Law School. Anti-violence work. Major in African-American Studies. Lots of people take a look at where I’ve been and what I’ve studied and ask me how I got into social media. It’s a good question because there’s definitely not a straight line from any obvious place to where I am today and the answer is pretty roundabout as well.
I graduated from Temple University’s Beasley School of Law in 2009.
By all accounts, that was a terrible year to graduate from anything, especially law school. Due to the financial crisis, businesses all over the U.S. were taking a hit and the clunky law firm model was shaken, causing reverberations throughout the hiring market. According to Time Magazine, “In 2007, 91.2% of law school graduates got jobs and salaries were soaring. After the 2008 meltdown, the employment rate was far lower — and the quality of jobs a lot worse. In 2009, just 65.4% of law school graduates got jobs for which they needed to pass the bar.” Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study.
So what’s a law grad saddled with much debt and a need to justify three years of hard work and sacrifice to do?
With just weeks to go before graduation, law students are bracing for a job market that has seen cutbacks at Center City firms. Saddled with debt, some have seen job offers put on hold. Others are considering options such as public service jobs, or working in a coffee shop, or baby-sitting. (emphasis added)
The above quote appeared online via the Philadelphia Inquirer just weeks before my law school graduation. I emphasize the public service jobs part because what many considered an “option” impacted the opportunities available to me as a new JD graduate. Let me explain:
I entered Temple as a Rubin-Presser Public Interest Scholar. That meant that the law school would cover 65% of my tuition because I had expressed an interest in, commitment to, and likelihood of success in the area of law considered public interest (non-corporate, often working with indigent clients or in government/nonprofit agencies). So from the moment I sat my behind in my first class, I had planned on working in public interest. This was so clearly my goal that I eschewed the On-Campus Interviewing process that takes place at nearly every law school and facilitates the summer hiring by law firms that typically leads to a job after graduation.
As I neared graduation and began searching for a job (which I admit was complicated by the fact that I spent my last semester in Japan), I and others in my class began to notice a trend. Students that had summer associate positions and offers from law firms were being deferred – meaning they still had a job offer on the table, they just couldn’t really start working at the firm for 6-12months. Instead, many firms were offering to pay new lawyers slightly less to take public interest jobs at the DA’s office, at nonprofits, and government agencies. Often, these reduced salaries were still more than one would make had they been hired directly by those public interest orgs. Many organizations were stoked to gain what was basically an influx of free labor, all subsidized by large law firms with bigger budgets. I began to see job postings at places I’d normally turn to (Legal Aid, Center for Reproductive Rights, etc.) specifically for “Deferred Associates” or others who had their own funding.
In spite of the .gif here, I’m not blaming anyone for coming up on a job or for accepting needed legal help at little to no cost. I’m simply setting the stage for what complicated the hiring market for someone who was focused on a specific type of legal work. I continued my search until graduation came and went. I remember thinking that graduation was rather “turnt down” as folks were grappling with the reality of having no job, a job that didn’t utilize their legal education, or a job that paid far less than they had hoped.
Thus, with my law degree in hand, I moved back home for the summer while I searched for all manner of work. I reached out to contacts, I inquired with a legal temp agency, and scoured the internet for postings.
It was during this time that a former colleague reached out to me about speaking to a small group about “social media stuff.” I had never done any social media work professionally, nor had I studied any digital marketing or communications, but I was one of the early adopters of social that she knew and we had worked on trainings together in the past.
That experience was positive and led to additional opportunities to speak to more groups, larger groups, and entire organizations. I began to realize that I had the underlying skills and with a bit more education, I could really do this. So I set about teaching myself how to “do” social media. As an avid user I knew what I wanted from brands and organizations. I did research on trends, tools, the psychology and sociology of networks, and kept abreast of emerging technology. I began thinking of and referring to myself as a social media manager/strategist. At the same time, I widened my job search to include positions in the online space and ultimately landed a position as a New Media Coordinator at Planned Parenthood – a position that allowed me to develop my new media chops while leveraging my background in the women’s health and empowerment movement.
Since then, I’ve gained additional knowledge and experience that translated into more responsibility, loftier titles and a comfortable salary that put me on par with most of my peers at law firms. I returned to law school last year and earned an additional law degree but continue to consult on social media strategy and offer trainings for individuals and organizations at various stages of digital media maturity. I find that people often mistake my various work experiences and multiple stints in school as a sign of immaturity, being flighty or unsure of what I want to do. In my view, I’m doing all of the things I want to do and constantly adding to my toolbox of experience and knowledge so that I can do them successfully. If I didn’t have flexibility and a toolbox of knowledge to tap into and develop, that summer of unemployment in 2009 might have stretched on or I could’ve ended up in a job that I totally hated simply because I needed something, ANYTHING.
Once again I find myself in the midst of a summer of unemployment and I’m trying to remember the lessons learned from five years ago. My toolbox is pretty deep, like Mary Poppins’ bag, and I’m rummaging through that thing every day to see what I can pull out to set me on the next path toward interesting, well-compensated, and fulfilling work.