|Oregon State Bar Bulletin APRIL 2010|
When Samantha “Sam” Dashiell started law school in 2006, she says, “I thought I’d have my choice of jobs.”
“I’d have this license,” she says, her wide green eyes bemused, “and this degree.”
Instead, Dashiell walked dogs for spending money while she studied for the bar. She spent two hours a night, four nights a week in a post-law school class aimed, in part, at developing job-hunting skills. And then, three days a week, she dressed like the lawyer she is, caught the No. 9 bus from Southeast Portland to downtown and volunteered for a circuit-court judge while she continued to apply for a job that would pay her like a lawyer.
Dashiell, who recently was hired part-time by Catholic Charities, is not alone.
The situation is so acute that in the Bulletin’s March 2010 article on lawyers and the economy, “Ripple Effect,” Lake Oswego lawyer Anastasia Yu Meisner questioned whether this recession will result in a “lost generation” of lawyers.
The answer, according to those new lawyers, is no, not if they can help it.
Elizabeth “Libby” Davis, associate dean for career services and alumni relations at Lewis & Clark Law School, says that she urges unemployed new graduates, and more established lawyers who are experiencing what the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program euphemistically calls “career transition,” to “be creative and open-minded about what you’re looking for.”
“You may need to consider something else initially,” she says. “Be as flexible and open as possible.”
For this article, the Bulletin talked to recent graduates who have done just that. They’re volunteering; working part-time or doing contract work while they look for full-time jobs; going out of state or even launching their own practices.
“They’ve been exceptionally positive, given the market they’ve faced,” says Davis. “Overall, they’ve been very creative, tenacious, open-minded to advice. I’ve been very impressed.”
Volunteer and the Pay Will Follow
When Sam Dashiell came to Lewis & Clark after graduating from the University of California, San Diego, she knew she wanted a career in public service.
“My true passion was the environment,” she says. “I knew that was where I could make a difference.”
But Dashiell says that plan changed in her third year of law school.
“Over the summer, I interned at an environmental nonprofit, and I found the actual work to be very isolating,” she says. “There was not a lot of client interaction; it was sitting at a computer writing appellate briefs. I like what these groups do, but I’m not cut out for it.”
In addition, she says, “I realized it would be really competitive to get a job in environmental law here. It was hard to get a job here even over the summer.”
So Dashiell spent her third year taking classes in other areas, such as estate planning.
Even so, she says that “By the time I was graduating (in June 2009), I suspected it would be difficult to find a job.”
She started job hunting, and her short-lived dog-walking business, while she was studying for the bar.
“Before the bar exam, I started brainstorming ways to earn money that would fit into my study schedule and also be something I could do while looking for a job post-bar,” Dashiell says. “Since I already was devoting a good part of my day to exercising my German wirehaired pointer, Touchdown, dog walking was a natural fit. My business strategy was to shamelessly undercut the competition by charging $10 for a 20-minute, vigorous walk. Unfortunately, I only was able to drum up two customers, a labradoodle and an American Eskimo. I probably should have invested more than $8 in advertising, but I only wanted to walk neighborhood dogs.”
So Dashiell abandoned her dog-walking business and, after she took the bar exam, began participating in Lewis & Clark’s two-hours-a-night, four-nights-a-week, six-week “Graduate Fellows Program,” sponsored by Davis’ career services department.
According to the law school’s website, that program was “…designed to build and enhance vital legal skills, including advanced legal research, writing and communication skills. …Several sessions have focused on the job search itself, including a session called ‘Networking for Introverts.’ ”
Dashiell says that some of the program’s participants dropped out when they learned they hadn’t passed the bar. But Dashiell and others continued, despite what she calls the program’s “really hefty time commitment.”
It was through the career services department that Dashiell got a valuable lead: Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Karin Immergut was looking for a volunteer clerk.
“The judge has a regular clerk,” said Dashiell, “but she was pretty busy doing stuff in the courtroom. She didn’t have time to do all the legal research and writing that’s required.”
“I had three interviews this week,” Dashiell said in late January before finding the part-time job. “Two [were] with judges (for paid positions) and a second interview with an estate planning firm. [It was] definitely the peak.… It was definitely because I … spent the last two months volunteering for Judge Immergut. That really caught their eye. One interviewer specifically asked for the judge’s contact information and contacted her.”
But, while volunteering is proved to be a successful job-seeking technique for Dashiell, who doesn’t have loans to repay, it may not be a good option for the more typical recent graduate, who does.
According to Jodi Heintz, Lewis & Clark’s director of public relations, the average 2009 Lewis & Clark Law School graduate has a law school student loan debt of $84,618. In addition, many of those graduates have undergraduate debt as well.
“If graduates are not being paid (for their work), it doesn’t answer their debt-load issue,” points out Joshua “Josh” Burstein, assistant dean for career services at the University of Oregon School of Law. “Obviously, the cost of law school has gone up everywhere. Public law school is less, but it’s still a big investment for anyone.”
Work Part-time, Pursue Full-time
Adelia Hwang knows all about student debt: she owes over $160,000 for her undergraduate and legal education, not counting interest. And she doesn’t have a full-time income with which to repay it.
“When my friends and I get together, we talk about this stuff,” says Hwang, another 2009 Lewis & Clark graduate. “We try to figure out: if we had graduated in different economic times, would we have found jobs in Oregon? We worked pretty hard in law school: how did we end up like this? Is there a problem with law school? Is there a problem with the legal profession?”
Like Dashiell, Hwang is painfully aware that it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
A Phoenix native, she graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2006, then looked to Oregon and law school.
“I had heard really good things about Oregon, and I wanted to go back to the West Coast,” she says. “Lewis & Clark was in a major city; I was thinking I could stay in Portland for a job after school.”
Hwang did all the right things to accomplish that goal. She clerked for a district attorney’s office and then for Multnomah Defenders Inc. in Portland so she could experience working with clients.
“It was very cool working with clients,” she says, “explaining what decisions they’re making and why; guiding them through the legal process; trying to achieve the clients’ goals but doing what you’re legally required to do. Most of the time they were quite appreciative; a lot of them were decent to work with.”
Since her experience with the public defender was positive, Hwang says she thought she might “continue to go that route.”
But then, during her third year of law school, she noticed that previous clerks at that office were “still hanging around because they didn’t have jobs.”
“It was very clear to me that the job situation was looking pretty bad,” she says. “The public defender’s office stopped hiring new clerks because of the budget. I heard that a student who graduated a year before me was still working at Target, even though she’d passed the bar.”
Hwang says she started job hunting herself after she passed the bar.
“There were some job postings, but not a whole lot, and I was starting to realize it was going to be tough to find a job when I didn’t even get responses, rejection calls or e-mails,” she says. “My friends, too, thought they would hear back, but they didn’t hear anything. We’re competing with more experienced lawyers for jobs that advertise for two-three years experience because the more experienced lawyers are unemployed, too.”
Then Lewis & Clark’s career services department pointed Hwang — like Dashiell — towards volunteering.
“One of the things they said was volunteering keeps your skills fresh and demonstrates that you are doing something with your time,” says Hwang. So, when career services informed her of a volunteer opportunity with the Portland-based National Crime Victim Law Institute, she began volunteering there two days a week.
That contact alerted her to a posting by a newly formed nonprofit, the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center, for a half-time administrative assistant.
“I thought it was great because at least it was legally related,” says Hwang. “I’d heard about graduates working for department stores. I knew it had the potential to grow; it might turn into a future opportunity for full-time work. I also knew I could get a lot of experience in how to start my own office: dealing with computers and administrative stuff. Apparently it takes a long time for an attorney on his or her own to figure that out. A friend of mine who had to hang out his own shingle says that 90 percent of it is figuring out the administrative stuff.”
So when Hwang was offered the half-time job, she took it.
Lewis & Clark’s Davis says that was the right move.
“We try to help grads think about how they can stay afloat economically while looking for a job, so they don’t feel as much pressure,” she says. “It’s hard to do a great job of interviewing, or even networking, if you’re feeling pressure about paying bills. We tell them — they don’t always want to hear it — to find a weekend or part-time job that leaves time for job hunting. Part of the purpose of that advice is to keep them motivated, as opposed to being in the house or the apartment, looking for postings on the computer.”
Hwang is doing legal work in addition to handling the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center’s administrative functions. Recently, her research on a new victims’ rights law convinced a judge to order restitution for a victim who inadvertently had not been given the opportunity to request it previously.
While Hwang plans to continue her search for a full-time job, she says that her and her new husband’s current incomes are enough to keep them afloat.
“I’m so thankful for having someone to help support me during this time,” she says. “I don’t know what I would have done. I thought about getting a waitressing job, but then I would have had no time to look for jobs. I would have been stuck in a non-legal job.”
Moving Out of State
Another option for job-seeking graduates is leaving Oregon, something that historically hasn’t been the norm.
“In 2008, 100 of our grads, or 62 percent, stayed in Oregon,” says the U.O.’s Burstein. “Eighteen went to Washington State and 10 to California. I expect 2009 statistics to be about the same. Other areas are Nevada, Colorado, Arizona and Washington, D.C.”
When 2009 U.O. graduate Stefanie Herrington chose to take a job in Colorado, she was — and wasn’t — leaving home: a Portland native, she had spent her last two years of high school, and college, in the Silver State.
A former newspaper copy editor, Herrington says she chose to go to law school without any clear expectations of what kind of legal career she would have, or even whether she would pursue a legal career at all.
“The journalism field was dying, and I had reached my limit of what I was going to learn (as a copy editor),” she says. “I hadn’t completely ruled out being a lawyer (when I applied to law school), but I wanted to figure out what to do with my life and get a broad education. I thought, ‘This is going to be a great experience: I’ll see where it leads me.’ ”
Where it led Herrington, who had been editor-in-chief of the Oregon Law Review, was to two solid job prospects, both out of state.
One was with a business-oriented firm in Washington state for which she had clerked.
The other was a clerkship with the Colorado Court of Appeals.
“Right before my third year, I put out applications for clerkships,” says Herrington, “then figured those had come and gone without an offer. This offer came a little bit out of the blue, about six months after I’d submitted my last application.”
Herrington says her clerkship, which is giving her “really good legal skills,” will end in August.
At that point, she says, she’ll take the Oregon bar, move to Portland and look for another job.
Herrington has already started scoping out the job market in Oregon.
“It’s tough, it’s really tough,” she says of her read on this market. “There are not a lot of positions advertised, not a lot of recruitment going on among medium and large-sized firms. A lot of my former classmates still don’t have any real prospects.”
“They’re getting really creative,” Herrington notes. “I have friends who have shadowed judges in jurisdictions they’re interested in working in. Other friends are working for legal aid. They’re staying in touch with alumni they know. Even if they don’t have jobs, they’re making themselves known in the community, so if there are any jobs, they’re on the short list of people to call. Sometimes they’re joining on with sole practitioners who’re throwing a little bit of (contract) work their way. Occasionally I hear great news from a friend who landed a coveted full-time position with a smaller firm or the government. I graduated with a lot of people who got jobs with big firms and had their start dates deferred; now they’re being pulled back in. There’s more and more good news out there. People are finding things.”
But leaving Oregon because of a lack of employment opportunities still looms large for some recent graduates.
“I had a student in today from Southern California asking if it was better to look for a position at home so he can live rent-free or to look in Portland,” says the U.O.’s Burstein.
And “Tom” says that he and his family are on the verge of returning to their home state as well.
“I’m sure it’s the economy,” says Tom of his so-far fruitless job search, “but at this point I don’t know. Ninety-five percent of the time I don’t even get a call back.”
Tom, who doesn’t want his real name used, came to Oregon to attend law school three years ago.
At that time, he was all fired up about acquiring and using the skills of a lawyer to address the issue of global warming.
“It was totally implausible, to me, why we hadn’t acted sooner,” says Tom, who has an undergraduate science degree from a prestigious university. “I wanted to be able to voice that sense of urgency.”
But now, the urgency he feels is about his and his family’s own economic situation.
“People say my resume and my cover letter are great,” he says. “I write an entirely new cover letter, from scratch, for each application. I’m not in the top 25 percent of my class; I’m the guy at the half-way line, but I’m actively involved in the legal community. I’ve tried to put community service first. For somebody who doesn’t have steady work, I’m busy all the time. I’m being as flexible as possible.”
But the small jobs that have come his way are not enough to pay the bills, convince him that he has a future in Oregon if he sticks it out or — perhaps most importantly — assure him that this isn’t his fault.
“I’m sick of being in this position,” he says. “It’s tiring. It’s making me paranoid. Maybe I’m not as good (as the next lawyer). I can’t begin to describe how much self-doubt it’s put in me.”
Start Your Own Firm
If experts on legal employment, and lawyers who’ve started their own firms, could say three words to anyone thinking of hanging out a shingle straight out of law school, those words would be: DON’T DO IT (unless you are prepared to be a business person).
“I really caution people against that,” says Shari Gregory, attorney counselor and assistant director of the Oregon Attorney Assistance Program (OAAP). “And I tell them that if they do, talk to the Professional Liability Fund’s practice management people. Law school doesn’t teach you how to run a business. It’s not necessarily a recipe for disaster, but it’s not even lucrative for a year or two. It’s not a quick solution.”
Colin Andries, chair of the bar’s New Lawyers Division’s Law School Outreach Committee, echoes Gregory.
“I’m finding out how difficult it is, and I had three, three and one-half years of experience,” says Andries, a 2005 U.O. law school graduate who set out on his own earlier this year after working for a large firm. “Every day I’m finding out something new. You really need to find a mentor, someone to meet with on a regular basis. You don’t learn how to run a practice in law school.”
And Phylis Myles, director of career services and externship programs at Willamette University College of Law, says she was so “scared” by students opening their own practices straight out of law school that she started an all-day workshop in 2005 “so at least they’d know where to go for help.”
“There’re so many malpractice traps,” says Myles, who was in private practice before joining Willamette in 2004. “One of my classmates, a friend, was disciplined within our first year of practice for something that wouldn’t have occurred if he’d had someone to ask questions.”
Nonetheless, for some new grads, going out on their own remains an appealing option.
“I’ve heard that Oregon has more solo and small-practice firms than any other state,” says Myles. “Maybe it’s the independent nature of Oregonians. Or maybe it’s our school. We get students who are married, have children. They’re much more family oriented. They want a quality of life.”
And sometimes, as Andries acknowledges, hanging out your own shingle may be the only option on the horizon.
“If you don’t have a job, you’ve got to make a living somehow,” Andries acknowledges. “You have a degree and a license; that’s something you can do.”
Raife Neuman says that after he graduated from Lewis & Clark in 2009, he found himself in exactly that boat.
A Portland native, Neuman attended St. John’s College in Santa Fe, N.M. (“A friend of mine read about it, gave me an elbow nudge and said, ‘This sounds like you,” says Neuman. “I got a true, old-style liberal arts degree. It was incredible. One of the best decisions I ever made was to go there.”)
After graduation, Neuman returned to Portland, got a certificate in environmental law and decided to take on some cases during what he expected to be “a short wait” before a job he was expecting to get was formally offered.
“I figured I had the degree, I’d passed the bar, I might as well find my own clients just for the experience while I waited for the job,” says Neuman. “But the job fell through. Five months after passing the bar, I realized that having my own practice was no longer a lark; it was what I was doing for a job.”
Neuman signed up for the bar’s Lawyer Referral Service, then discovered that “it’s impossible to get an environmental case through the LRS. People with environmental issues simply do not call a referral service for a lawyer.”
So Neuman says he looked at the different practice categories listed by the LRS.
“I decided that the landlord-tenant statute was pretty straightforward and contained,” he says. “That’s primarily what I did at the beginning, and I still do.”
Through his Portland connections, he also was able to branch out into advising small businesses. Fourteen months after he passed the bar, things felt solid enough that he moved his apartment-based practice into a formal office.
Still, Neuman says, for him the learning curve remains steep in several areas.
One is simply knowing the law, and its attendant rules, well enough to actually practice.
“It is terrifying,” he says with a nervous laugh. “I’m still not sure where I fall between courage and foolhardiness. The anxiety of having no one there to check over your work is, at times, nearly debilitating.”
Neuman addresses that issue by participating in the mentor programs offered by the OSB’s New Lawyers Division and the Multnomah Bar Association.
“I’m also fortunate to know a decent number of lawyers with established practices,” he says. “I avail myself of them at times. One thing I really appreciate about the Portland legal community is how open and welcoming it is.”
Another difficult area is case evaluation.
“Honestly, you don’t have that much discretion, as a new lawyer, in what cases to take,” says Neuman. Nonetheless, he’s had to tell potential contingency-fee clients that he couldn’t afford to front their costs. And he’s learning to be wary of some billable-hour clients as well.
“A big challenge is learning how to collect from clients,” he says. “I’ve been stiffed a couple of times by clients who simply disappeared.”
But perhaps the biggest challenge, says Neuman, is something less tangible: maintaining confidence in himself as a lawyer when his career hasn’t yet taken him where he thought it would.
“Maintaining my sense of self, being self-confident, has been harder than I thought it would be,” he says candidly.
Neuman says he deals with that by volunteering with the state and local bar.
“That’s exposed me to other people in similar situations, provided me with some support and guidance when I’ve needed it,” he says.
“Part of it is the realization that we were taught very little about actually being lawyers,” Neuman continues. “I guess I was acting under the assumption that I had learned, or someone had at least tried to teach me, some of these things, and that I’d missed something, when in fact I hadn’t. I’m learning that this is not a reflection on me and what I did or didn’t do in law school. It’s simply the nature of the beast.”
Neuman says that while he picked up several new clients at a New Year Eve’s party, he still doesn’t have any “feasts” to balance out his practice’s periods of famine.
“I’d call it snack or famine,” he says, laughing. “I am paying rent. I don’t know how much further I’d go beyond that. I’ll look around and see that I’ve been eating beans and rice for a week. For the last year I’ve been in financial-hardship deferment (on student loans), and I need to have a conversation with my loan holders. So the loan aspect is yet another burden.”
What would Neuman say to others facing his dilemma?
“I’ve sat down with some recent grads looking for advice,” he says, “and I’ve told them that especially in our economic conditions right now, a lot of people are still expecting positions to develop, hoping things will turn around, when the longer-term outlook actually is relatively grim. You are going to have to take the plunge, so you may as well do so now rather than four months from now.”
“It’s very hard to know what you’re getting into until you’re actually doing it,” he says of starting his own practice. “Objectively, I can look at things and say I’ve been relatively successful. And I love working for myself.”
Some Disillusionment But Some Optimism, Too
The OAAP’s Gregory sees new graduates and other job seekers in three capacities: one-on-one; at the monthly meetings of Lawyers in Transition (“It’s like a job club for lawyers,” she explains); and in a six-week career workshop that she facilitates.
“We’re seeing a slice of our community,” says Gregory. “There’s a little bit of disillusionment by some younger lawyers. They’re let down. They feel almost like they were lied to: that if you go to law school and acquire this debt, you’re going to be able to pay it off. Some are anxious.”
Nonetheless, says Gregory, “I see some optimism, too. Not everyone is in despair. I’m seeing creativity I haven’t seen before. I’m seeing people having to stop and think about what they really want.”
More job information, including information on placement services for all three Oregon law schools is available on the New Lawyers Division’s website at www.osbar.org/onld/resources.html.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Janine Robben is a long-term member of the Oregon State Bar and a frequent contributor to the Bulletin. She is director of the Oregon Crime Victims Law Center in Portland.
© 2010 Janine Robben