Jeremy's Weblog

I recently graduated from Harvard Law School. This is my weblog. It tries to be funny. E-mail me if you like it. For an index of what's lurking in the archives, sorted by category, click here.

Sunday, January 19, 2003

2200 words about the summer job search, some of which my loyal readers will recognize, but many of which are brand new:

Truth, Justice, and the Summer Job Search

I’d been a law school student for less than a week when I found myself in a crowded lecture hall staring at a PowerPoint slide that read, “Introduction to the Summer Job Search.” Already? I thought I was at law school to avoid looking for a job. Wasn’t that what made law school sound so appealing? Three more years to figure out what I really wanted to do with my life?

“We’re not allowed to talk to you yet about finding a summer job,” the woman with the permanent smile told us. “The rules are that we can’t talk to you until November, and you can’t send out any resumes until December 1st. This is to make sure you’re able to focus exclusively on your classes for the first part of the semester.” I took a deep breath and relaxed a bit. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad.

The woman continued. “We are, however, allowed to talk to you more generally about the kinds of jobs that are out there, and give you some tips on writing resumes and cover letters. I’m passing out a pamphlet we publish every year with some more information.”

I’d already learned that a pamphlet in law school means something very different than a pamphlet at the doctor’s office. On the first day of civil procedure class, the professor asked to turn to page 845 in our federal rules pamphlet. Everyone looked around, wondering if we’d missed the pamphlet distribution session, and what kind of pamphlet could possibly have 845 pages. It turned out he meant the thick red book we’d each spent sixty dollars for in the bookstore. But I suppose compared to the 1400-page casebook, it was in fact just a pamphlet.

Sure enough, the woman proceeded to distribute a 425-page book listing the address of pretty much every organization in the world that’s ever hired a first-year law student, along with sample resumes and cover letters. Of course, they weren’t allowed to talk to us about finding a summer job for two more months.

According to the New York Times, students are “flooding graduate and law schools with the highest number of applications seen in decades.” A recent article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette proclaims that “across the nation, graduate and professional schools have experienced a surge of interest not seen in nearly a decade as graduating seniors… seek refuge from a dismal job market by re-enlisting for another hitch in the academic world.”

“Seek refuge”? Not quite. I can say with confidence that going to law school to avoid looking for a job is like going to the rainforest to avoid getting wet.

Here at Harvard, they double the pleasure. An Office of Career Services for the law firm jobs, and an Office of Public Interest Advising for everything else. Literally everything else. As long as it’s not a law firm. I get the feeling that I could get public interest funding if I took a job cutting down redwood trees, spilling oil in the ocean, or kicking puppies. Just because it’s not a law firm.

At times it feels like the two offices are at war with one another. Another September meeting joined representatives from both offices together – again, they weren’t allowed to actually talk to us about finding a summer job; this was merely a meeting to discuss what they would be allowed to tell us once they were allowed to talk. A tag-team summer job assault, I suppose. They took turns – the man from career services said that “most people go to a law firm, and there’s a good reason why.” The woman from the public interest office made a face. “Money isn’t everything,” she said, “and a law firm job isn’t for everyone.”

“But there are many different kinds of law firms, not just the large corporate ones in the big cities. There are also the medium-sized ones.”

“But public interest doesn’t mean living in poverty. It might, but it doesn’t have to. There are many fulfilling public interest jobs in cities where the cost of living is low enough that earning $17,000 per year is not that terrible. Cities like Moscow.”

“But there’s a reason everyone goes to work for a corporate firm. It’s good training.”

“But it’s only good training for corporate work. There’s a temptation to follow the herd, but you don’t have to be sucked in.”

“They make it easy for you. They come to campus – 800 employers a year, for 550 students. So some walk away empty-handed. They want you. You’re smart. They’ll pay you lots of money. It’s not that bad. Some people like it. I met one of them once.”

“They make it easy for you because if they don’t make it easy, no one will go work for them. And the pay really isn’t that good when you factor in that you’ll be working 120 hours a week.”

“Eighty, tops.”

“A hundred.”




“And a half.”

“When you’re working ninety-two and a half hours a week doing something you hate---“

“Remember, you still have over 75 more hours to do something you love.”

“And to sleep.”

“Good lawyers don’t sleep.”

And on, and on, and on. We left that meeting with two sets of handouts, one lauding the praises of law firm work, and one comparing it to a deal with the devil. Only the devil doesn’t make people defend tobacco companies, insurance companies, oil companies, corporate polluters, former dictators of third-world countries, and Enron.

Actually, the deal with the devil metaphor isn’t mine. It comes from a brochure we received in our mailboxes. From a law firm. It’s scary enough when the public interest office tells us that law firm work is no fun. Scarier still when our friends who’ve already graduated tell us. But scariest when the law firms themselves say so. In their promotional materials. The trend appears to be manipulated honesty. They admit life at a law firm sucks, but they position themselves ever-so-slightly above the fray. “Yeah, it sucks. But here at Wealth, Power, and a whole lot of Caffeine it sucks slightly less. So come work for us. Please.”

I’m not exaggerating. Verbatim from one law firm’s brochure:

“You are about to become a lawyer. Think about it: This may be the last time anyone is totally up front and 80 percent honest with you.”

“As a first year, you may feel like a fire hydrant. Here, at least you're a well-respected fire hydrant.”

“[Our] Summer Associate Program: Glamorous work, lavish meals, theatre tickets. Your basic deal with the devil.”

“Now that's something you don't often hear in the halls of a law firm: Laughter.”

“In closing, we know you have a choice. So let's talk about our cafeteria.”

As the day when career services was actually allowed to talk to us approached, law school’s delicate balance between classes and the job search began to tip. As if a big bag of gold coins fell on one side of the scales of justice. On November 1, resume workshops began. They instructed on the Harvard Law School resume template, where every resume looks the same, and every student is equally qualified. Anything not legal sounding – any jobs not involving grueling hours of research, any extracurricular activities that don’t have the word “law” in them, any “hobbies” like the sport in which you won an Olympic Gold medal – gets shunted off into a section on the bottom called “interests,” or “personal.”

Frankly, I find it offensive for them to say that one person’s published book is of equal worth and should be treated the same on the resume as another person’s “interest” in “watching reality television.” Yet that’s the advice.

On December 1, when people were finally allowed to send out resumes, it was like a holiday. A holiday for the post office, actually. Classmates racing to the mailboxes at seven in the morning so that their envelopes would be among the first batch sent out, and among the first batch received by the law firms. As if on December 3, a firm would say, “well, we’ve waited two whole days for these resumes to come in – I guess we should probably make our choice today.”

One of my friends stamped “confidential” on all of his envelopes, so that the secretaries wouldn’t open them and throw them away. I asked him if he thought a working lawyer might be bothered by the fact that his “confidential” mail was simply a resume from a law student and throw it out, and whether it might be better for the secretary to open it, since she probably had a whole pile of resumes she was collecting. He didn’t think my reasoning made any sense. After all, why wouldn’t a lawyer want to read his resume? He does, after all, go to Harvard Law School.

A bunch of firms came to campus for a job fair. However, none of them were hiring first year students. They were here in preparation for next year – so we would remember their names and send them our resumes for a second-year summer job. As if anyone did actual research on individual firms and didn’t just use the mail merge files that we were provided for each major city.

Actually, there was a competition to be one of the people on the “mail merge verification committee.” The opportunity to call the firms, speak with the recruiter to verify the mailing address – and introduce yourself so she knows your name – seemed too great to pass up for lots of people. Anyway, it seemed as if the real goal of the firms at the job fair was to bribe us for our resumes. They had glossy brochures, pens, highlighters, mouse pads, keychains, yo-yos, t-shirts, bookmarks, calendars, and stress balls to distribute (the entire Oriental Trading Company catalog, in full color). The choice to distribute stress balls seemed a bit odd – was it a subtle admission of what life at a law firm would actually be like?

The American Civil Liberties Union also came to the job fair. The one public interest organization with a budget for tchotchkes, I guess. Although – and I am not making this up – they were giving away condoms. From a distance they looked like little cream cheese containers, like you get on an airplane. I was assuming they had run out of bagels, and were just left with the spreads. I'm glad I didn't ask them about the bagels, because it wasn't cream cheese. And I'm not sure that a bagel and a condom makes for a good snack.

I was left to wonder why the ACLU would decide to give out condoms at a career fair. What career were they pushing? Does taking a bunch of free condoms make you a more attractive potential lawyer? “Hey, you taking all the condoms – looks like you'd be perfect around the office… especially with our Christmas party coming up. Can I see your resume?”

A typical week in December had 19 career-oriented events we could attend – according to the handy career calendar on the career services web site. The nicest web site of any department at Harvard, probably underwritten by a law firm or two. Panel discussions, exploratory workshops, meet-and-greets, receptions, and on and on and on. More choices than the course catalog has classes. But, then again, more potential payoff than a two-hour lecture about the federal rules of evidence.

I suppose the real truth is that pretty much everyone came to law school to get a job, and so this really is what we’re paying for. And I’ll concede that the idea of being employable is a nice one, especially in this economy. But did it have to start so early? Is this really what law school is supposed to be about?

Maybe my problem isn’t that there’s such a focus on getting a job, but that there’s more of a focus on the mechanics of it than of finding the job that’s right for each person. I know more about how to get hired by a law firm than what lawyers at law firms actually do. I know more about the difference between cotton fiber resume paper and white linen resume paper than about the difference between corporate practice and litigation. I know more about what to wear to an interview than why I’m even going.

By this time next year, most of my classmates will already be hired for our second-year summer jobs, most of which will lead to full-time offers, and most of which will be accepted before the third year of law school even begins. Meaning that most of law school will have been spent already employed. So they start early. But if the goal is for us to really make informed decisions, for us to really discover what aspect of the law motivates us, inspires us, makes us passionate, maybe they start too early.

They should at least wait until the second week of school.