With the legal market saturated, many recent law school graduates find themselves in a very unfortunate situation: underemployment or outright unemployment, high student debt, and no prospects on the job search front. The situation is compounded by the fact that these graduates cannot simply shift course and try their luck in other fields. Contrary to popular belief, the JD is analogous to a scarlet letter, with many non-legal employers viewing a struggling law school graduate more like a failure that couldn’t cut it in the legal field rather than an individual with an extra set of skills thanks to his or her legal education. With grim prospects both in the legal field and outside of it, and monthly student loan payments foreclosing the ability to take more creative measures to gain entry into the legal field, such as attempting to go solo, many graduates feel boxed in and hopeless. After all, realizing 7 years of higher education led to nothing of worth is pretty devastating, especially when our society often signals out career success as the greatest measure of self worth. However, for all the doom and gloom, there’s always a silver lining. Nothing is ever the end of the world, and as much as the circumstances may make you believe that it is, understanding that nothing is ever set in stone for the future that lies ahead can go a long way towards keeping you productive and on the grind for a way out.
Mentality is Everything
It is easier to preach than it is to practice whenever providing a dose of optimism, but at the end of the day at least there is one thing that will always remain true: your mentality under any particular set of circumstances will dictate how long those circumstances last. This is not a case of “hey, cheer up, hopefully everything will improve!” or “whenever one door closes, another door opens” nonsense. This is strictly referring to your own ability to dig yourself out of an unproductive state. The longer you let something negative marinate inside of you, the longer it will take for you to be proactive and work towards a positive outcome. If there is one thing to understand, it is that no matter how you may be feeling, the world around you has not stopped to take notice. The more time you spend being bitter and depressed, the more time you lose attempting to make moves, and the more opportunities are foreclosed. Other people are carrying on their lives because nothing has happened as far as they are concerned, and no one will pay attention to the fact you are exhibiting symptoms of depression over your graduate situation. Some of your close friends or relatives may try to console you, but where does that really get you? Will that sprout a job for you out of thin air? No. Neither will remaining positive, but at least if you are always keeping an open mind and are willing to continue grinding, you’re in a much better position to change your present circumstances than the person who feels helpless and like nothing matters.
The reality of life is really simple: you either get up when you’ve been knocked down, or the masses will simply walk over you. You may justify your desire to feel depressed over your unsuccessful law school experience because of the high debt and limited employment prospects, but think about this for a second. What you are really depressed about is a set of circumstances over which you cannot turn back the clock, but are fully in control of attempting to change. If you are the only person that can change the circumstances, what real reason is there to avoid attempting to do so from the moment you find yourself in those circumstances? There is none. A defeatist attitude and any derivative negative mentality only perpetuates your currently dire circumstances, and for that, it is your worst enemy. Imagine the following very common scenario:
You find yourself in a negative set of circumstances grave enough to spur negative emotions inside of you for an extended period of time. You sulk, you become bitter, you’re angry, and you don’t feel like really doing anything. After time has begun to erode the intensity of these negative emotions, you start to realize you have to start being proactive and begin to slowly make moves.
What has that period in between the onset of these negative circumstances and your phoenix rise to proactivity accomplished, other than waste time and foreclose opportunities? Nothing. It is useless. Why not simply skip this step? Why not automatically become proactive immediately after the problem arises? That is the key to improving your lot, and although it is not easy, having a long term perspective makes it easier to accomplish. It is natural to feel sad or complain about the situation. There is nothing wrong with that, particularly after such a heavy investment. However, you cannot let these feelings weigh down your productivity. You have to always remember that what you are currently experiencing is not set in stone for eternity, it is not the end of the road. Life is filled with unexpected twists and turns, but it is almost never linear and devoid of any progress. If you can hold onto the idea that there is a long road to travel ahead, even a grave set of circumstances like this is not unbeatable. Although analogies to even more extreme situations never quite have the desired effect, they do strike a point home: if someone that has lost limbs can get prosthetic legs and run in a marathon, what exactly is a law school graduate facing unemployment and high student debt not able to do if the circumstances necessitate it?
You cannot erase the student debt, you cannot create more jobs by yourself, but this will not be your perpetual state to the end of your time on this earth. From your late 20s to your death, this is not going to be your set of unchanging circumstances. If you believe that to be the case you need to snap out of it. Literally the worst that can happen to you is the following: you find a minimum wage job doing retail or being a waiter, you IBR your monthly loan payments to mean next to nothing even if that means your student debt principal will linger, and you spend your free time looking for a career-building job even if it’s in a non-legal field. That is what you are looking at after 7 years of higher education. The only worse alternative imaginable is unemployment with food stamps if you let the whole pride thing go. It’s enraging and certainly depressing, but it is temporary as long as you have a say in creating your own future.
Part of being able to maintain a long term perspective requires you to understand that there are always options. You may need to humble yourself before you accept these options, but they are there and can be used as a means towards a bigger end. A drastic example applicable to those in the most dire financial situation post-law school is taking on a minimum wage job. Who wants to do this after getting a law degree? Nobody, but you would be surprised how many JD-holders are in this predicament. It is disturbing that it is the fate of any law school graduates. Does this mean if the bills need to be paid you will scoff at the opportunity and waste time? No, you should be willing to take a minimum wage job with the understanding that it is necessary to keep the lights on, at least long enough for you to be able to work on a transition plan for something else in the near future. Don’t look at it as beneath you if you need to make ends meet. Nobody is forcing you to work minimum wage for life, but if the current set of circumstances requires cash flow and it is your only option, what does it matter as long as you put your off time to good use? Work the job and use your free time to learn a trade, a new skill that is in demand, start a small side venture, apply for entry level positions, or take a volunteer legal job to build experience so you can branch out and actually do legal work if you are so inclined. There is always time for the motivated, even if two minimum wage jobs are required to pay the bills. For the ultimate debbie downers who will dismiss this drastic example as unreasonable, search online for the real life examples of this already present situation and just remember that sitting and complaining about the circumstances will not achieve a better result. If immigrants can come over to this country, work 70 hour weeks and still find time to slowly learn English, a law graduate can have the time to work as long as he or she needs to in order to scrape by financially and still work towards something greater on the side. Often, the real barrier to the legal field is a lack of experience upon graduation. The ability to get some contract work, research work, or even dreaded “volunteer” work (which, by the way, isn’t easy to get either) to build up that resume over time can result in a drastic change of circumstances. You must do the best you can with what you have, and that will be based on your particular financial situation.
This type of mentality is no different in successful individuals, they simply start at a different level. There is never a satisfaction of having reached some end goal, because the goal posts always move. There is always something that they can hustle hard to improve or achieve. They know nothing is ever guaranteed, and in the long term their luck may run out. This keeps them going and accomplishing. That is the type of mentality you need to have in order to change your negative circumstances. There is always something to achieve, something to do to improve on the present situation. The fact you may need to start this whole process on level 1 does not change the mentality required to progress. Time is your friend, not your enemy.
At the end of the day, you are not chained to your negative circumstances with no say in the matter. Realize it is temporary, and start fresh if that is required to move forward. The point is that you understand it is never too late to switch gears, and humble your ego from expecting a guaranteed X salary because you have a 3 year graduate degree requiring a bar license. Again, nobody will care if what you have is not in demand. The only thing you can do is create enough value to rise above others in something that is in demand, and that is entirely up to your motivation to accomplish. This is the age of the internet. No longer are people only exposed to the information they read in a national newspaper, people they only speak to face to face or on the telephone, or listen to on the radio. When in history has someone been able to have access to so much things at once? You get online and immediately have an ocean of unprecedented amounts of information available. To add icing on the cake, most of it is free if you know where to look. This allows anybody to pick up and learn anything they are interested in learning and translate that into a potential career, a side hustle, or at the very least a source of knowledge beneficial to many positions in a desired field. It is imperative you do what is necessary to stay afloat and keep pounding the pavement until something comes along. There is no other option, what is done is done and the only thing you need to keep in mind is that there’s a whole future still ahead. The longer it takes you to work towards progressing from your current situation, the more opportunities to move forward will be foreclosed. Don’t let the unfortunate reality of the current legal market destroy your hopes for a better tomorrow, in or outside the legal field. Care about the long term, not about the past, the present, and certainly not about what others think. You are in charge of your own future, and you must do what you need to do to get back on your feet. Always remember: you only need 1 offer, and even if it is not the best, it will get the ball rolling.