Under Analysis: Bytes of turkey, or how to find a legal job - kind of

By Spencer Farris

All’s quiet in the Levison Towers this evening. Not surprising since this is a short week anyway. Folks with vacation time to use are using it. Those of us without are still puttering around a little bit, but not much is being accomplished by lawyers this week, here or gone.

The old-timers come to the office because they don’t know what else to do on the weekends. I hope that I haven’t fallen into that group yet, but my Sunday office ritual is firmly established nonetheless. I show up in the afternoon to get ready for Monday’s work. Getting ready for Monday in a holiday week takes much less doing.

This time of year most of us feel a bit sentimental. Although I do it all year long, I am most attuned to how fortunate I am around the holidays, and reminisce about days gone by. This holiday season is no exception.

I overheard some of the interns discussing job prospects recently. It was a short discussion. The legal industry is as affected by the economic slowdown as all others, and jobs for new graduates are few. They complained that student loan payments were not going to wait until the economy rebounded. Some discussed the part-time jobs (plural, as in many for each of them) they’ve taken to make ends meet.

Although law school was not a picnic, none of them seemed truly thankful to be out of school and in the “real” world.

It seems like a million years ago that I was in their situation. I too had student loans, yet they seem paltry in comparison. I had worked for a few years between college and law school, but tore through my savings during my law school years. I felt the need to get a job then as intensely as they do now.

The summer after second year of law school is where an aspiring lawyer often finds his first career job. I took two internships that summer and neither law firm had an opening for me after graduation. Since I didn’t have a job, I had plenty of time to update my résumé. As fate would have it, one of the firms where I interned had a case against a firm where I had previously applied for work. Familiarity with that case was enough to open the door and get me an interview.

I remember the nervous feeling I had on the day of the interview. The firm was located on the 15th floor of one of the few high-rise buildings in town. The interior designer had died years before but his decor remained, perhaps in tribute to his vision. While the offices lacked some of the mustiness of the Levison Towers, they possessed all of the impressiveness. The butterflies in my stomach were 747s.

I arrived early for my interview, wearing the one good suit I owned—it wasn’t that good. Tom, the senior partner, was a legend of the local trial bar. He graduated from my alma mater around the time I was born and one of the rooms at the law school still bears his name. As an aspiring trial lawyer I was thrilled just to meet him. As a realist, I was pretty sure the feeling wouldn’t be mutual. Tom came out and led me back to his office.

I was a computer geek back then. Personal computers were just finding their way into law firms, but I already knew how to build one. I commented that the brand on Tom’s desk was similar to one I had recently built. He mentioned a problem he was having taking data home with him. In those pre-Dropbox days we carried files around on 3.5” disks. His disks were missing files no matter what he did. Luckily, this was a problem I could solve and the interview lasted longer than they had for me at other law firms.

Tom seemed more interested in discussing computers than the law with me. I could see my résumé on his desk and was certain that he knew I was a future lawyer. Yet he didn’t ask much about my law school career after I volunteered to fix his technical problem. At the end of the interview I had a job offer and he had a new associate.

In retrospect my knowledge of the law and practice wasn’t all that relevant. Tom had forgotten more about trying a lawsuit than I knew at that point. Perhaps more than I know now. It was the perfect situation however—he had an opening for an associate and the promise of a salary. He had the willingness and ability to teach me about the profession of law, which law school barely started to cover. He had a reputation in the community, legal and generally speaking, that opened a lot of doors for a young lawyer with neither. I on the other hand, knew little other than how to make computers work from a DOS prompt. Thankfully that was enough.

I wish my experience translated into some good advice for recent graduates. Maybe this—it is better to be lucky than good. Timing is everything. Do what you love, money will follow. Or something.
Remember that you bring more to the table than just a law degree, and remind prospective employers of that. And speaking of tables, enjoy this season around one with family and friends—your time of working holiday weekends will come soon enough.
Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of the Levison Group. Spencer Farris is the founding partner of The S.E. Farris Law Firm in St. Louis, Missouri. Comments or criticisms about this column may be sent to this newspaper or directly to the Levison Group via e-mail at comments@levisongroup.com.
© 2010 Under Analysis L.L.C.