Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Woman Left Lonely

When one makes the decision to quit law, where does she turn for support and advice? What about JD’s who are having trouble finding legal work in an endless sea of newly-minted attorneys? Where do they turn? The question of where to find a support system for such a unique problem is one I still struggle with on a daily basis, even though it has been over a year since I left my law career.

Last year after I quit my job, I did not tell my dad right away. He was going through a health crisis and I didn’t want to upset him. About a week after I put in my notice, the time came for him to have surgery and I went to visit him in the hospital. He asked me how my job was going and I told him I had given notice because I found something better. I hinted that it wasn’t entirely legal related, but that I was happy about my decision and excited about new possibilities. Rather than asking for more details on my new job, he just got this disappointed look on his face and said, “well at least you have your degree.” And that was that. I could tell he felt let down that he could no longer pass my business card along to his friends and brag about his daughter, the attorney. I had never felt more guilty. And then I felt angry that he had the power to make me feel that way.

In the hospital waiting room, my step-brother told me that my husband had mentioned my new job. Was I still an attorney, he asked with a furrowed brow. Well, if he meant was I still barred and licensed to practice law if I wanted, then yes. I don’t think that’s the answer he was looking for.

To put a little perspective on things, I have to tell you that I do not come from a family of overachievers. No one in my immediate family ever attended college, much less any kind of graduate program. I was the one assigned to legitimize everyone by finishing law school and becoming a professional.

My family and I have had our differences. After high school, I was completely estranged from them for about five years. During that time, I moved in with some friends, worked my way through night school at the local community college, and was accepted into a university, which was paid for with grants and loans. By the time I reunited with my family, I was applying to law schools, which thrilled my father to no end. Still, I never felt that close with him or my sisters. It just felt strange to be around them after such a long separation. It is true that you can’t go home again.

Since the two brief conversations I had with my dad and step-brother in the hospital last year, I have not spoken with anyone about my career. My husband and I have since moved across the country and started a new life, so it has been quite simple to not talk about the end of my legal career. My family assumes I am studying for the Bar and will begin practicing once I am admitted. I know I need to have the conversation with them to let them know on no uncertain terms that I am no longer going to practice law professionally. I just haven’t had the courage to initiate the conversation yet since the last time I tried, I felt rejected, guilty, and ashamed.

I know there are many JD’s out there who have been assigned the same role I was, to make the family proud. How have you found support while trying to find legal employment in such a bleak market? Are there any attorneys out there who have chosen not to practice whose families have been supportive? I would love to hear from you, since Thanksgiving is just around the corner…

Monday, June 27, 2011

My Top 6

Below is a list of the most humiliating, ridiculous, and/or evil things I ever witnessed or took part in when practicing law, from least to most egregious.

6.  Perry Mason and the Case of the Felonious Air Freshener.  While interning at a county prosecutor’s office as a 2L, I attended a suppression hearing at which my assigned prosecutor/mentor argued that racial profiling was perfectly Constitutional, so long as the officer had a separate, valid, objective reason for pulling over a defendant.  (Which is unfortunately true by the way.)  In this case, the defendant, a young black man, had an air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror, which “tended to obstruct” his view of the road, and therefore violated a statute.  The prosecutor won the hearing.  I told him I understood why he won, but I still believed it was unjust that an officer could selectively enforce a statute that millions of drivers violate every day.  He argued that the officer was not necessarily engaging in racial profiling.  I rhetorically asked him how many soccer moms the officer pulled over that week for hanging air fresheners from their rear-view mirrors.  My “mentor” then refused to speak to me for the rest of my summer internship.  I should have known then that I was not cut out to participate in a system that routinely defends absurdities.

5.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  During my 2L and half of my 3L year, I clerked for a solo practitioner who was just about the moodiest, most inept attorney I had ever met.  He even warned me during the interview that he was moody.  Each morning I would greet him with a smile and a hello, but never once did he look at me or even grunt in my direction.  We communicated only in writing, though the office comprised only about 300 square feet.  Eventually, my pay checks started bouncing.  Then he asked me to lie to his wife about his whereabouts on a couple of occasions.  She could tell I was lying for him and he apparently caught hell for it.  He basically accused me of purposely lying badly in order to get him in trouble.  Then one day, he asked me to perform a google search for him on his computer, during which I inadvertently saw his search history.  Apparently he was into swingers clubs.  I pretended not to see anything since he was breathing down my neck the entire time. 

Eventually, I was able to put in my notice so I could relocate for the summer to complete a clerkship.  I tried not to think about what a nasty, weird person he was until I was forced to disclose on a job application that I had worked for him.  The prospective employer contacted him for a reference and he told them he would not hire me because—wait for it – I am “not a people person.”  I got the job anyway because I think the firm knew what a crazy kook that guy was.  As for his ineptness, apparently the local bar association caught on because a few months after starting my first job out of law school, he was publicly disciplined for lying to a judge during a sentencing hearing.  To top it all off, years later I received a friend request from him on facebook.  Ignore!

4.  Ebenezer Scrooge or Henry Potter?  My supervising attorney once asked me why everyone thought he “owed them a fuckin’ living.”  Apparently, his secretary had been fishing around for a bonus since she was coming up on her ten-year anniversary with the firm.  I told him perhaps she wanted to feel appreciated for being a loyal secretary.  He complained that she screwed things up a lot and she was not the one bringing in all the money.  He then turned to his computer to retrieve an electronic file and realized he had no idea where to find it because his secretary organized everything for him.  So he shouted for her to come in and find the file, all the while acting completely impatient about it.  After she left, I pointed out that he seems to need her help quite a bit.  He ignored me and asked me to sit in his chair and type an email he dictated because he was lousy at using Outlook.  He seemed to rely on his employees quite a bit, though in his mind he owed them nothing.

3.  Just Following Orders.  I once represented a client who had some developmental disabilities as well as a raging drug and alcohol habit.  His various ailments rendered him unable to recall events that occurred more than five minutes ago.  His neighbor was similarly disabled, and they hated each other. He had various cases pending, and he was really bothered by his neighbor, so my supervising attorney told me to get a restraining order against the neighbor.  I raised my concerns about the client’s memory problems and asked for any advice on how to handle direct examination.  “Wing it,” was the response I received.  I pressed the supervising attorney a little and asked if he had any other advice, and he responded, “I’m your boss.  Just do it.”  So I tried my best to prepare the client, although he could not actually recall any specific disputes with the neighbor.  A few days before the hearing, I became concerned about going through with the hearing since I did not believe I had a good faith basis for trying to get the restraining order.  (You know, pesky ethical rules we attorneys must consider from time to time).  I raised this concern with my supervising attorney and he spat, “I told you before, I’m your boss.  Just do it.”  So I did it.  Is it any wonder the judge declined to issue the order and instead told the two men to just stay away from each other?  My supervising attorney seemed happy with the hours I billed for undertaking this worthless endeavor, though, which is really all that matters.

2.  It Would Be So Much Easier to Catch Criminals If Only They Would Endanger More Lives.  During a drunk-driving negotiation with a prosecutor, I noted that my client’s driving was not that horrendous, in that he was only pulled over for speeding 5-10 miles per hour over the posted limit, a fairly common charge.  Normally, this would put a client in the “non-aggravated” category for drunk driving.  I argued that some drunk drivers actually swerve into the wrong lane or drive the wrong way down a one-way street, which is certainly more dangerous than minor speeding.  The prosecutor’s position: he would rather the client had swerved or driven in the wrong direction, because it’s much easier for the police to spot him as a drunk driver.  Oh-kaaayyyyyy...

1.  It’s a Good Thing He Didn’t Die or We Would’ve Had to Deal with a Damages Cap.  One of my firm’s civil clients was a boy who had been sexually assaulted.  My job was to perform research to determine the average settlement or jury award in similar cases.  One of the similar cases I found involved a teenage girl who was raped on a church camping trip.  My supervising attorney’s reaction?  “That’s just a teenage girl.  We could get a lot more money for this kid.” 

Does anyone else have horror stories they would like to share about the practice of law?

Worst Client Ever?

For those of you who have had the privilege of practicing in such a prestigious field as family law, you may want to check out this video posted by Gregory Forman, an attorney and family court mediator in South Carolina.  I am still laughing...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Famous Ex-Lawyers: Franz Kafka

This makes me truly happy.  I never knew Franz Kafka used to be an attorney.  According to Wikipedia, anyway.  It does follow a certain logic.  Who else would know what it's like to wake up one day feeling like an insect but an insurance attorney?  When I was practicing law, I experienced this feeling more than a few times. 

At any rate, I love his work and it gives me hope that practicing law does not necessarily extinguish one's creative instincts forever.

From Humility to Humiliation

So where were we? I had just been informed that my temporary admin assignment was going to end after only three short months. My job prospects were pretty slim considering I had just left the legal field and it had taken me months (almost a year?) to find a non-legal job. I felt alienated from everyone – my husband, family (I’ll get to that in another post), friends, former colleagues. Is there any worse feeling than being surrounded by loved ones and feeling totally alone? I even stopped answering my phone because I knew my friends would ask the basic catch-up questions about career, family, and upcoming vacations.

In the meantime, I was still going to work every day, with no real defined expiration date, but I knew I had to act fast. At that point, I simply needed to find a job –any job- that would provide a steady stream of income while I thought about my next move. After all, I still had student loans to pay. So I did something desperate. I applied for a job at a call center. A specific call center. It had always been in the back of my mind as an “in case of emergency” plan. Like the fire escape ladder tucked behind the shoe rack in my closet, I had hoped I would never have to use it.

Did I mention that when I practiced law, I primarily worked as a criminal defense attorney? This little tidbit weighed heavily on me when I decided to apply at “SIP, Inc.,” aka “Suicide is Painless, Incorporated.” You see, the reason I knew the place would probably hire me is because I used to send my clients to them when they needed to find jobs prior to sentencing. No one in their HR department had ever heard the term “background check,” much less performed one. While completing the online application, all I could think about was how I would respond if I ran into a former client. This had happened a couple of times in the past, but I always knew the attorney-client privilege obligated me to ignore them unless they acknowledged me first. I was guessing, however, that if a former client saw me working at the call center, they would probably have a couple questions for me. I decided that if I ever encountered this situation, I would simply lean in, lower my voice, and tell him I had switched to the journalism field and was doing undercover work for an exposé on the various indignities suffered by those who work for minimum wage. I sort of borrowed the concept from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which I had been required to read in a college sociology course, back when I believed higher education would guarantee me a safe, journalistic detachment from the working poor.

The actual application process did not involve uploading a resume or references. All I had to do was list my former employers and contact numbers for them. Since I knew none of my former work places would be contacted, I did not hide the fact that I worked at a law firm. I just did not fill out the section that asked for position titles. Again, I knew no one would read the application; they basically interviewed and hired everyone because of so much turnover. I also disclosed my JD on the education section, knowing the person who read it probably did not know or care what a JD was. A few days after submitting my application, I was contacted by an HR representative who asked me to come in for an interview. This process consisted of taking basic reading and spelling tests, and being introduced to the call center equipment (a headset). If I could spell “sandwich” (the judges probably also would have accepted “sandwhich”) and wear the headset without asphyxiating myself, I was in. I almost cried when they offered me a position, mainly because of the indignity of it all, but somewhat because I knew I would be able to make my student loan payment and possibly even help with other monthly bills.

I also felt a certain sense of relief at having hit bottom. How could things get any worse?

As a side note, I feel like I should be describing the changes occurring in my marriage at this time, but since so much happened at once, that will most likely be my next post. I have come to realize that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, so I am going to cover only one major change per post until I catch up to present day…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jose Aponte: 0. TTT: 100,000

This just in from the Wall Street Journal: some lawyers make as little as $15 per hour.  Where were you guys back in 2004?  Maybe you were there all along, but I ignored articles like these, convinced I would never be one of "them." 

The truth is, I did not have a very tough time finding a job after law school.  But I never received an offer even close to the median salary of $75k my school advertised in their marketing materials.  And I went to a top-20 school.  Has anyone else heard of American University's Washington College of Law? 

(Oh, and if you don't know what "TTT" means, check out "Third Tier Reality."  You won't be sorry.) 

Things Fall Apart

"I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they're right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together." 
- Marilyn Monroe

I always wonder if Marilyn was really that insightful or if her publicist wrote that quote for her.  I wish I could say getting laid off from my admin gig after only a few short months brought out my inner Marilyn, but that would be a lie.  In reality, it terrified and angered me.

I began temping at the end of April, beginning of May last year.  At first, I felt exhilerated.  Finally, I could breathe again and I had time to take care of myself.  I was exercising again.  I had lost five pounds and my skin was looking good.  I ate better, I slept better, I read books.  I was even picking up some valuable skills that I was certain would transfer well into my next career move, whatever that might be.  And then, it happened.

In mid July, my boss strolled over to my desk one morning and informed me that corporate was moving our office to a city about 350 miles away.  Only he, the CFO, and the senior admin ("Alex") would be kept on permanently.  Alex would be working from a remote office, while the two head honchos would physically relocate.  He mentioned the possibilty of me working remotely for a while after the move to foster a smooth transition.  I heard none of it, though.  All I could see was a huge "unemployed" sign flashing right before my eyes.

It just so happened that my husband called to ask me out to lunch that day.  He worked right down the street, so he picked me up at noon and asked me how my day was going.  I immediately began crying.  I think he could sense what had happened and when I told him about the move, he simply said, "I guess that's the life of a temp." 

Again, I wish I could have summoned my inner Marilyn in that moment.  Instead, my inner Britney materialized, and I found myself wanting to shave my head and beat my husband senseless with the nearest umbrella.  I did the only sensible thing I could think of and turned my hostility toward him.  How could he have let me quit my permanent job for a temporary one?  How could he be so casual about my career being in the toilet?  Why did I even bother telling him about anything when he never offered any support, only cold, hard facts?  After about half an hour of screaming in the car, we decided to go to lunch after all because the new burger restaurant we planned on going to supposedly had some pretty tasty grub.  I figured sweet potato fries could only improve my mood at that point.  And since I would be unemployed in a few short weeks anyway, who would care if I took a two hour lunch?

When I got back to work that afternoon, the office was empty except for Alex.  She had heard I got the news and informed me of how angry she was that they did not tell me during my interview that the company had been planning the move for a while. 

My anger turned into rage. During the interview, my boss had implied that the temporary position could become permanent in a few months.  I asked Alex why they didn't just hire someone else who was already unemployed and who would have been thankful for a few months of work.  Apparently, all of the other candidates either smelled like cigarette smoke or gave off the impression that they would be calling in sick just about every day.  I was the lucky chosen one. 

For the rest of the day, I sulked.  When I got home, I pouted.  And then I emailed my employment agent about the end of my assignment, who failed to email me back for the next two weeks.  During those two weeks, I convinced myself that she was in on the conspiracy to make me give up my legal career for a three-month pit stop on the way to Unemployed-ville. 

Little did I know that things were going to get just a little worse before they got better...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Time Flies When You're in Upheaval

Greetings from the other side! I have truly missed writing my blog, but I was in such a deep funk for a while that I had to give myself some time to focus on something besides law school regret. Thank you to everyone who sent me wonderful messages of support! Since it has been a year, I am not going to try and cover everything in one entry. I may not even write about it all in chronological order.

For starters, I will say that my life now is much better than it was a year ago when I left the law. Since then, I have moved, started earning a bigger paycheck, and am now in the midst of paying off all of my law school debt, in addition to my husband's student loans. We are on a three-year plan, after which we hope to start a family.

How did this all happen? I am not quite sure myself, but let's try to start from the beginning, which I believe was right at the end of my law career...