Congratulations to all my friends graduating from Harvard Law School this year (and also all the ones who aren’t my friends.) I sat in your uncomfortably warm place just a year ago and I know what it must be like over there right now—crazy, tumultuous, a little foreboding; you’ve done everything you were supposed to and now, you ask yourself, what’s next?
Your graduation speakers and many other august figures will try to answer that question for you. Don’t listen to them. Not because they’re bad—on the contrary, they’re awesome. So awesome, in fact, that they become inured to their own awesomeness, and without realizing it they begin to give advice that’s really meant for similarly awesome people. In other words, doing what these people do is great if you have the same awesome personal qualities that made them so awesome in first place. If not, then they have no more to tell you than Usain Bolt has to tell a baby about how to crawl. These awesome people are playing a whole different ballgame, and trying to ape their moves is a great way to get blown out.
Again, I have no ill will towards awesome people and their inspiring words. But the danger of paying them too much attention is that it feeds into a pernicious myth—propagated by Legally Blonde and Grisham novels and your oh-so-proud parents—that the competition is over; that anything is assured; that going to Harvard somehow insulates you from the all-but-total collapse of the legal market, makes you somehow special. That may be true at Wonder Bar, but not in the real world.
When I was applying for clerkships, I listened to an OCS podcast. Its advice? Steel yourself for the deluge of calls you’ll get the moment the federal Hiring Plan allows prospective judges to contact you. Have room in your voicemail box, have a professional voicemail message, and when the storm passes, start dealing out return calls with a vengeance.
Well, the day the Hiring Plan allowed judges to start scheduling interviews, I sat down with an empty voicemail box, and a nice-sounding voicemail message, and a notepad. The hour of destiny came, then the next hour came, then the one after that. There was no deluge of calls, of course. There wasn’t even one. When I did get a clerkship, it was because I networked my ass off and when I finally got an interview (I called them, by the way), I prepared for that interview like it was a full-time job. OCS told me there was a clerkship for everyone; they were wrong. There’s a clerkship for everyone who’s hungry as hell and impressive as hell and lucky as hell. Actually, scratch that. There’s a clerkship for maybe half to a third of those people.
I realize that OCS has started coming around to the reality of the new legal job landscape, as it were. But progress has been slow. And cute remarks about “Planet Harvard” versus the real world aside, the best career advice I ever got wasn’t from Harvard, but from my dear old mom:
No job is beneath you.
Which is not to say my current job is bad; I’ve talked to a friend with a vaunted Circuit Court clerkship, and I still think my state clerkship is better. But you wouldn’t know it from listening to the law schools, or the law student forums, or the firms who give clerkship bonuses for federal clerkships only. It’s not time to start hungrily eyeing that SCOTUS clerkship or that Bristow Fellowship. It’s time to start looking in places you wouldn’t have thought of, places you were never told to look—not only because you might find a pleasant surprise, but because you have no other choice. When the gates close, you don’t start throwing yourself at the locked portcullis. You dig under the walls, you do what you have to. There may have been a time when the HLS alum didn’t have to scrape and scrabble like the Thomas Jefferson School of Law alum; not anymore.
Congratulations on your graduation, men and women of Harvard, and welcome to the only game in town.