Get me out of my dead-end legal job.
October 9, 2007 7:34 AM   Subscribe

Help me figure out to do with myself. I'm an early-30's lawyer with school loans well into the 6-digit range. I live in NYC. I hate what I do, I know what I like and am good at, but have no idea how to get from what I'm doing now to what I need to be doing.

I graduated from a top tier law school with middling grades in 2001. I have little substantive law experience, because I've been working document review for most of my legal career.

I currently work temp jobs as a document reviewer in NYC (working 55-75 hours per week with no benefits and no job security). The work pays well enough for me to live in NY, pay my giant loan bill, and still save some (small amount of) money. But it's horrible, dull, annoying work, and document reviewers are often looked on as a lower caste of lawyer by the attorneys who are actually working the case.

For a couple months earlier this year, I worked as a legal recruiter. I found that I love working with people, putting a deal together, negotiating through problems... but I absolutely HATED calling people to drum up business. So I quickly realized that line of work would not work out for me.

I also love (and am quite good at) spotting and solving problems, working with technology (I'm unofficial tech support everywhere I go), and explaining concepts in a clear and concise fashion.

So, to sum up: I hate my job, and it doesn't actually use any of my skills. I can't afford to take time off to get another degree, and I can't really go to school at night considering the hours I work. I also can't afford to take a job unless I'm going to net (after taxes) at least 40k/year (due to the loans). I am not committed to remaining in law - I just want something that uses my skills and pays me enough to live on, while giving me job security and benefits.

posted by Gaz Errant to Work & Money (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Small firm outside the city where you can litigate or do T&E work. You gotta move.
posted by Ironmouth at 7:40 AM on October 9, 2007

Have you tried looking for a law job in transactional IP work? Your technical skill are useful to the extent they demonstrate an ability to learn and understand technical issues. And the transactional part in the IP context refers to negotiating agreements including patent licenses, tech transfer, etc.

You need to get out of document review hell - no one likes it, that's why they hire temps to do it.

Call a legal recruiter and see what's out there. IF you're willing to move out of NYC (to CA or DC) you'll find your options multiply considerably.
posted by Pastabagel at 7:43 AM on October 9, 2007

I think if you are already a qualified lawyer you should be working towards actually using your skills as a proper lawyer.

Is it hard to actually move from doing what you're doing to doing actual law work? Can you start from the bottom at a corporate law office or something like that, or have you missed the boat with respect to a career in law?

If its hard to get a leg up in NYC, can you move elsewhere?

Can you do family law, work as a solicitor, etc? (Be self-employed?)
posted by chunking express at 7:45 AM on October 9, 2007

I just want something that uses my skills and pays me enough to live on, while giving me job security and benefits.
If you can swing it, I'd suggest you first get the hell out of NYC. Moving to a smaller city (somewhere in the fly-over states, for instance) will drastically reduce the requirements of that "pays me enough to live on" part.

As for figuring out what you should be doing...I guess you need to speak with a career counsellor. Of course, that costs a few dollars, too.

And welcome to the "hate what I do, but have no idea what I want to do" crowd. Personally, I think it's terribly inefficient and wrong to expect people to settle on a solid career choice so early in life. You are forced to invest so much time an money to focus on a single direction...and then, quite often, you end up not wanting what you have.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:47 AM on October 9, 2007

Have you considered teaching?
posted by amro at 7:50 AM on October 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks for getting the advice in fast! But to address some questions/comments:

1. Legal recruiter = useless to me. Having worked in the field, I can tell you that a recruiter will consider me unplaceable in a permanent job (unless said job is as a staff attorney doing exactly what I do now).

2. Chunking: it's pretty much impossible for me to get a big-firm job as an attorney at this point. And unfortunately, smaller firms in the city pay an obscenely low amount.

3. Transactional IP: sure, sounds great, I know I'd love that. Problem: see #1 (nobody wants to hire a doc reviewer as a real attorney), plus nearly all IP firms require a technical degree for their prospects.
posted by Gaz Errant at 7:51 AM on October 9, 2007

I work with lawyers in a medium-size midwestern college town. There is a lot less competition and more security with regards to jobs, even if a lot of the law around here has to do with agriculture (personally, if I were a lawyer, I'd love ag law since you get invited out to farms to eat good food).
posted by melissam at 7:55 AM on October 9, 2007

If you graduated from a top-tier law school with middling grades, you can get a real legal job. Somewhere.

Second the comments above.

Try to figure out how you ever got started with those lousy temping gigs. Do some work on changing the mindset (or other factors not mentioned above) that led you down that path.

Try "Lawyers in Transition"-type consultants. Years ago one of the prominent ones in NYC was Celia Paul.
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:13 AM on October 9, 2007

3. Transactional IP: sure, sounds great, I know I'd love that. Problem: see #1 (nobody wants to hire a doc reviewer as a real attorney), plus nearly all IP firms require a technical degree for their prospects.
posted by Gaz Errant at 10:51 AM on October 9

IP firms require a technical degree for patent attorneys. GP firms with hire you in an IP or corporate transactions department without a technical degree to work on IP matters.

And talk to a reputable recruiter anyway, they may focus you on second-tier firms, but first-year pay is at $125,000 at those firms anyway. It can't hurt to make a call and give it a try, and if you can move, tell them that you are willing to move.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:15 AM on October 9, 2007

spotting and solving problems, working with technology (I'm unofficial tech support everywhere I go)

You can work for an e-discovery consultancy shop. This industry is growing exponentially since the enactment of the amended Federal Rules of Civil Procedure last year, which has driven technophobic law firm partners insane.

I agree, though, get the hell out of NYC.
posted by Saucy Intruder at 8:29 AM on October 9, 2007

It's possible your loans would be defered if you went back to school. Also, you'd be able to work part-time at lawyer rates rather than food-service worker rates! Check out the CUNY and SUNY programs in NYC, they're very cheap if you've been living here long enough. You might also be able to get cheap(er) group rate health insurance as a student. The key would be, obviously, to try to go to school w/o taking out more loans.

Other ideas;

The government often just wants a credential and not specific experience (and the civil service exams focus on experiences you got in school/volunteering/as well as at work).

Are you interested in foreign affairs? A JD is a leg up to a job as a Foreign Service Officer. (Although it's not a huge leg up, but you're probably smart enough and would do fine if you interested in the topic. And guess what computer use questions and a task involving using a computer are part of the exams.)

Are you physically and mentally in shape? If you don't have moral objections, you could become a military lawyer. Yes you may end up in Iraq. But my understanding is that military lawyers get lots of broad experience. That might get you back on a more standard legal job hunting path when you get out. They also have, I believe, programs to help you repay your loans over and above your military pay and allowances.

(Even if you object to current US military policies there's been incredible work done by military attornies and even where they've damaged their military careers it won't damage their boosted civilian prospects when they get out.You can look up articles on the military lawyers for the gitmo detainees for instance.)

You can also look at other government jobs (see You might have better luck with say Veterans Affairs or HHS than say Justice, in terms of your competitiveness, but you get your foot in the door.

Finally, law enforcement agencies federal and local hire lawyers based on various civil service processes, it's very competitive to get a job with the FBI, and the NYPD currently isn't paying enough to live on, but there's a wide range in between.

One last thing, I work with a lot of journalists (including radio and tv writers) who have law degrees. The trick would be making the switch. You'd probably have to take part-time freelance work for a while at the same time continuing as a law temp. The hope being to eventually move into a permanent staff position.
posted by Jahaza at 8:32 AM on October 9, 2007

I disagree about it being impossible to get a job at a small shop. I run a small shop -- a nine-lawyer litigation boutique in New York -- and we look at people with unconventional resumes all the time.

[S]maller firms in the city pay an obscenely low amount

Whoever told you this has no idea what they are talking about or you have an unrealistic view of "obscenely low". First year attorneys at the big firms are, I believe, making about $180K this year with bonus. We don't pay that, but we pay well north of $100K. For a lawyer with no experience and no useful skills (ie. a first or second year) that's a huge amount of money.
posted by The Bellman at 8:37 AM on October 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Wow, great stuff pouring in.

Bellman: Thanks for your perspective. While I did know about smaller firms which pay well (no, I do not consider $100 low. I consider $40k low when you're in NYC.), I had made the mistake of assuming that a person with my experience/history would never get a second glance at your type of firm. What would you recommend as a next step to try and find my way into a job at your type of firm?

Everyone saying to get out of NYC: I appreciate the idea, but there are a few problems: 1. studying for/taking/passing the bar in another state - a costly and time-consuming process. 2. While the cost of living is lower elsewhere, my loan payment will be the same anywhere I go. Since NYC salaries are higher overall, I think I have a better chance of dealing with my loan debt here. 3. I freakin' love this city.
posted by Gaz Errant at 8:56 AM on October 9, 2007

I feel your pain, Gaz, in terms of getting in the door at small firms. We look at resumes from people we know and we always look at them carefully because it means we don't have to pay a headhunter fee. So the answer from my point of view would be to find someone in a firm you've done doc review work for who likes you and who has a friend at a boutique. If you have any friends who would know people like that, polish up your resume and ask them to put it in front of some partners at small boutique firms. At the interview explain what you've been doing and say you're willing to start out as a first year or second year because you really want to get the experience necessary to become a good lawyer -- assuming that's true. All this only works if you actually want to be a lawyer. If you're only doing it because it's a job, this strategy probably won't fly.
posted by The Bellman at 9:02 AM on October 9, 2007

Clerkship? I'm in a jurisdiction where you can net your requirement, and it's superfun. A few months ago, I ran into a guy I went to law school with and he was doing the NYC firm thing. He seemed miserable!! And totally jealous when he saw the life I was living...

It would buy you a couple of years of good work, that you might really like and look better on the resume than doc review.

Put up an email addy if you want to talk more about that and I'll contact you.
posted by letahl at 11:04 AM on October 9, 2007

Response by poster: letahl: I'd love to talk about clerking options. Email me at (of course, remove the NOSPAM first).
posted by Gaz Errant at 11:14 AM on October 9, 2007

Think about turning the tables. Go to work in a sales/tech/marketing/??? capacity for one of the firms that builds the software you use on a daily basis. that software is horrible and there's no way that document-review software is a shrinking business.
posted by zpousman at 1:57 PM on October 9, 2007

I think there are a few options for you right now.

1. Enroll in school, which will get your loans deferred automatically, and meet with a career counselor. If need be, take some more classes to get your tech credentials up to snuff.

2. Try to get a job in one of the NYC suburbs. I'm sure that competition at the firms in Manhattan will be fierce.

3. Start working as an actual contract attorney on the side. I mean that you can write to solo practitioners and offer your services as a researcher or as an attorney available to work on a case by case basis. This should get you some substantive experience.

4. Work with some nonprofits that need attorneys. This might not entail a lot of substantive work, but as long as you are doing some substantive legal work for the organization, you can put that on your resume as actual attorney experience.

5. You could start applying to firms in DC as well. Anyone licensed in any state can work in DC. It takes a few months to waive in, but I've heard it's not a complicated process.

6. You could try to apply for state or Federal government positions. I know that some folks who worked on a doc review project with me a couple of years ago are now public defenders or prosecutors.

Good luck!
posted by reenum at 3:31 PM on October 14, 2007

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