewer: “No, your high school class rank!”
Me: “I’m not really sure that I have that number committed to memory; I recall that I did reasonably well.”
Interviewer: “Well, do you have any extracurricular activities?”
Me: “Do you mean for law school or high school?”
Interviewer: “High School of course!”
Me: “Well, um, I was on the wrestling team.”
Interviewer: “Well, that might be okay, if you were the captain of the wrestling team. Were you captain of the wrestling team?”
Me: “Um, no. I did have some other activities though.”
Interviewer: “Forget it.”
Suffice it to say, we did not get to salary discussions.
Vignette #2 – medium prestigious law firm
Interviewer: “We are one of the oldest firms in the city. We represent the First National Bank, we’re great, exceptionally well respected, leaders in the local bar, yadda, yadda, yadda.” You get the picture - the firm is incredibly successful; all that and a bag of curly fries. He goes on and on – he appears interested and asks me only a few softball questions. Then he asks me about compensation – I give my standard ‘commensurate with responsibilities’ answer – he asks for a number.
Me: “Depending on certain non-salary considerations, I am looking in the range of 28 to 32 thousand dollars.” The guy honestly looks like I have just hit him with a shovel.
Interviewer: “Are you serious?”
Me: “Yes, sir, I am.”
Interviewer: “Son, that’s what I make.”
The guy was a senior associate. So much for being such an awesome law firm. I later talked with a similarly unemployed classmate who got further in the salary discussions – the number they were looking for? $19,000/yr. Seriously, if you include tips I made almost this much (on a per hour basis) unloading freezer trucks and bagging groceries at an upscale supermarket while in college.
Vignette 2 and a half – “judicial clerkship”
Honestly, I applied for every possible job in the nation. This job was for a trial court state law clerk position (in a neighboring state). I sent them a resume and letter. They sent me back a letter requiring a “job specific” letter of recommendation from each of my listed references. The salary - $18,000/yr.
Vignette 3 – Weird mixed job in the middle of nowhere
This job was some type of weird situation where you were to work ½ time for a local small law firm and ½ time for the local public defender’s office. They took me out to lunch and pelted me with questions. I never got to actually eat, because they never stopped asking questions. The capper was when the small law firm guy looked at me and said something along the lines of: “You have good grades, your have good clerking experience and you’re on moot court – but you don’t have a job – what the hell’s wrong with you?” I could only manage (between bites of my fried chicken fingers) to offer something about the down economy and my lack of legal connections due to being a first generation college graduate. We then went back to the office and they seemed reasonably pleased with me (perhaps because I’m betting that no one else applied for the position). The small firm guy sits behind his desk while the Public Defender sits next to me. The PD says that there will be no benefits due to the part time nature of the positions. Then the firm guy asks for a number – I offer my 28-32k depending on other considerations (although benefits are off the table at this point). The PD begins laughing hysterically and says he has to leave. The firm guy smirks a bit. The interview is over.
Vignette #4 – federal judicial clerkship – aka “the Patsy”
As stated earlier, I applied everywhere. This was a federal clerkship in Texas. I was living in Tennessee at the time. I got the interview and drove to a not so rockin city in Texas – as with many job interviews, this trip was all on my own dime. I show up at the office and introduce myself to the secretary. She tells me to wait in an adjoining room. I look at pictures of the judge with Reagan. A federal staff attorney comes by the secretary’s desk to talk. I’m in the next room, but I can clearly hear everything. He asks about the interviews for the clerkship position. She says, “yes, we received over 100 resumes and have narrowed it down to 3 interviewees.” I am like “yes, I am the man” (pumping my fist in the air). She then adds “but it’s going to Jane Doe, she’s so and so partner at big law firm’s daughter who is a good friend of the judge.” I then have to go through this entire interview. The judge asks “so, you went to UT huh?” I say “Yes, the University of Tennessee, sir.” He looks like he’s seen a ghost and double checks the resume. I can only guess that he wanted locals for the interview. I don’t know. He did send me a page and a half (single spaced) rejection letter telling me how awesome I am and how much he really wanted to hire me.
Okay, this post has gone a little longer than I anticipated and so I will just offer the practical advice in the comments if anyone requests it. I apologize if I’ve bored anyone and I hope that I’ve at least made recent unemployed graduates feel just a little better about themselves. Good luck with your job searches!