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.
Welcome back from the long weekend, dear readers. I hope that, after what has been a hard year for many of us, everybody had a good time, everybody let their hair down, and everybody saw the sunshine. And anything else you can think of.
As a preliminary matter, I thank you wholeheartedly for your diligent attention to last week’s Homework Assignment from the Breadline. You answered the call with incredibly thoughtful, honest, and poignant responses to our questions about your experiences, for which I am extremely grateful. It’s good to see your faces a bit more clearly.
Well, my friends: without further ado, let’s put this thing together.
First, we wanted to hear about the experience of life in the breadline as an “older” member of the workforce, whether from readers who had been there themselves or from those who had seen a parent struggle with unemployment. Your responses reflected the particular indignities of being laid off and looking for work at a certain age, and described the sting of discovering that years of acquired wisdom and competence are, suddenly, of little consequence to the skeptical gatekeeper reviewing your résumé.
One reader, whom we’ll call “Mike,” got the phone call from human resources last July, just after his 58th birthday. “We were friendly,” he wrote, “so the ritual kiss from Al Pacino was brief and honest.” Mike was asked to sign a non-disclosure/non-disparagement agreement and given five weeks of severance in a lump sum. Of that, he said, “the USA and NY took 40%.”
So what has Mike been up to since hitting the breadline?
After being “let go,” Mike
Hit the net for two hours a day looking for jobs. I must have applied for 500-600 had about 20 interviews and got one temp gig that lasted a week. The low point was a doc sorting temp job at Goldman Sachs where I would have had to commute to Jersey City for the princely sum of $23/hour with no OT. I arrive drenched with sweat having to go overland to the PATH from the Fulton stop on the 4/5 on the only hot day in July. Some dork half my age talks to me for 5 minutes (after waiting for half an hour) during which time I attempted to impress him with my ability and diligence. The next day, after a credit check which turned up a paid 1994 tax lien for $329.00, they “passed on my résumé.” The most humiliating part was that I had prostrated myself for an underpaid 2-3 month temp gig in an inconvenient location. Another was an interview with a “mid-law” firm doing commercial closings where I had to take a typing test because it was a fetish of the troll office manager.
Mike is still unemployed, but he and his wife have been able to manage on her salary, supplemented by the $430 a week he receives from unemployment. For now, Mike says, he is “a combination cook/housekeeper/gardener/handyman.” Although he would like to find another legal job, he does not sound hopeful.
Other readers echoed Mike’s resignation. “I’m 58 and was laid off for first time ever last January from a NYC law firm,” wrote one. “Never thought this would ever happen to me. Hah! Managing on unemployment and savings, but there isn’t much at all to interview for and nothing comparable to the hours and salary I had.”
Those of you who described your parents’ experiences in the breadline reminded me of a perspective which (as a function of my own circumstances and single existence) I don’t often take the time to consider: that of the children and families of people who are laid off. Although I am mindful of how relative our sense of deprivation necessarily is, I admit that some of your stories made me want to give all of us — myself included — a sharp slap on the back of the head for complaining about the loss of our six-figure jobs and the size of our severance packages.
For example, “Ken” told me about his father, who, in 1988, was laid off from his job in a garment factory in NYC’s Chinatown, where he had worked for several decades as a “presser” (the guy who operates the steam press). The work, says Ken, was hot, sweaty, and low-paying, but “the job allowed him to feed us and pay the mortgage on our little house in Queens ($303 a month). I never heard him complain about it.” At age 60, Ken’s father was “too old and proud to start over and work at the other jobs available to him (dishwasher, janitor),” and “too young and with too many dependents to retire.” After being laid off, he “spent his days sitting on the couch, reading the paper and watching television.” Ken wrote:
We struggled after my father lost his job. My parents’ combined income — never more than $30K, even at its peak — was halved. The timing could not have been worse. My oldest sister was just starting college, and my other sister and I were in the expensive junior high and high school years, where fitting in meant having different outfits and money for movies. We did not fit in.
But the worst part of my father’s unemployment was the simple fact that he never went anywhere. When friends came over, the shame was almost unbearable — his mere presence seemed to signify that he was a failure, as though an essential characteristic of fatherhood is absence. When friends asked, I lied and told them that he was my grandfather. At night I prayed that the economy would improve and that life would return to normal.
My father sat on the couch for two years and began collecting social security when he was 62. He never worked again.
“PK” — herself the victim of a stealth layoff in late 2008 — described a similar experience. Her father, an engineer, was laid off in 1990, when she was 11 years old. The 9 months he spent looking for work was, she said, “a terrifying time for my family.” Fortunately, her father fared better than Ken’s dad; after a handful of unsuccessful interviews, he got a job “80 miles from our home for a pay cut and worked there for four years before getting a job back at his old company (complete with his old vacation accrual — apparently, engineers are treated more gracefully in layoffs than lawyers).”
The experience shaped PK’s own career ambitions. After reading about post-graduate salaries in U.S. News & World Report, she recalled that “seeing lawyers earn $80k per year seemed like a king’s ransom, and I thought I’d be able to help out my family if I became a lawyer. After working my butt off in high school, college, and then getting into my top law school, I never thought twice about whether I wanted to be a lawyer until being laid off. I guess it had been such a scary, poor time back in 1990, I thought that being rich was better than being happy… not ever realizing that the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.”
For the second part of your homework assignment, we wanted to hear about what you are doing to fill your days in the breadline, especially if you are among the long-term unemployed (six months or more). Your answers were as varied — and as interesting — as you are, and their range confirmed that all of you are, as I suspected, above average.
Some of you have been incredibly productive, thereby shaming those of us (e.g., yours truly) who are currently staring at a heap of unsorted junk mail and a slightly threatening pile of dust that appears capable of coming to life and consuming one (or more) of the cats. Renaissance Breadliner Mike, for example, has “developed a mean Bolognese Sauce and a Cassoulet,” and, rumor has it, also “perfected the art of the roast chicken”. In a breadline version of “work/life balance,” Mike offsets his culinary “work product” by hitting the gym “5-6 times a week,” and as a result has shed 35 pounds and can “bench press 225 lb four times.” He has also landscaped the backyard; done plumbing, electrical, and carpentry work on his son’s new house; and “taken this opportunity to read poetry again, principally 20th Century American Imagists.”
Others wrote about their efforts to network, stay busy, and generate leads. Stef, for example, told me that, in an attempt to “jockey for substantive work,” she had “done two pro bono gigs, wrote a journal article on executive compensation and TARP, volunteered with Am Law 200 Restructuring Chairs, started a new blawg, enrolled at NYU in continuing education, [was] about to join the board of a non-profit art organization, loaded up on CLEs, lined up new Am Law practice leaders to review new subject papers, gone to MBA networking events,” and was “pretty much checking [her] horoscope every day and visiting tarot readers and psychics on a monthly basis. This is apart from the continuous stream of applications sent into ‘the blackhole,’ or the discovery work I clock to pay the bills.”
Whew! I hope you get a job soon, Stef. You need some time to relax — and you’re making the rest of us look bad.
For some, this time has afforded the opportunity to reflect and indulge. In doing so, many of you have stumbled upon revelations that may ultimately lead you in a different direction altogether. Kianga, a former VP and energy counsel to the commodities trading business who was laid off in 2008, wrote to me from a delightfully sunny region of the breadline. She told me that, as of a few days ago, she has “committed to blogging about an art work every weekday for a year,” and has recorded a 3-part lecture, entitled “The Instress of Art: A Lawyer’s Guide to a Better Life,” about “how to hear the voice of God and let it lead you to a better life through art.”
And PK, who interviewed for a handful of jobs at prestigious government agencies after applying to the FBI, found herself wondering whether, if particular openings “came through faster than the FBI, ‘would I rather do this?’ Because the answer was always an uncomfortable ‘no,’” she wrote, “I realized I didn’t want to be an attorney at all. This revelation allowed me tremendous clarity.”
Many of you were catching up on both simple pleasures and good works, like reading novels, playing chess, and volunteering in the (legal and non-legal) community. One reader — representing, no doubt, her silent compatriots — told me that she found herself “going to Target a lot and watching a lot of reality TV.” Sleep was also a popular pastime: “I spent the first two weeks of unemployment sleeping about 14 hrs a night,” wrote one friend. “The black bags that had been under my eyes since the third week of law school disappeared!” Echoing a sentiment expressed by many, another friend said, simply, “My home has never been so clean.” And, of course, for those of you with children, filling time “is not a problem,” although stay-at-home motherhood made at least one reader “wish I were back in my office churning out partnership agreements instead of cleaning up various bodily fluids.”
Finally, for the last part of your assignment, we wanted to hear about the best and worst parts of prolonged unemployment. Your responses — brave, contemplative, and, in many cases, incredibly poignant — confirmed that many of you are, indeed, walking the line between faith and fear. For what it’s worth, friends, it was also clear from your answers that we share the same worries, regrets, and moments of despair. In other words, we’re all in this thing together.
Not surprisingly, one of the worst parts of life in the breadline is, for many, its emotionally devastating consequences. “I’ve lost a huge chunk of my confidence,” wrote Leslie, a senior associate who has been out of work for 6 months. “I put on a happy face to outsiders, but inside, I wonder if I made the right choice to attend law school so many years ago. I remember how excited I was when I graduated — looking back, it seems silly, almost ridiculously naive of me.”
Our friend Mike described how “some mornings I awake futile and worthless. Bleak on a sunlit morning. No matter what you do, prolonged lack of work has your sense of self worth circling the drain. It has altered the dynamic of my marriage as I have become a dependent. I often despair of finding any sort of legal job and fear spending my last working years driving a limo or ringing up sales at Trader Joes.” Another reader, Ted, echoed Mike’s sentiments. “My complete impression of myself and the decisions I’ve made in my life have gone from good to bad. As if this singular event discounted every effort I have made up to now.”
A number of readers described the sadness of sensing (or fearing) that your career — the product of those efforts — was slipping through your fingers. The worst part of unemployment, wrote one, is “the very real thought of having to leave law to find meaningful work in another industry. Am not there yet, but I am aware of time issues surrounding me as a candidate … I went into law to solve problems: so I’ll see how effective I am at resolving this one.” Readers also talked about the isolation of unemployment, the dissatisfaction of working at sub-optimal interim jobs, and the guilt of being (or at least feeling) idle when, in the words of one reader, “I’m supposed to working and using my mind!”
Fear not, readers: as a member of the Seinfeld generation, I understand the importance of ending on a high note, of which there were many in your responses. Accordingly, I leave you with the thoughts of your fellow breadliners regarding some of the best parts of unemployment. “I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE being able to nap and eat when I want,” one reader wrote. “And, not having to do anything I really don’t want to is pretty sweet. I never knew how lazy I could be.” Kianga told me that she is “happy to have the freedom to do what I really want to do in life” — namely, to “look at art and encourage other people to look at art.” And a number of readers were grateful for gift of additional time with their children, the pleasures of a clean house, and the money saved on dry cleaning.
For others, being “let go” served to liberate them from a framework which, they realized, had stifled some of the values — and the things about themselves — that they treasured most. One reader, Elizabeth, told me that “the weirdest part of unemployment was that I discovered that I’m a person with independent thoughts and interests again. I didn’t live my life feeling like I had to fit into my male boss’s opinion of what a female lawyer looks like and I didn’t have to pretend to hold opinions I actually didn’t have … I started doing things again that I actually liked to do. I had time to actually see my friends again. I felt like ‘me’ again.”
Finally, several readers emphasized the importance of perspective, and remembering that this, too, will probably pass. “Unemployment is like a break-up,” wrote one. “You can’t not go through the emotional motions involved, but at some point you have to move on. A lot of young attorneys are not ready to move on yet, and a lot of older attorneys just don’t know how to move on.”
And, if all else fails, think of this advice, from our friend Mike: “As my late father said,” he told me, “you just have to outlive these suckers.”
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.
Earlier: Prior installments of Notes from the Breadline