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), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
Ah, the library. When was the last time you thought about it? When I started law school, I had a somewhat mystical notion of what the library would be like. Rays of afternoon sunlight would filter through tall windows, illuminating dust motes and spilling onto the pages of my neatly IRAC-ed briefs. I would sit at a long table, chewing thoughtfully on my pen before delving into an incisive analysis of Carolene Products, fn 4. A delicate lamp with a green glass shade would cast warm light on the law review article I was writing in longhand, with a fountain pen. I would meet a handsome stranger in the stacks and we would fall in love, like the Clintons.
In reality, the law library was devoid of such scholarly romanticism. It was either oppressively hot, resulting in all-girl study groups whose attire was more suggestive of a “Law Students Gone Wild” video than a chat session about conveyances, or cold enough to require indoor scarf-wearing. I spent more time asleep, with my face planted awkwardly on an open book, than I did actually reading. One of the bitchier members of our section patrolled the library with fierce determination, shushing us when we giggled about bizarre tort cases and classroom gunners. When it came time to study for the bar exam, I spent so much time in the library that, toward the end, I would wake up — in my own bed — feeling disoriented by the unfamiliar surroundings, groping anxiously for my highlighters. For years, I couldn’t pass by the building without experiencing the panicky sense that I had forgotten something important about commercial paper.
These memories, which conjure a queasy blend of academic stress, physical discomfort, and the feeling of being incarcerated in a cell made of CFR parts, resulted in a certain degree of library amnesia. Indeed, it hadn’t occurred to me to set foot in a law library for … well, years. Then, a few weeks ago, I received an email that read….
My Name is Dan Jordan. I am the Director of Library Services at the New York County Lawyers’ Association.
Perhaps libraries in general and a law library in particular can be part of your plan to get back to work?
If a law library with a strong print collection and access to Lexis, Westlaw and Blaw (Bloomberg’s law database) could be of help, I am willing to grant you a one day pass under the NYCLA Library’s “take a look” program. Let me know if you want to visit our membership library to see if it fits into your emerging plans.
Perhaps, I thought, it was time to reacquaint myself with the library. Like Mark Sanford, I could work to repair our relationship. I could resolve to fall in love with the library once again.
“That sounds great!” I responded. “I’d love some more details.” Like anyone contemplating a first date, I wanted information. In his next email, Dan told me that:
The New York County Lawyers’ Association Library is open to the members of this Association and also accommodates members of the New York City Bar. A day pass for a non-member attorney is usually $40.00. I want non-members attorneys to see what this library has to offer so I set up a “Take a Look” program giving one time access at no charge. In addition to our 220,000 books and well trained and seasoned staff, we also offer unlimited onsite access to our patron subscriptions to Lexis, Westlaw and BLAW (Bloomberg Law).
Membership in the New York County Lawyers’ Association offers many other benefits too, from discounts on CLE programs, discounts on products and services to lawyers and an opportunity to participate in the association’s committees.
Over the last few months I have granted about a dozen one day passes to lawyers in transition.
Shortly thereafter, I arranged a visit to the NYCLA, hopeful (as always) that I would find a stone that had been left unturned, pick up a few useful tips, or learn something – anything — that might help to revive my moribund job search. Anything.
On a bright morning in July, I make my way to the New York County Lawyers’ Association, which is housed in a Georgian-style building on Vesey Street. Outside, in the blazing sun, the din of construction from the World Trade Center site is deafening, but the moment I step into the marble lobby the sound of air horns and grinding machinery recedes. It is cool and dim inside, and when I tell the receptionist that I am there to see Dan, I realize that I am practically whispering. I have (surprisingly) showered, washed my hair, and put on a skirt in preparation for my visit, but I am also wearing flip-flops. For a moment, cowed by the august trappings of a legal era gone by, I feel conspicuously underdressed.
When Dan, a sturdy man with a thick mop of gray hair, emerges to retrieve me, my concern vanishes. He greets me with a warm smile and shows me to his office, which is just untidy enough to assure me that he is a normal lawyer. Dan is polite and friendly, and has an encyclopedic knowledge of local New York history; he tells me, for example, that the part of Brooklyn where my parents now live used to be known as Pigtown. Ha ha, I think, imagining a later conversation with my father. You live in Pigtown. This visit has been worthwhile already.
First, Dan tells me about the Association, which was founded over 100 years ago and, historically, differentiated itself from bar associations that extended membership on an invitation-only basis. Consistent with its tradition of inclusiveness, he says, the Association now has an organizational structure which (many members find) makes it easier to serve on committees and interact with the organization’s leaders. Committee membership, he tells me, is an important part of what any bar association has to offer, and NYCLA is no different.
Then Dan tells me a little bit about himself. He has been a law librarian for much of his career, but he worked briefly at a law firm; he also tells me that he once experienced a period of job transition and ‘underemployment’ himself. “So,” he explains, “I understand what you and a lot of your colleagues are going through.”
What would you tell me, I ask Dan, if I came in for a “look around” and asked you for help with my job search?
“Well,” he says, “I would ask you what you would like to be doing in five years. What would you like to be doing in five years?”
“I don’t know,” I say. I can barely imagine what will happen next week; the thought of planning the next five years makes me tired. “But let’s pretend I do.”
He takes me through a few ideas. First, he says, he often advises people to build expertise by writing articles. “If you write one or two articles, you can begin to distinguish yourself as an expert,” he explains. “So you might want to identify what area of law you’d like to be focusing on in five years, and start writing on that topic.” NYCLA’s access to Westlaw, Lexis, and the inscrutable “BLAW” might be of use for this endeavor.
Next, he tells me, there are a number of web resources that can be useful to job hunting lawyers, including Indeed.com and SimplyHired.com. If, like me, you need a tutorial on the plethora of ways to search for jobs online, you will be pleased to learn that Indeed and SimplyHired are aggregators, which make your life easier by generating results from numerous search sites. Thus, if you search Indeed or Simply Hired using keywords like “attorney” and “lawyer” (which can be further refined by geographic area, job type, etc.), you will be directed to listings drawn from multiple sources. Of course, this assumes that such listings exist, which they may not. Dan also mentions Idealist.org, which – as its name implies – allows the underemployed idealist to look for positions that involve what is often referred to as “God’s work.”
“You might also want to check out Weddle’s Newsletters,” Dan tells me, handing me copies of three such newsletters. I am not sure whether Weddle is a company or a guy with a bowtie (who, in my mind’s eye, looks remarkably similar to Orville Redenbacher), but its/his newsletters report on “internet resources for successful job search and career management.” One of the newsletters Dan gives me is directed to job seekers, and provides tips for searching and a bookstore where one can obtain Zagat-type guides to employment sites on the internet. (For example, the guides list top job boards, as well as professional and technical organizations that have online job search and networking resources.) Another Weddle newsletter is targeted to professional career counselors and coaches. I imagine that, since people in this field are probably overwhelmed by potential candidates, the newsletter is of limited utility unless it contains detailed directions for a magic trick that enables one to create job openings from a lump of coal.
Dan also tells me about a few online groups which, while not dedicated to serving the needs of lawyers, provide resources for unemployed professionals and executives. One is the Forty Plus Club, which almost certainly has chapters in a state near you. Worry not, fellow Breadliners: membership in the Forty Plus Club is not limited to those who celebrated their 39th birthday at least one year ago. Rather, it describes itself as “the original self-help job-search organization,” whose “members have been successfully changing ‘Fired’ to ‘Hired’ since 1939, when America was still struggling to pull out of the Great Depression.” Forty Plus claims to have “pioneered many of the most successful, step-by-step techniques that actually work. For example, [their] pioneering Resume Builder Program has long been recognized as the Gold Standard in New York. You could pay hundreds of dollars just for a new resume; at Forty Plus, it is included in your membership!” Membership, FYI, appears to be $250.
The 5:00 Club, which Dan also tells me about, is similar to the Forty Plus Club: it serves a professional contingent and provides coaching, resume assistance, and detailed instructions on how to find the job you so richly deserve. According to its website,
You’ll meet the most interesting people in the world–right at The Five O’Clock Club. Our members include orchestra conductors, producers and actors, nuns and ministers, people growing a wide range of consulting businesses and private practices, professionals and managers from every discipline and industry, those trying to break into the professional ranks, and of course, all those senior executives (40% of our members earn in excess of $100,000 a year).
As a group, Five O’Clock Clubbers are all alike: upbeat, ambitious, proactive, intelligent–and giving. They give at the Club by helping other members.
I leave you, fellow Breadliners, to explore the benefits of 5:00 Club membership, which can be yours for the “nominal membership fee of only $49!”
What else, I ask Dan, can a group like NYCLA (or NYCLA specifically) do for an unemployed, or underemployed, lawyer? Well, he says, if you happen to know what you want to do – the practice area or niche upon which you would like to focus your professional energies – you can join a committee. Of course, you have to be a member to join a committee (and NYCLA’s membership dues, like those of most bar associations, are based on a sliding scale that corresponds to years in practice), but Dan explains that committees serve two vital purposes. First, they provide excellent opportunities for networking. Second, he says, they provide structure, and the opportunity to do something with your time. If you have coasted down the Slip ‘n Slide of extended unemployment, you are probably aware that the chance to “do something” is a useful tool in your arsenal. If nothing else, purposeful activity helps keep you tethered to reality, and may slow the deterioration of your underused intellectual faculties.
“So,” I say to Dan, “have you become a de facto career counselor for lawyers ‘in transition’?”
“No,” he says carefully. “I’m not a career counselor. But I think I’m an empathetic person, so I end up being a little bit of a cheerleader. When people come in, I talk to them, and I might offer them a “take a look” pass. I try to come up with ideas. I might ask someone if they’ve thought of teaching law at a college, or a legal writing course at a law school. I might urge them to look at the Journal of Higher Education, which has job listings for that sort of thing, or encourage them to think about ‘support positions’ at a law school, in admissions or career services, that might work with their ‘skill set.’ I show them where our bulletin board is, where people post signs and business cards. If someone speaks a rare language, I would suggest that they look through Martindale Hubbell for firms where that language is in demand – or, I might tell them to look for immigration firms where no one speaks that language, and where they might be able to add value. I tell people to focus on their hobbies, no matter how idiosyncratic, and figure out whether they can find a way to network through the groups they belong to or sell an unusual talent.” He tells me that he knew someone who belonged to the Wizard of Oz Society (think of the untapped networking potential!), and another person who had a degree of expertise in the field of horse law. “You never know …” he says.
Dan pauses for a moment before he continues. “When I’m a cheerleader,” he says, “I don’t have to be rooted in reality I just have to come up with ideas. And not all ideas are good; there’s probably a certain amount of wheel-spinning. But you need to have a nimble mind when you’re trying to solve a problem like unemployment. You also need to have an attitude that’s as positive as it can possibly be. I always tell people, ‘If you have shreds of wisdom, hold onto them. If you have a sense of humor, keep it.’”
Dan shows me around the library — of which he is clearly proud — and we say our goodbyes. I step outside to make a phone call, and then wander back upstairs to poke around on my own. It is nearing lunchtime, and the library feels sleepy. Even the long wooden tables look as though they are stretching their limbs, waiting for the next hundred years, for the next crop of earnest lawyers, heads bent over their battered surfaces. I walk up the spiral staircase, where two men work quietly at computer terminals, too absorbed to notice that I am watching them. An old man sits at a desk, sleeping, his head thrown back. I move silently through the library, trying not to part the stillness.
Downstairs, light pours in through a bank of high windows framed by plants, illuminating dust motes and spilling over the shoulders of several lawyers who sit at the scarred wooden desks, working intently. I chew on my pen, watching them, trying to remember what it feels like. I think about the degree of care that goes into a motion, the moment when facts become seamless — indistinguishable from your own thoughts, the not-entirely unpleasant disorientation of complete immersion in a case. I think of the itchy frustration of sensing, without being able to see, the way to make your argument work, and then the palpable click of ideas falling into place when you do. I think about the satisfaction of holding a finished brief in your hands, feeling the tangible weight of your hours and effort; and I think of the inexplicable mixture of relief and gratitude when you win a judge over, and the hot, prickly surge of anger when you don’t.
I take the elevator downstairs and walk out into the sun. I don’t feel like getting on the subway, so I walk across the street to St. Paul’s Chapel, where tourists crowd around ancient, worn headstones in the old cemetery and workers sit on the shaded benches, smoking and staring into the distance. I have never cared for cemeteries, but it feels good to be surrounded by grass and the gentle sound of wind rustling though the trees. How strange, I think, that this place should feel so alive.
I wander aimlessly for a few minutes, lost in thought, until I realize that it is time for me to go; I am meeting a friend in Union Square, and I am about to be late. On my way out of the churchyard I glance over, and notice a stone plaque on the wall of the chapel. I cannot make out the name at the top, but I can read the letters below. The plaque, it says, was placed there “As a feeble tribute to the value of all that could be lost.”
I read it again, and a lump rises in my throat. I think about everything I have lost already, and the value of all that I might still lose. My mind swirls.
Here are some of the things I lost: I lost money. I lost a title and an office. I lost my financial security. I lost the sense that I had something to offer my clients.
What about the value of all that could have been lost? I could have lost the chance to help someone; to make even one life better. I could have lost the belief that (current circumstances notwithstanding) the law is an amazing thing to behold, and that we are lucky to be its guardians. I could have lost the sense I had, watching people in the library, that we are part of an effort that will go on, in perpetuity, long after we are gone, and that it is worth doing well while we have the chance. But I didn’t.
“I won’t give up,” I whisper, unsure who I am addressing. “I won’t.” A man, sitting on the bench below the plaque, looks at me curiously. “Thank you,” I say out loud. “Thank you.” My gratitude feels feeble, but it is the only tribute I have.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook. And check out the Notes from the Breadline t-shirt store here.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline