Reality bites.
December 9, 2007 7:53 PM   Subscribe

[Law Job Filter] I don't have a lot of options, help me pick the one that is the least likely to ruin my career and make me default on my loans!

As a follow up to this question, I'm graduating in May. I don't have a job. I have 100k in debt, this isn't good. So I have a few options. I'm currently in DC, I don't particularly like DC, but I would be willing to stay if I had a decent job. I want to either be in NYC or California, NYC is probably the best option for me for jobs.

In NYC, attorneys can temp for up to $40 an hour, which is more than I can make say working at the DA's office, significantly more. I've done the math and I really can't live on less than 60k a year in NYC and make my (at least) $1,000 a month loan payments. Working at the DAs office or another similar job would only make me max, 40k. With overtime, I can probably make double that temping. While I know there is no guarantee of constant work with temping, I have very extensive work experience in litigation and excellent research and writing skills, so I think I'll be a pretty attractive candidate as a temp.

However, will temping destroy my career prospects down the road?

Do I just need to be honest that Big Law is never ever going to happen and I just need to view a job as a job, so really it doesn't matter, go with the cash?

Should I become a paralegal? At big firms they can make north of 80k and I'm more than qualified.

Basically, I'm trying to get real with myself and the fact that law school hasn't exactly worked out. Feel free to be brutally honest about my career prospects. I don't want to go for the cash short term if that is really going to destroy future opportunities, however I may be deluding myself that those opportunities will ever materialize.

posted by whoaali to Work & Money (21 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
You should determine if you qualify for an economic hardship deferment of your federal loans and whether this deferment would be wise to take so you can pursue your preferred career path. If you qualify, you will not have to make any payments on your federal loans for up to 3 years. The downside is that interest will still accrue on all of your non-subsidized federal loans during the time when you are not making payments.

To qualify, your monthly federal loan payments (with any loans that have a repayment period of more than 10 years counted as if you were paying them off in 10) must be 20% or more of your monthly income (before taxes). And your monthly income minus your federal loan payments must result in an amount less than 220% of the poverty line income for a family of 2 in your state.

Contact your lender or see here for the paperwork.
posted by briand864 at 9:05 PM on December 9, 2007

This is a problem I'm staring in the face right now myself. My backup plan is to fall back on my master's degree in computer science. If you can do something similar, I recommend looking into it.

You've probably seen this now (in)famous graph of starting salaries. The overall median is 62k. The bimodal distribution shows that the non-Big Law median is about 40k.

As for your chances of getting into Big Law at this point, look at it from a firm's point of view. Only about 20% of law school graduates are hired by large law firms, so why should they even look at applicants outside the top third of the class? Typically, the available positions are filled from summer associates if at all possible, anyway. Connections and networking can make up the difference, but I imagine you would have worked those already if you had them. My best advice on this front is to keep applying, even to firms that have rejected you. Keep an eye out for news that a firm has taken on a major piece of litigation; they may need to hire more associates. Also, look out for mass departures from firms, as those can also generate a sudden need for new hires. After you pass the bar, re-apply everywhere.

Some smaller firms (roughly < 25 lawyers) still offer decent pay and will take on new hires after bar results, and I advise you to look into them. They're a little harder to track down, though, but a job with one now might give you a shot at Big Law as a lateral hire a few years from now.

Temping can be an okay job, but usually it's very boring. It's mostly doc review. Some firms are creating a new class of 'permanent contract attorneys.' For both temp and permanent contract attorneys, the job is not a way into the firm. Furthermore, the kind of work they do is not very similar to what 'real' attorneys do: no client interaction, little research and writing, no courtroom exposure, no negotiation, etc, etc. Basically, the firms only use JDs for liability reasons.

You could start your own firm, but the legal market is pretty saturated right now. Of course, successfully starting a firm requires contacts and networking, so back to square one.

Working for the DA would give you strong litigation experience that could be helpful, depending on what you want to do at a firm. If you go the DA route, I strongly suggest choosing a different market, though, for the very real economic reasons that you pointed out.

It's a hard problem. My conclusion has been that, from an economic point of view, law school is a bad gamble. In a very real sense, your first semester grades determine your first summer job, which determines your second summer job, which determines your career. I think all law school applicants should be forced to take a long, hard look at that graph before they start. You certainly have my sympathies.
posted by jedicus at 9:07 PM on December 9, 2007 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks for the info briand864, but unfortunately my career path of choice, international law/international trade, is very firmly in the never going to happen category, so even 3 years living on next to nothing wouldn't achieve anything. As my professor, who has my dream job said, "you could be the editor of law review at Harvard and you would still only maybe get a job doing what I do."
posted by whoaali at 9:09 PM on December 9, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, jedicus, I am fairly resigned at this point that I may never have a "career" as a lawyer. So I'm basically trying to decide if I just want to live like a job is a job and it's not my life, just something to pay the bills. I honestly have no idea what I will do long term, if I decide to go the temping route. Likely I'll do it long enough to pay off a substantial part of my loans and then try to find another career, however that is at least 5-10 years down the road.

I was an art history major, so yeah nothing to fall back on there.
posted by whoaali at 9:15 PM on December 9, 2007

I don't get why you're bugging out right now. It's not even January yet. I think a lot of students are in your shoes. Do you ever talk to your classmates about this? Perhaps you all can commiserate...
posted by onepapertiger at 9:20 PM on December 9, 2007

Response by poster: Onepapertiger: you may not understand how getting a job out of law school is. Firms higher way way in advance, the jobs are gone. Most people get their jobs Aug-Oct of their 2nd year and few in the beginning of their 3rd, the window has come and gone for me.

Small/medium sized firms, who are not part of the elaborate recruitment process, don't generally want people just out of law school as they are a waste of money, so they only have a very limited need. On top of that the legal market is very tight right now, the only people who have it good are in Big Law.
posted by whoaali at 9:25 PM on December 9, 2007

I know someone who owes $100,000 for a BFA in painting, so, it could be worse. She went through an alternative teaching certificate program to get professionally certified to teach. The program was only 7 months long and it was in the evening because most students were working adults. In my area the starting wage for a BA/BS 1st year teacher is over $39,000. With an advanced degree you would make a couple thousand more a year. Keep in mind you get summers off, you could travel or work another job. It might not be what you had in mind, but the benefits are a lot better than what you get as a temp, and you get big blocks of paid time off. Depending on what you get certified in, there are some loan forgiveness programs or even tuition reimbursement for the cost of getting certified. ESE (special ed) is an area with a lot of loan forgiveness programs. In my state you can get certified to teach just about anything if you can pass the subject area exam. Never had a biology class in college? So what, pass the subject area exam and you are golden. I wish the standards were a wee bit higher, but alas, that is the current state of education in our country...ain't it grand? Go to your state Department of Education website and see what is required to get certified. If you are planning on relocating and thinking of getting certified, make sure you get professionally certified, not just temporary certification. Professional often has reciprocal agreements between states so moving isn't such a hassle. If you are only on a temp, you will have to start over at square one to break in.
posted by 45moore45 at 9:32 PM on December 9, 2007

You might consider spending a year in an area where the cost of living isn't as crippling as NYC. Sure, it's a wonderful place (I grew up there) but the peace of mind you'd get from spending say, a year in parts of the south (N.C., Atlanta) or even the midwest might be worth living away from the bright lights for a bit.
My standard answer for this question is to look into work as a legislative aide. The pay isn't fantastic but the jobs, especially in D.C., are plentiful and the work can be interesting and often involves as much research as being a first-year clerk.
Good luck.
posted by notjustfoxybrown at 9:49 PM on December 9, 2007

The DC temp (document review) market has been hot. $40/hr plus overtime, as much as 10-12 hrs per day, with lunch and dinner catered, 3 month project, one example of an offer I've received in the past 30 days. Doesn't "work" in NY cause cost of living there is too high, forget doing it there. crazy for incurring $100k debt for law school, but what is, is, but you can cut it down pretty fast if you live cheaply and throw that $$ on the debt. hurt your future legal career? depends on your goals, but not in my opinion. you're just paying the price of the past.
posted by america5 at 11:13 PM on December 9, 2007

Get some experience doing doc review. Take a proofreading and editing course. Bill yourself as a professional editor. Then get into technical editing -- it's not that big a stretch.
posted by acoutu at 11:30 PM on December 9, 2007

First off, don't be so doom-and-gloom just yet. I understand how tough finding law jobs is; I'm a 2L at a T25. You didn't mention where you go to school, so I won't make any assumptions there. You've given up on BigLaw, which is probably wise at this point, since they're basically just hiring out of their summer classes. I wouldn't give up on med/small firms yet. They pay decently well, and you'll get plenty of substantive experience. Nailing those jobs is all networking. What attorneys do you know? What attorneys do your parents/extended family know? What about your friends? Work all of your connections.

Also, if you're really giving up on a career in law altogether, why bother doing boring contract doc review? If you know you're going to jump ship and go do technical editing or something, may as well do it now.
posted by craven_morhead at 5:41 AM on December 10, 2007

Response by poster: America5: I guess I don't entirely understand why temping in NYC doesn't work. I mean the cost of living is a bit higher, but DC isn't exactly cheap. To be honest the only thing that was giving me any reason to get up in the morning if I have to become a temp is that at least I'd be in NYC which I love.

craven_morhead: trust me being in the T25 and being in the rest of tier 1 makes a world of difference job wise and I'm a 3L, there are no more chances for me. I'm still going to be applying like mad all spring, but it will just be pure luck if I get anything and god knows I've had none of that while in law school. As for networking all my professors keep telling me how talented I am etc etc they can't believe I don't have a job, they review my resume on and on, but at the end of the day they don't so much as offer to forward it to HR at their firm. Similar with friends at big firms, they give me the email of the hiring people and even in the cases when they are good friends with these people I don't get so much as a quick rejection email. Which actually has surprised me as I would think they would at least go through the motions a bit when they really really want these friends to accept their offers, but anyway...

I'd be doing contract doc review because to be honest that is the highest paying job that is a realistic option. I actually would be good at technical editing I think and maybe I'll look into that down the road, but to be honest I just don't want to live worse than I do now (and I live like a college student essentially already) and be able to pay my bills.

I guess what I really want to know is how badly will temp work look on my resume? I guess even if it is seen sort of neutrally, it certainly doesn't give me much good experience. Becoming a paralegal (which in one way gut wrenching after 3 years of law school, but who the hell am I kidding my ego was shot long ago) might be a better option because I would get benefits and could make similar money to doc review with a lot more stability.

I could always take a really low paying job where at least I would be a real lawyer, but I wouldn't make a dent in my loans and after a few years of that I honestly don't know if that will actually get me a lateral position into some real money.
posted by whoaali at 7:13 AM on December 10, 2007

Whoaali, what is your undergrad in?
posted by MeetMegan at 10:56 AM on December 10, 2007

Let me make sure I've got this right; you're looking for a job that will pay well, given your education and experience, and won't hurt your law job prospects down the line. Is that a decent capsule summary?

Contract work does look like it pays well, but if I'm sitting across a desk from you a few years from now, considering whether to hire you, I would probably want a decent reason for your decision to go do contract work, since it looks at first blush like what it is: a move for what paid the best. I understand the pressures of debt as much as the next person, but the contract job on your resume doesn't show much passion for anything, and it shows that you don't have a lot of great experience either.

Again, I'm a law student myself, so take all of that with a grain of salt. But as the hypothetical hiring partner at your future firm, that would be my thought process. Of course, anything on your resume could be and often is outweighed by your personality at the end of the day.

Regarding networking, you're pretty well past the point of selling yourself based on your resume. For example, the one job I turned down next summer I fell into via a bike protest and assorted charges getting me in touch with an attorney who likes to bike. It's the personal connections that make that kind of networking work.

Good luck.
posted by craven_morhead at 10:56 AM on December 10, 2007

Best answer: I'm a third-year at a BigLaw firm in D.C., and while I'm not on the recruiting committee, I do a fair amount of interviewing on behalf of the firm (both for summer positions and lateral openings). From my experience, I would say that working as a temp attorney would basically kill all chance of BigLaw down the road, as would working as a paralegal post-JD. For whatever reason, it is a mark on your resume that I think is very difficult to remove. I've never met an associate who was formerly a temp-attorney and have never interviewed someone with that background.

On the other hand, if you can obtain a government job that provides you with real litigation experience, you may become an attractive candidate for BigLaw a few years down the road as you would have far more hands-on experience than people from your class year who have been with a large firm exclusively. The key, however, is what the government job is. I believe you'd be better off coming from a federal position than a state/district one. Have you been looking at possible federal jobs? The pay is generally better than state positions, as are potential exit opportunities. While there is stiff competition for those federal jobs, there are lots of them out there, and you need to apply far and wide to see what hits. I regularly interview people from the federal government for lateral positions and there is very little emphasis placed on their school and journal membership and far more on the expertise they cultivated at their agency. If none of the "honors" programs for federal agencies work out, another possibility (as suggested above) is trying to find work on the Hill, and trying to parlay that later on into work for any of the number of law firms in D.C. with government practices specialties.

I understand your anxiety -- while I wasn't in the exact same position as you, I also did not have a post-graduation job lined up at this time during my 3L year either. You need to take a deep breath and try to take a step back and evaluate all your options and determine whether you have exhausted all possibilities. The financial concerns can be overwhelming but you need to take a long-term view of your choices. I believe that going the temporary attorney route - while more lucrative in the short-term - can limit your earning potential later on if you do decide to stay in the legal field.

I wish you all the best.
posted by buddha9090 at 11:00 AM on December 10, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks, buddha9090, that's really exactly what I wanted to know. Law being the biggest prestige game there is, I had a bad feelings temp work might just kill any shot I may have as little as that may be.

I've definitely been trying to get a federal job, but no luck yet and most of the agencies are done hiring.

craven_morhead: I guess I'm really trying to weigh my options. There is no point in taking a low paying job to get experience if that will not lead to bigger and better things one day. I nearly took a low paying state government job, but I then talked to tons of people and realized that the exit opportunities were crap, so I didn't take it. So really I guess it boils down to how likely will taking a low paying, low prestige, less competitive job, actually pay off for me in the long run? I have a bad feeling my law career has already ended before it has begun and if that's the reality I just have to face it and make the best of it that I can and that means paying off my loans first and foremost.

Unfortunately in my experience personality and networking only go so far. I know so many people who had partners at big firms gunning for them to get jobs, only for their resume to pass the recruiting people's desk and get promptly thrown away after noting they weren't on journal or x, y or z. Also, it's amazing how much easier networking is when you can drop a big name law school. I had a good friend this summer who goes to a T5 law school and have been quite literally pushed out of the way at social functions by partners at law firms the second they heard what school she went too. Literally pushed out of the way and ignored for 15 minutes, it's unreal. Also you have to remember, if your resume can't get you the interview, personality counts for nothing. 95% (or really more) I can't get even get an interview.

The only other thing I wonder about is would becoming a prosecutor or something and developing an excellent trial record ever lead me anywhere? I am very very good in court and I'm guessing I would be pretty successful at this. However, if I've learned one thing in law school how good you really are really is of little relevance in how successful you will be.
posted by whoaali at 11:25 AM on December 10, 2007

Earthjustice is hiring a Research Associate. Oakland, West Coast. Not international trade, but international environmental something-or-other, and while it's not explicitly a law job, they're a legal nonprofit. You wouldn't pay off your loans, but you could make your loan payments. / random comment, fwiw, ianal, and I don't understand why it's BigLaw or nothing (the pay? the work? the medium track rather than the fast track?)
posted by salvia at 8:31 PM on December 10, 2007

Response by poster: salvia: thanks for the job info. It isn't really big law or nothing, I'm going to be applying like crazy to small and medium sized firms, but they don't have a formalized recruitment process and hire fewer people right out of law school so it can be a bit rougher to get your foot in the door.

I guess this question was sort of what do I do should the worst that could happens, happens, because I have to start making decisions about what bar I am going to take. Also, if you look at the graph jedicus posted above, salaries for law jobs are not linear at all. You have about 20% at the top who BigLaw are madly fighting for and are in a salary race to the type. So in the last 5 to 10 years the gap between the starting pay at medium size firms (approx. 50-100) and big firms has widens dramatically. So there was a time when mid sized firms could compete for the top people because some people would give up 20k a year for a better lifestyle, but now the gap is so dramatic that the mid sized firms don't even try anymore and as a result salaries have dropped. Some mid sized firms and boutiques can still compete and offer starting salaries north of 90-100k, (big law in NYC will be starting at 190k this year or so the rumor goes, before perks and bonuses), but small and mid size firms are now low balling a lot of attorneys because, well they can, and also there are more lawyers now and the market is tight. So for an example I have friends with offers in the 160k-190k (depending on the city range) and then the next highest pay I've heard of after this drop off has been 79k, and most much lower in the 35k(prosecutor) to 60k range. So yeah that's why it can be all or nothing, the middle ground can be a little thin, but it is out there.
posted by whoaali at 9:55 PM on December 10, 2007

Oops, whoaali, didn't see you responded. Thanks. I didn't know about how bifurcated the salaries were. So, it sounds like you want the best salary you can get, and there's a big drop after missing the BigLaw option.

I guess I had a hard time understanding because the people I know that went into law (maybe n=6 here) mostly did it because they really wanted to be, say, a public defender. This friend has always thought it was unfair how cops could push around the little guy. So now, the loan payments are an annoying thing, at worst a thing that makes him feel like he can't quit even when he'd like to, but not something that is really ruining his life, since most of all, he's happy to have the power / credentials to work on this thing he cares about and can afford to live even after the loan payments (with a similar level of debt). Does the recent loan forgiveness program (after ten years of public interest law) help you with your federal loans? I imagine this isn't very helpful to you (since you really feel that what you'd most like to do is closed off to you).
posted by salvia at 8:11 AM on December 12, 2007

Response by poster: Salvia, I don't actually know if that loan forgiveness program ever was actually passed by Congress, I tried to google it, but only could find that it had been proposed, but I wasn't too clear whatever happened to it. Perkins loans can be forgiven if you go into some public interest loans, but you only get Perkins loans in the first place if you can demonstrate great financial need.

A lot of law schools offer very very generous loan repayment plans if you go into public service, but mine isn't one of them. Mostly because too many of our alumni go into public service, make no money and then can't donate to the school. There is a loan repayment plan, but the requirements are so ridiculously strict that no more than 2 or 3 people get it a year.

It's kind of horrible, but so many people I know came to our school because it is a big public interest school and now can't do public interest because of their loans. If they had gone to some big corporate law school, where they can't pay anyone to take a public interest job, they would have had a much better chance of actually being able to afford to do public interest work.
posted by whoaali at 11:07 AM on December 12, 2007

So, I heard from some folks last week that on the loan forgiveness program, people can sign up starting in July, so it must've actually passed... (How's the job search going?)
posted by salvia at 12:30 PM on January 13, 2008

« Older 2008, I want you to be cool.   |   How would you assign numbers to the different... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.