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Seth Engel Headshot

A Note to Law School Students

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It's that wonderful time of the year -- finals season! Upon leaving the Georgetown Law library last night, the flashing red of an ambulance caught my eye from the other side campus. The ambulance was parked adjacent to the dormitory, so this time it couldn't be for our neighbors, the homeless shelter. Was it a stress-related injury? An OD on knowledge? A Vitamin D deficiency? Something petting puppies could have prevented?

There does seem to be a gloomier, more somber air permeating the campus this finals season; more so than any I have experienced in my 7-plus years of higher education. The state of the economy is weighing on each student's mind. It's as if there's a wet wool blanket cloaking the library reading room, spewing a mildew odor and relentlessly whispering: "$150,000 debt...need a job." Adrenaline pumps through the veins. Another Ritalin is swallowed.

My classes at Georgetown Law began in early September of 2008. Until that time, every alumni, student, and law school book told me that students in the Top 14 ("T-14") schools were nearly guaranteed a law firm job after graduation based on the sheer force of their alma mater's name. By September 15, 2008, however, Lehman Brothers was filing for bankruptcy -- and everything had changed.

By now, in December 2011, everyone knows that you need higher than a 3.5 GPA to land a law firm job. These are the same law firm jobs, which pay around $160,000 upon graduation, that were once guaranteed to students at top-tier schools. Students in the "lower tiered" schools always had to stay afloat at the top of their classes -- but now those formerly-privileged T-14 students find themselves in the same dingy, claustrophobic boat. Too many lawyers, too few jobs.

Some might say that the crash has been a great equalizer of sorts. I disagree.

The crash has removed the ability of "privileged" students to rest on their laurels to obtain high-paying private interest jobs, and stimulated the age of the networker. Graduates who would normally be entering a top-20 Vault-ranked firm in a large city are attending school-sponsored events with small and medium law firms from suburban areas. At these events, students generally have similar grades, work experience, and diplomas. What sets them apart is everything else, what probably matters most in the long run anyway: how they're dressed, how they smile, and how they present themselves. It's the little things that will set you apart now -- there's nothing bigger.

A friend of mine who I'll call "Josh" told me about his interview at a large law firm in New York, where he was walking down the hallway alongside his interviewer when an attorney launched a Nerf football at his face. A former Division I athlete, Josh snatched the ball out of the air. The athletic attorney-exclaimed to the interviewing-attorney, pointing at Josh, "Quick hands! I want that guy on my flag football team!" A few weeks later, Josh received his golden summer associate offer.

But for those of us seeking public-interest jobs, these lessons are nothing new, right? A public interest job -- which means anything that isn't a corporate law firm -- has never been about your grades or diploma. Though a T-14 name can get your foot in the door, what matters more are your interviewing personality, work experience, and demonstrated commitment to the cause. But public interest job-searchers have run into their own problems due to the economy.

First of all, jobs are scarcer -- as money becomes tighter, so do donors' purse strings. Secondly, the crisis at law firms is seeping into the public sphere like a basement leak. Thousands of hard-working law graduates who belong in a solid oak desk 30 floors above are now applying to jobs that were previously the domain of only the truly committed -- public defenders offices, NGOs, and the government.

Since the market has gotten so tight for public interest jobs, people are applying to more far-flung positions than they ever would have, and they are rewarded for getting creative. Law graduates who have dreamt of being a public defender in New York their whole lives, and who in normal times would have been accepted in a heartbeat, are now applying (often unsuccessfully) to the Colorado and New Hampshire Defenders.

It has always been hard to be in public interest -- networking is key, competition is rough, and pay is low. For those who wish to work in human rights or international relations, things are harder than ever -- I have a friend who was offered a brilliant position at UNESCO in Paris, but with the caveat that he finds another organization to pay his salary. Other friends who normally would seek a job in the USA are applying outside -- Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. They are left guessing what a Belgian employer expects to see on a cover letter or resume, and hope that the same documents they've been putting together for the past several months of job searching will be acceptable.

I don't necessarily see this as a bad thing, especially in the Twitter age. People are forced to become more creative with their job applications, send emails and make phone calls they wouldn't normally do, and learn how to actually interact with people face-to-face and convince them that they would be a good employee. Grades and school names diminish in importance as people with Yale law degrees languish in unemployment. This means that the college and master's degrees we were pushed to attain are worth less and the burger-flipping jobs we were taught to disdain are worth more. Grades and test numbers, which our education system continues to value above all else like some broken automaton, fade away.

I think a Chinese-American friend of mine, who's a 2L at a Top-50 law school, put it best: "My family moved to the US from Beijing to broaden the opportunities for my sister and I. Now the situation's been reversed -- there are way more opportunities in China." It's time to get creative, and it's time to work on our people skills.

So this finals season, pry yourself away from Facebook! Get out of the library! Play football and learn French -- that's the way it seems to get somewhere in this economy -- without an ambulance.