Twelve 20-somethings chronicle their lives for WBUR. Learn more.
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?