Ed. note: Welcome to the latest installment of “Notes from the Breadline,” a column by a laid-off lawyer in New York. Prior columns are collected here. You can reach Roxana St. Thomas by email, at email@example.com, or find her on Facebook.
After a few weeks of unemployment, I begin to wonder whether some sort of sporadic dysfunction is affecting my ability to receive email. Specifically, while I am able to peruse every available resource for potential job openings, the résumés I submit seem to drop into an online
supernova black hole. Occasionally, I get a confirmation message indicating that my résumé has been received, but, as a general matter, I hear nothing but the sound of silence.
Where do they go? I wonder. Are they floating lazily in space, along with billions of unwanted headshots submitted by New York’s considerable legion of actor/singer/dancer/waiters? Are they in a virtual file cabinet somewhere, turning virtually yellow and brittle at the edges? Or do they go straight into a giant “deleted items” folder? Perhaps the beleaguered legal employers, in an effort to capitalize on economies of scale, have set up a single, huge data landfill, where cover letters indicating a willingness to be “flexible as to class year,” accompanied by finely honed (and embellished) résumés, can be gathered and stored. If the shrinking corps of presently-employed lawyers is wiped out by bird flu, raptured, or disabled by an epidemic of carpal tunnel syndrome, they will definitely get back to us … right?
So I am pleasantly surprised when I get an email from a potential employer, asking me whether I am available for a telephone interview. The job, which I heard about through a friend, is in the legal department of a publishing company, and although they are looking for an experienced litigator, the position does not involve actual practice. A year ago, I would not have considered it; but, given my present circumstances, I am delighted. I respond to the HR person’s email, wondering how to temper my desperation enough to avoid sounding, well, desperate. I settle on an answer that reflects both desperation and lawyerly faux courtesy, telling her that I am available later that day, the next morning, any time the following day, “or whatever works for you.” She schedules the phone interview, which will be conducted by Scott, the lawyer who heads the department, for the following morning.
Find out how Roxana’s chat with Scott went, after the jump.
My conversation with Scott seems to go well, although there is something strange about engaging in the awkwardly formal dialogue of an interview while pacing my tiny apartment, clad in sweatpants and a t-shirt. At one point, I notice that one of the cats is preparing to barf on the newly-washed slipcover. “Get off!!” I mouth ferociously, even though I have never known the cat to respond to non-verbal cues. I try to swat him away, but (as cats invariably do) he digs in, affixing himself to the couch and letting out an indignant wail. Scott pauses for a moment and asks me if I need to tend to my baby. “Oh,” I say. “I don’t have a baby.” He sounds confused for a moment, and then presses on.
Scott tells me that, although it is a non-practice position, they are looking for someone with extensive litigation experience. He grills me about each line of my résumé, and I talk on and on, answering with as much detail as I can muster. He returns repeatedly, however, to whether the matters (or types of matters) referenced resulted in “actual trials.” When I have exhausted my tales of relevant experience and anecdotes of marginally relevant experiences, I tell him that a lot of cases, particularly in federal court, do not actually go to trial. “Hm,” he says, sounding mildly surprised. “Is that so?” Great, I think. I am talking to someone whose idea of litigation is based on Law & Order. The thought has barely finished forming in my mind when he says, “I always thought litigation would be really exciting. Like on Law & Order.”
For starters, I think, the Law & Order attorneys are free to make splashy, dramatic speeches to the judge and jury because, in the jurisdiction of Televisionland, evidentiary principles — with the possible exception of the hearsay rule — seem not to exist. Also, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a TV lawyer plowing through a box of documents or staring, bleary-eyed, at Summation for the ninth straight hour. But why focus on the minutiae? “Well,” I say lamely, “they tend to skip over a lot of the less interesting aspects of litigation on TV.” Although I think we had a good rapport, I get off the phone feeling discouraged. I am not sure exactly what they are looking for, but I am sure that, given the extant talent pool (which is huge), they will find someone who has it. Whether that person will be me seems much less certain.
In the next two days, three recruiters call to tell me that they have a “great lead!” on a position. It turns out to be the same position as the one I have just interviewed for. One of the recruiters tells me that he has had several candidates interview for the job already, and that, if the company is interested, they will arrange an in-house meeting. “I have to tell you, though,” he says, with a degree of honesty which, I suspect, is directly related to the fact that he will not be submitting my résumé for the position, “they’re being really selective, because, frankly, they can be. I wouldn’t get my hopes up if I were you.”
Agitated, I await word from the potential employer, which is beginning to feel like a potential date. I start to wonder whether, during the interview, I made any major faux pas — the telephone equivalent of having food in my teeth. When, a day later, I get an email from the company’s HR person, inquiring about my availability for an in-house interview, I am flooded with relief. I would like to think that the fear of rejection is not part of this process, but, I have to admit, it is. I wonder vaguely whether The Rules apply, but throw caution to the wind and tell her I am available “any time” for the next interview. The HR person writes back to suggest a day the following week.
The next day, Giovanna calls to tell me that she, too, has an interview next week. A former colleague of hers forwarded her résumé to a partner at a firm downtown, who arranged for her to come in. She is pleased, but apprehensive; the partner has a reputation for being somewhat abrasive. “You’ll do great!” I tell her, projecting a level of confidence I do not feel about my own prospects. I picture myself on a moving conveyor belt, along with the 6,000 other applicants with whom I am competing. I wonder whether, after being passed over, the rejects will fall into a giant smelter.
As the weekend approaches, I find myself growing increasingly unsettled. I have gone on countless job interviews over the course of my career, and have generally been unfazed by them. Suddenly, though, everything worries me. What if I don’t have what they’re looking for? What if I don’t do well in the interview? What if I am unable to convey how hard I would work, how much I want this job, how well I think I could do it? What should I wear? I do not recall ever having been as jangled as I am now. “Just relax,” Cliff tells me, assuring me that I’ll “do great!” in the interview. Besides, he says, “if they don’t like you, they’re assholes.” Maybe, I think, but I want those assholes to hire me.
It takes me a long time to fall asleep on Saturday night. Even though my interview is three days away, I am restless and anxious. I am worried about Giovanna. I wonder when, if this doesn’t work out, the next opportunity will come along. I try the age-old tactic of counting sheep, but in my state of confused semi-wakefulness, the sheep turn into associates — leaping over little fences, briefcases in hand, to interview for the position that I want.
In the middle of the night, something jolts me awake, and I sit bolt upright. I had no idea that such a thing was possible, outside of movies and television shows where people regularly wake up from bad dreams with an audible gasp, clutching the carefully-arranged sheet. My heart is pounding, and I feel as though I’ve just run up the stairs. It does not seem normal, although, I think, maybe I’m imagining it. Maybe I just don’t know what a regular heartbeat is supposed to feel like. I root around, trying to find Cliff’s pulse. Nothing. In fact, his resting heart rate appears to be zero. Great, I think. In addition to everything else, Cliff is dead. Then I remember the four Iron Man finisher medals downstairs, and realize that his heart probably just powers down while he is sleeping, or clicks off, rendering him useless for comparative purposes. I turn to the dog. He opens one eye and gives me a look that says, “What’s the matter with you, stupid?” I fumble around, searching for his doggy heart, but he stretches and turns over, uninterested in my prodding. Confronted with my own ridiculousness, I lie down and try to will myself back to sleep.
Fortunately, by the time interview day rolls around, I have exhausted my own tolerance for angst, and thereby regained my composure. I have a moment of overwrought uncertainty, when I debate whether to wear a pantsuit or a skirt. Since it is only 18 degrees outside, I decide on the pantsuit. Perhaps my ability to make weather-appropriate clothing choices will redound to my benefit.
When I get to the office, which is in midtown, I realize how foreign the bustle of work life feels already. I make my way to the security desk, where a guard takes my information and tells me that I will need to wear a photo identification badge while I am in the building. “Look into the camera!” she says brightly, and I squint over her shoulder, unsure where the camera is. Moments later, she hands me a large photo of myself with my eyes closed, and orders me to hang it around my neck.
When I get upstairs, a minder meets me by the elevator. “Go to the coatroom and hang up your coat, and then wait on that blue chair,” she instructs me, gesturing toward a carefully arranged grouping of furniture, each piece of which is a different color. I do as she says, feeling somewhat dunce-like as I sit on my assigned chair, trying to arrange my hair over the picture around my neck, in which (I notice) I look both blind and hungry, since my mouth is hanging open.
Eventually, Scott comes out to fetch me. We go to a conference room, in which several grumpy employees are sprawled around the table, eating donuts. He shoos them out while I stand aside, a smile pasted on my face. I make a mental note to demonstrate, at some point, that I can, in fact, close my mouth. As it turns out, I have plenty of time to show off the range of my facial expressions; we spend the next 45 minutes reprising our telephone interview, which, I think, goes even more smoothly without the distraction of the retching cat. He is enthusiastic about my qualifications and nods eagerly when I talk about my experience, so that, by the time he leaves to get the next interviewer, I am feeling fairly confident. While I am waiting, I email Bo from my BlackBerry. “I think it’s going well,” I write. “And they have a really nice cafeteria.”
The next interviewer is a gangly man with a forlorn demeanor. “You look really familiar,” he says immediately. I do not recognize him, and I wrack my mind for where we might have met. I come up with nothing, and hope that he will drop it, thereby sparing me the discomfort of admitting that I do not remember him. Alas, it comes to him a moment later. “I know you from college!” he says. “Do you remember me?”
“Of course!” I say, thinking, as I do, “Oh, shit.” I cannot think of anything about our shared college experience that I would want a potential employer to be aware of. We reminisce for a moment, condensing more than a decade of life’s milestones into the equivalent of cocktail chatter. When we move on to the details of the job, his dolefulness returns. “I used to work at a Big Law Firm,” he tells me, “but I wasn’t going to do the partner thing, so I decided to move on. This isn’t as exciting as what I did at the firm, and it doesn’t pay nearly as much, but it’s okay. It’s good.” He sounds unconvinced. I am not sure what to say — “that sounds great!” or “just what I’m looking for!”? — but then he adds, “the lifestyle is a lot better. I leave at six every night, and I’ve never worked a weekend in the entire time I’ve been here.” In addition, he says, he doesn’t even have a BlackBerry. “That sounds great!” I respond.
Three more interviewers rotate in and out of the conference room before I am done. The interviewers grow progressively more junior, and the conversations shorter. They know that the substantive discussion has taken place, and by the time the last one asks me whether I have any questions, I am tempted to ask whether I can go home now. By the time Scott returns, I am exhausted. He seems pleased, and asks me when I would be available to start work. “Today!” I nearly blurt. They haven’t made an offer yet, so I don’t want to get ahead of myself. Still, I feel as though — despite my misgivings — the interview went well.
A day goes by, and then another. There is no word from Scott, or anyone at the company. A week passes. My heart sinks. When, finally, I see an email in my inbox from the company — not even the HR woman — I know without reading it that the news will not be good. “Dear Roxana,” it begins. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with us about the available position. We make every effort to find the best person for every job at our company, and we regret to inform you that we will not be extending you an offer at this point. We appreciate your interest and wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.” The message ends, “Please do not reply to this email.” There is something vaguely insulting about its bland boilerplate.
I forward the message to Bo. “They’re assholes,” he writes back. On the bright side, he tells me later, since they are such assholes, I shouldn’t be offended that they didn’t think I was the “best person” for the job. “Clearly,” he says, “they didn’t think you were enough of an asshole.”
Maybe, I think. I guess I’ll keep working on it.