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DESPERATION “We’d like to make you an offer.” Right there they had me. I had spent my 1L year telling everyone how I was going to join ranks with the public interest and terrorize the corporate world. People believed my every word, and so did I. I was going to bust my ass like none other, and Greenpeace and the EPA would just be waiting for me with open arms. But those vaunted PI organizations don’t hire straight out of law school. “We don’t have any positions to fill … . We hire outside counsel … . We have our associates chosen already … ” all add up to “ Wouldn’t you still want to fight for justice without pay?” So I did a no-pay summer. The money I had saved from years of working before law school dried up, but hey, I was building my r�sum�. My first summer ended with me broke, like all my noncorporate friends. Ninety thousand dollars in debt. It hurts just to write it. The 40,000 a year I had so valiantly declared would be enough to hold me the rest of my life simply wasn’t there. Last year was a buyer’s market for law students; we picked our jobs. Times have changed with PI institutions not looking to take on new salary. Meanwhile, cutbacks and closings flood the market with experienced attorneys to compete with law students for fewer and fewer positions. And who was waiting with open arms when law students of principle needed to eat? The firms. I felt like I was drowning, like I had no choice. Out went the mass mailing. Out went hundreds of dollars to the post office. I signed on to the school OCI and prayed for interviews. The only thing I wanted more than to terrorize the firms was to work for one. I grew desperate. “What do you pay summer associates here?” “Two thousand a week.” “I’ll work twice the hours for a grand.” They say I have a great sense of humor. I even applied to the Supreme Court as a personal joke to keep my spirits up. Classes didn’t let up; they got harder. I was under a crippling workload while squeezing into suits, taking cabs between classes to save time instead of money. My only thought during those sordid interviews was “Try not to sweat in the suit since there’s no time to dry-clean between now and the next half-hour chat with someone who has a job.” “So, why do you want to work for us?” “Insert-generic-answer-since-you-could- care-less-if-it’s-these-bloodsuckers-or-the- ones-down-the-street.” “It appears from your r�sum� that you’re interested in environmental law.” “Insert-limp-response-that-I’m- interested-in-all-law-since-doing-toxic- torts-for-these-guys-would-probably-set-me- up-in-hell.” Halfway through law school, my hope drained as the rejections filled my mailbox. To make myself feel better, or just to make sure I was too busy to feel a thing, I sent out even more. Then I decided to change my strategy. Having lived in New Orleans for a year, I thought I might have better luck there. I blanketed the entire coastal South with applications for federal clerkships. One hundred and twenty three judges. More rejections rolled in. Then one of the firms changed everything. “We’d like to make you an offer.” I accepted so early it practically screamed, “I have nothing else!” Was this really cause to celebrate? No one was saying sell-out but I could hear their voices, and mine was one of them. That’s when I got a letter from one of the judges, Justice Kepin. “I’d like to meet with you.” I hadn’t felt butterflies like this since I got into law school. I called him in in Shreveport, La., straight from my cell phone. Screw the minutes; I wanted to talk to this guy. I was now trying just as hard not to work for a firm, which had become so much harder now that I had a standing offer. While my classmates were cutting each other’s throats to get the chance to cut each other’s clients’ throats, I hit the road on my quest for a PI job. I ran to the library and looked at the atlas with a slim stack of letters from the judges who hadn’t gotten around to rejecting me. I figured I could take the whole state of Louisiana and maybe a third of Mississippi in a working week. After some calls, three more judges agreed to meet with me. The last year of my 20s spent in the Bible Belt. I thought real hard about that firm back in The City: the $25,000 summer, the girls, the fun … and the debt. No. I was about to rationalize away my last principle. Don’t lawyer yourself until there’s no choice. THE QUEST Shreveport was up first with Judge Kepin, a Clinton appointee. He was a Southerner to the core. LSU and friends with Clinton. When you interview with someone older, you try to act the way you think he did when he was your age. I couldn’t fathom what he was like at my age, nor how to relate to him. But he made the conversation feel real when we discussed the area. “The white community has not done enough to end segregation.” I trusted him right then. Next was Judge Atalfi in Reilly, La., a senior Bush appointee. Sleeping in a car during Mardi Gras is a bad thing to do if you’re seeing a federal district judge the next day. There was lots of violence, lots of alcohol and lots of drunken fools. I behaved well, compared with my days on Bourbon Street. He took me out for breakfast, insisting I had grits. Not bad with butter. He was older and conservative but casual in his dress. Every five minutes, someone passing through the diner would say, “Hey, Judge.” As we walked to his courtroom, he sighed, “I don’t tolerate this Mardi Gras foolishness.” The courtroom was small and intense. I didn’t think I would fit in, but my taste in clerkships was growing promiscuous. I drove north to Ignatius, La., entering the Bible Belt. Instead of counties they have “parishes”. I found a cheap hotel run by Indian-Americans, which struck me odd considering how deep into the country I was. The hotel only cost 23, but that’s also how many roaches I counted before falling asleep. I woke up hung over. Badly. The Indian was pounding down my door, upset that I hadn’t cleared out by 11, checkout time. The clock said noon. In my stupor, I must have knocked over the phone. He barely gave me time to shower before I left. I walked around town to find a diner where I might straighten my head, but to no avail. I stopped a burly guy on the street and asked him where I could find some coffee. “There ain’t no coffee in this town. Just beer drinkers.” In his chambers, Judge Scurma’s first question was, “Why did you pick Ignatius?” I couldn’t answer that I figured there would be less competition here. I weaseled with something about getting the last of the civil rights cases. Whenever a new judge gets appointed, he gets a certain amount of money from Congress (if he’s federal) to decorate his chambers. The furniture was all faked Frank Lloyd Wright style. The courthouse itself was built in 1923. Beautiful. “So you’ve found your way to the backwaters of the federal judiciary.” They’re always testing you. But I liked Scurma. He was humble, something rare for a judge. He even claimed he wasn’t all that intelligent. Scurma explained he would want me to do a bench book, a kind of clerk’s ledger. That would mean a lot more work than the other judges, but that was a lot of work I was willing not to do for a firm. I crossed the state line to Cambridge, Miss. They call it Ole Miss. Judge O’Toole was a real shoot-from-the-hip type. “I look at a case, I know how the law’s gonna go. That’s how the case is gonna go. That’s how I’d expect you to write it.” “Don’t you work with the case?” “I listen to everything that’s said of course. But by this stage, I usually know from the get-go how the law is going to work.” “Don’t the lawyers know?” “Son, what lawyers know and what lawyers argue only match in cases of coincidence.” THE GAME I waited a while to mail in the thank-you letters. If I did it too soon, I would fade in their memories. Those letters keep me fresh in their minds. Now I’m just playing the waiting game. There’s an unwritten rule in clerking: You don’t say no to a district judge. If he gives you an ‘offer,’ you tell all the other judges, even the ones who haven’t rejected you yet, that you’ve been taken. A problem I’d love to have. I’m placing perhaps all my security in any judge who will give me a clerkship. When the firm I’ll probably fall back on gives a summer offer, it’s almost assumed you’ll end up with a long-term offer — 95 percent of their summer associates do. I doubt I’m part of that blown-opportunity minority. That’s why they call the 2L summer your “honeymoon”. If I get a clerkship, I have 12 months; pay and experience and a judge’s recommendation to go after those PI jobs with, which is the whole point. No one knows what the economy will look like in a year or two. This firm’s offer seems like a lifeboat in a riotous ocean. Only, to get aboard, I need to agree to first dump a bunch of toxic waste into the ocean and argue that it was somebody else’s fault; that that’s not my client’s preferred brand of toxic waste; that my client pollutes rivers, not oceans; that money is more important than principle, namely mine. As told to the author by a 2L who wishes to remain anonymous. Free-lancer Mitch Artman is a frequent contributor to law.com. His e-mail address is [email protected]

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