Can things be any worse?
If you’re a lawyer and have struck out while looking for that perfect counsel position, you are not the only one. A special LawsForAttorneys investigation has revealed that some of the country’s most able and accomplished lawyers have, within the past few years, accepted secretarial positions.
Take, for example, a certain Yale Law School graduate who was a Congressional legal counsel and the first female head of the Legal Service Corporation. Also on her resume: the first female partner at Rose Law Firm, and did we mention that she was a U.S. Senator? After making an ill-advised choice to quit her job to run for a higher office — in an election that she lost — she found herself, like many other attorneys, looking for a job in an atrocious economy. But the legal world was astonished when the best position Hillary Clinton could find was as a secretary. Now, when all the foreign countries need to schedule a meeting with the United States, the once-great Hillary Clinton, a lowly secretary of state, writes them into the appointment book.
That by itself would say plenty about just how tight the legal market is these days. But the hard-luck stories do not end there. Consider this pulled-up-by-own-bootstraps fellow who, abandoned at an orphanage as an infant, graduated from Albany Law School and joined his father-in-law’s firm. Entering public service, he served as a town mayor, state senator, and, eventually, governor of Iowa. Choosing after two terms not to seek reelection, Tom Vilsack was probably kicking himself for ever leaving the private sector, because it was not very anxious to have him back. As it was, the only thing available to him was to become… a secretary. When the country’s farmers are out in the fields, Vilsack, a secretary of agriculture, answers the phones and dutifully fills out “While You Were Out” message slips. Not exactly what most have in mind when they earn their J.D.
And there’s more. Some of you might have heard of Janet Napolitano. Virginia Law graduate, clerk on the 9th Circuit, and previous work experience at Lewis & Roca, where she was the attorney for Anita Hill. Her fame from that case led to her becoming a U.S. Attorney that investigated the Oklahoma City bombing. From there, she became attorney general of Arizona and eventually governor. What is Ms. Napolitano doing now, you ask? You guessed it! Mostly a lot of filing, maintaining paperwork about terrorists, as a middling secretary of homeland security. All that legal experience … is there really no place for it anymore in the rapidly dwindling legal field? The life of opportunities that was promised to generations of law students… could it really have all been a sham?
Some believe the answer lies in personal practice. That is how many attorneys made it in the Golden Age of law, and how small-town attorneys made their living through the Great Depression and onward. Granted, even in a good economy, it is always difficult to start your own practice, but Ken Salazar pulled it off after leaving Michigan Law. Moving in and out of the private and public sector, he served stints as the Colorado governor’s chief counsel and attorney general. Also on his resume: U.S. Senator. Not bad for the guy with the personal practice, huh? His fall from grace didn’t take long, however, and now Salazar’s even worse off than if he was running a firm out of broom closet and advertising in the PennySaver. These days, he finds himself mostly doing rudimentary bookkeeping for land-management expenditures as a secretary of the interior.
The unforgiving job market has taken away livelihoods, for sure. But for accomplished, hard-working folks such as Hillary Clinton, Ken Salazar, and others, the economy has not just deprived them of wealth: It’s deprived them of self-respect. Those of us who still work as attorneys should take heed from these cautionary tales and be prepared for the worst. Seeing how things turned out for some of our nation’s brightest legal minds, it might not hurt to practice making coffee on the side… just in case.