How Do I Handle a Deferred Start Date?
June 18, 2009 by Sweet Hot Counsel
Q: Do you have any advice on what to do about deferred start dates? My AmLaw100 firm—like every firm nowadays—deferred our start dates until January 2010. From a financial perspective, I can wait until January to start working. It’s what I’m supposed to do from now until January that has me rattled. I’m afraid deferring our start dates is just a way to postpone our inevitable firings—in other words, I’m worried there won’t be a job waiting for me in January. Originally I was just going to travel after taking the Bar exam until I started work in September; when I got news of the deferment, I figured I’d just extend my trip. Yet as more lawyers get fired, I can’t help but think I should be looking for a back-up job, just in case things don’t work out as I planned with BigLaw and I’ve got to look for something new.
It seems wrong to look for a full-time position while I still have intentions of going back to my firm in January (if they’ll still have me), yet which smart small-to-mid-sized firm will hire me if I’m honest and tell them I might be leaving in a few months? I could volunteer at a PD’s office or something, but that kind of work has no relation to my future practice (transactional), and frankly I don’t want to do criminal defense work. On top of everything, public interest jobs are surprisingly hard to come by now that every recent Tier 1 graduate is being paid $70k by their firms if they’ll do pro bono work for a year—I’ve been told they’re simply running out of desks to accommodate all the recent grads who are flocking to help them. What should I do?
A: Well, first things first, if it isn’t already screamingly obvious, please, for the love of god, don’t extend your Bar trip. Don’t also, say, pop into Prada and scoop up nine or ten suits on your way to the BMW dealer to sign up a new 7-series. This is not the time to spend money just to pass the time—because you’re absolutely right to worry that your firm may not exactly be waiting with open arms—and a steady paycheck—come 2010. That said, don’t panic either—you’re not as screwed as you might think. Just the fact that you can get by financially until January puts you at a huge advantage over the majority of the poor slobs in the Class of ’09 who are in your same shoes—or worse.
The main problem here is that your chances of getting any paying legal job to bide your time with until January (and possibly beyond) are basically zero. You’re competing with truckloads of laid-off actual lawyers who at least have a year or two of law firm experience on their resumes. As a new law school grad, it’s not your fault that you’re basically useless to a law firm (that’s just how the (flawed) system works), but it’s the hard truth, nonetheless—especially when it comes to transactional work. No law firm, small, mid-sized or otherwise, is going to hand over a paying job, whether they think you might leaving in January or not.
So, here’s what you do: Pretend you’re a student again. No, I don’t mean to lie and actually pretend you’re a student, but treat what you do between now and January as resume-building and networking experience versus some kind of back-up job. Take a look at all the law job boards—there’s actually a fair amount of internships and non-paying work out there at studios, Fortune 500s, etc. that don’t involve having to pretend that you care about the public interest. The beauty here is that all those laid-off lawyers won’t be snapping up those gigs because they need real jobs, but you’re in a different position. You can work for free until the new year—think of it as a semester-long internship.
Sure, you can do the same at the PD’s office or some other more civic-minded gig if you can even get it, but as you mentioned, that has nothing to do with the kind of work you want to do and won’t really sweeten your resume for transactional work. (As you’ll soon learn when you get to a firm, no matter what they say, corporate departments at big firms couldn’t give a rat’s ass about how many pro bono adoptions or low-income eviction cases you’ve first-chaired. They care about business experience and deal work. Period.) Now, sure, you won’t make any money with an internship, but they won’t care if you’re leaving in January, and more to the point, if the January job falls through, there’s always a chance they may take you on permanently—or at least be able to help you network for other paying jobs at law firms or beyond.
One last silver lining: If your firm does indeed revoke your offer come January, or try to push the start date back even further, or hire you and then lay off all the first years a few months later, chances are—especially if it’s a decent AmLaw 100 firm looking to keep up with the market—there’ll be some sort of severance/ “go away” payout coming your way. So you shouldn’t be left totally high and dry, at least not for a few months.
So, bottom line: Start pimping out your free labor to every corporation you can find and see if anything lands. And deal with January…in January. And a few years from now, when you’re in your office at 3 a.m. doing diligence for a deal that won’t die for some lunatic masochist partner with a typo fetish, you’ll look back on your “4L internship” with affection. Trust me.
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