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Challenges face many new Indiana attorneys

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Delivering pizzas and moving furniture isn’t what Greenwood attorney Justin Cook thought he’d be doing once he earned a law degree.

Although he graduated from Ohio Northern University College of Law in May 2009 and learned in October he passed the Indiana bar, the 28-year-old is just now starting what he describes as a “real job” in the practice of law. Before that, he took whatever work came his way.

“My graduation was the most anti-climatic achievement ever because I had to come home and start studying for the bar here, and then I was looking the best I could for a job since late last year,” Cook said.

justin cook Attorney Justin Cook, at his temporary work station at home, has just recently found a position working with an Indianapolis lawyer after struggling to find work following his graduation from law school and admittance to the Indiana bar in October 2009. (IBJ Photo/ Perry Reichanadter)

His search paid off in May, when his five months of non-compensated work finally evolved into a paying position to fit his legal education, even though he’s now working in a consulting position with a Zionsville solo practitioner and hopes that turns into a full-time job soon.

“With the market and economy the way it is, it took quite a while to develop any type of relationship to get paid to do anything,” he said.

The same reality applies for many of Cook’s graduating classmates and those who’ve graduated recently from any of Indiana’s four law schools, as new lawyers face hurdles in finding jobs.

For new lawyers, it’s a tough time to be starting in the profession when established lawyers struggle to keep up their practices and client lists.

For Cook and his classmates, the reality check came just before graduation when they obtained their law degrees in 2009: their valedictorian learned the law firm where she had planned to work had yanked the offer and left her without a job.

“Everybody wakes up a little bit and starts to see the reality that, ‘Just because I made it through law school, that doesn’t mean anything except that I have enormous debt over my head.’ It’s pretty depressing to look at your own resume and realize you have to suck it up without any offers like you’d planned. This isn’t what we thought it would be.”

Cook said he questioned whether he’d made the right decision to become an attorney. He had attended Purdue University for engineering, but decided not to pursue the field. He graduated with a history degree but no concrete plan for what might be next. A longtime friend persuaded him to take the LSAT, and he did so well that it convinced him law school was a worthwhile goal.

But that didn’t prepare him for the lack of opportunity as graduation approached. As many are doing, his school cancelled all on-campus interviews for graduates, and that made landing a job even more difficult. Many of his classmates had to use all of their favors and resources to line up potential spots in Ohio, but he had to focus his energy on studying for placement in the Hoosier legal community.

After waiting and learning he’d passed the Indiana bar exam and could practice here, Cook said he routinely applied for positions that asked for five years of experience because potential employers wanted experience, not brand new lawyers. He prepared for those to at least try to get an interview.

While he was searching for a legal position, Cook said a high school friend got him a job delivering furniture for a few months to pay bills. He is fortunate to have had the chance to live with his parents, and Cook said he thought for a while about starting his own practice. But the costs of doing that and maintaining his own insurance were just too high, he said, and it limited his options.

Indianapolis attorney Shawn Richter, who graduated with Cook, said he also had no luck in finding any attorney jobs during law school or once he’d passed the Indiana bar. Being a non-traditional law student who’d done his undergraduate studies at Indiana University after two years of active Army Reserves duty, the 33-year-old returned to clerking for Johnson Superior Judge Kevin Barton, who he’d clerked for during the summer after his first year of law school.

Judicial clerking was all he could find, even though Richter said he continued his job search in full force.

“I found it to be exhausting as I lost opportunities several times because of budget cuts or the large amount of unemployed lawyers with experience gunning for the same jobs,” he said.

That led him to explore state and federal positions, mostly because he had a family to support and needed benefits such as health insurance. Large firms pay well and offer benefits, but allow little family time or flexibility that he wanted, while small firms offer more time but usually offer lower pay and fewer benefits, he said.

After about seven months of searching, he started a position earlier this year as an administrative law judge with the Indiana Department of Workforce Development. He mostly hears unemployment appeals at hearings in Indianapolis, though he may be able to travel to other locations in the future.

“It’s a nice job that offers a lot of flexibility, good benefits, and great opportunity for advancement while helping out honest folks in need,” he said. “So, it all worked out in the end. But it was tough going for a while.”

Some of their other classmates had contacts during law school and carried on clerkships or internships to get in the door for a job post-graduation, Cook and Richter said. One of their fellow graduates took a position with a family friend who runs a practice in Greenfield, and that enabled him to get started quickly. But those types of opportunities aren’t as common as they once were when the market was better, they say.

Cook said he was lucky enough in December to find a solo practitioner who was willing to take the new attorney under his wing. Now, Cook handles elder law matters – something that he finds more fulfilling than criminal cases or even regular courtroom work. He’s not yet working 30 hours per week, but the Zionsville attorney has agreed to put him on the insurance plan and he gets consulting fees working on estate planning and asset protection issues.

“I’ve seen enough in DUIs and divorce cases to know that as lawyers, at best you’re fixing a crisis,” he said. “That’s not as rewarding for me because you don’t know that people are happy with my work. Elder law is different, there are smiles and people are happy.”

The possibility still exists for him to put out his own shingle, but it will have to wait until he has the resources to buy his own insurance and ability to generate a client list, Cook said.

Cook said law schools need to do more to prepare students and graduates for what lies ahead in finding a job.

“There isn’t a lot of preparation for this from law schools,” he said. “Law school is more about the theory, and they teach you how to do the research or read a case and apply the law to other cases, but it doesn’t help you with the practical matters of being a lawyer, like how to become a lawyer based on what you’ve just spent years learning. But even though it was tough a year ago, it’s looking worse and worse for people getting out now.” •

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  1. He TIL team,please zap this comment too since it was merely marking a scammer and not reflecting on the story. Thanks, happy Monday, keep up the fine work.

  2. You just need my social security number sent to your Gmail account to process then loan, right? Beware scammers indeed.

  3. The appellate court just said doctors can be sued for reporting child abuse. The most dangerous form of child abuse with the highest mortality rate of any form of child abuse (between 6% and 9% according to the below listed studies). Now doctors will be far less likely to report this form of dangerous child abuse in Indiana. If you want to know what this is, google the names Lacey Spears, Julie Conley (and look at what happened when uninformed judges returned that child against medical advice), Hope Ybarra, and Dixie Blanchard. Here is some really good reporting on what this allegation was: http://media.star-telegram.com/Munchausenmoms/ Here are the two research papers: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0145213487900810 http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0145213403000309 25% of sibling are dead in that second study. 25%!!! Unbelievable ruling. Chilling. Wrong.

  4. Mr. Levin says that the BMV engaged in misconduct--that the BMV (or, rather, someone in the BMV) knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged fees but did nothing to correct the situation. Such misconduct, whether engaged in by one individual or by a group, is called theft (defined as knowingly or intentionally exerting unauthorized control over the property of another person with the intent to deprive the other person of the property's value or use). Theft is a crime in Indiana (as it still is in most of the civilized world). One wonders, then, why there have been no criminal prosecutions of BMV officials for this theft? Government misconduct doesn't occur in a vacuum. An individual who works for or oversees a government agency is responsible for the misconduct. In this instance, somebody (or somebodies) with the BMV, at some time, knew Indiana motorists were being overcharged. What's more, this person (or these people), even after having the error of their ways pointed out to them, did nothing to fix the problem. Instead, the overcharges continued. Thus, the taxpayers of Indiana are also on the hook for the millions of dollars in attorneys fees (for both sides; the BMV didn't see fit to avail itself of the services of a lawyer employed by the state government) that had to be spent in order to finally convince the BMV that stealing money from Indiana motorists was a bad thing. Given that the BMV official(s) responsible for this crime continued their misconduct, covered it up, and never did anything until the agency reached an agreeable settlement, it seems the statute of limitations for prosecuting these folks has not yet run. I hope our Attorney General is paying attention to this fiasco and is seriously considering prosecution. Indiana, the state that works . . . for thieves.

  5. I'm glad that attorney Carl Hayes, who represented the BMV in this case, is able to say that his client "is pleased to have resolved the issue". Everyone makes mistakes, even bureaucratic behemoths like Indiana's BMV. So to some extent we need to be forgiving of such mistakes. But when those mistakes are going to cost Indiana taxpayers millions of dollars to rectify (because neither plaintiff's counsel nor Mr. Hayes gave freely of their services, and the BMV, being a state-funded agency, relies on taxpayer dollars to pay these attorneys their fees), the agency doesn't have a right to feel "pleased to have resolved the issue". One is left wondering why the BMV feels so pleased with this resolution? The magnitude of the agency's overcharges might suggest to some that, perhaps, these errors were more than mere oversight. Could this be why the agency is so "pleased" with this resolution? Will Indiana motorists ever be assured that the culture of incompetence (if not worse) that the BMV seems to have fostered is no longer the status quo? Or will even more "overcharges" and lawsuits result? It's fairly obvious who is really "pleased to have resolved the issue", and it's not Indiana's taxpayers who are on the hook for the legal fees generated in these cases.

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