How can I rise above mediocrity?
November 25, 2008 9:03 AM   Subscribe

LawFilter: How can a person with poor grades and limited experience as an attorney find a good job?

I'm a lawyer in the Midwest. I've been out of school for the last 4 years and in that time, I haven't been able to find a job that I feel like I can truly make a difference at or be happy at.

First, some background. I finished near the bottom of my class in a high Tier 2 law school. This was after a decent undergraduate career. After getting out, I worked for a couple of solo practicitioners, a software company, and had my own (unsuccessful) firm for a year and a half. Right now, I'm working for a general practice firm.

I feel like I either want to work for the government or work for a firm in a bigger market. Trouble is, I haven't been able to get any good, substantive experience that would make me a fit. If it matters, I'm interested in immigration law. Ideally, I'd want to work for USCIS or the State Dept. I've also thought that maybe I should try to work internationally and then come back to the U.S.

So, my question is: What can I do as someone who got mediocre grades to make myself attractive to firms in New York, Boston, LA or SF? Should I just bag my career in law and go back to school for an MBA? Any input would be much appreciated.

If you need to follow up, I've set up a throwaway e-mail. It is lawyerincrisis at gmail dot com.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (9 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
There's no nice way to put this, but you're looking to make a difficult career move at a time when major legal markets are flooded with recently laid-off midlevels and firms are continuing to cut costs and attorneys. Without relevant experience, you're not going to be able to compete with these attorneys who are highly motivated to get back into the swing of things, have years of experience at a big firm, and likely have networked and made connections with attorneys with whom they'd previously been working. I don't think your grades will hold you back at this point. It's your lack of connections in these cities combined with a lack of relevant work experience. Adjust your expectations, network as much as you can, and hope that the legal market picks up. Furthermore, working at L in State is really reserved for the top students at the top schools and so on. If you're looking for less prestigious jobs, or are willing to have non-lawyer jobs in the public sector, you're going to have some more opportunities.
posted by allen.spaulding at 9:39 AM on November 25, 2008 [2 favorites]

You could try a nonprofit first perhaps. I've heard various legal services centers are looking for people. And then maybe you could parlay that experience into a gov't or firm job later.
posted by shivohum at 10:04 AM on November 25, 2008

I second working at a non-profit. And also I looked into working for USCIS, and they don't hire lawyers in most locations (so says the office in Pittsburgh).
posted by unreasonable at 10:38 AM on November 25, 2008

You've been practicing for four years. Your grades are not likely to be that important at this point. And the fact that you ran a practice, even an unsuccessful one, is surely a feather in your cap.

It sounds to me that you have one of the perpetual problems of formerly poor-performing law students (myself included): You still think, four years later, that you are a poor-performing law student. You're not. You're a lawyer now. You need to start spinning your story properly in your head. That's your first and probably most important battle.

Government agencies are still hiring, despite the bad economy. If you're interested, you might even look into legal jobs in D.C. or if you're interest is immigration law, look at one of the think tanks/policy organizations concerned with that issue.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 11:10 AM on November 25, 2008

I'm curious as to why you consider your work situation mediocre. What were you doing at the software company - general counsel? It's pretty rare for young lawyers to get such jobs, and burned-out associates often leave their big firms for just such places. What's unsatisfying about your current firm? Aside from money, I'm not so sure working for a firm in a bigger market will necessarily be a better fit. If you're in the Midwest, why ignore the Chicago market? And finally, what is it about immigration law that appeals to you? I ask these questions because it's not clear that you're really in crisis, and the options you've listed are all over the place. I wonder if you're just generally dissatisfied and looking for something else, anywhere else. I've been there before, but I think it's worth objectively looking at your situation, and seeing whether it's really as bad as you think. And forget about mediocrity/prestige/etc. (even if everyone in our profession seems to be obsessed with it.)
posted by naju at 11:11 AM on November 25, 2008

D.C. is a huge market also, don't forget. Probably an order of magnitude bigger than SF. Its the second biggest bar in the country. I second notjustfoxybrown, who is a genius.
posted by Ironmouth at 11:39 AM on November 25, 2008

If you want to work for the government, you go to There are more than a hundred jobs for attorneys posted there right now. Follow the process and apply for lots of positions. You'll have much better luck with geographic flexibility. The key is applying for lots of positions and for any position. Once you get your foot in the door, there are many positions that are open only to people already in the civil service.

If you're in good health and not morally opposed, you might also consider military law. You'll get decent pay and benefits and a leg up on applying for civil service jobs when you get out (because we're currently considered at war and so you'd be a wartime veteran).

Since you mention the State Department, you may also want to consider taking the Foreign Service Exam.
posted by Jahaza at 2:18 PM on November 25, 2008

Since you mention the State Department, you may also want to consider taking the Foreign Service Exam.

This. The multiple-choice exam is shamefully easy. The interview, not so much, but I hadn't been through law school and it's attendant stresses, not to mention actually practicing. Should be relatively easy to manage with the experience you've had. They're going after consular officers pretty heavily lately, which as you can probably guess has a large (and possibly exclusive) immigration element. If you're not opposed to living abroad and either don't have a SO or have one who could follow you, you could do a lot worse than becoming a foreign service officer. As a bonus, anti-American sentiment will probably decrease, at least for awhile after Obama's election.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 2:44 PM on November 25, 2008

Could you look for a job as an admissions counselor/rep for a law school?
posted by fructose at 5:51 PM on November 25, 2008

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