Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Lemons, Lottery Tickets, and Unintentional Contract Attorneys

I have been reading with interest the complaints of contract attorneys nationwide. Washington DC and New York seem to be cities full of unhappy J.D.s in temporary attorney sweatshops grousing about this not being anyone’s dream job, being “hell on earth,” and surreptitiously looking for other jobs during lunch. (see “Attorney at Blah,” http://washingtoncitypaper.com/printerpage.php?id=34054). Of course there is also blogger Tom the Temp and his annual “Beastly Behavior Awards” and quest to “help expose the nasty sweatshops, swindling law schools, and opportunistic staffing agencies.” (see http://temporaryattorney.blogspot.com/ ).

Okay, life for the attorney that invested $150,000 of borrowed money into a law school education, betting on getting a six-figure salary upon graduation, is unhappy when he or she doesn’t get the expected payoff. They bought an expensive lottery ticket and it didn’t pay off. So they sink into a deep depression, don’t know how to explain their “failure” to friends and family (much less their student loan creditors), and take any work they can get, even mindless document review through temp agencies.

Some still hold on to their lottery tickets, sending out resumes and frantically job searching while they waste away in law firm basements with dusty documents, hoping against hope that some law firm will rescue them from their fate, and that the weeks, months, or years of contract lawyering won’t be held against them.

Other contract attorneys try to be more optimistic. “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” is their creed and they try to see the light at the end of the tunnel (“I won’t be doing this forever”) or try to enjoy the flexibility, even though flexibility with a temp agency means you never know from day to day whether you will have work.

COME ON PEOPLE! You are bright, educated, driven individuals. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have made it through undergrad, certainly would have failed law school, never passed the bar exam, and would not have the privilege of paying annual bar dues. You can do better than allowing yourself to be treated by employers in a manner that is unacceptable. You have a voice – use it! You have feet – start walking!

You are in charge of your career future and no one has your interests at heart better than you do. Not a law firm (large or small) and not a temp agency.

Here is the thought question for the day – if you could structure your work week anyway you wanted (if it was not dictated to you by an employer), what types of work would you want to do and what compensation and benefits structure would you want? If you don’t know precisely what you want, you can never get it.

Next, we’ll discuss taking your goals for your legal career and talk about the necessary steps to making it a reality.


JDWired said...


Anonymous said...

Of course, blame the victim. Never mind that law schools are lying about placement statistics, burying an increasing number of JD's under mountains of non-dischargeable debt, and that the legal services industry has been shrinking in proportion to the overall stalling economy. Law graduates shouldn't be jumping off the Empire State Building or having heart attacks, they should be thinking positive thoughts. Please.

Anonymous said...

You CAN structure your work week however you want. Every hour you work is optional. If you are not in a position where you need every possible dollar on the table, you can come and go as you please.

If firms want to dictate your hours, they can hire you full time. Until then, they are at liberty to take whatever work you give them or dismiss you from the project. And since you are worth more to them sitting in front of a computer than out on the street, they will take whatever work you give.

Melody Kramer said...

In response to Anonymous, it is not my intent to "blame the victim." Every one of us ends up in situations that we did not expect or intend, and are not happy about that. Furthermore, there is no excuse for any law school that would distort placement statistics to mislead students. I am also among those lawyers under a mountain of non-dischargeable debt and it hurts every time I write out a check for a student loan payment.

However, I refuse to allow myself or anyone else that I can encourage, to stay in the stage of feeling lied to and abused by the legal industry as a whole. Those feelings are absolutely legitimate, but let's all go to the next step and do something about it! Something practical and concrete.

NAFLP was founded for the very reason to helping those who are contract attorneys or paralegals, either by choice or default, to make their career personally rewarding and financially successful. What can we do, specifically, today, to meet those goals for you? Please feel free to contact me directly at melody@naflp.org with any suggestions you have, or leave further posts on the blog.

TaraLee said...

I commend you and your blog partner for trying to make lemons when you were given the lemon of being a contract attorney. However, I caution young law school grads all of the time. If at all possible do not take a contract job as your first job. In the large cities it is too easy to get stuck in a contract position and never have the chance to fly higher. It would be preferable to take a volunteer legal job, and get loan forbearance rather than have your first job be a contract attorney. This way you preserve your flexibility in the job market. If you have to take a contract job try as hard as you can to do anything else other than document review, it is the resume kiss of death. If you can find something with contract drafting, or anything other than "big law" document review--jump on it. Trust me, it is easier to move away from contractor status if you have done either something else first, or have done anything other than document review.

Anonymous said...

Well, Melody Kramer, good luck with your "I can take my job and shove it" attitude. Some of us need a paycheck and are doing crap work because we're older, didn't do law review, didn't do judicial clerkships, didn't do Ivy League, or don't have connections. I have probably applied for a thousand jobs since I graduated law school (in the top 30% of a good law school), and have had over a hundred interviews, but never got the job. Why? I have no idea. Maybe I'm too fat, maybe I'm too old, maybe I look like walking death because I've been working myself ragged as a contract attorney slave. Sometimes potential employers tell me it was a really close decision, and they even pass my resume along to other people, so they actually do think I'm a good candidate, but somehow, not quite good enough. I have a graduate degree, worked overseas, and speak three foreign languages, but somehow that's still not good enough to get where I want to be. Good luck, Melody Kramer! Someday you're going to have a horrible problem in your life that you cannot fix, but you won't be getting sympathy from me.

Melody Kramer said...

Dear Anonymous,

Just so you know, I'm 42 years old, I still need a paycheck, I didn't do law review, didn't do a judicial clerkship, didn't do Ivy League, didn't have any connections when I got out of law school, and didn't graduate in the top 30% of my law school class.

I sent out thousands of resumes too and for awhile maintained a rather impressive collection of rejection letters. (I should have made a book out of them and marketed that!)

It took me quite a few years into my legal career, however, until I understand that "where I wanted to be" was not where I perceived it to be. Without realizing how it had happened, between taking on my own clients, doing contract work, and even some pro bono projects, I had built up a respectable resume.

"Where I wanted to be" was working for myself and maintaining control over my own life.

I'm not rich, I'm not famous, and I've had my share of rough patches in my career. I'm like many other of my lawyer collegues in that respect. But after 15 years of practice, I am starting to understand what I want to do, and I'm trying to do it. Anonymous, you can too!

Let NAFLP know what specific, concrete assistance we can provide.