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 firstname.lastname@example.org), follow her on Twitter, or find her on Facebook.
This column is a continuation from last week’s, which you should read first if you haven’t done so already.
After the group members have finished their elevator speeches and turned their attention to the fun meals before them, Rhonda comes over and sits beside me at the kids’ table. “So,” she says, leaning in, “have you made your one connection yet?” Her voice has the same solicitous tone one might use to ask a child whether she brushed her teeth like a good girl, or made wee-wee in the potty chair.
“Not yet!” I say, mustering perkiness, “but the night is young!”
“Well,” she says, undeterred, “I am so glad you could come. These meetings are such a great opportunity to network, even if the group members are not in your exact field. Don’t you think?”
I tell her that I, too, am glad I could come, that I am excited to meet people and do some networking, and that I am fairly certain that connections — especially those formed at networking events! — transcend professions. Although I feel like I am reading from a cue card, the group seems to have its own lexicon, and I realize that I am unconsciously translating conversational English into network parlance. Despite my efforts, however, I slip up a moment later, when I use the words “unemployed” and “laid off” in the same sentence. “Eh eh,” she says, cutting me off. “In transition.” She pronounces the words carefully, as if to ensure comprehension.
We are interrupted by Jason, a member of the group who is leaving early and has come over to say goodbye to Rhonda and Mitch (who is also seated at the kids’ table). Jason talks for a few minutes about some of the “great connections” he has made since the last networking event. “There are some great possible opportunities there,” he says hopefully. “So, we’ll see …” his voice trails off.
“How long have you been unem–in transition?” I ask tactlessly.
“Eight months,” he says, arranging a broad smile. His bravery sounds forced. “But I’m not worried about it. As long as I keep networking, coming to events like this one, staying active on Linked In … I’m sure something will come up.”
“Oh, definitely,” Rhonda and Mitch murmur in unison, nodding emphatically. With automaton-like precision, Jason moves into a sales pitch, pulling out a sheaf of brochures and business cards. He tells us that his wife has started a catering business to bring in extra money. “I’m not just saying this because she’s my wife, heh heh,” he announces sincerely, “but she does a terrific job.” He encourages us to turn to her for our catering needs, and to tell our friends and “contacts” about her. Alas, I find myself thinking: though I’m sure his wife does, in fact, do a terrific job, being “in transition” is so rarely a catered affair.
When he leaves, Rhonda turns to me again. “You see!” she says triumphantly, “that is what’s so great about networking! You never know who you’ll meet, and where you might find a possible opportunity!”
“That’s r-rright!” Mitch chimes in, a piece of lettuce dangling from the corner of his mouth. “I f-ffound out that my son’s friend’s dad worked at one of the companies I was targeting in my search,” he tells us. “So I Linked In and reached out.” He pauses for a moment. “I mean, nothing came of it, but at least I made the connection. That’s the goal when you network: to make that one connection.” He swats his chin with a napkin, relocating the lettuce to his right cheek. “I’m not proud,” he says. “There’s no shame in this environment. I tell everyone I’m in transition.”
Mitch tells me that he has been “in transition” since February. “I’m not worried, though,” he adds, sounding anxious. “I’ve been doing a lot of networking. I go to about four of these groups a week, and I’ve met a lot of people — I made one friend that my wife called ‘my stalker,’ because we would talk on the phone every day!” His smile fades for a moment, and he seems wistful. “Now he’s busy, since he landed, but we still stay in touch.” I ask him where his erstwhile stalker “landed,” picturing a job-seeking networker in a hot air balloon. When Mitch tells me the name of a company, I realize that “landing” is the term of choice to describe what happens when one is no longer “in transition.”
I ask Mitch whether he ever socializes, outside of scheduled events, with his networking friends. “No,” he answers, and then looks alarmed by his honesty. “But I’m sure we will,” he adds quickly. “The last time I was in transition, I made a lot of great connections, but my network fell apart when I landed. This time will be different. I’ve met people I’ll be friends with forever.” He looks dreamy for a moment. “I’ve made friends that I’ll have for the rest of my life,” he repeats.
There is something mournfully plaintive about this sentiment, which I have now heard expressed by two members of the group. Would it have been worth it after all, I want to ask, if you walked away from this ordeal with better friends than you could have imagined? Is this a fable, the precept of which is that fate doles out extraordinary hardship before rewarding you with lifelong connections to people you might never have met? I wonder if this is the lesson to be learned: that this battle — against fear, uncertainty, and financial insecurity — will end with a soft landing and a gang of combat buddies to reminisce with. Over fun food, if we’re lucky. I wonder if being unemployed (sorry: “in transition”) can even be compared to a battle. At this stage, it feels more like a prolonged police action.
I also wonder whether the members of the networking group ever talk about anything other than the many wonders of networking. I turn to the woman sitting next to me, Sharon, who mentioned several volunteer projects in her elevator speech. “Tell me about your volunteer work!” I say, desperate for relief from what has started to feel like networking propaganda.
Sharon is happy to oblige. She tells me that, among other things, she volunteers as a career counselor for teenagers. “In fact, we were just talking about lawyers today!” she says. “I was telling the kids about integrity, and how important it is to be honest with your boss and the other people they work with. And one of them said, ‘Yeah, but what about lawyers? They lie all the time.’” She laughs heartily.
I realize that this is networking small talk, and that we are just bantering over fun food. Still, I feel suddenly defensive. “I think lawyers get a bad rap,” I say slowly, trying to sound neutral. “Sometimes we have to make convoluted arguments, but most of us are pretty honest.”
“Well,” she says, her smile vanishing, “that’s what y’all say to make yourselves feel better, but you know you do.”
You are not going to be my one connection, I think. “In fact, Sharon,” I consider saying, “I don’t want to link in, reach out, or make a connection with you.” Instead, I try a different tactic. “So,” I ask her, “how to do you help the kids choose a career?”
She tells me about an exercise she uses with her young job seekers. “I have them pick out things they’re not good at,” she says, “and then have their friends and family list the things they are good at. Then I try to match the results with their job expectations. It’s really useful — you would be amazed by how many of them say they want to be a police officer, but then tell me that they don’t like being outdoors. Or they think they would want to work in a call center, but they hate being on the phone. It helps them assess what they like, what their strengths are, and how that might translate into a career.”
Sharon studies me for a moment, then snaps into interview mode. “So,” she says, as though addressing a potential candidate, or a teenager, “What are you good at? What job would you like to have?”
I shift uncomfortably in my seat. “At this point,” I say evasively, “it doesn’t really matter what I want to do. It’s a question of what someone will pay me to do.”
Sharon pushes on. What would you want someone to pay you for? she wants to know. If I could have any job, what would I want to do? She folds her arms and waits expectantly for an answer.
In truth, I don’t know how to answer Sharon’s question. Given the opportunity, would I go back to a Big Law firm? At this point, given my financial situation, I would be crazy not to. But is that what I want? If I am honest with myself, the answer is a definitive “no.” It is almost easier to think in terms of what I don’t want to do. I don’t want to go back to the slavery of the billable hour, of worrying about my time more than I worry about my work. I don’t want to explain, over and over, that legal jobs are harder to come by than they have ever been. I don’t want to worry about money all the time. What I do seems more abstract. I want to learn something, to work with people I like, and to feel productive. I sigh wearily.
“I don’t know,” I finally say. It is not necessarily an honest answer — but, I remind myself, I’m a lawyer. Sharon probably doesn’t expect one.
My interview is cut short by Paul, who has come to say goodbye. “I just want you to know, Roxana, that we HR people love lawyers. We have them on our speed dial! They’re really important when we’re making personnel decisions, since they let us know when we really shouldn’t go there, if you know what I mean.”
“Like when you’re firing people?” I ask.
“We call them ‘termination decisions,’” he says, “but yes.”
“Well, that’s good to hear,” I tell him. “At least we’re useful for something.”
I chat with the other networkers for a while longer. Rhonda returns to my table, and spends a few more minutes gushing effusively about the power of networking. “I’m telling you,” she says insistently, “just make that one connection. Make that your goal, and you’ll be surprised by how many other connections grow from it.” Her enthusiasm is infectious, and I find myself believing that I, too, can swish through daily life making connections, one at a time.
The evening is winding down, and group members start to drift out, stopping by our table to drop off business cards and shake hands. An occasional round of cheering erupts from the bar downstairs, where a rowdy group is watching the baseball game. After a few more minutes, I stand up to leave.
“We’ll see you soon!” Mitch says. He hopes I will make it to the group’s next meeting, he tells me, and encourages me to come to a few of the groups that meet in other flair chains, in other strip malls. “Keep networking!” Rhonda adds. “Keep making those connections!”
“It’s been wonderful meeting you all,” I tell Rhonda, Mitch, Sharon, and the others at the table. I know I will never see them again. “Good luck to all of you,” I say, “and Godspeed.”
On my way downstairs, I notice that — although Halloween is still weeks away — the restaurant is festooned with ghoulish flair. A floppy Grim Reaper lies, face-down, at the bottom of the landing. I wonder if he is another casualty of this recession, or if he perished trying to escape. Perhaps, I think, he simply expired while he was waiting for Bono. “That guy is dead,” I tell one of the hostesses, pointing to his limp body. Out of the corner of my eye, I see her rush to his aid.
I feel as though I have been at the flair chain for a long time, and I am suddenly exhausted. I stop in the ladies room to splash cold water on my face, hoping that it will perk me up before my drive.
There is loud music playing in the restroom, and I recognize the song (selected by the unseen bathroom D.J.) as a bouncy tune that was popular about ten years ago. At first, I do not listen to the words, but, after a moment, I begin to make out the chorus. “Thank you terror,” the singer intones, “thank you disillusionment. Thank you frailty, thank you consequence …” Although I am hearing them in the ladies room at a suburban flair chain, the words seem oddly poignant. “Thank you providence,” she sings, “thank you disillusionment. Thank you nothingness, thank you clarity … thank you, thank you silence …”
I dry my face and walk through the restaurant — past Elvis, past the cheering sports fans, past the Halloween decorations and glittering strands of flair. Outside, the night is silent, and the sky is clear.
Roxana St. Thomas is a laid-off lawyer living in New York. You can reach her by email (at email@example.com), 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