Tell me about life when a JD doesn't open doors to a career in law.
June 28, 2016 6:04 PM   Subscribe

By now, it's pretty well understood that a law degree and bar membership does not guarantee that one will be able to have a legal career. The law school scamblog movement has done a great job of exposing and denouncing the abuses committed by law schools. But while some news stories profile law graduates who struggle after earning their degree, the overwhelming majority of unsuccessful lawyers just seem to vanish. Where are the stories of the people who gave up on the law because they couldn't find work?

Alumni magazines and bar journals are full of stories about the high fliers in the legal profession. What I am looking for are non-fiction stories about the disappointment and pain of failing to get a legal career off the ground and about the struggle to reinvent one's self after having invested time and money in earning a law degree.

Please tell me your stories or tell me where I can find other people's stories.
posted by A. Davey to Education (24 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Read Leaving the Law and Leave Law Behind
posted by saturdaymornings at 6:25 PM on June 28, 2016

I can speak to some representative examples from peers of mine coming out of a T13 school circa 2007, and who I know from when I practiced in NYC a few years back. When the recession hit: some went back for MBAs, some went into consulting, a number of women got married and had kids and are taking a break, a few went into compliance or JD-preferred type positions, one joined the state department, a handful started their own small firms to varying success and some took middling jobs and are still working their way back to their former salaries.

Very few remain in the biglaw positions they started in. This is just a random sample of folks I happened to keep in touch with in the last 9 years.
posted by slateyness at 6:26 PM on June 28, 2016

I am not a lawyer, but I work with two people who have law degrees and who have passed the bar who now work in contract administration. They are not contract lawyers -- they are administrators/managers who make sure that all the terms of a contract are being followed.
posted by OrangeDisk at 6:34 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

I also know two JD contract admins. One of them is in one of those highly-regulated fields where you have to be able to parse and understand the regulatory requirements (and changes) to do the work.

I have also in my life worked with an MDJD and JDPhD/psychology. The latter was a consultant in various restorative justice/alt-probation programs.
posted by Lyn Never at 6:43 PM on June 28, 2016

I went to grad school (library science) with someone with a law degree who went on to become a law librarian. I also vaguely recall her saying that there was some program (either through her law school or a law organization) that paid for the library science degree because it was public sector work.
posted by joan_holloway at 6:52 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Above the Law discusses this kind of stuff on the regular. My former classmates post articles resentfully on Facebook constantly.

I graduated law school and don't practice law, and never did. I was working at a law firm before and during school, and intended to stay at the firm after school. I realized I hated my job and didn't really want to be a lawyer either so I reconnected with an alum I knew wasn't practicing law. I now work in HR and use my skills and education daily (really), and am well-compensated because I have an advanced degree. And I'm sane. Which I definitely wasn't at the firm or in law school.

Many of my former classmates are unemployed/working at coffee shops/doing doc review/working for legal publishing companies. Most of them either arrived at law school when they were 22 with no professional experience or worked in fields completely unrelated to what they wanted to do as a lawyer.

Some people drop off the face of the planet, but most stick around and talk about everything in their life except their career/lack of career. Some also play the victim card like crazy, posting every single negative article they find about law schools, student debt or the legal profession on Facebook with some scathing rant. And this is not to say that law schools, loans, and the profession are not very messed up, but you can only rant about your ex so much before you become the problem.
posted by good lorneing at 6:59 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

My mom worked in trust administration and estate settlement for a bank, neither of which actually required being a lawyer. This was after various jobs as an attorney and being a full-time parent, so is maybe not quite the demographic you're asking about.
posted by hoyland at 7:01 PM on June 28, 2016

I work for an advocacy nonprofit and have for most of my career, and we have a lot of lawyers who never practiced, or haven't in a long time. Some weren't able to get decent law jobs, and some just realized they didn't want to be lawyers. I have noticed there's some overlap - they could have gotten a legal job but not one that paid enough to make it worth it to work in a field they didn't like. I think legal training can come in handy there if you're doing wonky policy analysis type stuff, but less so if you're in fundraising.

Many of these people had experience in the non-profit/advocacy/political world before, so they just went back to that, and I think that's not uncommon. I know another guy who worked for a company before law school, couldn't get a law job, and went right back to his old company.
posted by lunasol at 7:10 PM on June 28, 2016

joan_holloway is correct that public service loan forgiveness is a thing for librarians, and public law libraries (county, city, state) are very cool. Being a librarian is a second career for many people and a number of law librarians are indeed JDs who didn't want to practice.
posted by clavicle at 7:14 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Oh also, my mother is a lawyer who was in private practice for a long time. In the last few years, whenever she was hiring for a legal secretary or assistant, she would get many applications from people who had passed the bar but couldn't get jobs as lawyers. Her last secretary actually wound up getting a job as an attorney after working for my mom, so that's a happy story.
posted by lunasol at 7:14 PM on June 28, 2016

I got laid off from my biglaw job in 2009, with no real chance of ever getting back into that kind of work and no actual experience that would get me any other kind of lawyer job. I'm now a law librarian, and every job I've had in that field has either required or strongly preferred a JD. Of the other librarians with JDs I've worked with, I'd estimate about 30% practiced law for a bit and then bailed, while the rest figured out early that they didn't even want to try or started as librarians and added the JD later to get a better job.

I've also encountered non-practicing JDs in law firms in conflicts, marketing, HR, and administration. Lots of JDs in various compliance positions too, in all sorts of businesses. A lot of the vendor representatives from the various legal publishers and in legal tech have JDs as well.
posted by colbeagle at 7:25 PM on June 28, 2016

I know this is just more anecdotal stuff, and sound like you're looking for narrative print, but this is a remarkably common career path into non-profit work in general. I mean that as in, it's not just JDs, but PhDs, MPHs, MSs, you name it.

I also know two JD contract admins. One of them is in one of those highly-regulated fields where you have to be able to parse and understand the regulatory requirements (and changes) to do the work.

And this is exactly why. Familiarity with statutes, regulations, and their interpretation is something that every 501(c)(3) needs. Most people in my work universe - toxicology, government toxicology policy, regulation of drugs - come from backgrounds that weren't, let's say, a masters in policy. We come from all over: law, medicine, biology, foreign language, you name it.

Paraphrasing: no degree confers entry into a specific field, but it does give you chips to bring to any table.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 7:26 PM on June 28, 2016

I have a dear friend who is a Yale grad and did biglaw for a few years, then was the Exec director of a nonprofit (that dealt with lots of legal transactions) for a few more years. Now he's a paramedic and is working ski patrol and is apparently much happier.
posted by anastasiav at 7:32 PM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

My cousin dropped out of big law and took up policy analysis at an insurance company. I didn't see any pain or suffering, so not sure if this is what you are after. He looks tanned and relaxed from the normal work hours, adequate vacation, and bike ride to work.
posted by crazycanuck at 8:14 PM on June 28, 2016 [2 favorites]

I've worked in three highly regulated industries. In every company where I've worked the Regulatory Affairs department included several law school grads. I'm not sure if they tried to work practicing law or if they just hammered through law school and decided practice was not for them.
posted by 26.2 at 8:43 PM on June 28, 2016

A brilliant software engineer I know from Apple left and went to Stanford Law, practiced at biglaw in SF, then went back to Apple and manages a group of software engineers. She's much happier.
posted by blob at 9:08 PM on June 28, 2016

diplomats. fbi agents. banking compliance. policy analysis. political lobbying. insurance in-house. intellectual property in house for a large corporation. public land management. internal disciplinary work in government offices. trust companies. title companies. real estate sales.

i became a federal probation officer but i would have settled for cop, US marshal service, prosecutor, etc. i was licensed and everything but i didn't want to practice because the jobs available to me that involved practicing were low paying, stressful, and often came with no benefits, no paid leave, very little job security, or they were temporary. it made more sense to do something else.
posted by zdravo at 11:35 PM on June 28, 2016

Add to zdravo's list - insurance claims departments.

For a law graduate who has a penchant for numbers, there can be opportunties in accounting firms as well.
posted by megatherium at 4:32 AM on June 29, 2016

My experience is similar to slateyness', though I graduated from law school in 2009, immediately after the crash. Adding to some of the examples above of non-law-firm jobs, I have other friends that have taken compliance-style positions at larger corporations, particularly in areas like employment or medicare compliance. My wife's decision to stay home with our kid was influenced in part by the fact that the law firm that hired her imploded and she was piecing together temporary positions through a legal recruiter when she was pregnant.
posted by craven_morhead at 8:30 AM on June 29, 2016

I should have clarified that I'm not seeking stories about H/Y/S/C/C/N-type grads who have left Biglaw and found rewarding work elsewhere.

It's unlikely they belong to the demographic I am interested in, which is people who've endured " the disappointment and pain of failing to get a legal career off the ground" and don't even have the external validation conferred by a gilt-edged law degree from a posh school.
posted by A. Davey at 8:42 AM on June 29, 2016

I went to a 2nd-tier law school. Clerked with a public agency during and a little after school, did well -- top 10 in my class, IIRC. Passed 2 state bars. But it was the early 90s, and the environmental jobs I was interested in either didn't pay enough to cover my loans or went to folks with degrees from Columbia, Yale, and Michigan (or both).

I ended up temping for a year, and then lucked into a gig doing environmental planning for a federal agency, run through Colorado State University. I did that for a few years, then the job fell apart and I moved across the country. Once again: sat for the bar, couldn't get a legal gig, although I did some part-time contract legal research for a small firm for a while. I lived in my sister's basement for a year, that was fun.

Eventually I met someone who was an environmental consultant, who introduced me to someone at a big consulting firm, and through that connection I got a full-time job working on EISs and so forth for government agencies. After about 8 years I jumped ship to the federal government, where I don't get bonuses but the hours are a lot better :D.

After spending three years and a lot of money going to law school, it was pretty fucking discouraging to have no luck finding a legal job. I was seriously depressed for a while there, when it seemed like I couldn't get hired as a dog-catcher. It seemed like it had all been a waste.

But I have a good life now, and while even now, after 20 years, I get a bit bummed out to discover that a bunch of my old classmates are partners in their firms, I am happy with my life and I suspect that I've enjoyed my career more than they have. Certainly I've spent fewer hours in the office than most of them, even if I've made less money.

All that said: yes, you're not the only one to feel like you were misled about the job prospects, and maybe resentful of the people who went to a top school, or who didn't need to borrow money to go to law school, and thus had more career possibilities afterwards. (My friend C works for Defenders of Wildlife, and she got the job because she was able to volunteer for them for six months. That was never an option for me.)

But a law degree is not utterly useless, and you'll find yourself using those skills in lots of unexpected ways. Don't give up on yourself.
posted by suelac at 5:30 PM on June 29, 2016 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure that graduating from an elite school brings any kind of external validation for those who fail at starting a legal career. If anything that would be worse, as the Harvard Law grad with the failed career is going to run into successful lawyers who are alums of Jim's Chicken Shack School of Law.
posted by good lorneing at 5:33 PM on June 29, 2016

I graduated at the depths of the crash. I taught myself to code over a year and a half of ill-paid contract admin work. I'm now a software engineer and bizarrely grateful to all those who laughed at my third-tier law degree.
posted by dearlizadearliza at 6:30 PM on June 30, 2016

I volunteered for as long as I could afford but it didn't lead to a job (another volunteer who stuck it out longer did get employed - she was being supported by a spouse with a big law job, but she may also have just been a better fit...). The two interviews I got would have required me to move and/or a car, and one paid $38k. It had hundreds of applicants and I wasn't offered the job. Then I made money on doc review and built a small family practice, partly on my own and partly working with a more experienced lawyer (who had transitioned into it after Big Law and got a lot of referrals from that world, and who also had financial back-up from a spouse in something like Big Law). I could see the doc review future ending (especially a position like mine that gave me flexibility to do independent work). I did an accounting of my financial resources, my emotional resources, my strengths and weaknesses, and realized I did not have the constellation of character, risk tolerance, and funding, to go all in on my independent practice with the hopes that I could build something that would give me stability and quality of life, and I didn't have the stomach/hope for the job search. I looked at compliance, where some of my doc review peers landed) and taking those exams and looking there was going to be my next step.

But on a kind of whim I applied for a couple of alternate training programs and was accepted into my city's Teaching Fellows program, on a special ed track. It required one summer with no earnings but their stipend, and then I had to look for my own job in the district.

I can't even describe what it was like to all of a sudden be job hunting in a field where demand exceeds supply.

I found a position at a school that I can walk to in under 10 minutes. I just finished my first year teaching, while working on a master's (mostly funded by the Fellows, the rest taken from our paychecks, so no debt) and... it was great. I am moving all day, using all aspects of my intellectual and emotional skills, have no-premium health insurance, and paid vacation. The pay scale for teachers with only a BA starts at well above that 38k job (50k) but I get a boost because of my law degree and it will boost again when I finish my masters, plus built in union-negotiated raises every year. My license will be very portable, and special ed teachers are in demand in many places, though I like where I live and if I do stay in my district for long enough, I will get a defined pension benefit on top of social security (plus there is public service loan forgiveness). I never thought I'd be able to afford retirement! If I want to move on from teaching there will be options to pursue administration or guidance, but no need, and there's a whole world of fascinating professional education opportunities I had no idea existed.

The new sense of stability and trajectory is still seeping in and after all the years of hustling, it feels almost indescribably relieving. And I'm enjoying the beginning of my first summer off (while doing online coursework). I only wish I'd done this 8 years ago, when my eventual retirement package would've been even better and I'd already be on a higher salary step, but maybe I wouldn't have appreciated it like now.

I love a lot of things about law and I'm keeping my license active and hope to do some volunteering and stay proficient in my field, and actually be able to somehow be of service. It was so frustrating for me to see that the need for lawyers is actually so very great, but mostly among people who cannot afford what would be required to offer a lawyer a living, sustainable wage. My ego also took a major bruising. It's hard not to look at my classmates who, despite the collapse, landed and are growing and thriving in legal careers, and blame myself or my shortcomings. But I remind myself that things depend on a collection of factors, including things like luck, family connections, etc., and that I had a lot to offer and did my work very well. And who knows, apparently special education law is a growing field, so maybe some day I'll transition again.

There were at least 6 other lawyers/JDs in my cohort. One was retired (young) from the police force, a couple had been doing doc review, a couple had worked in good fields but at one dead end, low paying, stressful position after the other (not big law). At my (tiny) school there is one other teacher who transitioned from law maybe a decade ago. We can notarize stuff for each other :) (and of course our colleagues).

So, teaching. Some of us vanished to teaching. I recommend it!
posted by Salamandrous at 1:20 AM on July 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

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