Is Ex-Lawyer Joey Coleman spot-on or not? You be the judge.
Ex-Lawyer Joey Coleman is the founder of Design Symphony, a DC-based marketing, design, and promotions firm. But by his own accounts, Coleman devotes about 30% of his workweek on the speakers’ circuit, talking sense into job seekers at universities and colleges across the country.
Coleman’s message to unemployed lawyers can be quite the bitter pill, but it’s one he stands behind without reservations. In Coleman’s own words: “If you think what I’m telling you is a line of shit and you don’t like hearing it, I’m sorry. But guess what? It’s going to be tough, and anyone who tells you differently—they’re the bad guys.”
In a recent interview with The Ex-Lawyers Club, Coleman shared his message to laid-off attorneys and jobless law graduates. Tough love or crock-of-shit? We’ll let you be the judge.
ExLC: Looking for work in this economy, even post-recession, can’t be easy.
JC: I get that, for most people, the economy is tougher now than it has been in any other time in their lives. But I still believe that there are jobs out there for go-getters and self-motivators.
ExLC: And yet I’ve seen some very motivated, credentialed, and talented people get passed over time and time again, sometimes for years. What do you have to say to people in that situation?
JC: If you’re waiting for the market, you’re going to lead a pretty miserable life. It’s not the market’s job to see to it that you’re not disqualified for jobs.
For the person who has been out of work for two or more years, my questions for them are: What are you trying to do? Are you trying to go back to the good old days when you were getting paid to sit in a room and write briefs for 18 hours a day?
ExLC: What about the many laid-off lawyers who do seek work outside the BigFirm model but have been told by potential employers that they are simply overqualified for the jobs they are applying for?
JC: To be honest, if somebody said to you that you’re overqualified, I think that’s like being in a relationship and the other person saying it’s not you, it’s me.
I’ve had the pleasure of hiring dozens of people in a variety of different jobs. I was always looking for the person who was ridiculously overqualified.
I think the real problem is that most lawyers are viewed as notoriously horrible communicators. They work in an industry that specializes in writing in an archaic language that no one understands. Mind you, these are sweeping generalizations that don’t apply to everyone.
ExLC: That’s a pretty tough message you’ve got.
JC: I find it fascinating, the number of people who have had the opportunity to be born in the U.S., receive the finest education in the world, go to a four-year university and a three-year law school, and graduate with degrees that puts them in top 1% of the job market. When they can’t get a job, they turn around and bitch. At what point do you want to take some ownership not only of the choices you’ve made, but also of the opportunities you’ve been given?
I truly believe that there are jobs available. I know of jobs. I have people come to me all the time. To tell you the truth, two came today and one came yesterday with jobs.
ExLC: If there’s work to be had, why are there still so many unemployed lawyers?
JC: For a lot of the lawyers, particularly mid-level associates who were let go, there are a couple of things at play. I don’t think they made themselves indispensible at their firm. There are others at their firm who are still there who made themselves indispensible. Those who were let go—they didn’t dig their well until they were thirsty. And by digging their well, I don’t mean just networking, going to a mixer, and having crappy Hors d’œuvre but building a network of peers who know and respect their work and with whom they share learning, advice, and referrals. If you’re willing to do that, the world is your oyster.
The other big problem that I see is that they aren’t willing to put in the time. They say, to hell with you, Coleman, I should be a partner by now. I would say to that, if that’s your belief system, well you’re going to lead a pretty disappointing existence for now.
ExLC: When you are asked to speak at law schools, what do you typically tell 3Ls who are about to graduate?
JC: The resume is dead. Light the resume on fire. It’s even less effective today than it was fifty years ago. I realize it’s still the modus operandi of every large company on the planet, but I think young lawyers or mid-level lawyers filling out resumes and sending them out is a crab shoot.
There are people who hear what I’m saying and they say, ‘Oh my God, you’re crazy! Where do you get off saying this?’ I spend a lot of time working with big name companies. I meet with their heads of HR all the time, and they tell me, these people have no idea how to get a job. They also have no idea the number of people that run through our automated machines.
ExLC: In your view, what should unemployed lawyers be doing?
JC: Turning around and shaping the position you want, figuring out how to make the connections at the places you want to work, and getting your resume hand-delivered to the person in charge of making the decision. These are all much better techniques than firing off a resume.
The thing to do is get clear on what you want to do, not where you want to work. Give yourself permission to let that change over time. Realize that every choice you make has consequences.
ExLC: Do unemployed attorneys get pissed off with your message?
JC: I’m not saying people have to agree with me, but they will always know what I think.
Attorney “PS” attended a top ten law school, was laid off by a BigLaw firm in New York in 2009, and subsequently spent two years searching for work before she was hired as a contract attorney by a bank. She recently read the Q&A between The Ex-Lawyers Club and Joey Coleman. Here’s what she had to say:
ExLC: Joey Coleman–full-of-shit or speaker-of-truth? What’s your take?
PS: Everything he said is true, but it really doesn’t help anyone to hear it.
ExLC: Why do you say that?
PS: I say that for a couple of reasons. First, because of the singular nature of how it feels to be unemployed, what that does to a person—particularly someone whose sense of identity and purpose is inextricably linked to achievement based on hard work—and how corrosive unemployment is to the individual and society as a whole. And second, because of the nature of the legal profession and its devotion to the idea of one’s success being merit-based, which breeds a tendency to overvalue intelligence and undervalue the very attributes that make modern companies successful.
ExLC: But what about Coleman’s message that lawyers and newly minted law school grads aren’t doing enough to create their own positions and be more proactive?
PS: It is cold comfort to tell a recent law school graduate that he or she needs to decide what course to take and create their own opportunities, particularly when law schools instill in their students the expectation of jobs being theirs for the taking. So it is partly the fault of the education they receive that these graduates complain of a lack of jobs.
We are talking about lawyers or law graduates who have already invested tens of thousands of dollars, and taken on a tremendous debt load, in many cases, and cannot find work in their chosen profession–a profession which has a built-in bias against their unemployed brethren and tends to perceive them as having been unqualified in the sense of not having been intelligent enough to find a job.
In that sense, the unemployed lawyer at graduation is hit with a double whammy: the unlikelihood of getting a chance to explore the kind of employment to which he or she may be best suited (thereby diminishing their chances of practicing or ever putting their very expensive degree to use, and in the process rendering them unlikely to earn the sort of income required to repay their loans), and the very personal shock of feeling unworthy to gain entrée into their chosen profession, which is devastating.
ExLC: What was it like to be an unemployed attorney for two years?
PS: Unemployment breaks the spirit in a way nothing else can because it is such an existential affront to our existence – the unemployed person is being told “you have no place, you have no value, you have nothing to contribute to society.” That is fact. The employed lawyer can’t fathom how that feels, and instead of thinking “there but for the grace of God go I,” thinks “I would never be in that position.” There is no empathy (or whatever empathy we had is eradicated in law school), and so we don’t extend a hand when we see a fellow lawyer in distress.
ExLC: What needs to be done about all these unemployed lawyers?
PS: We have a crop of talent that is languishing, and we need to take responsibility (just as Coleman urges the unemployed lawyers to do) to help the unemployed get back on their feet. Letting people fend for themselves isn’t just cold or an ideological position to take, it is dumb in every sense of the word. The more we invest in people, whether it is in personal relationships or professional ones, the more we get back, and the more we can create synergies that will lead to opportunities and new ideas, new paradigms and a greater likelihood of finding both personal and professional fulfillment. Going it alone is boring and stultifying. We need to make it a point to help each other, and help can’t just take the form of preaching. We need to actively seek to hire unemployed lawyers. That is the only prescription that will help cure what ails the direly ill legal profession.