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  • Monday, August 21, 2006

    A question asked off-line on the side-lines

    One of the readers of this blog asked me a question in a private email, and with his permission I'm posting it here:
    "You're a highly-qualified law job applicant - you have years of work experience, some firm experience, a high GPA (3.5) from a highly-ranked law school. If you're having to struggle to get a job in a pretty large area of law (labor/employment) in a major metropolitan area, is there any hope for those with less stellar credentials?? Why do you think you've been having a bit of a struggle, I'm curious. If I'm getting too personal, please tell me so. It's just that I would have assumed that you would have gotten a position some time ago, and I'm trying to get a handle on the nature of the legal job market. It seems so very quirky. Someone with your equivalent credentials in another field would have job offers coming out of his/her ears."
    First, thanks for the compliments. Always a good shot in the arm to hear from others that they think my qualifications look pretty good... and that I'm not completely self-deluded about how competitive a candidate I think I am.

    But on to the question at hand... why do I think I haven't yet been successful in my job hunt?

    1. Let's get the easy explanations out of the way first... One, maybe I don't interview as well as I think I do. Perhaps I am doing something really bone-headed that turns off potential employers. Or maybe I'm completely inarticulate and come across as incapable or arrogant. That's one possibility. Hard for me to know, but I've been employed continuously until now and have lots of interview experience, so I don't think it's that... but who knows? Another explanation may be that my references are torpedoeing my chances by talking trash about me. I doubt it, but who knows? Either could be the case.

    2. I am seeking work in a very narrow field -- employment law and civil rights, plaintiff's side. In DC, there are certainly jobs in this area, but there are plenty more in intellectual property, patent law, corporate/real estate (and general transactional work). So my chosen field has opportunities but it's still narrow, especially when excluding defense work. And there are lots of folks seeking these jobs. So I think I've hurt myself by being so exclusive. In retrospect, it might have been smarter for me to just get some general litigation experience, regardless of the field, and then move towards the exact work I wanted to do. This is what most plaintiff's side employment lawyers have done. The lesson here is to get the experience and then start refining it. I started off working in the field I wanted (which was great) but it has closed off options for me very early in my career.

    Of course, I could just go and try to find a general litigation job, but as much as I want the experience, I also know that most of those situations wouldn't be satisfying for me. It's also harder to explain your career goals when you jump around jobs in a manner that isn't immediately apparent and logical. Right now, my resume reflects a continuum of experience. It's a narrow path, but at least it's not disjointed... so I'll keep trying to get a job in this field until I feel I have no more options.

    In keeping with this, I should have pursued more various jobs -- clerkships, fellowships, etc. -- early in my search. I did none of this until recently, mainly because I thought things would work out at the firm where I was working and partly because I didn't think that I needed that experience. I was wrong on both counts. I should have cast a wider job net earlier on in my search. Now, most of those options are closed off to me. That was, in retrospect, a mistake (although it wouldn't have been if things had worked out differently... but it's always best to keep your options open, and I didn't).

    3. Right now, I'm in this weird place of having some experience but not a lot. I don't have enough experience to apply for 3rd year associate positions (which is what most firms are seeking, at least 2 years of experience) but I'm not a complete newbie grad either. So I don't fit into etiher box easily. Add to that my substantial other work experience, and I definitely don't fit the mold of a brand-new-law-grad. So I don't have enough experience to go for most associate jobs, but I have maybe a bit too much experience for the right-out-of-law-school jobs. Nevertheless, I am applying for both and letting them tell me I'm over-/under-qualified (unless the description clearly articulates X years of experience, which is something I cannot fudge). Unfortunately for me, there aren't a lot of employers looking for junior associates with less than 2 years of experience, so mostly I am looking at entry-level positions.

    With all of my work experience, I also have professional confidence which may be intepreted by some as arrogance (honestly, it's not!). I am more than willing to give my opinion and make suggestions and speak up. And maybe that's seen as pushy? Or inappropriate for a junior associate (I don't do it all of the time, only when I think it's appropriate)? Or unwilling to learn (which it isn't) and set in my ways? I dunno. But it definitely puts me outside the "box" of what most recent grads bring to the table.

    4. Finally, age. I do think my age has something to do with my lack of success in securing a legal job. My age and experience can make for a weird tension where I interview with senior associates and partners who are my age or younger. I don't mind, and it doesn't bother me -- but I don't know how comfortable interviewers are with the idea of having a contemporary or someone older as their junior in the tremendously hierarchical society that is a law firm. The dynamic isn't as clear -- when someone is a contemporary in age but has less legal experience (and is under your supervision), how does that affect the work relationship? Contemporaries but unequals? Some might think it could get weird and just not want the potential hassle. Like I said, I don't have a problem with it, but I do understand that many folks get uncomfortable where there is a bit of grey (and we're not talking my hair here!).

    My age is also a factor because employers are often looking for a blank slate to train as they want to train (and then work them hard). While I expect to learn from everyone I work with, I have already developed professional credentials of my own and a work ethic of my own. I have balance in my life and don't want to work crazy hours to launch my career -- although I will certainly do whatever it takes to get the work done by the time it needs to be done. But there again, I don't fit into the "newbie lawyer" box, i.e., whatever it is that firms expect a recent grad to be.

    And finally, I think some employers may do the math to figure out my age and make the assumption that I am too old to put in the years of work that they hope they'll get from other recent grads (that is, as someone in her late 30s, I have ten fewer years potentially to invest in a job than someone who is in her late 20s). I don't know if they do or not. I don't look my age, so I don't stand out as being "old" at first glance. But I do think it's true that many firms dismiss as extraneous (or even a curiosity?) rather than value my previous work experience. In DC, you would think that policy experience is directly relevant to the legal work done here, but not-so-much. At best, interviewers tell me that my resume is "interesting" because it's much longer than most recent grads' resumes, and often they ask why I left my old work to become a lawyer, usually said in a tone which implies that they don't value my previous experience. Maybe they think that because I switched careers (I prefer to think of it as a transition supporting my legal career) once to become a lawyer that I'll do it again after working in the law for a while (which, of course, completely ignores the reality of the investment of training, time and expense involved in becoming a lawyer). Mostly I get a vibe that they don't know what to do with someone who has tremendous work experience but next to none as a lawyer.

    Anyway, I have thought about this a bit. It sucks to go through law school, pass the bar and take the risk of giving up a good job for the uncertainty and frustration of unemployment. I don't know why I don't have a job. A combination of bad luck and bad decisions? I do think I made some mistakes in the process, but I also think I have good credentials and a proven track record of getting the job done, which should make me an attractive candidate. I suppose that if (when?) I were to widen my job search to defense work or all litigation, I'd have more luck. But then again, I have pretty much gotten an interview every time I've sent in a resume for a job (excluding federal jobs). I can think of only once where I didn't get an interview, and based on the rejection letter I got, I think the job may have been filled, close to filled when I applied for it.

    I'll continue to mull this over and post more if any lightbulbs go off over my head. Or if I get any feedback on my interviews... or anything. Anyone who has any thoughts about this, I would welcome your feedback. What has your experience been? What do I need to do differently? Any tips on how to approach this or recommendations of people, organizations, job boards to contact?

    Who knows -- it may just be my interviewing style...


    But I still have four more "not yet rejected" possibilities. And then, after Labor Day, more opportunities should pop up. FIngers crossed!

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