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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. Where may I find an attorney working Pro Bono? Many issues with divorce, my Disability, distribution of IRA's, property, money's and pressured into agreement by my attorney. Leaving me far less than 5% of all after 15 years of marriage. No money to appeal, disabled living on disability income. Attorney's decision brought forward to judge, no evidence ever to finalize divorce. Just 2 weeks ago. Please help.

  2. For the record no one could answer the equal protection / substantive due process challenge I issued in the first post below. The lawless and accountable only to power bureaucrats never did either. All who interface with the Indiana law examiners or JLAP be warned.

  3. Hi there I really need help with getting my old divorce case back into court - I am still paying support on a 24 year old who has not been in school since age 16 - now living independent. My visitation with my 14 year old has never been modified; however, when convenient for her I can have him... I am paying past balance from over due support, yet earn several thousand dollars less. I would contact my original attorney but he basically molest me multiple times in Indy when I would visit.. Todd Woodmansee - I had just came out and had know idea what to do... I have heard he no longer practices. Please help1

  4. Yes diversity is so very important. With justice Rucker off ... the court is too white. Still too male. No Hispanic justice. No LGBT justice. And there are other checkboxes missing as well. This will not do. I say hold the seat until a physically handicapped Black Lesbian of Hispanic heritage and eastern religious creed with bipolar issues can be located. Perhaps an international search, with a preference for third world candidates, is indicated. A non English speaker would surely increase our diversity quotient!!!

  5. First, I want to thank Justice Rucker for his many years of public service, not just at the appellate court level for over 25 years, but also when he served the people of Lake County as a Deputy Prosecutor, City Attorney for Gary, IN, and in private practice in a smaller, highly diverse community with a history of serious economic challenges, ethnic tensions, and recently publicized but apparently long-standing environmental health risks to some of its poorest residents. Congratulations for having the dedication & courage to practice law in areas many in our state might have considered too dangerous or too poor at different points in time. It was also courageous to step into a prominent and highly visible position of public service & respect in the early 1990's, remaining in a position that left you open to state-wide public scrutiny (without any glitches) for over 25 years. Yes, Hoosiers of all backgrounds can take pride in your many years of public service. But people of color who watched your ascent to the highest levels of state government no doubt felt even more as you transcended some real & perhaps some perceived social, economic, academic and professional barriers. You were living proof that, with hard work, dedication & a spirit of public service, a person who shared their same skin tone or came from the same county they grew up in could achieve great success. At the same time, perhaps unknowingly, you helped fellow members of the judiciary, court staff, litigants and the public better understand that differences that are only skin-deep neither define nor limit a person's character, abilities or prospects in life. You also helped others appreciate that people of different races & backgrounds can live and work together peacefully & productively for the greater good of all. Those are truths that didn't have to be written down in court opinions. Anyone paying attention could see that truth lived out every day you devoted to public service. I believe you have been a "trailblazer" in Indiana's legal community and its judiciary. I also embrace your belief that society's needs can be better served when people in positions of governmental power reflect the many complexions of the population that they serve. Whether through greater understanding across the existing racial spectrum or through the removal of some real and some perceived color-based, hope-crushing barriers to life opportunities & success, movement toward a more reflective representation of the population being governed will lead to greater and uninterrupted respect for laws designed to protect all peoples' rights to life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness. Thanks again for a job well-done & for the inevitable positive impact your service has had - and will continue to have - on countless Hoosiers of all backgrounds & colors.

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