Out of law school, into a recession

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Everyone’s talking about it, so we might as well tackle it, too. It seems immaterial at this point whether the US economy is approaching, entering or currently experiencing a recession — it’s clear that the economy is slowing down and, more importantly, that people are getting worried and even scared about it. Some of this can be attributed to the mainstream media doing its usual frenzy-whipping, but there is genuine cause for concern out there. This is the first time the US economy has tanked in the globalization era, and that’s going to have some nasty results (such as, US consumer spending power will drop but oil prices won’t, because for the first time, it’s Chinese, not American, consumption that’s pushing oil demand).

Things ought not to be as bad in Canada, but it’s still no fun graduating from law school, carrying a huge debt load, to find a mediocre or poor job market waiting for you. If you entered law school within the past five years, you paid boom prices for a law degree and you might end up in a bust marketplace. It’s not fair — but it happens. You won’t be the first new lawyer to experience it, but if you’re a Millennial, you’ve also never seen one of these things before, and they can be more than a little disconcerting.

There are lessons to be drawn, however, from those of us who landed in similarly soft job markets in previous downturns. Here are a few thoughts on what to do if you’re taking a new LL.B. or J.D. into a recession.

1. Don’t panic. Easy to say, not always easy to do, especially if you watch too many all-news channels (a piece of advice: too many = 1). Avoid the temptation to wrap yourself up in worry, self-pity and general gloom — it gets you nowhere and it really annoys your friends and family. Just because you’re not employed does not mean you’re not employable. Moreover, they’ve abolished debtor’s prison, so don’t spend too much time fretting over your student loans. Cycles come and go; we’ve just come through a long period of general economic health, but it was still a cycle, and it was always going to end. Same goes for a recession; this too shall pass.

2. Keep learning. Your career is always on, 24/7/365, regardless of whether you’re employed at the moment. Your law career began on the first day of classes and it will continue until you retire to a life of leisure and complaining about the damn kids today. If you’re not employed, take the opportunity to increase your skill set, broaden your knowledge base, and learn more about the legal industry and the types of law you love most. Read journals and magazines, or if you’re low on cash, blogs and e-newsletters — not only about the areas of law that most interest you, but especially about the fundamentals of running a law business. You didn’t learn them in school and you wouldn’t have the chance to learn them if you were working. Invest today’s downtime in tomorrow’s competitive advantage.

3. Network. Those of us in the law practice advisory business are always telling lawyers to network, make contacts, find opportunities to market their names, expertise and brand. Practising lawyers, in reality, don’t have much time to do this; you do. Find out where lawyers meet, and join them. Attend a CBA or ABA Section meeting (student and new lawyer fees are low) in any area that even vaguely interests you. If you really want to get ahead of the game, go visit a corporate counsel meeting and talk to clients — you’d never get this close to them as an associate. Meet lawyers, introduce yourself, ask questions (about their work, not about whether they’re hiring), listen attentively to the answers, and follow up with the people with whom you best connected — if you’re really lucky, you’ll find a mentor. Make networking your non-paying full-time job.

4. Keep an open mind. You never know which door will open up for you. When the firm where I articled declined to offer me an associate job, I spent the next several months fixated on getting another law firm position, even though I hadn’t especially enjoyed the previous one. I got tunnel vision, thinking that private law practice was my only option — and I can only guess how much worse that must be today, with large firms omnipresent in the student imagination. It wasn’t until I’d exhausted every law firm avenue that I turned, with some desperation, to legal non-profits and the legal publishing industry, and it was only then that things took off for me. Be flexible. Get ready to adjust to new information, new circumstances, and the possibility that something might come along, unforeseen, and be perfect for you.

5. Be positive. This is kind of the flip-side of not panicking, but it deserves a final mention. You didn’t become any stupider or any less attractive to employers because the economy tightened up; this had nothing to do with you. Classmates and friends who managed to land a job aren’t Supreme Court justices in waiting, they just had better luck on the first go-round. Feed your self-esteem with positive reinforcement from those closest to you. Keep a journal and record one smart thing you did every day to prepare for your next job. Learn, network, read and write. Above all, stay in touch with the law and the legal community — because you’re still part of it, whether you’re drawing a paycheque or not.

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