Lessons Learned: Alumni Reflect on Navigating New Careers in Tough Times

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As students and recent graduates navigate an uncertain job market, six alumni convened with Jayne Schreiber, assistant dean of career planning, and Deborah Dempster, associate director of the Career Planning Center (CPC), for a remote panel on May 28 to discuss their professional journeys amid difficult economic times and to share practical advice. The panelists, ranging from the classes of 2003 to 2011, all graduated during tough economic periods, including after September 11 and the financial crisis of 2008.

“This isn’t the end of the world. It may feel like it because you maybe don’t have real-world experience, but if there’s one takeaway from all of the attorneys that are sitting here, it’s that there is light at the end of the tunnel and there is a career for you to have,” said Veronica Escobar ’03, who is the proprietor of her own law practice that focuses on the areas of elder law, special needs, and trusts and estates.

Other participating panelists included Nicholas Cartagena ’03, Howah Hung ’09, Kent Oz ’10, Matthew Putorti ’11, and Sara Yood ’11.

Transferable Skills Matter

Cartagena and Escobar were students at Fordham Law during the 9/11 terrorist attacks. They said hiring strategies changed rapidly within the legal industry market as a result. Law firms began to contract. Public interest law organizations could not hire as much due to funding cuts. Government agencies were under hiring freezes. “And, it’s never gone back to what it was before 2001,” Escobar noted, referring to firms’ hiring approaches.

Prior to forming her own practice, Escobar worked as an attorney representing the Administration for Children’s Services in child abuse and neglect litigation cases. She was not necessarily enthusiastic about the job when she got it, but is now thankful for it. “It doesn’t matter what your first job is if you’re interested in litigation—as long as you’re litigating something, as long as you’re learning the skills that a litigator acquires when they’re actually litigating—because those skills are easily transferable,” she continued. “A commercial litigator can do civil litigation. A criminal defense attorney can do prosecution and vice versa. A criminal defense attorney or prosecutor can pretty much do any type of litigation they want. It’s just a matter of learning the rules of the law in the area that you’re focusing in.”

Cartagena, who currently serves as the deputy counsel for the New York State Board of Elections, wanted to work in public policy, but could not land a job in that particular field due to lack of work experience. After networking with contacts in the New York State Assembly, he found that legislative offices were not hiring either and that more experienced individuals were the ones given jobs when positions opened. “So, I took a leap and I hung my own shingle. I just started practicing law, and I became a law guardian in the Ulster County Family Court,” Cartagena said, explaining that he represented children in custody proceedings.

During that time, Cartagena also became an 18-B attorney in local town courts, representing clients charged with criminal offenses when a conflict existed and prohibited the institutional providers from providing representation. He later applied for an associate attorney position in litigation. “In the process, I did learn I had an aptitude for litigation,” Cartagena said. “I feel like that skill really transferred further into my career. And, probably to the shock of my legal writing professor at law school, I turned out to be a pretty decent legal writer.”

Hung, who is an assistant general counsel and serves as the lead counsel for research and industrial collaborations at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK), did on-campus interviewing during the spring of his third year at Fordham Law. One of the positions he interviewed for was a J.D.-preferred position at a Brooklyn medical center that was geared towards transactions and contracts. He did not hear back until six months later, at which time he had already been working for a small practice. He expressed his interest and made it through three rounds of interviews, landing the job by Thanksgiving that same year. “I think a lot of people who are corporate law-minded envision themselves working in big law firms, making big salaries, and doing big deals. You don’t necessarily get that experience if you go to big law, but that’s the expectation,” Hung explained. “But I realized after the fact that I did obtain a lot of really useful skills, at least in the transactional space, that I now utilize very heavily in the five years I’ve been at MSK.”

The Importance of Networking

When Wall Street brokerage firm Lehman Brothers collapsed during the fall of 2008, the economic effects reverberated throughout 2009 and 2011. Putorti, who is now a litigator at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, said that the aftermath stuck with him and fellow panelist Yood during and after law school, as hiring was implemented on an ad hoc basis. He became a Dean’s Fellow under the leadership of Professor Susan Scafidi with the Fashion Law Institute, after graduation. At the same time, however, Putorti found out that his legal writing professor’s firm was hiring. “I reached out to him and asked if he could help facilitate my interview process, which he did thankfully. And that’s how I ended up getting my first job—through a Fordham professor,” he said. “I think it was only later that I realized that your network is probably your most valuable asset.”

Putorti recommended that current students should balance networking with their studies. “Because of the profession that we’re in, your grades do matter,” he said. “So it’s useful to make sure that you’re still doing as well as you can and to focus on that, while doing a little bit of networking on the side.”

When Oz was not hired after his summer 2L internship with a large law firm—as he had hoped—he immediately began to network, calling every attorney he knew and speaking with parents in his daughter’s class who were also attorneys. He had three job offers as a result of his legwork, though he noted he did not accept any of them. At that time, however, Oz also applied for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)’s two-year-long Honors Attorney Program—which he discovered through USAJOBS at the recommendation of Fordham Law’s CPC. He was one of six students to be selected from a pool of 1,000 applicants. “It wasn’t really what I was planning to do. I figured I’ll start here in big government and learn something. … By the time I was ending my second year at the FDIC (equivalent to a second-year associate at big law), I was first chair at a trial,” Oz said. “I thought I was going to do it for a few years, but, 10 years later, I’m still here [working in FDIC’s enforcement division].”

Take Advantage of Fordham Law Classes and Clinics

Escobar said being a part of Fordham Law’s Welfare Rights Clinichelmed by Professor Michael W. Martin—made her feel necessary and like she mattered in law school. “Clinical education was the first time that I actually got to practice what being a lawyer was and how to be an advocate and in service to other people,” she said. “In a lot of ways, it’s what motivated me to keep going in an environment that sometimes isn’t hospitable.”

Hung agreed, speaking about how influential a Fordham Law contracts class was in the long run for him. “I found that it was a really useful building block for a lot of the work I did, both as an attorney and at a J.D.-preferred position. I didn’t quite realize the value of that until I was looking for my next job after that first position at the Brooklyn medical center,” he said. “It’s important for us, regardless of what your first position is, to get a full understanding or try to get as much experience as you can because you never know which aspect of your professional experience will prove useful further down the line for your career path.”

Do Your Homework

Oz, who interviews students for summer intern positions and occasionally full-time positions, emphasized the importance of doing preliminary research before an interview. “Think of your interviewer as an adversary,” he recommended. “Understand who they are, where they’re coming from, and the company he/she works for, so that you’re prepared to answer those questions.” Also, Oz advised, be prepared to ask insightful questions at the end of your interview to prove to the prospective employer that you have researched the company.

This can be done, according to Oz, by reading through the organization’s website; seeing if the organization has been in the news lately; and speaking with people who may have previously worked there via an informational interview.

Don’t Be Hard on Yourself

Towards the end of the virtual session, some of the panelists reflected on their career trajectories and shared their “I wish I knew” pieces of advice to current law students and recent grads. “In hindsight, I wish I was less hard on myself because I felt like such a failure for not having received an offer. I felt as though I wouldn’t be able to have a successful legal career as a result of not being able to get a big law job out of law school,” Hung said. “Something I’ve learned throughout the years is that the practice of law is really broad and there’s a lot of opportunity to do good and be successful in many different areas of law and practice.”

In the same vein, Yood, the current senior counsel at the Jewelers Vigilance Committee, said students should not feel discouraged by family or friends while job hunting. “My friends in my class got hired on this incredibly strange timeline. A few people had jobs when we graduated … and it really took, I would say, probably a full year and a half before everybody I knew had a job that was solid, probably long-term, and valuable for them. That’s a pretty long time to be mad at yourself,” she said. “Things do work out in the end, and I’m pretty much an anomaly amongst most of my friends. Most people haven’t stayed in the position or at the place where they were, and certainly I’ve grown and been promoted … but most people I know have switched jobs at least a couple of times. Whatever that first job is, it’s not going to define the rest of your life, unless you want it to.”

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