Help me manage a long-distance job hunt!
December 2, 2011 10:16 AM   Subscribe

I'm a 2L at a third tier law school in one part of the middle of nowhere. My same-sex partner is from a very different middle of nowhere that has distinguished itself as one of the sorts of middles of nowhere that we can actually get married in. We are provisionally considering moving. The job market's bad enough already, so... help!

Maybe it's not quite as bad as it sounds. I'm top 10%, moot court and law review. And money is almost no object; what I really really want, no matter where, is small firm work and I'm willing to do the time at relatively low salary until I can can prove I bill enough to earn more. (I'd take $30k from somewhere I really liked, $40k would be preferable given the move, anything over that as far as my lifestyle is concerned is just gravy.)

Ideally I want to be doing bankruptcy and estate planning and other small transactional work, although I'm not against litigation or honestly anything but criminal work. My internships so far have been in health care and bankruptcy and I have good references. I am not worried about my prospects where I live now on that score; with recent trends, however, we're going to have to move somewhere out of state to get married, and this seems like our best bet.

My school has no alumni in that general area. I'm thinking about just putting together a massive mailing of resumes and just trying to tailor them by whatever I can find on the internet. But I don't know how to handle the timing. Should I send stuff now and mention that I'm available next summer? Wait until later and say that I'm available permanently starting summer 2013? (We can just go out for next summer, family living there have offered to help out if we do. Sadly, they don't seem to know any attorneys themselves.) And in doing so, how do I explain why I'm looking so far from 'home', how do I handle interview requests since I can't exactly afford to fly out weekly, etc?

If it doesn't happen, I don't consider this to be the biggest disaster, but it would be very nice if it did.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total)
Well, for one thing, while hiring partners care where you went to law school (before you get hired anyway), most clients won't even know, much less give a damn, particularly in the sort of nickel-and-dime stuff you're talking about.

As far as getting hired, a lot of small firms are actually always hiring, at least potentially, in the sense that while they may not be actively looking for new lawyers, they'd take the right candidate if he/she came along. Your big barrier here is that you're going to need to really sell the idea that you actually want to move to the middle of nowhere for a legal career. I'm practicing in a small city in a flyover state, but even though we're downright metropolitan compared to the Plains states, there's still a pretty big problem attracting talent. To the point that even the federal judges have mostly permanent clerks, because they have a hard time getting a full staff of qualified new law students every year. I got my current job because I was already in town, and my previous job because I went to law school just up the road. If you're moving any kind of significant distance, I guarantee you that this is going to be an issue.

Having your partner in the area might help, so saying something like "My partner currently attends [x] local law school, and I'm going to be relocating so we can get married after graduation." I'd leave out why you're choosing this particular location to do that, as 1) it's none of their business, and 2) a lot of law firms off the coasts are actually pretty conservative. The ABA may be blue as the day is long, but my local bar association is probably majority Republican, and my firm is overwhelmingly so. So just say that you're moving here for what amounts to family reasons.

Firms of this size generally don't give a rat's ass about "diversity" either, so that's almost certainly not a card you're going to get to play. There isn't much point in trying to sport a "diverse" workforce when there are only three employees, you know?

As far as scheduling interviews, know that these firms don't really hire in advance. If they interview you, they're probably either going to hire you to start within a month or two or not at all. Big firms plan on an annual cohort of new attorneys. Small firms hire on an as-needed basis, so they aren't going to wait around for you to graduate most of the time, especially if you're applying out of the blue.

Really though, I think you need to start networking like a fiend. The small firm world is incredibly tight-knit, significantly on a county-by-county basis, but extending somewhat to the state. Contact local bars and see how you can start meeting people.
posted by valkyryn at 10:32 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm going to venture and say that I know what the middle of nowhere you are thinking of moving to is (not many options). I grew up there, and have many lawyer friends there. If I'm wrong, just disregard these anecdotes. I will tell you a couple things:

1) my friends who are lawyers in this state (and I might add they all just finished law school in the past year or two), are all gainfully employed and I'm sure making more than $40k. Especially in the state capitol, finding employment as a young person in a professional area is not too difficult, as most young professional people are in fact trying to move away. The capitol has even revamped the entire downtown in an explicit effort to try to keep more recent grads and young type people there, or to attract new ones. Also - health care and bankruptcy? The population here is old and it isn't getting any younger. I come from a family that has spent generations working in long-term health care here, and they all say, jokingly but serious, that it's for the job security.

2) as to questions of why you're looking so far from home, I would not tell prospective employers that it is explicit because of the marriage issue. It really isn't that people are bigoted about it here, it's more like people just don't want to talk about that. It's a liberal state in the sense of 'do whatever you want as long as I don't have to hear about it.' Just say you really like the pace of life, you have some family in the area, you're looking at many different places to find the best employment fit, the cost of living to potential salary ratio is good, enough cultural things around but still has a country feel, you don't want to live in a state with a pro sports team, those types of things. If you're looking at not the state capitol but at at really small towns, it will be a little harder. A lot of those places are insular and can sort of suspicious at strangers (you probably don't want to live in one of those anyway).

3) it's a really, really nice state. It's sort of a secret. Lots of cultural things, great people, and it is really quite beautiful (especially the eastern half). And it's cheap.

If you want specific town/city recommendations or other insider knowledge, please feel free to memail me.
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:34 AM on December 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

just passing through to share a resource that you may already be aware of: are you hooked into the national lgbt bar association and their lav law event? they post jobs and have connections to people in firms all over the country who are lgbt identified and/or lgbt "supportive" employers. the next lav law (september 2012) is in dc, i believe, but you should contact them and see how they can help you network in friendly circles. law law has student career fairs and is a great way to network. september 2012 is probably too far off in your mind, but they may have resources to tap into right now.
posted by anya32 at 10:42 AM on December 2, 2011

Really though, I think you need to start networking like a fiend. The small firm world is incredibly tight-knit, significantly on a county-by-county basis, but extending somewhat to the state. Contact local bars and see how you can start meeting people.

This. Also, network at school. Your professors may not have come from that locale, but you can probably find a connection or two just by asking if they know anyone that they went to school with. My brother lives in a small town and his divorce lawyer went to school with one of my professors. The legal community really is a small one. Networking is even more critical for small towns.
posted by Hylas at 10:52 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Working at a small firm can be fantastic - but the problem is that they often don't hire entry-levels because you need to be up to speed right away. So you might want to think a bit longer term - try getting a job at a bigger firm first; if you can handle another year or two of an ldr, you could practice in a bigger market in a bigger city to get your feet wet.

Alternatively, you could go for a summer internship in a small firm - if they know you, they might hire you full time. That's how the small firm I worked for got entry-level lawyers.
posted by yarly at 11:14 AM on December 2, 2011

Oh, and consider plaintiff's employment law. Lots of employment lawyers are old radicals and lgbt friendly, given the nature of the work. All small firms, too.
posted by yarly at 11:16 AM on December 2, 2011

Does your partner, or your partner's family, know any lawyers in his hometown? Did his grandparents or parents have somebody draw up a will? Did a real estate lawyer help with the purchase or sale of the family home? Does he know anyone who went through a divorce in Nowhere? Does he know anyone who runs a small business that might have hired a lawyer to set it up or write contracts? There may be a small-town general practitioner or two who would be delighted to meet George's son's friend who is a law student interested in moving to the middle of nowhere because you've heard it is the best place to live on the face of the earth.

Also, have you considered your undergraduate school alumni network?
posted by steinwald at 11:20 AM on December 2, 2011

If you're talking about Iowa, I think you'll be able to find salaries higher than that without a problem. (The big firms in Des Moines pay six figures.) I think your targeted letter-writing strategy is a good one. You might also think about looking for a summer associate position in Des Moines or the Quad Cities (IA and IL sides both). (Maybe also Cedar Rapids &/or Sioux City.) It would be with a larger firm, but it would give you the opportunity to network in Iowa.

You might also consider, for your permanent job search, looking at smaller cities in Illinois, which has Civil Unions. The Illinois side of the Quad Cities, Rockford, and Peoria are all very drivable to Iowa. Maybe places the size of Galesburg, Kewanee, or Monmouth, which all support small firms and have some reasonably-sized local employers.

Another option is to work near your law school for a couple years and job hunt in your target area when you have a couple years' experience under your belt.

And yeah, basically, I'd say you're moving to be close to family. My husband and I moved from the East Coast, where we both went to law school, to the Midwest (where I have family but he does not), and people were very accepting of "be close to family" as a reason.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:56 AM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

So you might want to think a bit longer term - try getting a job at a bigger firm first; if you can handle another year or two of an ldr, you could practice in a bigger market in a bigger city to get your feet wet.

This is decent advice, but "bigger firm" in this context probably means something like "a dozen lawyers". There just aren't hundred-attorney firms that do all bankruptcy and estate planning. Indeed, it's hard to find any firm of more than a handful of lawyers that does much of each. Anything more than a few lawyers and you're probably talking about 1) serious litigation, or 2) transactional work for businesses.

These sorts of firms are definitely out there--my firm is about forty attorneys in four offices, and we occasionally hire new grads--but there are far, far fewer of them than there are solo-outfits or small partnerships, and they're likely to be located in whatever passes for an urban area in your piece of the middle of nowhere. My firm, for instances, serves about half of the state out of three offices. We sometimes drive as much as two hours to go to court, and when we do we frequently find ourselves going up against one- or two-attorney firms from that county.
posted by valkyryn at 12:01 PM on December 2, 2011

Unless you want to move to this middle-of-nowhere state for reasons you haven't explained that are entirely unrelated to your ability to get married there, don't do it.

Unfortunately, absent a whole bunch of different SCOTUS rulings and state supreme court rulings, your marriage is not going to be on the same practical and legal footing as a straight couple's marriage. Until we have real, 100% marriage equality that must be recognized in all fifty states and by the federal government and can't be invalidated under any circumstances, the best way to get the protections you and your partner will need is through explicit legal agreements, and trying to find employers that extend benefits to same-sex partners/spouses, even if you do wind up living in a state with legal same-sex marriage.

If marriage is the primary goal, it's just not worth it, no matter what state we're talking about. If that's not, good luck!
posted by The Master and Margarita Mix at 12:20 PM on December 2, 2011

One thing to consider as you plan moving forward, is that you may wish to take multiple bar exams. Take the bar exam at a later point in life is really horrible.

Taking multiple bar exams is also horrible, but it sure beats the pain from trying to re-train yourself to take the MBE many years later on in life after you had hoped never to have to seriously consider the Rule Against Perpetuities again.

So in other words, what is your marginal effort to take the bar in the state where you went to law school (and might conceivably return should things not work out) in addition to the state where you plan on settling to get married (but have no connections)? The bar application fee and effort to figure out the state-specific distinctions may be non-trivial, but it could really help you hedge your bets if things don't work out.

I can just envision a scenario in which you move out to the middle-of-nowhere state with no connections, no friends, etc., and for whatever reason after a few years you'd want to move away. Reciprocity rules are funny and complicated, so hedging your bet with being barred separately could really be worthwhile.
posted by QuantumMeruit at 2:53 PM on December 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I honestly don't think that you need to have explanations for why you're looking for jobs anywhere beyond the basic "Family reasons."

If you are looking for reasons to justify it to yourself, beyond the marriage rights, Iowa does have quite a few things going for it. Quality of life is high, cost of living is low, people are friendly and tend to mind their own business. The metropolitan areas (Des Moines, Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Quad Cities) offer plenty to be comfortable. Maybe a little lacking on the culture, but they're trying. There is, however, a stark difference between those cities and small-town Iowa, and there's going to be much less flexibility in social ideologies, too.

In terms of work prospects, IANAL and I don't know much about the industry, but I do know that there are plenty of law offices all over Des Moines. I also know a handful of attorneys and they are all employed in the law field. And you should easily find a job that pays $30k if not substantially more, as mentioned by others above.

But I think what's most important is that you visit first and make sure it's somewhere you'd be comfortable living. Because there's no reason doing it if you can't see yourself being there and being happy.
posted by erstwhile at 2:58 PM on December 2, 2011

"I honestly don't think that you need to have explanations for why you're looking for jobs anywhere beyond the basic "Family reasons." "

As someone who lives in a smaller, midwestern city, who interviewed when I moved and who now interviews other people, I'd go a little bit beyond that. I wouldn't talk about political reasons for moving there in the interview (although after I was comfortably hired and random people asked me why I picked Iowa, I might say, "Respect for marriage rights is very important to me."). But I would talk about the great quality of life in a smaller city, where commutes are short and housing is cheap but cultural opportunities are there and the work is interesting and diverse. They want to know you will actually like living there and not just jump ship as soon as a bigger-city job opens up.

If you need help articulating what's awesome about small midwestern cities, memail me, I am a big cheerleader. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 8:45 AM on December 3, 2011

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