Attend any type of young lawyer function these days and it seems as if every new attorney there has a horror story about a friend who recently passed the bar but can only find work waiting tables. This is not to say there is anything wrong with waiting tables; there is not. Personally, I like waiters very much. (I like anyone who brings me food very much.) But that is not what we went to law school for. That is not why we endured mind-numbing property lectures. Or why we subjected ourselves to read so much we now need glasses, or at least a stronger prescription. We went, at least in most cases, so we could have the privilege of practicing law. Now, to be fair, the job market is brutal for anyone who is unemployed and looking for work these days—not just young lawyers. Yet, I think it can be particularly challenging and frustrating for a young attorney trying to find a job.
Many of us have indentured ourselves for staggering sums of student loans, with little more than a vain hope that once we pass the bar a job will find us. This may have been true in the past but not in today’s depressed economy. Opportunities that traditionally would be available to new lawyers no longer are. These opportunities are now going to more experienced lawyers. New attorneys may have the same set of basic skills, but what they often lack is practical experience in applying these skills. Experience dictates job opportunities and options in the legal field, more so in this economic climate than ever before.
Thankfully, I am currently employed. (I have only been licensed since May 2010.) I became a contract professional with the State of Illinois Department of Financial and Professional Regulation in July 2010. I work on special projects for the General Counsel’s Office. But the contract, which runs through June 30, 2011, may be terminated or modified at any time. So the state’s multi-billion-dollar budget deficit looms above my head, like the Sword of Damocles. I can pay the light bill, but I continue to seek something permanent.
This is certainly not my ideal job—but it is a job. However, to simply say this is a job and end the conversation misses the bigger picture. It offers me a chance to gain critical professional experience that will enhance my qualifications for future opportunities. You can only gain experience by taking advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you, and you have to work to develop these opportunities.
The only reason that I was in a position to be considered for this contract in the first place was that I already had been working for the Department of Financial and Professional Regulation as a law clerk for several months. And I never even would have had that opportunity if I had not been an extern at the Law Office of the Cook County Public Defender before that. You see, even after my externship had ended, I continued to work at the Public Defender’s Office, though I never received a paycheck from them. Please note that I specifically said “work” and not “volunteer.”
I do not view my time at the Public Defender’s Office as a volunteer experience at all. I took my opportunity there very serious and treated it as if it was my job. I spent many hours researching and writing. I reviewed documents and organized files. In short, I did anything and everything I could, especially if it afforded me an opportunity to learn something. More importantly, the professional manner in which I approached this opportunity made a good impression on the more established lawyers I was working with. Without this confidence in me, they would not have been nearly as receptive when I asked for their help in locating potential job opportunities.
The support of previous employers—even those for whom you have only worked without pay—makes all the difference in the world. It can transform your résumé from one of the faceless masses to an interview candidate. You will never land any job, let alone your dream job, if you never have the chance to interview for it.