Advice for the Damned

When you don’t have a job, it seems that everyone else suddenly feels elevated to a position to offer you worthless career advice of precariously dubious origin.

PRO-BONO. Probably the worst advice I keep getting is that to get a job, I should be doing more pro-bono work. If you ask the person giving this advice when the last time they did a full pro-bono case you will undoubtedly get a very uncomfortable silence from them; and maybe a quip that they aren’t looking for a job (nice!) so… you know, they don’t have to. The idea behind this concept is the more you get out and show your face, the more likely someone is going to be soooo impressed with you and your work, that they will offer to hire you. The main problem with this is that you generally don’t see all of those people who could hire you. Let’s be honest, if you are doing a pro-bono case, it means your client is destitute (or close to it). Based on some rather simple inference, it is unlikely your client will know anyone much farther up the economic ladder than ‘slightly less than destitute’ so there is nothing worthwhile networking-wise along that route. But wait you say… what you are really trying to do is impress the other attorneys and judges etc. you come in contact with while working the case; right? Well, first and foremost, your pro-bono case is probably in a field you aren’t horribly familiar with, so lets scratch the ‘impress’ off the list (be honest with yourself, it will save you a great deal of humbling later). So what it actually looks like is you bumbling through the case with no support or familiarity and a great deal of apologizing as you tell everyone involved ‘this isn’t my field, so please bear with me’ (Impressive!). To make matters worse, the issues connected to pro-bono cases are often connected to lesser income generating law (family law, criminal law, and related civil law). Which means you are going to be rubbing elbows with solos who are barely surviving without going broke, or the lowest of the low associate of some mid-sized firm who is the cheapest billable hour; and who definitely has zero pull at the firm to be able to advise the partners on getting you hired.

But what about the organization who convinced you to maybe sign up to take a pro-bono client? Surely you’ll meet lots of people there who might do something for you? Right? — Not so much. Most are non-profits and require someone to die in order for a position to open up (exact statement from one I spoke with) and they have zero money in this economy to hire more attorneys. Not only that, the general feeling is that once they place the pro-bono client with you, they wash their hands of the whole thing. No help or guidance; the client is your problem and off our books. So don’t expect to rub elbows even with the attorneys in the non-profit.

The best I can say is doing pro-bono work helps you stave off the insanity of your never-ending job hunting / application regimen and allows you a brief respite to do that wonderful thing you spent so much time and money attaining.


THE BUSINESS PLAN. Oh. My. God. There is no conversation related to getting work that doesn’t inevitably flow down the sewer that is the ‘Perfect Business Plan’. Everyone ends up waxing poetic about how best to start your own business– even if you specifically say you would instead prefer to work for someone, it doesn’t matter… the ethos of ‘be your own boss’ is a siren’s call to many; none moreso than those who have never started their own business. I think it is a common daydream that someday they might strike out on their own and be done with their oppressive overlord of a boss, but in the meantime let me share my grand design with you and zealously defend its shortsightedness with a fervor unseen since 1936 Germany.

What’s that you say? Unrealistic because it requires 5 other attorneys in similar straights and mindset who are willing to tie their financial fortune to you? Bah.

Unrealistic because my plan requires at least half a million in seed capital with no concept of how to acquire said seed capital with no collateral?  You’re just not committed enough, there’s always a way. (why would I be complaining about being broke is I had half a million laying around?)

Unrealistic because what I have just described is either a ponzi scheme or the next iteration of multi-level marketing? You have no vision.

Unrealistic because there is no way to actually charge money for what I have just described? You can get in on the ground floor!

Unrealistic because it is highly unethical and likely illegal and would almost certainly result in becoming disbarred? Nah… I don’t think it is, I’m pretty sure I heard someone else was already doing it…

All this and more will be pitched to you as the “perfect business plan” by various well-wishers. But don’t even deign to assume they might instead offer you a job, they’re not hiring. And why don’t they take their own advice and use their foolproof idea to start their own business? Because it is a daydream with no reality, and they have a paying job which offers security. (and you don’t).


THE NETWORKING BRUSH OFF. When I first started looking for a job, I didn’t understand or realize when this was happening to me. I’ve gotten a bit better at seeing it in medias res. You’re talking to someone and you bring up the topic of looking for work, and they decide at some early point in the conversation that it is time to bail out in the most eloquent way possible.

“Let me give you the name / number of this guy I know who you should reach out to…”

This is what you want right? The networking contact directly on point who can maybe either hire you or put you in touch with someone who might be looking! Well, no… not really. There are networking contacts you would like to get in touch with, but the vast majority of the ones handed to you are horrible dead ends. It’s a way for the giver to feel like they are some beneficent helper who has bestowed something of value on you out of the goodness of their hearts, without actually exerting any effort. Seemingly, most networking contacts are given as a way to end an unwanted conversation related to you trying to get hired in a field the listener is only vaguely aware of. But in the corner of their mind, they think, ‘hey… didn’t that one guy I met a few months ago also do something like that?  I’ll give them that name and be done with it….’

Networking in Action: Think I’m making this up?  I’m going to use the great story telling technique of a bookend scene and bring this back to the beginning of this post.

I have signed up for a handful of pro-bono organizations, again, on the advice of others who keep telling me I need to ‘get out there and be seen’. This particular pro-bono opportunity was open to be used by a very small number of people who met incredibly specific criteria, so much so that we were even told the likelihood of ever being called was pretty slim. I figured if nothing else, it would be a good resume one-liner. Unfortunately, upon reflection, I later realized it was so oddly specific it would be like a weird conversational magnet on my resume during interviews. And since I had never done anything for this organization besides being listed on their potential pro-bono roster, I really had very little idea what I would be doing should I be called let alone being able to talk intelligently about it during an interview. It ended up being safer to leave it off my resume and forget about it. That is.. of course, until someone called me to represent them.

The conversation was stilted and horribly disjunct. The client was difficult to talk with but they did actually meet the requirements for the pro-bono representation, but the one few things they did get clearly across was the statement “This judge friend of yours gave me your number…” Now, I don’t have any friends who are judges. And no judge I’ve stood before would have been so keen on me as to take down my phone number. That was when I figured out the judge had pulled up the pro-bono roster and given the client my number. No problem there, that’s technically what I signed up for.

Skip forward a few weeks. I get an email, for a brand spanking new attorney… just passed the bar (still that new lawyer smell!) and happily assuming they were walking into a wonderful friendly profession. They sent an email with their resume attached that looked quite a bit like one of my own “please hire me” emails, and a request to have a conversation with them about how to ‘break into’ one of my specialties to make a career of it. They referenced this judge who had previously handed out my name to the pro-bono client. Mind you… the judge still, has not met me and has zero knowledge about my professional background beyond the fact that I am listed as someone who is available for pro-bono indigent work of a particular type.  Yet, I was somehow their professional networking go-to for this new attorney.

This, is the unfortunate reality of real-world networking in action.


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