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2 Tennessee Young Lawyers' Employment Journey
By Will Woods and Phylinda Ramsey
At this juncture, we are all aware of the dismal job market that recent law school graduates have faced over the past few years. Many of us have experienced, or are currently experiencing, a great amount of apprehension due to the dearth of available legal positions. Most of us were told that a law degree would be an invaluable asset in the market. As one elderly gentleman opined: "You can't go wrong with a law degree. People will always need attorneys." However, we would soon discover that people do not always need attorneys. Specifically, law firms do not always need attorneys. And in the period of time following the recession, they especially did not seem to need newly licensed attorneys.
During our final semester of law school in the spring of 2010, we were hopelessly toiling through the bar application process. Like many others in our class, we were about to join the ranks of unemployed graduates, and despite vast amounts of time, money and effort, we were not finding many job opportunities in the legal market. However, after several months of trepidation, we were both fortunate enough to secure employment offers. We considered ourselves quite lucky, especially given the terrible state of the economy. Notwithstanding our excitement at the prospect of gainful employment, these jobs were not your typical entry-level associate positions. They actually were not even related to the practice of law. In fact, they were not even based in the United States. The jobs that we had been offered were based in the Chinese city of Qinhuangdao. One of my friends from high school had introduced us to the director of international relations at the Chinese university where she had spent the previous year teaching English language to college students. The benefits were enticing: free lodging, a decent salary and a three-month paid vacation. The downside was obvious, given that we would be taking on jobs that were unrelated to our newly acquired law degrees.
For two law school students facing a stagnant legal market and no real job prospects, it was a fairly easy choice. We could either stay in the United States and continue our fastidious search for legal jobs that did not seem to exist, or we could travel to China, immerse ourselves in a vastly different culture and effectively delay our legal careers until the American economy had a chance to recover. After seeking advice from several individuals, including numerous practicing attorneys and law professors, we decided that we should seize the opportunity since we would probably never have another like it again.
Qinhuangdao is a coastal city of about 2.9 million people, located approximately 200 miles east of Beijing in Hebei province. Despite this vast populace, our Chinese colleagues actually described the city as a "quaint coastal village." We lived in the Haigang district of Qinhuangdao in a spacious apartment provided by our university. Our apartment was on a floor with other Western teachers from various countries, including England, Australia and the United States. Our living room offered an impressive view of the Bohai Sea, which hosts the largest coal shipping port in China.
Ramsey explores the town of Yangshuo
In addition to the daily adventure of living in China, our jobs included a holiday vacation period lasting nearly three months during the winter season. Given this extensive sabbatical, we made ambitious plans to travel to as many different places in Asia as we could. We first flew to Shanghai, where we spent a week enjoying the vibrant atmosphere of the biggest city in the world. We then moved south, eventually landing in the bustling metropolis of Hong Kong before heading south into Vietnam. After traipsing from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), we boarded a boat that took us up the Mekong Delta to Phnom Penh, Cambodia. After surveying the resplendent ruins at Angkor Wat, we continued into Thailand to explore the nightlife in Bangkok and the remarkable Thai beaches of lore, which certainly lived up to their hype.
Ramsey in Yunnan Province
|At the end our tour of Southeast Asia, we found ourselves in Yunnan Province, located in southwest China next to Tibet. Yunnan province is known for its hospitable lodgings where people from various walks of life gather to enjoy amazing food and engaging fellowship. Most travelers will tell you that one of the more rewarding aspects of the experience is having the opportunity to interact with people from varying backgrounds. It is especially gratifying to be able to connect with someone from a different culture and find some type of common ground with that individual. We were fortunate enough to have several such experiences, including one instance during our trek through the remarkably scenic canyon in Yunnan province known as Tiger Leaping Gorge.|
After hiking approximately nine miles to a guesthouse overlooking the canyon, we met a group of Korean businessmen who were on vacation. Although we were thoroughly exhausted from the daylong excursion, we made an effort to get to know these Korean entrepreneurs, as they were the only other inhabitants of the guesthouse that night. One of the men spoke English exceptionally well, thus he was the main participant in our conversation. He was very interested in our background, especially when he learned that we were actually lawyers from Tennessee. It is worth noting that at this point in our journey, we had interacted with people from all over the world. Whenever we informed someone that we were from Tennessee, we would usually add, "the place where Elvis was from, and where Jack Daniels is made." People generally appreciated a reference to either the king of rock 'n roll or the most globally recognized whiskey when attempting to identify our home. However, much to our surprise, these Korean businessmen recognized Tennessee for something perhaps less illustrious: Patti Page's rendition of the "Tennessee Waltz." We had not yet been associated with Patti Page's classic hit at this point in our travels. It was both interesting and somewhat enlightening to witness a foreigner's cultural understanding of Tennessee in such terms. However, to top it off, the men then proceeded to serenade us with a few lines from the song. If you are so inclined, imagine seven Korean businessmen gathered around a fire overlooking a nine-mile long gorge with two awestruck Americans, intoning "I was dancin' with my darlin' to the Tennessee Waltz…" It was magical.
Although most of the time that we spent in Asia was gratifying and illuminating, there were certainly moments of culture shock. We were in no way prepared to maneuver a 5,000-year old civilization which boasts a variety of rituals, customs and cultural nuance, nor were we adequately prepared to live in the most populated country in the world where personal space is at a premium. Add to that a thick layer of modern communism and you have a healthy recipe for occasional social clumsiness. Nevertheless, we generally tried to respect the cultural traditions and adhere to prevailing social norms.
Apart from the cultural disparity, social awkwardness and occasional bout of homesickness, living in China and traveling through Asia was one of the most exhilarating and rewarding experiences of our lives. It provided us with the opportunity to explore foreign territories, experience different cultures and connect with people from a variety of backgrounds. This was obviously not the path that we had expected to take after completing law school and passing the Tennessee bar examination. We had originally decided to attend law school with intentions of becoming successful attorneys in the fields of bankruptcy and family law. Like most other people, we tried to follow the standard career arc: graduate from law school, obtain respectable legal jobs, pay off enormous student debt and live happily ever after. However, like many others, we quickly realized that legal jobs were not readily available.
The realities of the current legal market can be overwhelming for recent graduates who face growing anxiety about their futures. This adversity can cause a variety of emotional reactions ranging from extreme anger to intense self-loathing. The job application process itself seems to eventually become an exercise in both futility and humiliation. A sinking desperation begins to accompany each new cover letter sent to a law firm. A cloud of anxiety hovers over every resume emailed to a human resources director. The weight of unemployment begins to feel even heavier when members of your family continually ask, "Have you got any new leads in the job search?"
Although this stress is certainly burdensome, it is not insurmountable. Many students and recent graduates thrive under the economic and social pressure to procure jobs at law firms immediately following law school. These individuals are compelled to secure employment that utilizes the instruction and guidance they received in law school as soon as possible. Their perseverance and motivation to promptly apply their legal training is certainly understandable. However, the realities of a sluggish economy and a flooded legal market can also offer the chance to expand one’s perspective and search for opportunities beyond the confines of the legal field. This rewarding yet precarious route is the one we chose to pursue.
Despite our tepid attitude regarding the status of the legal market, this is not a call to abandon the quest for a successful career as an attorney. Instead, we would encourage all law students and recent graduates to simply adjust their expectations with regard to their post-graduation lives. As two law students with average grades, no legal connections and a growing sense of desperation, we chose to broaden the scope of our job search and accept non-legal employment. Some people advised us that the decision to postpone our legal careers would cause irreparable harm to our futures. Despite these warnings, we moved to a foreign land, took part in a myriad of remarkable experiences, and eventually returned to the United States with a renewed sense of optimism. Additionally, we are now both practicing attorneys with promising careers. We managed to find our footing in the market by expanding the scope of the job search and adjusting our expectations. Teaching English in a foreign country is certainly not a guaranteed springboard into the legal community. However, as an old Chinese proverb states: "There are many paths to the top of the mountain, but the view is always the same." We hope that all young aspiring attorneys will reject the fatalistic attitudes caused by an unforgiving economy, and instead welcome the challenge of whatever path presents itself.
Will Woods and Phylinda Ramsey are both 2010 graduates of the University of Tennessee College of Law. They currently practice in Nashville. Woods can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Ramsey can be reached at email@example.com.