ABA Journal Podcast

Landing a Dream Job in a Down Market


Because the job market is bad to begin with, some young lawyers are tossing aside the notion of playing it safe and pursuing dream attorney jobs.

Career counselors caution recent graduates to keep their options open, but some who recently sought and obtained jobs that drew their interests say they have no regrets.

ABA Journal Podcast moderator Stephanie Francis Ward speaks with two recent grads and a career counselor.

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In This Podcast:

Donna Gerson

Donna Gerson is the author of several books on legal career issues including Choosing Small, Choosing Smart; Building Career Connections; and The Modern Rules of Business Etiquette. A lawyer, she previously worked in the University of Pittsburgh School of Law's career services office.

Libby Harmon

Libby Harmon is a 2011 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law. Until recently the vice president of the school's Sports and Entertainment Law Society, Harmon has begun a yearlong paid internship with the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

Joe Kraus

Joe Kraus is a 2009 graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law. He recently started a staff attorney job with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Podcast Transcript:

This podcast is produced by the ABA Journal. We bring you the latest legal news every day from around the Web. Visit us online at ABAJournal.com.

ABA Journal: Libby Harmon, a 2011 graduate of the University of Kansas School of Law, estimates that only 20 percent of her class left with jobs. She’s one of the lucky ones with a paid internship at the National Collegiate Athletic Association. Among recent law school graduates with jobs, it seems that many of them found an area that sparked them and pursued it, rather than trying to follow the safest path. I’m Stephanie Francis Ward. And that’s what we’re discussing today, at the ABA Journal Podcast.

Libby Harmon: Probably about my second year – I’d taken all my first-year classes. And I thought well, I don’t really like any of the classes I’m taking, except for maybe contracts.

ABA Journal: As an undergraduate, Harmon was a pole-vaulter at the University of Kansas. And she started to think about how she could use that undergraduate experience during her second year of law school. Also, while applying for summer jobs in law school, she noticed that places like the NCAA were hiring interns. And much of the work involved going over contracts. In law school, Harmon got a job working as a graduate assistant at the Kansas Athletics Compliance Office.

Libby Harmon: I spent a lot of my time auditing official visits and auditing camps and clinics that coaches put on. When a prospective student athlete in any sport comes to KU for their official visit, there’re several rules and regulations that the coaching staff and the current student athletes at that school have to abide by to make sure that everyone that comes on an official visit gets the same sort of treatment and that it’s fair. So I will be going through all the back end after that official visit has taken place and make sure that all of those rules and regulations are followed. And if there’s a problem, then I would go to my supervisor and we would maybe have to investigate further, ask some more questions if there’s something that just doesn’t quite match up.

The same with camps and clinics that coaches put on with the prospect-age kids coming to basketball camp at KU. And I’m going through and making sure all the rules and regulations are followed and that no one’s getting preferential treatment and everything’s fair. So that’s what I spend a lot of my time doing, as well as some other various tasks. But that’s the majority of my time spent, which helps me learn the NCAA rules and bylaws in doing that.

ABA Journal: The NCAA internship lasts one year.

Libby Harmon: I will be working in enforcement, actually as an intern. It’s a year-long position. And I will be mostly handling secondary violations and amateurism and gambling-agent issues that come up with the membership schools. It’s a paid internship. And the money isn’t what I would be making if I were in a private practice. But it’s such a door opener that I’m willing to take another year and just learn and then go from there.

ABA Journal: Joe Kraus, a 2009 graduate of the University of Oregon School of Law, was just hired for a full-time staff attorney job with the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance in Portland, Ore. He spent the past two years doing contract work for the Alliance and the Energy Trust of Oregon.

Joe Kraus: It was a pretty bleak year for job prospects for me and pretty much everybody in my class. So there was one job that I was looking at. Other than that, there wasn’t much out there.

ABA Journal: Kraus, as a law student, got involved with his school’s green business initiative. He also did an externship with the Energy Trust.

Joe Kraus: And I really liked my time at Energy Trust. I just never thought that would lead to anything after school. I’d kinda written that off.

ABA Journal: His third year, Kraus applied for a job doing outreach work for the law school’s green business initiative. He didn’t get it. But during the application process, checking of references, he learned that the Energy Trust had contract work available. Shortly afterwards, Kraus also got contract work from the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance.

Joe Kraus: Somebody had mentioned that Energy Trust had me working for them as an independent contractor on a part-time basis. And so the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance expressed interest in talking to me about helping them out, doing some more things for them. And so a few months into it, I talked to Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance and was able to start working for them as the only attorney in their office. So I’ve been working for them, doing their contracts process and helping them out with other legal issues that they’re facing. And through those two jobs, I managed to cobble together a full week of work.

So overall, I’m very happy with what happened with me. I’m happy that there weren’t other jobs available and other jobs that were available, I was happy that I didn’t get. Because I would much rather be where I’m at right now.

ABA Journal: Kraus would not reveal his income from the two positions but that it was between $50,000.00 and $100,000.00 and enough to pay his bills.

Joe Kraus: In my situation, it definitely is the best for me. Where I’m at, there’s a variety of different things I face every day. There’s new stuff all the time. There’s different areas of law that I practice and I have to deal with. I haven’t been kind of pigeonholed into one area. And I feel I have a lot of responsibility too, which sometimes you don’t get right out of law school.

ABA Journal: The sluggish job market for lawyers, Kraus says, for him, has been a blessing.

Joe Kraus: There probably would’ve been more job offers maybe from firms. And I might’ve taken that. But I guess, in taking those jobs at a firm, the end goal was then to work in-house somewhere at an organization like I’m doing. So I think in a weird way, I kinda accelerated my career path into working in-house somewhere. I actually really like what I do. I guess if I could’ve painted a dream job before – or while I was in school – when I was at University of Oregon, I was there when the school started. And I helped start their green business initiative. And they had a strong focus on green business and trying to integrate our business law and environmental law.

And when we started talking about that, I just got very, very interested in pursuing that. And that’s when I called Energy Trust and asked them if I could be an extern there.

ABA Journal: Things worked out for Kraus, largely because he found an area that interested him early in law school. And he got actual experience in the field through internships.

Joe Kraus: I guess, for me, what worked, I always felt when I was in law school that my time was best spent getting practical experience and also networking – even though I hate that term – but never working with people. And I think right now, there’s a lot of jobs out there. People can post a job and get 300 applicants and more sometimes, depending on the job. A lot of the resumes look the same. The way I think to get to the top of those pools is one, to have some sort of connection with somebody. That’s how people are getting jobs right now. And a lot of the people that are getting jobs right now aren’t getting them from posted jobs.

It’s because they’ve talked to somebody that’s talked to somebody that knows somebody has an opening. And I know one or two people have gotten jobs through openings that are listed somewhere. And the rest have all gotten it through hitting the pavement and just talking to people and making sure people know that they’re out there and they want a job. So my best advice would be to start sitting down and having coffee with people, start going to events, and talking to people, and start making it known that you’re gonna be graduating soon. And also, take advantage of an opportunity in school to get real, practice legal experience.

Because at both places I work for right now, a big reason why they wanted me to work for them was they knew I already had experience working in-house for a nonprofit – but that was Energy Efficiency. And I also had experience working at the small business clinic and working with clients. And they found that to be very appealing to them. So network and practice experience.

ABA Journal: Finding something that interests you in law school and examining job possibilities that the area has to offer is good advice. This is Donna Gerson. She previously worked in career services at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law and now is a writer and speaker on legal career issues.

Donna Gerson: There’s a real push to pull you here. A JD degree is a generalist degree. So there’s no expectation, necessarily, that you’re supposed to specialize. But what I see is that the legal market certainly rewards students and recent graduates who are willing to focus on a practice area or areas with genuine passion. So I always counsel students to come to law school with an open mind and be willing to look at various practice niches based on their true interests and passions and not on a lot of externalities. You wanna do things that you personally like a great deal and that you have a talent for.

Because the common sense notion is that you’re gonna be better at those things. So just saying to somebody, tax is one of those recession-proof practice areas. That’s great, except if you hate tax law. And you don’t wanna show up and do that on a day-to-day basis, you’re probably gonna be very unhappy. And you won’t be very, very good at it.

ABA Journal: Leaving your options open is a good idea too.

Donna Gerson: Law is very cyclical. And it depends on the vagaries of the economy. So if you read one of those surveys and they say real estate is totally hot. And you decide to focus all of your time and attention on real estate, you might find that a few months or shortly thereafter – or something like the mortgage crisis happens and the bubble bursts. And no one’s working in real estate fields for the foreseeable future. So what do you do now.

ABA Journal: And know when something that you think would be right for you turns out to be not such a good fit. Gerson mentions a recruiting event she put together at the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, for the FBI.

Donna Gerson: People showed up because it sounded like a sexy, cool job. And it’s a very important job. One of the things that was noted by the FBI agent speaking to the law students was that an FBI agent always carries a weapon. That they must discharge that weapon and are taught to basically shoot to kill. They’re not there to wing somebody in the arm. And so if you’re somebody who A, does not wanna carry a weapon 24/7 for your work; and B, feels very uncomfortable at the idea of shooting somebody and killing them, this might not be a career choice for you.

And I remember looking at the audience of students there. And some people were nodding their head very positively, like totally cool. And some people were sitting there going, “Oh, no. This isn’t for me.”

ABA Journal: Gerson advises law students and lawyers looking for work to have a variety of career plans. “Your first choice may not work out,” she says, “for a variety of different reasons.” Also, some students find out they’re happy doing something they may never have imagined themselves doing, if they didn’t spend time exploring options.

Donna Gerson: So it’s a real balancing test in terms of looking to things that really make you happy, with the understanding that the legal market might dictate that you have to be a little more general in your approach. Because you don’t wanna be in a situation where you say, for example, I only wanna do sports and entertainment law and agent work. And then you find yourself in a position where you can’t move to the location where those jobs are. Or it’s just so competitive that you can’t find anything; that then, you’re doing nothing. So you really have to weigh and balance those options. I think many people – not to over-generalize – but many people come to law school thinking well, I’m getting this JD degree. And that’s gotta be my ticket.

So all I have to do is earn this JD degree and poof, something wonderful is going to happen to me. They’re not quite sure what this something is going to be. But they feel that by earning this graduate degree in this very high-profile profession, that somehow everything’s gonna somehow fall into place. I think the reality is that you have to really focus because law is a huge field. You have private practitioners. You have the judiciary. You have government lawyers, public interest lawyers. You have the whole nontraditional sector of lawyers who are doing sort of quasi-legal work. You have people who are in-house at corporations.

So there’s a wide range of ways that you can practice law. And while the JD degree is the common scene, what I think people don’t understand is that there are truly temperaments to different types of practice areas. And that you just can’t take a securities lawyer and plop him into the public defender’s office and expect them to shine. Because people come with their own personal experiences, their own personal values, their personality types. And this all informs the decision about what makes for a really good lawyer.

This podcast was brought to you by the ABA Journal. For more podcasts on the legal issues of the day, visit us online at ABAJournal.com or subscribe for free to the ABA Journal Podcast on iTunes.

Last updated June 9 to add the transcript.

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