Issues,  Law School,  Legal Practice

Wait, How is this Going to Work? Career Planning the Midst of a Pandemic

Hello, so with all the way people’s lives have been upended, it’s really normal to feel dread about what this may mean for your career. Of course, that may not be your first worry, which makes total sense. But at times, you could feel worried about your career and then feel guilty for worrying and all those things are normal.  For those on the edge of becoming lawyers, this is the milestone you’ve been working towards for a long time, so it’s completely understandable that you’re nervous and worried.

I was nervous and worried too right when I graduated law school. I want to share what it was like when basically everything about the legal industry was turned on its head. I share this to provide some tips and to sympathize, so I hope I don’t come off as dismissive–my goal isn’t to “oh it’ll be okay” away your problem. It WILL be ok, but it could also be bumpy and not what you expected and frustrating and a bunch more negatives before it straightens out.

First, for new readers, when I graduated in 2010 it was high recession. I went into law school in 07, under very traditional circumstances where people received offers during their 3L year and were set after the bar exam. Then literally a few weeks into my 2L year there was a financial collapse. I’ve mentioned this before because it was scary, but I remember being in class when 3Ls’ offers were being revoked. People who thought they were set with six figure jobs suddenly were competing with experienced attorneys who had also lost their jobs. Those of us only interested in public service were now competing with people who were eager to find anything. Hiring classes were over. Firms limited their OCI and only went to the Ivies. Job fairs felt like cattle calls and it was scary to go into 3L year with NO job prospects, lay offs, hiring freezes, massive student loans, and no idea what to do next.

The only thing we could do was keep going. And I mean that literally–like going through the steps of what needed to be done to become an attorney–not in some metaphorical way (I mean, we weren’t going to war lol). The best advice I received was when I was registering for the bar exam and also looking for jobs. My career counselor told me to stop actively looking and instead spend my time studying. I could pick up my search in August and having pending results would make me a stronger candidate than being a soon-to-be-grad competing with a bunch of licensed attorneys. Focusing on one thing made things a lot better, mentally. Step one was take the bar and then it was apply for jobs. Now, I had that luxury because my husband was bringing in an income, but if I had been solo I would have taken up a retail job (because that’s all I knew) or like many of my classmates, have take on doc review.

So knowing that the system as you expected has changed and may be has changed for the long-term, what can you do?

One. Wait. Unfortunately, how this shakes out and the longer lasting impact of this will take some time to figure out. They will need to decide on bar exam procedures soon, but it’s likely that the traditional format is going to be changed dramatically. You can’t dwell on the changes, you can just wait and see what they decide. Of course, if there’s opportunity to advocate then you should go for it. Stay updated and make sure you understand the changes. My hope is that states do the waive-in like they do in Wisconsin because that is the most reasonable, but we’ll need to wait and see.

Two. Adapt. Here’s hoping we can rally so that any economic downturn is mitigated, but the reality is that there may be some disruption in the legal industry. There may be layoffs, which makes the field more competitive. That means you’ll need to make yourself a strong candidate by highlighting your skills (being bilingual, direct client experience, etc are things to highlight and strengthen while you have the chance). Of course, it may not all be bad! There will be innovation and new opportunities as well. Mostly, it’s important that at this time, even though you have your idea of what your “perfect” job may be, that you remain open minded and flexible about what your actual first legal job will be. Because it may take a couple of hops to get where you want go–of course, keep working towards that goal and if you get it post-grad, that’s great. But if things take a turn, understand that just because you don’t get to start in a certain firm or in a specific area of practice, doesn’t mean you will -never-get to do it. And you could also be like me: take a job in legal aid because it’s the only place hiring and then realize that being a poverty lawyer is exactly what you were meant to do!

Three. Strategize. Now is the time to plan ahead (I know I just said wait, but I mean wait on things you can’t change like how the bar exam will be structured, not on planning your job search). Stay updated on any major changes; read your school’s update on changes in recruitment; look for opportunities to strengthen your legal skills (remote volunteering, getting published, etc); and find ways to still network. This will be tough as most will be done virtually, but if that is the wave of the future then adapt and get comfortable connecting virtually.

I know this was a lot of info for such a major issue–it’s perfectly fine if you read this and roll your eyes. I know I’m not in the exact same boat. The experience in 2010 was harrowing, but literal lives were never in danger. I didn’t have to pack up and go home in a matter of days. But I do hope that understanding how others reacted to a major disruption in the field can help you figure out your next steps and most, most importantly feel a little relieved knowing that disruptions are surmountable. And keep reminding yourself that, when it comes to being a licensed attorney, it will be ok.