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The good old days. They were last summer, to be exact. That was when law students were in a buyer’s market. Law school graduates chose which gravy train to ride. Getting a job was just a question of where. Now it’s a question of “if,” as in “if at all;” as in “if my first act after passing the bar won’t be borrowing my rent check from my parents;” as in “if I get to trade my time and energy and a fair portion of my sanity for a job.” My 2L summer started with me expecting an easy life. All I had heard from 3L friends was how good the firms were to you, how they had to compete with each other just to keep you. I was wrong. Now they work you, now that they can. My summer job is part legal sweatshop, part three-month interview. Firms are firing. Firms are hiring less and less. They are squeezing everything they can from everyone they can. They are more selective. My every action is watched by my superiors who dole out their grunt work, and by my peers who are competing with me to do that treasured grunt work. The partners are all right. They’re responsible about giving me enough time to get my work done. Partners come to my desk and ask, “Can you do this?” The associates are the designated office bastards. They’re responsible enough to cover their own asses while making everyone else look like they’re aspiring to ineptitude. Associates slither up my desk and hiss, “Can you take it? Well, can you, kid?” They’re the ones hurting to make partner. They’re the ones afraid they wasted ten years of grueling effort. They’re the ones young enough to remember the agony of earning their stripes. They’re the ones who take it out on the bottom of the food chain. That’s where I come in. Associates wait for days at a time before dropping monster assignments on you. Don’t tell them you’re busy; that translates to, “Sorry, I don’t think I can hack it in this office. Where do you show the cartoons?” Any “no” you give makes you nervous. Any “no” you give makes your offer drift farther away, your security feel smaller, your chances grow thinner. Sure, pile it on. In the middle of the day on a Wednesday, I was ambushed with the task of cross-indexing a 1,000-page deposition with an outline of expected testimony — due Friday morning — by an associate who had had the case for two weeks. Can’t say no. Mom and Dad need that money to retire. I pinned my five other assignments on the wall and finished the job working 22 of the next 36 hours. I felt like a hero. It was exactly what the partner arguing the case wanted, but the associate under him made sure to gripe about my format, made sure he rode me that extra bit. He bitched; now it’s clear I am the bitch. When I’m working at 9 p.m., it’s the same associates kicking me out of the office to “take it easy”. When I show up Saturday morning, it’s the same associates telling me not to kill myself. When I’m pulling that knife out my back, it’s the same associates asking me if I’m having fun during my last summer. Oh, yes, there is fun. The firm has obligatory fun. Softball, bars, Yankees games. Don’t even think about not showing up. It would be worse than blowing a deadline. Loyalty is the only quality more important than ability to mimic a camel. Those associates either don’t care or don’t understand that the reason I’m working 65 hours a week still exists even when they’re getting me trashed on top-shelf whiskey, asking me what I really think of the firm. At one obligatory drinkfest, albeit a welcome one, I see the alpha viper, that pharaoh of an associate, building himself a pyramid of my suffering to the partnership gods. Wait! He’s drunker than me. Maybe he’ll spill something. He’s coming my way. “So! You’ve been keeping your head above water. You like the firm?” “Why wouldn’t I?” “Are you sure?” He leans close. I can smell his misery. He must be opening up to me. “No one else does. We all keep working away until we’re partner. But they don’t look so happy either. Well … see you.” All I ever wanted was a public interest job. But with the economy and market being what they are, the good guys aren’t paying summer workers. Just yesterday I got a call from a P.I. woman asking me, “Don’t you want to stick it to Corporate America?” Lord, I am Corporate America. “Can you pay me anything? Just enough for rent and a beer after work?” “No. But don’t you want to do some good with your legal career?” “If I do a no-pay summer, and if you agree I do a terrific job for you, then can you assure me a job when I graduate?” “No. But don’t you want to feel good about yourself?” What, on my way to the unemployment office? I can’t risk me. I need to stay inside, keep playing the game, stick this out a few more years if I’m ever going to make a change. Now, that means I risk assimilation: “I used to want to change the world, but I grew out of that.” Burn-out: “I used to want to change the world, but I’ve worked too much not to be realistic.” Acknowledging that the firms are the only ones hiring and paying out of law school: “I used to want to pay my mortgage. Now I want to pay my second mortgage.” The 10 percent I always said I would give to charity now helps jobless friends pay their rent — some who are doing that no-pay summer I refuse myself. Maybe it is charity, giving my money to a cause that’s actually happening now. I want to win as I am. I want to have my convictions and the power to do something with them. Now I’m too busy to want or do anything except keep working until I’m not busy. The old myths are dead. You won’t be picking your offer like flowers out of a hat; only 20 percent of firms are hiring 3Ls. Meanwhile law schools set a new attendance record each year. Meanwhile more J.D.s compete for fewer jobs with more anxieties over less security. This rat race is getting crowded. The old myths are dead. I’m not stacking cheese, saving money. I’m $100,000 in debt. I’m trying to pay rent, pay loans. The firms know it. And in the boom years, they overextended themselves. They let us know it when they lay lawyers off by the score. The thing that made law school so attractive to so many — that it can land anyone a job doing anything — is the same reason it’s gotten harder for us all: it has attracted so many. I like most of the people I go to school with. I like most of the people I work with. But it’s in the air. We’re all competing for fewer and fewer spots. The road from amity to enmity is as long as security is short. Preferences have disappeared as expectations have sunk. It’s not about the right job; it’s about any job. Supposedly, I’m just paranoid. There are five summer associates at my firm and supposedly, there will be five offers, pending merit. But the only security I can know is that word, job. Job. I wanted to work with conviction. I wanted to help. I wanted to change things. But you need money for everything, especially situations that don’t earn much of it. The struggles are real. The ungodly amount of effort they suck out of you is real. The world not caring about you is real. The system fighting you every step of the way is real. That bitter taste of sidestepping my convictions every morning I wake up to do it all over again is real. But if you stick through this drudgery, the dreams can be real too. That’s what I tell myself. That’s what I have to tell myself. 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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