Thursday, February 18, 2010

The Overqualified, Under Experienced Graduate and Debunking More Education Myths

Recent graduates of various degrees and backgrounds have discovered that "too much" formal education and not enough work experience places them in the difficult position of being "overqualified" for entry level work but not qualified enough for mid-level jobs. I've seen both new graduates as well as those laid-off with fewer than 2 years of work experience faced with this predicament. Seeing that more people are returning to school to wait out the Great Recession (that will unlikely end any time soon), I predict that this particular demographic will continue to grow over the next decade. Disinformation spread by graduate schools looking to make billions from the recession and high unemployment rate have successfully convinced thousands that one can never have too many degrees. The reality of six figure loan payments during a time when employers are slashing wages or only offering low-wage and unpaid internships rarely gets mentioned during orientation.

I've only come across one retired academic at a job seminar sponsored by my alma mater dissuade the audience from going back to school. The hundreds who packed the auditorium ranging in age from 23 to their mid-50s seemed to appreciate his candor and honesty. "The last thing you want to do right now is take on more debt or extend your stay in college or graduate school," he said as he went on to discuss examples of students who actually failed class on purpose so they could stay in college for an additional semester rather than face unemployment. "You don't want to come out of school in a few years with the same amount of work experience you have now just with more debt and a degree that is useless. Employers these days don't want to pay someone more money simply because they have an advanced degree." And yet, thousands more each year are fooled into believing the exact opposite.

I won't spend a lot of time discussing the problems having a JD poses on law graduates looking to start a career in a different field. Most of us who have attempted to branch out into other careers have found how much of a hindrance that "versatile" JD has had on our job search. I mentioned in my first post to read Esq. Never about the challenges entry level candidates with a JD face right now. I still recommend trying to branch out sooner rather than later if you no longer want to practice law or can't find a lucrative legal job because of your grades or law school ranking. Chasing after the $160k biglaw dream (or nightmare?) when you neither have the grades nor T14 cred is a lost cause imo, especially in this economy when even top law school grads and experienced attorneys like Angel are having problems finding jobs in the legal market.

Articles like the one Angel posted from the National Law Journal is BS for the most part, similar to the type of PR stuff found in those glossy diversity (chuckle) and lifestyle pamphlets given to law students during interview week. Those who have made it to the top through nepotism, backstabbing co-workers, or representing the most heinous of corporations, insurance companies, and criminals like to perpetuate story lines as unbelievable as the ones found on television shows like The Deep End and The Good Wife. As much as I love The Good Wife and Julianna Margulies' intelligent and admirable character Alicia Florrick (who just happens to always represent innocent clients or take on pro bono cases for her high-profile Chicago law firm Stern, Lockhart & Gardner), the glamorization of an otherwise depressing and elitist profession has helped the ABA and law schools rake in the dough while ignoring the more common realities of the legal profession including depression, desperation, corruption, high unemployment, and suicide. The majority of the lawyers I know who were laid off from both biglaw and mid-sized law firms felt almost relieved to leave the toxic and unfriendly work environment. I won't even go into my own short-lived experience at a firm - all I'll say is that the experience was overwhelmingly negative. Other than the paycheck most people find little fulfillment from working at these sweatshops, so don't envy us or feel bad if you never had the chance to experience it first hand.

Just a typical day in the life of a first year associate, right??

For those of us who would rather put our unrealistic dreams of becoming a real life Alicia Florrick behind us, convincing employers that the writing and analytical skills developed in law school makes you the best candidate for a non-legal job can be as nerve-wracking as a first year law exam. Getting your foot in the door of these non-legal jobs is a challenge in and of itself. Sometimes it means working from the bottom despite all of the money and time you invested into earning your law degree. One option is to take an unpaid/low wage internship. As an observant friend noted, unpaid and low wage internships are another way of weeding out people who come from poorer families as the employer assumes that young graduates who accept these internships will receive financial assistance from their parents. I know a lot of you, including myself, can't afford loan payments and an apartment in NYC on a $10/hour internship. Unfortunately, an internship is often the only way a young graduate or entry level candidate can get a leg up on other applicants once a full-time job becomes available within the company. I know one person who managed to get a full-time (non-legal) job after a summer internship last year and another law graduate who has put their pride aside to work their way up from intern to administrative assistant with a company. Yes, it sucks. But if you don't have the connections to get a full-time job, an internship might be the only viable option available at the moment.

The downside to this is that even internships today are extremely competitive and it doesn't always guarantee a job in this economy. I also know people working from one internship to the next with no job security or health benefits. It is unbelievable to some that someone with a graduate or professional degree has to accept an unpaid internship, but this is the nature of our new economy. Keep an open mind and if you can afford to, take an unpaid or low-wage internship in an industry that you want to transition into from the law and use your free time to find your niche and apply to full-time jobs in that field. At least the internship will make it easier for you to create a new resume that will make you more employable outside of becoming a paralegal with a JD or doing legal temp work.

As always, anyone with better advice is welcome to post their ideas. I will also begin to delete comments that I deem to be off topic or offensive.


  1. Totally true. I've made the jump to a quasi legal position, but I consider myself out. The only way I got that was a paralegal who I used to work with happened to have moved to the company where I now work. She was kind enough to say that I was a good person and would be a good fit for the job when the boss noticed that we both worked at the same firm. Total luck though. I guess the lesson is to always be nice to everyone. You never know when that person may have influence over a decision that is important to you.

    But, I've often said that the only a felony conviction is worse than a JD on your resume. I tried every other type of employment. I mean I even applied for the Enterprise Rent a Car management trainee position. Not so much as a piss off back. I applied for a sales job to rest homes. Nothing, nada. I did get a call back from ADT to sell their alarms and some life insurance agency did contact me after seeing my resume online, but I really didn't want to be in that kind of sales. Your post let's me know it wasn't just some problem with me. Thanks.

    I would say, however, that for someone who has apptitude in math/science and capacity to take on the additional debt, the health care industry is still quite lucrative. Several members of my family work in healthcare and it is the most unbelieveable deal. All work well under 40 hrs a week and make great money. They also have opportunities open to them if they want to jump to another office. I'm sure someone will tell me about their mother who is a family doctor who works 90 hours a week for peanuts, and maybe in their case its true, but that person should consider moving where I live b/c all of the healthcare workers do quite well here.

  2. I just found your blog and really am enjoying it. I agree with you completely. The biggest mistake I ever made was getting my JD. I thought I was creating a great future, but instead I have ended up in hell...and I was ranked number 8 and had all the "right" activities and still never found a job as a practicing attorney, even after passing two bar exams on the first try. This is precisely why I really related to your blog title, "But I did everything right or so I thought." I used to get very depressed - sometimes even suicidal. I can't afford anything because of my student loans. I even cancelled my wedding because I was so worried about my debt. I've got cevical cancer (at 34) and am just really angry that my life was wasted for absolutely nothing. I would have been better off having a kid out of wedlock and living off the taxpayers than going to law school!

  3. I don't see how unpaid internships are feasible, and I honestly doubt that most lead to jobs. I think they're just exploitation. I did some internships while in law school and it landed me nothing.

    As for healthcare, I don't know that now is the best time to break into that, as the competition is fierce. Maybe 4 years ago you'd have a chance with a lot of work, but now, as in most fields, employers can hire people with a lot of actual experience for the position.

    Honestly though it's always been tough to get that first job in anything, and in law it's always just been tough to get a job period. Law is the only field where you can have 5 years worth of experience and you're still struggling to get employed.

  4. JL, that's my story. I've been out of school for nearly a decade and I'm unemployable... apparently.
    Anon @ 9:54... cervical cancer? Geez. I wish you all the best. That is quite a lot to deal with. Concentrate on yourself. Screw the debt. Your life is more valuable than that!

  5. Anon -- My best wishes to you as well. Angel is right -- screw the debt.

    So this probably doesn't qualify as "better advice," or advice of any kind, but I think that one thing that tends to get lost in the discussion of the overqualification paradox is the issue of generational justice. (Entitled) Boomers like my parents(*) will undoubtedly point to the recent crash as their most recent excuse for screwing the next few generations. That notwithstanding, I have noticed throughout my adult years in the workforce (which let's peg at my 1992 college graduation, although I've been working at least 20 hours a week since I was 13 years old) that this huge demographic bulge has resulted in severely limited opportunities for the folks on down the line.

    People in their 20s are getting screwed out of any opportunity for entry level positions because Gen-Xers (like me, smack in the middle of that cohort) for the most part have not had the opportunity to move up the ladder and vacate those positions. I had always thought that around, well, now, my generation would see hugely increased professional opportunities, because I believed (wrongly) that there would be a wave of retirements. That does not seem to be happening and, at least in the law, I don't think it ever will happen. Combine the Boomers' refusal or inability to retire(**) with the larger number of lawyers coming out of a larger number of schools in years past (not to mention the devaluing of the profession that always seems to occur when women enter an occupation in high numbers), and you end up with a situation in which the folks that came before us have rolled up the red carpet behind them.

    (*)Seriously, don't get me started. Really. It's a whole blog in and of itself.
    (**)And I don't want to paint with too broad a brush, but let's just say that I have little sympathy for the portion of that cohort who were given the sun the moon and the stars, pissed away their most productive years on drugs and est and the like, thought the dot-com boom would save them from themselves, and now have no money. Not that I might have been raised by those kind of folks or anything like that.

  6. Anon @ 9:54: I agree with Angel. Don't let your debt take over the rest of your life. You've already sacrificed so much. Take care of yourself and be happy.

  7. At 9:54 - do not even bother with the student loans. You have much more important things to worry about; the banking cartel pigs will be fed without your money. You do not need the added stress. Like I said, the bankers/cockroaches will get paid. All the best to you. Spend time with your family and loved ones - they are the ones who matter.

    Jadz is right. There is a logjam. Just look at all the dinosaurs roaming the halls of American courthouses. I feel little pity for a generation of lawyers that had affordable education, a not-quite-as-saturated legal market, did not suffer the stigma associated with attending a TTT, had DECADES to "make it" and still managed to misspend their money.

    This is also true of other industries. Just take a look at the aging workforce, and count the number of ancient dentists, doctors, shuttle drivers, etc.

    Regarding the quality of commenters on here, I think some of you guys should start your own blogs. This will spread the message and make it harder for the industry to ignore what is going on!

  8. Nando -- And I didn't even get started on the advantages the previous generation of LAWYERS had! My ex-husband (unfortunately for me, but that would be another subject you don't want to get me started on) is from a family chock full o'lawyers in that previous generation. Somewhat unusually for that time, some of them did actually have student loans. Which were generally about the size of a car payment (not a damn mortgage!) and with payments of that size were taken care of within about five years. Totally, totally different than kids today (!) who can come out with 200K in debt and few prospects.

  9. Ugh, 9:54, I'm so sorry to hear about your health. My best wishes to you for a speedy recovery and strength during this time.
    I wish that I was in the position to take an unpaid internship, (which btw, I haven't seen any of those even posted anywhere) but I have bills just like everyone else. And one of those bills is an enormous, eye-popping student loan monthly payment. I would love to take any entry level position I could get, problem is, I can't even garner a response from my applications. I am desperate to get out of doc review and get a career. My loan payments won't disappear, but at least I won't have to constantly worry about my project getting cancelled the next week or getting sick and missing days of work and lots of money. Law school made me totally unemployable. Ain't it ironic that's what 200K and your soul will get you?
    Also, I noticed that it was pointed out that older generations (esp. those that convinced me to um, GO to law school) have NO CLUE how it is today. They are so completely out of touch it's almost laughable (if it didn't annoy the hell out of me.)

  10. Well, if you have an entertainment background & perhaps good looks people fall all over themselves if they hear you're a lawyer (I've been put in exec level positions when I applied for internships b/c of this regard for lawyers--never asked for it or acted like I was too good to be an intern, either).

    You even get asked to do legal work if you're a newbie & people like you (maybe it's also a "vibe"). Same thing happened to another lawyer I know. I've said "I'm not that experienced," & such with people insisting I work w/them anyway.

    If you can find a newer company or someone seeking management, you'll still be broke but you get to be around creative types & hear people say nice things about your profession. Just pick someone who's got a plan & a chance of making it.

    Mostly, it's about having a passion & a mindset that you'll succeed. If you haven't got it, you don't have a chance.



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