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Mar. 19 2010 - 2:38 pm | 8,275 views | 3 recommendations | 8 comments

Help, I’m a paralegal and I can’t get out

Drive Thru LAWYER !

Image by brookenovak via Flickr

I need some sage advice from an internet sage. (I am eating a piece of pizza with sage on it).

I hate my job. More specifically, I hate being a 24-year-old paralegal. I took this job almost two years ago as a precursor to law school and a career as a public defender, or at least that lawyer that gets eaten on the toilet in Jurassic Park. Then the economy collapsed and law schools/graduate schools/cosmology schools became glutted with applicants and I realized how terrible the law is.

Like my entire generation I want to write. But I didn’t eat enough Panera or get enough internships to land something at The Atlantic like my peers. I’m starting a website with my friend but that too seems sad and cliche. I don’t even have a garage/running car to sit in while I blast “The House of Stone & Light” and think about how much my kids will miss me. What should I do?

And what’s it like soaking up America’s problems like a sponge? — Desperate in DC.

Law is a funny business. For all of its lingering popularity on the teevee melodramas, the actual attorneys I know are constantly trying to escape that whole line of work. They’ve always got a scheme: become a judge, start a blog, run for dog-catcher, write books, teach law school, get a cable show, join the Peace Corps, do porn, open a yoga studio, move to the desert and make pottery, open a cat rescue, etc. Nobody wants to actually practice the law. Why is that?

And now the economy is terrible and those giant law firms are firing everybody and — like so many other white-collar industries — the entire profession is “rethinking” itself, starting with those $300 billable hourly rates nobody can afford anymore. So you’d like to maybe skip the whole “becoming a lawyer” thing and go right to the “what I’d like to do after I’m done being an attorney.”

That is fine, and will save a lot of heartbreak. Especially if you’ve got some good, viable career alternative. Oh wait, you want to be a writer? As a job? Are you insane?

You may be a good writer, I don’t know. You might be wonderful, a genius. It has never mattered less, not since the days before people began paying a half-farthing or whatever for the week’s murder ballad delivered by a traveling minstrel with plague lice in her mustache.

Never mind the tens of thousands of laid-off editors and reporters and publishing people in the print industry and the decimated online publishing genre and the dull-eyed human survivors expected to do more work, more words, more copy, more Red Carpet slideshow captions for less money and the constant threat of the Friday email memo saying good-bye forever.

Your real competition is the Internet itself, with its millions of unpaid bloggers and commenters and Facebooking Twittering free laborers for the the Content Generation Machine. Every time you see a LOLcat, make something a Favorite, Retweet, read a Yelp review or laugh at an ALL CAPS death threat in a blog’s comments, you are both witnessing and contributing to the demise of paid writing. It’s done! Not completely, sure, and there will be a handful of humans overseeing the robotic dissemination of all news, ideas and celebrity features in the very near future. But these humans will be efficiency consultants or (whoops!) lawyers, not writers.

Even worse, there’s no prestige to go with the not-getting-paid part of being a writer. Nobody cares if you’re an author or a poet. It means nothing. And if you’re some kind of fool doing the journalism, you are openly hated and mocked by the only people who know you exist. This is part of the Humbling of Everything, the same “oh well I’ll just look it up on the Internet” era that makes once-respected figures like professors and doctors and (whoops, again!) lawyers just tired people with big student-loan balances forced to argue with some excitable amateur who sat up all night actually reading the latest research and literature relating to his or her problem. It doesn’t matter if the customer/patient made a crucial connection the professional missed, or wrote NOT THIS ONE, THE OTHER ONE on her “good knee” in Sharpie, or if it’s just another dingbat refusing to vaccinate a child so that a long-conquered disease can start wiping out the multitudes again. What matters is that the Professional is done — unloved, unwanted and unaffordable.

Even cops can’t get away with the crap they used to pull on everybody — everybody not rich and white, I mean. Since the Rodney King riots, police departments have been putting little video cameras on the cruisers. Might as well, because everybody driving around is going to take video on their cell phone and put it on America’s Funniest Race Offenses. The cop is revealed as just another high-school graduate who maybe spent a bewildering year or two in Iraq getting yelled at by officers and shopkeepers, in Arabic, and would now like to return the favor to some powerless Mexican kids. And it will not be long at all until those bomb-sniffing robots utilized by both the local PD and the Pentagon are upgraded to do the actual law enforcement. You think those Predator drones are going to stay in Pakistan forever? One day soon they’ll be “taking out” drug gangs in Tijuana and money-laundering shops in North Hollywood and meth labs in the abandoned stucco exurbs of Las Vegas.

There is just not a hell of a lot of use for any of us, not here, not in America. You want to write? Fine, write. Write volumes, write sci-fi masterpieces, literary spectaculars, ironic memoirs and footnoted post-post-modern 600-page monstrosities. But do something else for money, for sanity — Sarah Palin got all the remaining advance money, anyway. A writer may be a small step above the person who codes websites or makes “interactive apps” or causes the iPhone to fart when you walk by a cripple, but that’s not enough to die with dignity. And we all need more dignity.

There’s a bakery down the road from me, and every time I go there I feel like people are doing the right things. It’s a tiny place and the early risers nearly always get the fresh bread before I come around, but man it’s nice to buy the muffins and cakes made with care and love by people who know what they’re doing. There are artists I love who paint and sculpt wonderful stuff you can take home for a fair price and look at every morning to help remember why you got up, why you still bother. There’s a native-plants gardener in town who can spot every lousy invasive weed, and who goes to the city council to argue for regulations to protect the Joshua Trees and cholla cactus. These people are doing things. They’re getting by. One day soon, I imagine I’ll have to start actually working for a living, too, instead of just typing nonsense on the Internet for ever-smaller paychecks.

I would say “it was fun while it lasted,” but that would be a lie. It’s not really fun, unless you’re the kind of creep who wakes up in the morning and spends an hour admiring yourself in the mirror before writing a thousand words about your opinion on the health care or whatever. Jesus ….

Also, finally: If this is what you were made to do, this writing stuff, you will do it. You will do it because you won’t have a choice. And you’ll do it regardless of what you do for money. But for the sake of your soul, find a job that requires no thought, something that keeps your mind free from petty annoyances. The baseball writer Bill James wrote his early books for many years from the comfort of a boiler room, where he worked nights as a security guard. Edward Abbey worked as a fire lookout or seasonal park ranger. They had space to think, and they didn’t waste the solitude looking at goddamned Twitter.

Send your important questions to ask.layne@gmail.com. But if you have a REAL problem, call the police or something, as Ken Layne will not really help you at all. This is just a web page on the Internet.


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  1. collapse expand

    Mr. Layne & Desperate,

    Actors have a saying “The only thing worse that being type-cast is not being cast.” Dude, you have a job that pays enough money to keep you off of the street and with some minimal amount of food in your stomach. You are way ahead of the game. There are plenty of people who would give their favorite body part for that job. Welcome to the Great Recession.

  2. collapse expand

    Starting a web site IS sad & cliched. And you’re whining because you STILL have a job? Writing is something you are COMPELLED to do, like being a pedophile. Except being a pedophile pays more!

    The only real future for someone your age is in the health care field. I say learn sonography. You’ll earn more than a writer but still have plenty of great stories to tell from your work taking sonograms of disabled fetuses and weird tumors. Plus the food in most hospital cafeterias is really good.

    There’s no future in literacy. That time has passed.

  3. collapse expand

    Go to law school. I did the same thing you did — I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do and I worked as a paralegal a few years before going to law school. It gives you a good perspective. Also, by the time you finish, the economy will have rebounded.

    I am a sole practitioner in Mass. who does criminal defense work. It is fun and rewarding. You, at least, know what you want to do. Going to law school was one of the best decisions I ever made.

    Good luck.

    Mark Helwig

  4. collapse expand

    Well, I knew once I’d passed the 2 page mark that Ken was really writing from the heart there. Very cathartic. But if I wanted to offer any helpful advice I’d say any profession where you become very skilled ends up being one you really enjoy. Just as Ted Bundy.

    There ARE better but similar alternatives to a legal career. That’s the choice mostly of people who can’t think of anything else. The result is a profession groaning with oversupply suffering from the “Here comes everybody” phenomena. Any profession you see portrayed on TV is waaay oversold already.

    I would suggest becoming a QA/QC/TQM (Quality Assurance/ Quality Control/ Total Quality Management) professional. There’s lots of accredited courses that take 3-6 months apiece to qualify you and then you accrue them to rise up just like a pilot does with his licenses.

    If you are turning your nose up at the idea then good! So do many others making the path more lucrative. But a QA/QC pro is not some second rate engineer hack. They are people with writing and logic skills who end up making much more spondooli (money) than 95% of lawyers ($200,000+ after 8-10 years) working for aviation, oil, manufacturing, media, (etc.) firms (you know – companies that actually make stuff and don’t just offer the same old glut of lame-o services).

    And it’s a globe trotting job too. Overseas projects by the thousand. Also, it would entail much less face-jammed-against-monitor hour requirements than lawyering. You need to inspect and be onsite a lot. The best bit – you start basically at the management level. If you’re writing procedures for company operations, they won’t have you vacuuming the floors during the idle moments…

  5. collapse expand

    You just gave me a great idea for a skit about writers as troops at war. Goddammit, I hate myself.

  6. collapse expand

    You should do something for humanity, such as joining Rep Tom Tancredo’s 2012 campaign for President.

  7. collapse expand

    Chas hit the nail on its head. Lucky for you you’re 24, there’s plenty of time for you to correct your poor job choice.
    I am atop the paralegal pile, senior IP litigation paralegal specializing in emerging technologies, top 10 firm. At 55 I have more than 3 decades experience, bill 3,000 hours every year and know I’m just about to be axed since paralegals your age will work for $10/hr and no benefits.
    I will go to school to become an MRI technician, unlimited upside as my generation heads toward geezerhood. Death care is the way to go provided you don’t handle fluids or feces.

  8. collapse expand

    google “information architecture” for web and software. there r lots of jobs in this field. look into it.

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    About Me

    Hello, friends. I am the author of the novel "Dignity" http://amzn.to/jSf6CF and write about the desert, houses, politics, our souls and other topical subjects. You can see my stuff at http://kenlayne.com or http://twitter.com/kenlayne .

    See my profile »
    Followers: 122
    Contributor Since: January 2009
    Location:Mojave Desert