Chip, speaking in a soft Southern accent, saw firsthand the cultural and economic changes wrought by the recession on his field. He graduated from the Charleston School of Law in the spring of 2009.
My dad always told us whatever you do as far as your job, be self-sufficient so that you're not relying on somebody else. And for me, attorney seemed like a good idea. And it's always been, for the most part, recession proof because people are always going to be suing people. When I started that was still how it was. By the time I get to the end [of law school] it's a completely different atmosphere. It was kind of hard to grasp the change in the atmosphere, because with the way things have been over the last few years that theory that lawyers are recession-proof has gone by the wayside.
When you finish your first semester of law school, you start looking for jobs and start some summer clerkships and then by your second year you're working for firms that are probably going to hire you after [you graduate]. But, halfway through law school, for me, was in '07 when things really started to get bad. At the firm where I was [clerking] in 2006, for example, we had a softball team for the summer clerks. The first year or so, after the softball game, they would take the entire team and all of the people in the firm and their family and we would go to a restaurant, bar, whatever and the firm would pay for food and drinks. By that second or third season it turned into, well, we're going to pay two hundred dollars and everything after that, you're on your own. And then by the third year it was, ok, we're going to buy dinner and that's it and only for the people that are involved with the team. And by the last year, we weren't [laughs] even going anywhere after the game. You know? And the same thing with work functions and parties. In the early days we'd have a happy hour every month. That kind of stuff started to disappear and not be around. And not happen as frequently or not as extravagantly as it did early on.
I guess it's kind of a domino effect. People in general have less money which means they're less inclined to sue because it's almost an investment. It's risky most of the time to sue somebody because you're most likely going to be putting up a lot of money and there's a chance that you may get nothing back out of it. Just like everything else, people were less inclined to spend the money on it. When less people are spending money on lawyers, then [there is] less work for lawyers. Which means there's less lawyers getting hired because there's plenty of attorneys already out there that are already working and there's barely enough work for them to bill for as it is. They don't need to hire new attorneys when they don't have the work for them to be doing to bill people for.
[At the time], they were hiring people when they graduated and then asking them to not start working for several months because they didn't have the money to pay them. So that's kind of how it was, even the people that had jobs didn't really have a job yet. They were just sitting around waiting.
I always wanted to be a lawyer, it was never just I want to make money, it's, that's what I want to do, be a lawyer. So, I didn't regret my decision [to go to law school], it was just the fact that what do I do now, I have no money. I'm not making any money—when I started school everybody was making great money, people were coming out of school making 70-80 thousand. But, that's obviously not been the case as of late for the majority of people graduating—no more looking for something you want to specialize in or looking for what your bread and butter job would be—just find a job doing something. And the majority of that [means] accepting or applying for a job that is going to pay you something in the 30 to 40 thousand dollar range. You know, everybody goes to law school and dreams about six figure salaries, it's quite a shock for most people.
Well, I didn't have a job when I finished [law school], so I spent my days job-searching and trying to network, went to this person and that person, this politically connected person or that person, whoever, to try to make a contact, to find somebody who could give me a hand just to get a job. I did a lot of that. And applying in general, just for jobs, meeting with people... I was just living off of loans at that point, so I didn't have very much money. I started looking for jobs, just doing anything that would pay me and not just law jobs. Most people I know were looking just for paralegal jobs. People with law degrees that had passed the bar exam were looking for paralegal jobs just to get something that gave them experience. And no firm wants to hire an attorney for a paralegal position because they don't want to pay you that much and they also know that you're eventually going to leave, because your ultimate goal is to be an attorney. It's, you know, I want to be an attorney and have that job, making a lot of money and then it becomes I just want to get a job as an attorney making minimum salary 30 to 40 thousand and then it drops to, ok I'll take a paralegal position just to get experience and then the next thing you know you're looking at jobs that just aren't even in the legal field. I ended up taking a job in this time share type thing, but it was—I took a job doing that for about a month or so, I just couldn't keep doing it. That's kind of what I got reduced to [laughs] eight dollars an hour, but that was all I could find.
Then I started working for the local social league, sports league, with dodgeball and kickball and stuff like that. I was officiating two nights a week, making twenty or thirty dollars a night. That was the only other thing that I did that got me any kind of money while I was still looking for jobs.
I was about to move home and move in with my parents, because I was down to maybe about $1000 left as far as savings and I couldn't keep paying rent and I didn't have any other way to make money other than the 60 bucks a week doing the dodgeball refing. A friend of mine had a business that had just taken over managing and he didn't want me to have to move back home. He wanted me to come work for him, kind of as a receptionist and right hand man while he was getting everything off the ground with his new office. So I came and worked for him for about a month, but he had to have somebody more permanent come in and I was going to have to get out of the way. Right about when that was going to happen I got the job offer for the job I have now. I ended up taking the job because there was no other options and it was an attorney job.
I'm an attorney for the Social Security administration. Basically, when people have disability benefit claims, they can have hearings in front of a judge and after the judge hears the case they decide whether they do or don't want to give the person benefits whether they think they're disabled or not and I write the opinion for the judge that issues the final decision. I write the decision for him.
It's not what I want to do, just because, I mean, I just sit in an office, I sit at a computer and type all day. Actually, yesterday I was handling a private matter for somebody, doing a trial—that's what I want to do. That’s what I've always wanted to do. Seeing where I am now and what I'm doing it just isn't what I want to do, but the job is stable and the pay is pretty good. So on one hand, I'm just happy that I'm employed. But on the other hand, I'm—it's just not what I expected.