Q: How soon after getting notice of your lay off did you start looking for a new job?
A: Can’t say I remember exactly. The first week was pretty much just a drunken blur. Probably the second week I started working on my resume. I figured ten weeks is a long time, long enough to find something. But not really, not even close.
Q: Did you apply to other law firms in New York?
A: A couple. I landed one interview at a solo practice in the same neighborhood as where I was working. I found out from the secretary, who did a lot of the resume reviewing, that they received something like three hundred applicants and were taking thirty interviews. The woman, the solo practitioner, was awful. The job listing didn’t have a salary listed, but I looked at her profile online and saw she’d worked at large New York firms before, I think maybe Latham, and was doing transaction work similar to what big firms handle, so I figured the salary would at least be in the ballpark of what I had been making. Not as high, but something that would let me keep making my loan payments.
I don’t recall the exact amount, but it was something like thirty-five dollars an hour. It wasn’t really the amount though, so much as the way she tried to sell it. First she compared it to the hourly rate contract attorneys get, which is quite a bit less, as though it were my alternative. I don’t know, maybe it was.
But then, she tried to convince me that my take home pay would be the same as if I was still at a big firm. Honest to God, this woman, a practicing attorney, tried to convince me that because I’d technically be self-employed, basically a private contractor doing associate work, so there wasn’t even really a position at the firm in the first place, but as someone self-employed, I wouldn’t have to pay income tax, and because I wasn’t getting taxed the pay cut wouldn’t be drastic at all.
Let’s do some math. $35/hr x 40hr work week x 52 weeks = $72,800. Here’s where her math gets really screwy. She said my income tax rate at $160,000 was about 50%, so $72,800 is equivalent to $145,600 pre-tax. Not only did she over-shoot my marginal tax rate, she completely ignored that your marginal tax rate is much higher than your effective tax rate. It would be equivalent to about $120,000 pre-tax. Except that it’s not. People who are self-employed still pay income tax, and I think you have to pay all of your social security, instead of the employer picking up half, and since that’s not a progressive tax, my tax rate wouldn’t really be reduced much at all.
The worst part was that she acted like she was doing me a favor with that sort of salary. If she had acted grateful that the economy had given her access to a talent pool she ordinarily wouldn’t have, I’d have considered the job, but she really acted as though a graduate from a top five law school should be grateful to just have the opportunity to beg for scraps from the legal industry.
Q: What about other firms?
A: That was the only interview I got. And I didn’t end up getting the offer. I wouldn’t have taken it though. She was insulting, she tried to con me with explaining the salary, and she came across as a bit of an idiot.
Q: How so?
A: Just the questions she asked. How did I feel about authority? That was one. I don’t understand what that question means.
Q: How did you answer in the interview?
A: Exactly that way. I told her I didn’t understand what she was asking and that it all depends on the context and who the authority is. She apparently didn’t like my answer and just asked the same question again, and again I had to explain that her question didn’t really make much sense.
She also asked the typical “where do you see yourself in five years?” question. I said I honestly didn’t know, and, because I know the question is fishing for some assurance you’ll stick around even when the economy picks up, I said something to the effect that I’d be willing to stay at any firm where I feel like a good fit, am interested in the work I’m doing, and am able to grow as an attorney.
And of course she just responded by asking the question again, pretty much flat out asking “Are you willing to work here for five years?” I stuck to my answer. And, worst interviewer ever, she kept trying to ask it over and over. We must have spent a good ten minutes on the question and I kept trying to explain that I’d only known her for less than half an hour and have never worked at a small firm, so I had no Goddamn clue if it’s somewhere I’d like to stay for five years, but that unless it was a bad fit for me I’d want to stay. Which I thought was exactly what she should be looking for. If I wasn’t a good fit, wouldn’t she want me to leave? This lady just didn’t get it. Or maybe I didn’t. I don’t know, but I knew at that point I wouldn’t be a good fit.
Q: So no other job leads?
A: It’s a freaking wasteland out there. I really haven’t been looking at law though, so I don’t know just how bad it is, just that it’s bad. My office mate couldn’t even get recruiters to call him back. Why pay ten grand for a recruiter fee when you can find a few dozen Ivy League grads with just a Craigslist ad?
Q: You’re not Ivy League though.
A: Close enough, next question.
Q: So what outside of law have you looked at?
A: I applied to a bunch of consulting firms. Didn’t even land an interview. I’ve also been applying to a bunch of writing jobs, journalism mostly. There’s a few openings at papers for people to cover courts or legislation — legal news type stuff. But, no bites yet. I’m pretty limited on what I can apply to though. What no one tells you going into law school is that you’ll graduate with virtually no skills. The only things I’ve really learned how to do are Lexis research and BlueBooking. Those are pretty limited skills.
You hear all this stuff about all the things you can do with a law degree. It’s more like things you can do in spite of a law degree. You hear a lot about alternative career fields for lawyers, but you either need the right background, like a degree in accounting or computer science, or you need to have worked in some niche practice for twenty years, like entertainment law. The big lie no law school will ever tell you is that when you graduate, the only thing you’re more qualified to do than when you started is sit for the bar exam. And that’s just because the bar exam requires you to have graduated from law school, you’re not much more likely to pass though, you have to pay more for classes to teach you all the basic stuff law school didn’t bother with.
Q: If you can’t find a non-law job, then what?
A: Collect unemployment I guess. I don’t really want to work for a law firm. The environment is toxic. Everyone is high strung, paranoid, and the whole system rewards inefficiencies. At any normal business learning how to review documents twice as fast, or ten times as fast, would make you the star employee. At a law firm being smarter, faster or more efficient just means less income for the firm. At least, as long as they keep billable hours. And the cultural attitude is just disgusting.
We had one partner tell us, in multiple meetings, that law is a service industry and that means we have to do whatever it takes to give the client what they want. Bullshit. Fast food is a service industry too and you start your shift knowing the exact minute it will end. When your shift is over, it’s over, and if you’re the last shift, you lock the door. JP Morgan Chase wants an order of McNuggets two minutes after closing, too God damn bad, he can wait until tomorrow. At a law firm you stay and make the freaking nuggets, even if the client says he’s ordering them to have for lunch the next day, so you could just make them tomorrow on your next shift and be done with lots of time to spare.
Lawyers have to be some of the spineless people I’ve ever known. Clients will wait until the last minute before telling you they need something, and then partners will tell you to bend over backwards to make it happen. This would maybe be understandable if everyone was honest about what was going on. Instead everyone pretends it’s a virtue to stay late and get the job done instead of just admitting that the client is an asshole, but he’s the asshole that writes your paycheck.
Q: What about a smaller firm in a less cut-throat market?
A: I know some people who work at smaller firms, and a lot of it is the same shit, or worse. Most people assume a smaller pay check means a better work environment, or less hours, something in return. But that’s not necessarily the case. At a big firm first years are paid $160,000 and bill clients at about $300/hr. If your pay is cut in half, but so is what the firm charges for your time, you have to work the same number of hours, you’re just getting less for it. So, just imagine what it’d be like getting paid $80,000 but the client only being charged $100/hr. I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to practice law. There is nothing interesting or rewarding about the work, and you gain virtually no transferable skills. Maybe I will end up going back to it, but for now I’d really like to be done.
When someone asks me what I do, I don’t say I’m a lawyer anymore. I might say I used to be a lawyer, but if they ask what I am now, I just say I’m not anything.
Q: So, what’s the plan from here?
A: Plan? There is no plan.
The law schools created JDs.
They were laid off.
They look and feel human.
Some are programmed to think they are human.
There are many copies.
And they don’t have a plan.
[Join us again tomorrow for the conclusion of the interview and learn what it's like to move back in with your parents.]