From the Front Lines: A Story by a Recent Law School Grad
by Kathryn Croco Michaels
After passing the bar in October 2008, but still unable to find a job, I got a part-time job at a clothing store in Cherry Creek Mall. The job was intended to help pay household bills (including looming student loans), and to allow me time to search for a legal job. I’ve spent a lot of time looking for, and not finding, very many legal jobs to apply for.
Maybe the dearth of jobs was because October was not a good month for employment or economy in the country, or indeed, the world. I settled in at my part-time job and learned that working in the service industry is a rite of passage. Additionally, I learned that many of my co-workers were in my position: they had graduate degrees or were working on them and needed jobs to support themselves.
We regularly watched teenage girls charge hundreds of dollars on their parents’ credit cards. I found myself being asked to pick up after sloppy, rude shoppers. Although some shoppers are nice, very few appreciate you, and many treat you as subhuman. The hours I’ve spent making not-quite $9 per hour before taxes have felt interminable. I bought new shoes with special padding because my feet ached from standing all day.
The most challenging part was folding cotton t-shirts on these plastic boards — perfectly aligning the neckline was incredibly tedious and taxing. A few times, when customers were less than pleasant, I felt compelled to remind myself that I was a lawyer. I had to chide myself for the justification. After a few months of not finding any legal work, and as the retail market slowly dwindled to the point where the store had few hours for me to work, I knew I needed a new plan.
In January, I added two new occupations (in addition to my retail work). I began volunteering for Metro Volunteer Lawyers’ Family Law Court Program. I also became a substitute teacher for Denver Public Schools.
Substitute teaching is more enjoyable than I could have imagined. There is vast economic diversity in the schools I go to, and each day is a new adventure. Substitute teaching sometimes means a phone call at 5:30 a.m., asking me to show up that day at a school. Other times it means I have a week-long position working with the same students.
Sometimes, I teach second-grade students who speak primarily in Spanish. Those are great days when I practice my too-nearly-forgotten language skills. Other days, I am a high school Chinese teacher showing the "Kung-Fu Panda" DVD four classes in a row. In other classrooms, I’ve run science experiments and had water balloons thrown at me (okay, so that was only one day!).
There are a lot of challenges to being a teacher. My goal has been to prevent these students from having wasted days. Of course, for many students, a substitute teacher means a free day to be wasted. For me, it is a day to continue forward, to persevere. Despite their teacher being gone, I wanted to make sure these kids learned something the day I was their teacher. I have already signed up to be a substitute this fall and I am looking forward to even more crazy fun.
I volunteer every Tuesday for Metro Volunteer Lawyers Family Law Court Program. Some days are spent helping clients fill out pleadings. Other days, I’m in court, representing clients in permanent order hearings. Still other days are spent doing all of the daily tasks associated with legal work.
The work is different every day, and all satisfying in its own right. My favorite days are the initial client meetings. There, you spend at least an hour with a client, helping them fill out the pertinent paperwork to begin their case and, indeed, a new phase in their lives. These people have very real and often heartbreaking stories. Sometimes, you help a mother trying to support four kids without any child support from the father. Sometimes, the client is a homeless man who has not seen his wife for 20 years and he just thinks it is time to move on.
The clients are typically very thankful for the help. Every day after leaving this work, I feel happy and fulfilled. There is no substitute for sharing your skills with someone who desperately needs them but cannot afford them without this program. At the permanent orders hearings, when the divorces are actually granted, the clients are profusely thankful that you have helped them through the process.
Not only am I thanked by the clients, I am also thanked
by the MVL Board of Directors. It may seem small, but their thank you card is on my refrigerator. It made my day (and all the other days that I see the card, too!). I feel very appreciated working at the FLCP. Volunteering at the FLCP is the perfect way to get experience when facing a tight job market. I often had aspired to do volunteer work, and now, while I am unemployed is the perfect time. Not only am I helping people, I am building my resume and networking with other interesting attorneys around the metro area. Everything I put into the program is given back to me in a variety of ways.
Despite the awful job market, things are looking up. I have a plan for the next year now. I recently took a job at the Community College of Denver as an adjunct professor teaching law to paralegal students. I’ve also decided to go back to school to become a legal librarian, earning a Master of Library and Information Science degree. This is great a fit that uses my law degree, and I could not be more excited about what the future holds. I hope to continue both the substitute teaching and the volunteering. This year has been a valuable learning experience for me, and I would not trade the experiences for the guaranteed firm job straight out of law school even if I could.
Kathryn Croco Michaels, firstname.lastname@example.org, received her law degree from the University of Iowa College of Law.