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This is the first article in a new column, "Making the Leap," about the trials and tribulations of a soon-to-be law school graduate and her efforts to find her way in the legal world.
I'm just one of thousands of law students across the country graduating in dismal economic times, with few job prospects and an anxiety-inducing amount of debt. I write to be a voice of many friends and colleagues who find themselves where they never thought they would be: law school graduate with no job, no prospects and mountains of debt. We're not alone. Law school has blessed us with so many to share the burden and the journey with, if nothing else.
We're almost done. Graduation is nearly here. Law school is almost over!
We, as law students, have spent the last three-plus years working toward this. It is what we've earned after so many sacrifices, all the mental strain, hard work, falling and failing and feeling hopeless. There are plenty of great things to be excited about in reaching this milestone. Right?
Well ... that's how we are supposed to feel anyway. Graduation is often a celebration of achieving great things. However, we're left, inevitably, to ponder what is next?
Unfortunately, what I and many of my colleagues see is not necessarily opportunity. In the back of our minds, when we don our graduation robes, walk proudly across the stage, and throw our caps in the air, we are all worrying. What do we do now? Past studying for the bar exam; how we will pay rent?
Reality is our astronomical school loans will be due. Reality is the momentous weight of our dismal job prospects. Reality is we will likely feel duped and dismayed and demeaned, by society and our law schools and the people around us who say, "You have a law degree; you're set for life!"
At every get together with my law school friends the conversation inevitably turns, however cursorily, to jobs. Well, to be frank, our lack of jobs. It's not that I have decided to befriend the bottom of the law school barrel; my friends are all brilliant and accomplished in their own ways. We're all capable and eager to use our degrees, our vigor for the law, and our passion in our new jobs. If only there were jobs to be had! The few third-years I know who have secured post-graduation employment include the number one student in our class and those who can endure being tucked away in judges' chambers for a year or two writing opinions. While I commend those disciplined enough to spent eight-plus hours a day legal researching and writing, clerkships can't be the extent of our options, right? What of us, the above-average, non-law review students!
After three years of diligent work, participation in student groups, internships, coops, those awkward attorney meet-and-greets, submitting countless job applications, and receiving a harrowing pile of rejection letters, the most many of us can hope for is to (maybe) be paid in some sort of (mildly) respectable legal capacity, at some point after earning our J.D.s (how's that for a vague sense of where your future is headed?) In November, if not sooner, many of us will find ourselves with negative assets. Yes, school loans will be due and then we move from concentrating on staying afloat to pulling ourselves out of the giant hole that is law school debt. And the only way to do that, it seems, is to get a job.
Unfortunately, what used to be the dregs of legal work in flush times are now gigs most middle-of-the-roaders can only hope for. Document review in a basement with no windows 10 hours a day? I'll take it! I know graduates who are working as paralegals in firms just to be in a legal setting. What did your Juris Doctor earn you? I saw an ad today in Craigslist legal jobs section for a "Junior Associate." The pay? Ten dollars an hour. And while I hope not to be back steaming milk and pouring espresso after I graduate, knowing that I at least have my coffee and customer service expertise to pay the rent keeps me from descending into perpetual panic. And with tips I'll be earning more than that Junior Associate. Think of that!
Is it frustrating? Of course. But altogether hopeless? Nah. After I recover from recurrent periods of crushing despair, I try to believe that this type of job market forces us law grads to be creative, to work harder to network and become connected to our communities, and to participate in alternative legal careers. We all enjoy a challenge; we wouldn't have signed up for law school if we didn't. Our next challenge is simply to find employment.
It's easy to get sucked into a sort of post-graduate hysteria that there is only one option. As far as I know, there is also no rule (or law in this case) which states that one must pursue a highly traditional law firm job immediately upon graduation, with failure resulting in professional suicide and lifelong mediocrity. If anything it seems the road less traveled leads to far more exciting and creative careers. But we all succumb to the hype at one point or another. It might be silly, but sometimes that's just how it feels.
If all else fails, my fail-proof secret for remaining positive is to dream about all the life goals I'll accomplish while I'm out of work. It makes it seem like a choice, or at least an affirmative and conscious step that I am taking, rather than an unfortunate turn of events that I am dealing with. We can live life moving forward, or we can complain about it and stay stuck. I plan on spending the fall months learning to play the banjo. I might just make my non-work life too busy to fit in a 'real' job.
Ellie Austin is a third-year law student at the Earle Mack School of Law at Drexel University, and a law clerk at Koller Law, P.C. in Center City, Pa. Her many interests include environmental justice, reproductive rights issues, raw food and struggling to play guitar. She can be contacted at email@example.com.
This article originally appeared on www.YoungLawyerOnline.com, a website affiliated with The Legal Intelligencer.