2010 was a terrible year to graduate from law school. The days when being sworn in as an attorney automatically yielded a dependable source of income are over. Many graduates are angry, and on some level, maybe they should be. Angry at the government for not making more progress on job creation, angry at their law schools for listing employment statistics seemingly unchanged by these economic times, and angry at themselves for taking on huge sums of non-dischargeable student loan debt in a vain quest for status.
First-year law students are told to study hard, earn that invitation onto law review, become involved in extracurricular activities, obtain real-world experience through legal externships and graduate at the top of their class. They are told that if they do these things, they will land that Associate Attorney position at a reputable law firm. I followed this advice. I earned those honors, and I am currently working, not as an attorney but in the retail industry for about minimum wage. Allow me to explain how I got here.
As do many of you reading this, I have a scientific background. Comparatively speaking, I found law school much more compatible with my strengths. I enjoyed my law school experience; in fact, I loved every second of it. People say that you always enjoy doing something that you are good at. I excelled in my law school studies, earned that invitation onto law review, founded and led a student organization, gained practical experience and, with glowing letters of recommendation, graduated third in my class.
For two semesters, I worked as a legal extern at Pfizer Inc in the Patent Department. Being on the cutting-edge was so exciting! Nothing prepares you more for the practice of law than seeing it in action. It is analogous to studying abroad in an effort to learn a foreign language. I researched legal issues, and I drafted responses to Office Actions from the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Through my externship, I was able to immerse myself in the terminology, the procedures, and the strategies of patent prosecution. I even had the privilege of meeting top Pfizer Inc executives. Now I look back on my experience as a legal extern and truly fear that those will be the happiest years of my professional life.
The joy of Graduation Day faded as out-of-town family returned home and bar review courses began sending notices that the first day of class is one week away. For the next ten weeks, I utilized the Barbri Mobile program, which allows users to access lectures, multiple choice questions and outlines through an iPad in the comfort of their home, to study for the California Bar Exam, arguably the most difficult in the country. As many of you know, the bar exam is an unbelievably stressful situation. You can walk into the exam more than adequately prepared, but your stomach will still be roiling. All of those rules that you have been studying will feel as though they are slipping away, and you will have an irrational fear that your computer will crash and you will be forced to hand write your exam. It is an emotional rollercoaster, not just the exam, but the whole becoming-an-attorney process.
After I took the bar exam, I had to wait three excruciating months to find out that I passed the exam and didn’t have to relive the agony of the last five months. I gathered my family and close friends – at least those who weren’t already waiting for results – for a Bar Watch Party. When the clock struck 6:00 p.m., I checked my bar results in front of everyone, and after I finished reading the line indicating that I passed, there was a startling roar of excitement just before everyone burst into tears of joy and relief.
Now, running into people immediately after learning that you passed the bar exam, you can feel comfortable saying that you are seriously starting to look for a position in the legal field. But as the months roll on, it becomes less and less comfortable. When you’re unemployed, you think about the various career paths you might take. Ultimately, I find myself drawn to work that utilizes both my scientific and legal background. Happily, that combination can be found in academia, a research institute, a pharmaceutical company, a law firm or a governmental agency.
Most employers are under a hiring freeze. Others open one temporary position without benefits, and they have more applications in one day than they can read in a week. In the current recession, the individuals out of work are incredibly well-educated and possessing a wealth of experience. A recent-graduate, fresh out of law school with only the experience of externships, albeit impressive-ones, is no match for a veteran, proven attorney with an advanced degree and a book of business. We simply cannot compete, yet. Finding employment is particularly difficult for students hailing from less well-known, lower ranked law schools. When the market turns around, eventually, employers will balance their budgets, and offset their higher paid senior associates’ salaries by hiring more cost-effective entry-level associates.
I have been applying for jobs in various locations since I took the bar exam, including everything from an attorney position with the Environmental Protection Agency to an executive assistant position with my alma mater. I didn’t get either position. If I applied for an attorney position, I lacked the experience; if I applied for an administrative position, I also lacked the direct experience and my education made employers suppose that I could not genuinely be interested in the position long-term. Then, I decided to apply for a seasonal, retail position at the mall. They hired me. Suddenly, instead of lying around all day, I had a reason to get up in the morning and prepare for a productive day. Some of you may be thinking that an educated and skilled professional out of work wouldn’t benefit from such a position. It has helped me tremendously. I am the most driven when I am feeling professional success.
While the market is recovering, I suggest finding something to keep your spirits up, and I do believe that it’s different for everyone, depending on personality. My advice to individuals seeking employment in this market, particularly this legal market, is to do good works that make you feel successful in at least one facet of your life. Take this time to focus on small things and improve yourself. Work on maintaining relationships with your friends and family. Work on your marriage. Reduce clutter in your home or apartment. Become more health conscious and physically fit. Learn a new skill. Find a way to excel in whatever professional capacity you are currently serving in. See the positive, navigate around the negative, and carry a pleasant expression on your face; no one wants to hire or be around a sourpuss. Howl to some Warren Zevon and watch some funny YouTube videos. Hold a puppy. Things will get better.
If you are having difficulty, invest more of yourself. No one ever passed that organic chemistry or physics test by worrying; no, they studied and took control of the situation. Be better. Instead of accepting defeat, I chose to contribute and to learn. I am learning marketing and sales strategies, how to build a relationship with clients, assess their needs and find cost-efficient ways to accommodate those needs, and yes, how to very neatly fold a stack of half-zip pullovers. But you tell me, can those skills not be applied towards a law practice?
The most important thing you can do is to continue being your own advocate. Attend networking events and build relationships with people in the community. In this market, available jobs go to those who know somebody, because otherwise your resume is buried alive in a pile of four-hundred other applications. Be professional at all times; you just never know what might happen if you are ready for it. It’s all about being introduced. Take this opportunity to explore alternative career paths and expand your skill set. If you are interested in intellectual property law and eligible, study and sit for the patent bar exam. The Practising Law Institute has a great patent bar review course. Do not let this horrible market detract from your capacity to learn and grow as an individual and professional.
Finally, the next time you are indulging in some retail therapy, think about how the individual assisting you may be licensed to practice law or possess a doctoral degree and through necessity is choosing to learn a new skill to be a functioning, contributing member of society and the best professional she can be during these tough economic times.
EDITORS NOTE: I met Mary Cheney in April 2010 when I spoke at the Thomas Jefferson School of Law Symposium on the use of Alternative Dispute Resolution in Patent Litigation. Mary graduated in May 2010 and has found a difficult job market, as have so many graduates. In short she has done everything right and continues to maintain a positive attitude. I invited her to write this article to chronicle the difficulties many law school graduates are currently facing finding work. If anyone is looking for an energetic and talented individual with a great attitude and work ethic I invite you to check out Mary’s resume and contact her directly.