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Question 3

Do you have student loan or credit card debt?

This story came in through our initial call out, when we asked, “Do you feel stuck?” Our guest blogger, John S., is an out-of-work lawyer. With tens of thousands of dollars in student-loan debts, he’s taken a job behind the counter at a cell-phone store. He asked not to use his last name, to protect his position with the company.

I want you to imagine, if you will, a hypothetical 30-year-old living in the Boston area. I’m going to give you some information about this person’s background over the last ten years, and I’d like you to imagine where you would expect this person to be right now in terms of employment and life in general.

Okay, ready? Here we go.

This person was born in 1982, which by many accounts is considered to be the first year of the so-called “millennial” generation. He grew up in a middle-class family and graduated from college and law school. Throughout his education — which totaled nineteen years and about $100,000 of student loans — this person worked hard and graduated with an “A” average overall.

During law school, this person held several internships, including legal research internships with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, a U.S. federal judge, and a Massachusetts Appeals Court Justice. Finally, after graduation from law school in 2008, this person passed the bar exam in two states. As a freshly minted lawyer, he served as a law clerk for a state judge before moving on to become an associate at a small, private-practice law firm. Wide-eyed, he hoped to eventually transition to a career in public service.

So where would you expect this person to be right now in life, four years later? When I read this description, it is easy to forget that this story is about me — me, before my life hit a wall and I became stuck.

Now, when I show people my resume and then describe what I am doing for work, they scratch their heads in disbelief, as though I’m either lying or somehow not working hard enough or not trying hard enough. They look at me like there must be something wrong with me. As though, if they were in my shoes, surely they would have all the answers and know just what to do. After all, lawyers make so much money and are so successful, right?

I now work in a retail store. I am a sales representative at a cell-phone store for one of the wireless carriers. I was laid off from my law firm job in 2010 and I have not been able to find anything resembling legal work since. My unemployment benefits quickly ran out, but my $100,000 in student loans is here to stay.

On what I earn, I can just barely pay my basic expenses. I sometimes have to ask my dad for money. At least I am lucky enough to have that option. Still, I have no retirement savings and I cannot afford to get married, have children, or stop renting. It is demoralizing to say the least.

Didn’t I work hard and go to school so that I could be independent by this age?

If you had asked me a few years ago where I expected to be in life, it was certainly not where I am. I have long days and nights behind a register. And for those of you who have not visited a cell-phone store lately, it is an understatement to say that most of the people there are generally upset. They are furious. Furious about their bill, about fees, about bad reception, about the lack of free phones, or about something the company did to them.

I am lucky enough to be the recipient of this rage. At least once per day, somebody demands to speak to a manager. At least once per week, somebody is angry enough that they raise their voice and use profanity directed toward me. And at least once per month, somebody is angry enough that I am literally afraid for my physical safety. On more than one occasion, I have even been afraid that somebody might pull out a weapon and come over the counter. In practically every single one of these encounters, however, the customer says the same thing: “I’m not mad at you. It’s not your fault; it’s the company’s fault.”

Sometimes, during the back-and-forth interaction, they find out that I’m a lawyer. Typically that helps calm the situation because it renders them confused and speechless.

Now, you’re probably thinking something along the lines of, “Why aren’t you working as a lawyer? Surely there must be some legal work out there for you! What kind of law do you specialize in? You can do anything you want with a law degree! Why don’t you just start up your own law firm?”

These are perfectly reasonable questions to ask. Though everyone seems to think they know just what I should do to get out of this and move forward, I have tried just about everything.

The number of jobs I have applied for in the last two years is simply mind-boggling. In two years of searching, there have been precious few legal jobs posted that require two years or less of experience. Over and over, I am told that I am not qualified and don’t have the necessary experience. I have even tried doing volunteer legal work for some of the pro bono programs of the local bar associations. Even then, I have gotten no response at all. I have even applied several times for jobs like legal secretary and paralegal with the hopes of getting my foot in the door to a legally-oriented position. In response, I am told that I am overqualified for these types of positions.

I’ve also tried other fields that have some overlap with law, such as human resources and law enforcement. “Sorry, but we regret to inform you that while we are impressed with your credentials, we feel that you may be somewhat overqualified for this position.” So here I am: under qualified to be a lawyer, overqualified to be anything else. So much for being able to do anything with a law degree.

So why don’t I start a law firm by myself? The thought of quitting my job on a business venture that carries no guarantee of success — all while I have a small fortune in student loans hanging over my head, which must be paid every month — does not sound particularly prudent. Moreover, law school does not teach you the first thing about running a business. While I could probably figure it out after a lot of trial and error, it’s a malpractice lawsuit waiting to happen. Besides, if I wanted to be an entrepreneur, I would have gone to business school.

So, do I blame anyone for my current situation?

I know that everyone is responsible for his or her own decisions. Keep in mind, however, that when I started law school in 2005, the industry was booming and the average salary out of school was around $100,000. By the time I graduated in 2008, the economy was crashing and the whole legal industry was in free-fall.

Many graduates from my generation are now left out in the cold, carrying debt that would be justifiable for someone earning a six-figure salary, but obscene for someone making barely one-third of that.

While older lawyers continue to make a very comfortable living by running their own businesses and holding positions at well-established firms, many of them cannot take on the risk to train and hire new lawyers at a livable wage. The result is that there are a growing number of law-school graduates who are either unemployed or underemployed. Some of us are forced to work as temps or “independent contractors” at a law firm, which basically means the same long hours of being a real employee, but without the salary or benefits.

Since most of us are drowning in an impossible amount of debt that will follow us for the rest of our lives, working for free or as an independent contractor is not an option. In order to survive, this means retail or restaurant work. I, along with significant numbers of people who graduated between 2007 and 2012, am completely stuck.

But I have to remain positive.

After all, I am only 30 years old and the economy will turn around some day. Eventually I will get to be an attorney. The time and money I spent on my education was worth it. Or at least that’s what everybody keeps telling me.

Now, would you like to purchase any accessories with that new iPhone?


  1. Michelle at 2:06 pm, October 10, 2012

    Ditto. I actually sold cell phones before law school and made more money there than at my first law firm job. After 2 layoffs in 2 years, I started my own practice (yes, terrifying and most definitely not for everyone). I look on Craigslist every now and then just to see what’s out there (with no intention of applying) and I’m disgusted. Firms in the Greater Boston area offering $30k/year and 60+ hours/week of work. Getting paid in experience is not what any of us signed up for and would never cover my $200k+ in student loans. Moral of the story – this blows.

  2. jefe68 at 4:22 pm, October 10, 2012

    You might want to look into working in China. I know of one lawyer who lost his job who found some kind of work teaching over there for very good money.
    If you have a license to practice law why not start your own one man firm or some kind of legal work. If you keep working in sales you will lose your edge in the legal field.
    It seems you have thought of this, and if the conclusion is this would be silly or impossible than one has to ask the obvious question. Why on earth is this happening?
    Also we live in a state that has lower unemployment than others and yet this story is becoming more common than not. It’s a sign that something is truly broken in the nation and I feel as if neither political party has the guts to really work on fixing the problem. Only maintaining the status quo. At least the democrats don’t call people in need or on unemployment parasites.

    The other side to this story, is maybe law schools are graduating to many lawyers while knowing all to well there are not enough jobs to fill the needs of graduates.

  3. sherry at 7:05 pm, October 10, 2012

    i don’t think this is an unusual story-almost everyone i know is working in a job that does not relate to educational prep, some for the better, most for the worst–my college prof friend receives food stamps.

  4. John_of_Medford28 at 9:48 am, October 11, 2012

    Sadly, I believe you are a victim of the enormous changes going on in the legal field. I remember reading about 5 years ago,a large front page story in either the NYT or WSJ, that talked about the changes going on in the legal field and its consequences for law school graduates. I talked about this article with a colleague who has a law degree, and she said she would not recommend law school to anyone, unless one was confident in getting in the top 5 schools and then being in the top 10% of the class.
    I’m convinced that much of the world is experiencing a paradigm shift, which is largely unacknowledged by the media and elites, where there are a lot less jobs out there as a result of advances in technology and efficiency. I don’t know how things will turn out, but, I don’t feel for the better for the average person.
    Best of luck to you.

  5. John_of_Medford28 at 9:51 am, October 11, 2012

    You are spot on with your thoughts of “the other side to this story”. The Commonwealth recently opened a public law school here in Massachusetts and I believe it is not accreditted. I really hope the students enrolled there have done their due diligence on their job prospects.

  6. Lori at 4:01 pm, October 11, 2012

    Thanks for sharing your experience. And it’s good to see that WBUR is bringing attention to this all too common situation. I have to wonder, though, if WBUR is paying their guest bloggers or just exploiting their situations for free, interesting and relatable content.

  7. Ashley at 11:16 am, October 12, 2012

    UMass did not open a law school, they acquired the Southern New England School of Law, and this summer it received a provisional accreditation from the ABA. Though I agree that it’s probably a money pit as a third or fourth tier law school and a waste of time and money for those who choose to attend.

  8. DWilliams8 at 8:31 pm, October 12, 2012

    look into http://www.jvs-boston.org they used to have a support group for out of work lawyers. You are not alone.

  9. Vincent Capone at 2:03 pm, October 14, 2012

    I completely agree with your comment on the paradigm shift.

  10. Vincent Capone at 2:04 pm, October 14, 2012

    I’ve taught in China and not only does it pay little (although high for the average Chinese), it’s not something for everyone. If you love Chinese culture and have thought about teaching, then it’s a good move. But if you have no interest in teaching, then you’re really just exacerbating the problem of lackluster ESL teachers trying to exploit the bad economy in the US by heading over to China.

  11. John S at 12:56 pm, October 16, 2012

    True. The law jobs i see posted are outrageous. In my job at that firm, I was making exactly what you just quoted from Craigslist. I make more in retail now, but it’s obviously not what I want to be doing with my law license.

    It’s nice to see that starting a practice is actually possible for someone relatively fresh out of school. If you are by yourself, where do you turn for guidance on an issue? Do you have any other side jobs?

  12. John S at 12:58 pm, October 16, 2012

    Thanks I will definitely check them out.

  13. John S at 1:02 pm, October 16, 2012

    John I believe you are right about the shift. I feel the problem is not so much the lack of jobs per se, but the outrageous cost of a law degree not matching up with the eventual salary that one can expect. After all, law is a field that has formal professional hurdles that one must get through in order to practice, i.e., a J.D. and passing the bar. It’s not as if somebody who wants to get into law has any other choice but to pay an obscene amount of money to have a career that doesn’t justify the cost. Unless the cost of these credentials comes down, this will have a serious effect on access to justice for ordinary people.

  14. John S at 1:36 pm, October 16, 2012

    jefe, You are correct in your final comment that law schools are graduating way too many lawyers. It is a total cash cow for them, though the market is near-saturated. They get massive tuition payments coming in, and unlike some other fields like science and medicine, there are relatively little technology/equipment expenses. Recent trends suggest that the number of students is slowing decreasing though.