Tuesday, January 18, 2011

The Work Experience Trap

One of the alleged advantages to being a non-trad is that you are a “Grown-Up.” You’ve worked. You’ve held down a career. You are used to juggling multiple priorities. You’ve been through the shin-dig of higher education already. You can focus and budget your time.

All valuable skills, to be certain. In a more reasonable job market, these things alone could help you edge out another candidate because you “know how to work.”

However, the legal market is predicated on the Cravath “up or out” model (although this may be in flux, depending on who you read). Essentially, the trade off is that as a straight-through attorney, everybody knows that (1) you don’t know anything, and (2) you’ve never really worked before.

Geez, give the guy a break, y’know? He/she is 25.

So, in exchange for no social life and a strong back, you work 80 hour weeks for mediocre (or high-dollar BigLaw) pay. For most, you earn just enough to pay your student loans and rent a match-box-sized apartment. You learn some stuff along the way (allegedly), work hard, and then after a few years YOU are the partner billing out at higher rate while retaining new clients and directing an army of 20-somethings below you in exchange for big bucks. Wash, rinse, repeat.

Or, so that is how it was supposed to work. You don’t have to look far in the news to see the current pressures on the old model or the low-balling of newly minted attorneys. But I digress.

The problem is as an non-trad, you are a 30, 40, 50-something. You don’t fit the cherished mold. You haven’t “paid your dues”. The person you work for could be significantly younger than you. Most importantly, due to your position and responsibilities in life, you likely can’t afford to be paid what a new associate is paid - yet you cannot command more income because you do not have the clients, hourly bill rate, or experience for an attorney of your commiserate age.

All of a sudden, all those so-called non-trad “advantages” go out the window. Even though you pulled out the gumption from your first round of college and are planning to excel for “Round 2”, you are now the odd-ball that doesn’t fit the model. You may look like a partner, but you aren’t one. You could be an age discrimination case waiting to happen for all “they” know. Most importantly, why not just get a young person to run through the wringer on the cheap, because you don’t bring in anything (i.e. money) that makes it worth hiring you oven them.

Be wary of Law School Admissions Office claims as well. They will try to sell you on how successful you will be in law school due to your demonstrated record of hard work and discipline, which will clearly translate into that prestigious law career later. While that is probably some truth to this, their argument lies squarely within the pre-bar-exam part of the experience, not the post-bar-exam part of the experience.

The number-three student in my class was a non-traditional student. She had worked for a law firm as a paralegal forever. Needless to say, she blew law school out of the water, both based on experience, natural smarts, and hard work. She “survived” and found employment, I believe even as an attorney (which was a good result compared to the majority of my class), but fame and fortune and high-powered deals were not the endgame for her – not in the way the Law Schools report employment and salary data, at any rate.

“But I was a business executive before and now I want to do M&A work at a big firm." Great. Make sure those people absolutely love you before you go to law school, and that you are a shoe-in once you pass the bar. Hell, get them to pay for it.

“But I did social work for senior citizens and I want to get involved with end-of-life issues, like Wills, Trusts, and Estates.” Great. Make sure those people absolutely love you before you go to law school, and that you are a shoe-in once you pass the bar. Hell, get them to pay for it.

“But I was a chemist and now want to be an attorney for an environmental law firm.” Great. Make sure those people absolutely love you before you go to law school, and that you are a shoe-in once you pass the bar. Hell, get them to pay for it. (By the way, you won’t use your science background AT ALL doing environmental law. It’s law, remember, and the applicable CFRs list in nice big charts what the rules and regulations are. Go be on the “science” side of the house at the EPA instead – you will probably enjoy the work more. Most environmental lawyers don’t have science backgrounds, anyway.)

Catch my drift? Do not go to law school…but if you must go to law school, GO…WITH…MAJOR…BACKING. Do not think that law school will be anything like your previous college experience, which most likely had some sort of moderately happy ending, at a minimum, which in turn helped lead you to where you are now. As the old saying goes “You can’t go home again,” so eschew that previous “hard work and positive thoughts” ethic from your undergraduate/graduate school daze in exchange for “certainty” in these 9.5% unemployment times.


  1. The only people that prior work experience work for are men under the age of 30 who have families. Having a couple of years of work experience and a family spells "stability", while being under the age of 30 spells "young, impressionable, and someone to be taken under the wings of the old codger who runs the firm."

    Note that the actual things that you learned on your non-attorney job don't mean jack. That's what they hire experts for, after all. They can learn enough about the subject to be able to ask the expert some knowledgeable-looking questions without making fools of themselves. Plus, I think that there are so many massive egos out there that they figure that they "know" everything.

    And maybe they're right. After you spend 3 years in law school, whatever knowledge you had in the other field becomes a bit antiquated. Sure, you have a degree in chemistry, but think of what has changed in the past few years. I wasn't in a field like that, but I already know that I would have to be completely re-trained if I ever went back to my old job.

  2. Law firms want someone they can mold. If you are 30, you might have actual work experience. You might even *gasp* have your own work style and management experience. These pigs don't want people like that.

  3. Hey — couldnt find your email on your blog so commenting here — I’m reaching out because I stumbled across your blog (linked from http://thirdtierreality.blogspot.com) and I just launched a legal community called jdOasis.com.

    Based on what you write, I thought you might find a post from one of our users interesting since it is about how US News Rankings are inherently flawed due to the fact that schools are allowed to count Business and re-hire their own graduates to skew their employment score and ultimate ranking.

    Here it is: http://www.jdoasis.com/law-school-usnews-rankings-flawedheres-why

    Hope all is well,