Meanwhile there are 5,800 more people employed in the legal sector (not all of them lawyers) than there were at this time last year. There are also 44,495 more ABA law school graduates.Why write this?
Thanksgiving this year was more social than it typically is for us, and we attended a gathering that included a hodgepodge of various families that I had not met before. Social circles are small, however, and people appeared to be generally familiar with the concept that I was a smart lawyer in a big city working with a big firm on big cases making big money. I thus was subjected to a seemingly never-ending carousel of young, good-natured twenty-somethings who were sent to speak to me at the behest of their parents regarding the perceived merits of law school.
The kids were bright-eyed, enthusiastic, and many were more or less neck deep in the law school evaluation process. Our conversations typically fell along the following lines: “I’m looking at [law school], and I have met with the admissions people there, who seem really great. I’m pretty excited about the prospect of attending. It’s cool that you work at [Firm X] in [City Y]. Do you like being a lawyer?”
In any event, I punted, not wanting to be the resident buzz kill while the gravy was still warm. My answers were vague, and I generally discussed the intellectual challenges one might expect to face as a law student. If one did manage to corral me into discussing the prospects of obtaining law firm employment after graduation, my replies were purposely noncommittal—“it depends, some fields are hotter than others;” "It's hard to say; before attending, be sure to research firms that you may be interested in to see the type of graduates they hire," and so forth.
Afterwards, I reflected that it was bothersome to hear that the admissions departments were still shoveling the same brand of irresponsible rhetoric that, I suppose, in hindsight, had hooked me when I was in their shoes. I mused that, in a vacuum of anonymity—no gossip, no whispers—my answers to some of their questions would have been very different.
So here is my made-for-the-internet story, as a class of 200 law school graduate. It is not intended to persuade or dissuade; instead, I merely recount the details of my background and my work experience. The rest is, as they say, up to you.
I, like most of you, am a striver. At a young age, I was identified as “gifted,” and recall that I generally enjoyed the process of learning. Academic success came, along virtually all stages of educational conveyor belt, with relative ease. I excelled in middle school, and afterwards, was able to gain admission to the highly selective private high school in our city. Less than 10% made the cut. High school was certainly more competitive—no longer the big fish in a small pond—but I continued to work hard and did well. I took the SAT seriously and prepared diligently. My score was high, and I was able to obtain admission to a highly prestigious undergraduate program.
Undergrad was more of the same, and I obtained a degree in a [technical field]. After graduation, I secured a full-time position in at [highly recognizable institution related to technical field]. While there, I [accomplished noteworthy achievements [X][Y]].
In 200, I decided that I wanted a change of pace, and sat for the LSAT. Law school, after all, appeared to be attractive: only three additional years of education and a pot of gold at the end of the proverbial rainbow. With my technical background, I envisioned a career in IP litigation. My LSAT score was high, and I decided to attend a non-T14 T20 on partial scholarship.
Law school went relatively well, and I was able to secure membership on a secondary journal. I also participated in moot court and mock trial, and [further completed noteworthy achievements [X][Y]]. Grades were decent, not great—and I finished top 0% or so. Why not higher? Well, at the good schools, (1) everyone is smart, and (2) 100% enter with the notion in mind of finishing within the top 10%. Strangely, 90% end up being disappointed.
In any event, I interview well, and my technical background and law school performance were sufficient to net me a [DC][LA][NYC][SF] biglaw summer associate position during 200 2L OCI.
I received an offer from the firm after the summer, and began my legal career at the same firm following my graduation from law school. I remained with firm for nearly  years—a period in which the firm only promoted one new partner (yes, literally one) in the [DC][LA][NYC][SF] office. I decided that, in light of these staggering odds, hanging around "to make partner" no longer constituted a viable career path. I thus decided that it was time for a change, and made a lateral move to a group at [Firm X] that appeared to have potential as an up-and-comer.
This new group, though initially very successful, fell apart [due to reasons completely beyond my control]. In [January][February][March][April] of this year, the entire group was shown unceremoniously to the door.
Initially, I wasn’t hugely concerned. After all, I believed in the caliber of my credentials, and I had over [X] years of top-notch training at [DC][LA][NYC][SF] biglaw. I had worked hard, and had billed a large number of hours. My skills were solid, and my references were (presumably) stellar. Additionally, I was linked to a “hot” area of the law in IP litigation, and had a great cover story too—this was not a traditional lay off. A victim of circumstance, nothing more. Think Howrey.
My family wasn’t worried, either. After all, I had been that “striver,” remember? The self-starter, the “high performer”—they seemed to intuitively believe that I was going to invariably land on my feet; historically speaking at least, I always did. My parents had several contacts at large firms—they reached out to them on my behalf. These contacts expressed interest, at least initially.
I identified “targets,” and began sending out resumes. I’m was not overly conservative, and a fairly significant number went out. The personal contacts called as well, and they proceed with informational interviews. They sound encouraging, and they discuss possible openings in the event of A, B, and C occurring.
Three months go by. Rejection e-mails roll into the inbox. The personal contacts have stalled. I decide to pursue potential clerkships, and I apply from the appellate level all the way down to the magistrate level. I also begin targeting more firms, widening my net: big, small, whatever—as long as the work experience requirement is relatively aligned. I reach out to every personal contact in the book, and further apply to various in-house positions.
I failed to obtain a single clerkship interview. Not even the magistrates want to talk to me. I do, however, gain some traction with firms, and obtain interviews at several. You haven’t heard of these places—but at least one seems to have some promise—it has diverse clients in fields unrelated to my own, but is otherwise looking to further develop its IP practice. Given the generally unknown nature of this small firm, I reason that the competition can’t be too intense. The interview goes extremely well. "It’s my job," I think, walking out. No: instead, they hire a former federal clerk out of Harvard Law with biglaw experience. Wow—fair enough. What is this guy doing interviewing at a place like this?
The next interview, well—it was with an insurance defense shop. Nice guys, made an offer on the spot—but only after complaining at length about the brutally slim profit margins. They offered 60k a year to defend insurance companies. For more money, I probably would have taken it. However, it’s completely unrelated to IP litigation and, from what I understand, once you jump into ID, that’s it, you’re stuck and yeah, let's not mince words: we’re talking about a pay cut of more than 140k. I just couldn’t do it. I turned them down.
In hindsight, I probably should have taken it.
Thanksgiving has now come and gone, and here I am, still jobless. I’m collecting unemployment, and still manage to send a resume or two when something pops up that I haven’t already applied to. I’ve lost track of the number of “ding” emails I’ve received—I'm guessing well over 100 by now. The cycle of rejection appears to be never ending. Family, once casual about this, now appears awkward and uncertain. No one knows what to say.
At this stage, I’ve applied to the full range. In-house, out-house, large, small, prestigious, “TTT” —the end result is, shockingly, the same. In [month X], when I lost my job, I never envisioned this result. I thought that there would always be a place for a person like me—up until now, there always had been. Fortunately, my loans are paid, and thus, unlike a lot of my peers, I don’t have the weight of their financial burden around my neck but, in any event, unemployment maxes out at $450 a week—it doesn’t cover the expenses of living in [DC][LA][NYC][SF]. I am, for better or for worse, going broke.
My next step is to swallow my pride and jump into the doc review circuit full-time. It is, however, as bad as they say—generally ~30 bucks an hour for 8 to 10 hours of day of base document coding. I sat through one for 2 weeks. It is truly mind numbing—"responsive," "unresponsive," "doctype," etc. You could quite literally train a reasonably savvy 6th grader to do it. It isn't legal work, and I don’t want to go back to doc review. In a way, I suppose that it's demeaning, and is, without question, light years beneath my credentials. After all of the hard work, after the years of billing 2100 to 2400 hundred hours, after all of the education and the achievement, is this really what I’m qualified out to do?
By way of comparison, consider a premedical student who graduates with a 3.7 and a 98th percentile MCAT score. I don't know exactly how the percentile correlates, but let's assume that it equates to a 41. 3.7, 41 MCAT—this person is essentially guaranteed to not only get into an elite medical school, but also to have a stable career as a physician provided that he/she is willing to do the work, etc. The same applies for your 3.7 / 98th percentile (780?) business school applicant: this person, provided that he/she has solid WE, will almost certainly go to a top5 MBA program on scholarship and will invariably have a career in banking, consulting, etc. provided that the desire to put in the work remains. There are no such guarantees with your prototypical 3.7 / 98th percentile LSAT graduate. And here, in my opinion, is the critical difference between the law and other potential career fields. In law, you can do everything right, and still be completely unemployable.
I used to be you, albeit on lawschooldiscussion.org. I heard the stories, but didn’t believe them. Things like this couldn’t happen to me. Well, this is real, and it has been [X] months since my last non-government-issued paycheck. I have always been a happy, well-adjusted person, but this process, including the multitude of rejections, has exacted its toll. Unfortunately, depression has become a reality for me, and I no longer sleep well at night. I’m typically up between the hours of 3 and 6AM, tossing and turning, wondering what, if anything, the future may hold. In a short number of months, my lease expires, and I don’t have the foggiest of clues as to where I will live.
The point of this story isn’t that you shouldn’t go to law school per se. It is, instead, to merely relate my story to you. This story is neither unique nor novel, and similar varieties from the genre afflict a huge percentage of young lawyers out there. As a recruiter at a prestigious placement firm recently told me [BCG, etc.], “you have a top 5%” resume. Well, recall the federal law clerk from Harvard that beat me out for the never-heard-of-it small law firm several months ago—I’m trying to get by with a top 5% resume in a top 1% world. This goes for me, and for those either in law school already or who are considering going, it will apply to you too. As Campos says, there are no special snowflakes.
In medicine, those with top 5% resumes will always be hot shit doctors with highly desirable specialties. In business, the same will be top level executives. In law, well—hello document review.
So there it is. I was, once upon a time, a striver just like you. Now, I'm just a chronically unemployed person who can't sleep. Thank you law school—it's not me, it's the profession. After undergrad, I had gained admission to several non-law graduate school programs, and now often wonder what my life had been like if I had gone that route. It's hard to envision a predicament being worse than this.
Be sure to do your diligence. You'd hate to back a losing horse.
UPDATE: a number of interviews recently came in the door, including one at a V[X] (albeit in a secondary market where I know no one). Still, the story is what it is. Best of luck to all.