Professional ruminations

So I know I said I wasn’t going to talk about work here (or elsewhere). But I feel like I can — and should — talk a little about finding work. Because a lot of people in my profession don’t have work right now, are waiting to start work, and are losing work.* And it sucks.

When I graduated, I had a job offer at a big firm, a firm with a good reputation (for big firms), a firm with really excellent people and sophisticated clients and work.  But before I even started at that awesome firm, I was lucky enough to be offered another job — one that would start a year later and only last for a year, you know, that kind of job. And I was lucky that my firm was excited for me to have that opportunity — really, they encouraged me to take the second job, and I did, knowing I could come back to my firm when my year was up.

And then the economy went into the crapper. Indeed, by the time I arrived on my start date, work was sloooow.  Verrrrrry slooooow. But again, I was lucky — in my first week, I managed to get staffed on a matter with a great partner that fit my intellectual interests. It was my only big matter and it wasn’t all that big, but I knew my hours didn’t really matter until the new year and I was excited to get some good substantive experience so soon.  I figured I’d be able to ramp up my hours after the new year.

But the new year didn’t make things better. First, before the new year, my firm froze salaries. I wasn’t really fussed by that, honestly. I knew I made too much money as it was and I wasn’t going to get a raise that year anyway. But it made morale sink a bit.  And then the new year came and the work didn’t — and morale got worse, including mine. My hours, always pitiful, dried up. My great matter went dormant. I came to work and sat at my desk and didn’t do anything. And then my firm laid people off.

I didn’t get laid off — maybe because they liked me more than my classmates who did get laid off, maybe because they knew I was leaving in the fall anyway, maybe because I’m female and have green eyes. Who knows why? I worked another several months, on a hall full of empty offices, cobbling together assignments to bill ridiculously small numbers of hours, and at the end, I just wanted to leave. The environment was toxic and it was making me fat (literally — I was eating my stress). But I worked up until the Friday before I started my new job (because of a filing deadline in that awesome matter and because I wanted the paycheck), and left, completely unsure about whether I’d come back.

I wasn’t unsure because I didn’t know if I wanted to return — I was unsure because I wasn’t guaranteed a spot when I was ready to come back. I admit that that little policy change made perfect business sense — when work is slow and you’re committed to scores of new graduates, bringing in mid-level associates is not a high priority, even if those mid-levels are former associates. It didn’t make it suck any less, though. I left my (very good) firm for a (prestigious) one-year position, and I had no idea where I’d be going afterwards. That was not how it was supposed to work.

Now, in the grand scheme of things, it’s ridiculous that lawyers do this, worry about their next jobs when they’re a year from being able to start those jobs.  But we are lawyers and that’s what we’re used to — knowing things well in advance and avoiding risk.

Since I didn’t know from the outset where I’d be going, I figured I’d just look for a job in February, with all the other people in my building with the same one-year job. And February came and I called my old firm to put in my request to return and they told me it was too early. And other firms said the same thing. And actual job openings were no good because those firms wanted to hire someone right away, not for six or seven months down the road.  And I called my firm again, a few months later and was told that they weren’t going to tell me yes or no until much later, because they didn’t know if they had the work. I was just supposed to wait.

All of this narrative is to say that it sucked, really.  Not knowing where I’d land, finding that my credentials didn’t mean a thing, realizing that my old firm felt absolutely no loyalty to me (which, again, I understand from a pure business perspective) — it sucked.

And all the while, I was doing my homework, I was networking, I was talking to recruiters, I was making backup plans in case the fall came and I had nowhere to go. And it was an awful few months.

In my case, the networking paid off and I interviewed with a small firm that does really interesting work in my area of interest — and they hired me. I feel lucky.

But I also feel disillusioned. Not about my new firm — it seems like a great place, a place without a lot of baggage that can be flexible because of its size. No, I feel disillusioned about the old model, the one that pretty much every graduate of my law school is pushed into, the model that graduates of every law school really want to get into.

In the past, that model has been lauded as an ideal — sure, you’ll work soul-crushing hours, but you’ll get the best experience working on the most sophisticated matters and you’ll make a lot of money while doing it. That model, though, is broken.

During this whole process, I knew that some of my former colleagues still had no work — even as I knew that some of them had way more work than they could handle and that the firm wasn’t really doing anything on a management level to even things out. That might be a problem unique to that particular office of that particular firm — but I suspect it’s not. I suspect that the profession at the big law level has become much more dog-eat-dog and much less interested in fostering the careers of young associates. And the big law model really only exists to foster the careers of young associates so they can go on to lateral out to smaller firms or go to government or in-house.

I don’t know if the old model is officially broken, beyond repair — but I kind of hope it is. Because I’ve seen too many wonderful people crushed by it over the last year — crushed and then left to fend for themselves.

*These people’s experiences just precipitated this post, and this post isn’t necessarily relevant to their particular experiences.

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Benching

Word on the street is that Obama’s going to pick John Paul Stevens’ replacement in the next few days. I really hope he doesn’t pick Elena Kagan. Don’t get me wrong—I think she’s brilliant and she could do the job. But if Obama is picking her because she’s not a judge, to add some diversity of background to the bench, well, she’s not a good choice. Her experience is even less relevant to being a Supreme Court justice than any judge or even of any of the other short-listers. She’s been in academia her whole life. She’s never practiced. Her first oral argument as Solicitor General was her first argument in court—ever. Her experience in practice consists of two years as a junior associate at a big law firm, and a couple of years as government counsel. The rest of her experience has been solely in academia (until becoming S.G. last year, of course). And even her academic record is thin—she doesn’t have a lot in the way of publications. She’s a brilliant, unknown quantity, with very limited experience as an advocate.

Now, one could say that her administrative experience—her time as Dean of Harvard Law School—has prepared her as much as, say, being governer of Michigan has prepared Jennifer Granholm to be a Supreme Court justice. And it’s true that she probably has numerous skills honed in that role that other Supreme Court justices don’t have, and that they might benefit from having. But that’s simply not enough to outweigh her lack of actual lawyering experience.

Of course, Diane Wood doesn’t have that much practical experience, either. She also spent a scant few years in government service and private practice before going into academia.  She spent some time at Justice, true, but her background is also not of a practicing attorney.  But Diane Wood has spent many years on the bench—and a very tough, Seventh Circuit bench—which gives her a huge edge over Kagan.

Frankly, Sidney Thomas has the most diverse background of any of the short-listers. He was a lawyer! He represented clients! For years and years and years! None of the most recently confirmed Supreme Court nominees has as much actual non-government lawyering experience as Thomas—except John Roberts, of course, who was in private practice for many, many years.  (While Sotomayor and Alito also each had good experience, too, they were each government lawyers for a lot of that time.)

So I’m crossing my fingers over the next few days that Obama doesn’t pick Kagan for the bench. I am sure she could do a good job, but I’m equally sure that it will take her several more Terms to get into a good rhythm than it will Wood, Thomas, or Garland (who is a great option also, but a very safe one for Obama, and I don’t think he’ll waste this nomination on such an easy confirmation).  We’ll see what happens.