We cover the gloom-and-doom in the legal job market quite well here at Above the Law. But there are happy stories out there too — and not just for the top graduates of top law schools.
This is the story of Fred (not his real name; he asked to remain anonymous). Fred graduated in 2011 from a well-ranked but not super-elite law school — a top 50 school, but not a top three, top six, or even “T14” school. He was not at the top of the class, nor was he on the law review. Many of Fred’s similarly situated classmates are unemployed or underemployed, drifting from one contract-attorney or paralegal-type job to another.
Fred is much better off than many of them. He has a job that he enjoys. He works for two weeks, followed by two weeks of vacation. He makes somewhere between $60,000 and $100,000 a year, with the exact amount depending on how much he wants to work. And if things go according to plan, in a few years he could be earning $250,000 a year (or more).
Right now some of you are dying to know: What does Fred do, and how can I get this job?
Fred is a truck driver. In North Dakota. In case you haven’t been following the news, the economy there is booming, thanks in large part to oil money.
The unemployment rate in North Dakota for December 2011 was the lowest in the nation, at 3.3 percent (compared to a nationwide unemployment rate of 8.5 percent for that month). The main problem isn’t unemployment, but a housing shortage. Random retirees are cashing royalty checks for their mineral rights for up to $80,000 — a month.
Here at Above the Law, we sometimes poke good-natured fun at law school job listings for auto mechanics, parking garage attendants, or bank tellers. It can be depressing, or even insulting, to have your career services office serve up such postings and call it a day. But setting snark aside, these are real jobs. There is a dignity to work, whether manual or mental. And when you’re paying off massive student loans, every dollar counts. Your lenders don’t care whether that dollar came from Wachtell or Wal-Mart.
With all this in mind, I spoke by phone with Fred, the law school graduate turned North Dakota truck driver. He graduated from college in 2007 with a degree in English literature — so it was only a matter of time before he found his way to law school. (No disrespect intended to English majors; I majored in English myself.)
After graduating from law school last year, in 2011, Fred obtained a part-time paralegal / law clerk position that had the potential to turn into a full-time associate position. Alas, the work ran out late last year. The part-time job paid $18 an hour; Fred estimates that the full-time position might have paid $45,000 annually. (It’s worth noting that Fred did not live in a place with a high cost of living, so $45,000 for a legal job isn’t awful.)
Fortunately for Fred, he had a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL), dating back to some driving work he did to put himself through college and before going to law school. Armed with this license, which he said is not hard to get — you can get one through a commercial driving school, for a few thousand dollars — Fred headed off to North Dakota, where he quickly found work.
Fred drives a freshwater truck — a water tanker truck, essentially — which he uses to deliver water to oil drilling sites. The water is used for hydraulic fracturing, aka “fracking” (a process that has generated some controversy). According to Fred, fracking a single well can require as much as 1.5 million gallons of water.
At about $30 an hour, the work pays better than Fred’s old law firm position. And the work is abundant, Fred said; if you want to work 80 to 100 hours a week, you can find the jobs.
Fred doesn’t work every week, though. He generally works for two weeks, during which time he stays in a camper trailer or sleeps in his rig, and then goes home to his family for two weeks. They live in a neighboring state with a low cost of living.
“I’m looking at around $60,000 to $100,000 on an annual basis,” Fred said. “That pay is better than a lot of lawyer jobs around here.”
And the job in many respects is better than the work he did while at a small law firm. “I like my current job better,” Fred told me. “I’m in better health. My back doesn’t hurt any more, like it did when I was sitting in a chair all day. And there’s lower pressure — nobody is hounding me about the passive voice in my writing.”
That said, working as a truck driver is neither cushy nor mentally challenging. Fred drives his truck back and forth between a water well and an oil well. The one-way drive between the two locations can be as short as 15 minutes or as long as an hour and 40 minutes, depending on the job. Every time Fred gets to a well site, he gets out of his truck and hooks up hoses to either load or unload the water. It can be brutally cold; some nights it feels as frigid as 40 below zero (with the windchill).
Despite the challenges, Fred isn’t the only lawyer working the oil fields up in North Dakota. After he told a mechanic about his legal background, the mechanic said, “Man, I’ve met lawyers up here, I’ve met doctors up here. It’s like a Wild West boomtown — everyone’s coming up here!”
Just like working as a lawyer, working as a truck driver has upward mobility opportunities. If Fred can get a coveted “hazardous materials” or “hazmat” endorsement, which would allow him to haul crude oil, he could make $40 an hour (compared to the $30 an hour he currently earns).
What would really set Fred up is if he can realize his plan of buying his own truck. If he can acquire a truck, he can pay other people to drive it and still make over $250,000 a year for himself. Truck operators get paid around $135 an hour for water and $170 an hour for oil, while paying their drivers just $30 to $40 an hour. The trucking world is just like the legal world: you’re better off profiting from the labors of others than selling your own labor by the hour.
How much does a truck cost? According to Fred, you can get a secondhand tractor for approximately $30,000, and a trailer for anywhere from $50,000 to $100,000. So, all in, you can get a tractor-trailer for about $80,000 to $150,000. That’s about the cost of a law degree, depending on how much one has to borrow — and, at least for some people, the truck might be the better investment.
P.S. I found it odd that the trailer costs more than the tractor, so I asked Fred about it in a follow-up email. He explained: “This is a little odd, but is due to the fact that the trailers are in high demand. Oil trailers sell for as much as 30% over MSRP if you can even find one, water trailers 10%. Any tractor (e.g., Freightliner, Mack) can be used with the specialized trailer with the addition of a widely available $7,500 vacuum attachment.”