Non-Traditional Jobs in a Non-Traditional Market

BY MARK NEWBERG

I have a story to tell. It’s not your typical law school story, and it’s not your typical job search story. In fact, I can’t think of a single thing that’s typical about it. But that’s what makes for good stories and good lessons. See, I went searching for a job. In New Orleans. Post-Katrina.

There are certain assumptions people make about law students, particularly HLS students. They assume that law students are smart. They assume that law students are ambitious. They assume that law students are driven. And they assume that law students want to practice law. For the most part, those assumptions are true. But in certain cases, like mine, the logical tendency to lump law students into a four square box presents problems that resemble Churchill’s riddle-within-an-enigma-wrapped-in-a-mystery. Or something like that.

Having “Harvard” associated with your name is going to make people attribute to you accomplishments you haven’t achieved, and qualities you don’t possess. For example, “Mark ran Such-and-Such’s campaign.” No, I worked on Such-and-Such’s campaign, and I doubt that Such-and-Such would recognize me if his driver ran me over in an environmentally friendly campaign minivan. Or, “Ask Mark, he knows everything.” Not true. On the scale of universal knowledge, where Stephen Hawking is a 10, I rank somewhere south of Phil Mickelson, who knows every golf shot ever discovered.

For me, there’s an additional quandary that I had never really anticipated. “Mark graduated from Harvard Law.” Patently false. I was a visiting student at HLS, during Katrina. I drove 3,000 miles in five days, listened to the end of the world on conservative talk radio, and ended up at Harvard. My resume, and my diploma, say “Tulane,” and I’m kind of proud of it. I came back to New Orleans. A lot of people didn’t.

The gravitational pull that causes people down here, smart and powerful people, to refer to me as an HLS grad caught me completely by surprise. But there’s a lesson in it. The “H-Bomb” is real. The power of the name, the power of the brand, hits like a lightning bolt. Some people will be too stunned by the flash of light to notice the thunderclap behind it. But they’ll want to associate themselves with it, and that can be a tricky thing.

What I’ve realized is that, in places where one doesn’t run into a Harvardian in every corner office, the temptation is for decision makers to cement their standing by bragging about their close brush with Harvard. In other words, they’ll want you there because it makes them look smart. Now, you may be thinking that law firms don’t operate that way; that resumes are scrutinized, minute details culled to prove or disprove the veracity of the assertions within, and you might be right. Because here, buried deep within the sixth paragraph is another truth about my situation: I wasn’t applying to law firms. I didn’t want to practice law.

After that lengthy setup, there it is, in black and white. I’m one of those law students who went for the education. I went for the experience. In other words, I’m nuts. So, if you’re like me and want to do something other than practice law (I’m only questioning my mental clarity, not yours), there’s more of this story to tell.

When I returned to New Orleans in January, I got involved. I had been beating the drum of action (figuratively) for months, and finally being back in the city allowed me to do something with my ideas. I co-chaired our post-Katrina Housing Committee, worked to organize a forum where leaders could come together to exchange rebuilding ideas, and immersed myself in the politics of Katrina’s legacy. In other words, I got noticed.

In terms of a job search, it was a great stroke of luck. If you have a choice, it’s better to be seen positively by influential members of your community than not be seen at all. On the other hand, if you know you don’t want to practice law but aren’t sure what you want to do, you’re going to find your head spinning. That’s what happened to me.

But if you had asked me to articulate what kind of job I was looking for, you could have given me ten tries, twenty minutes, a legal pad, a dictionary, a road map, and an egg timer, and I still wouldn’t have come up with anything better than, “Something where I can make a difference.” The indecisiveness still makes me cringe, and if that’s the best answer that you can come up with, you’re going to end up cringing, too. You’ll also want to be able to succinctly answer the logical question, “Why don’t you want to practice law?” As long as you clear that stumbling block, you’ll be presented with so many opportunities that you won’t have time to sort everything out. And that would be a mistake.

[Notice that I’ve assumed you’re going to get a lot of offers (and that you’ve got an idea where to look for those offers). If these assumptions aren’t true, do yourself a favor and stop by OCS. Seriously. You’ve got the best in the country at your disposal. I know. I had classmates at over 100 American law schools. We compared notes. Harvard won.]

When opportunity knocks, we all have a strong temptation to answer. It’s especially true when opportunity looks a lot like employment, and the alternative bears a strong resemblance to rambling aimlessly in the dark. So when I heard a knocking at the door (actually, the ringing of my cell phone) I jumped for it. I went for an interview, and then another, and then a third. I drew up specific plans tailored to the questions I was asked, and wondered why some questions weren’t asked. It was only during the third face-to-face that I realized the person interviewing me didn’t know what to do with me any better than I did.

It was a startling realization, because there’s a natural tendency to assume that the interview is for a specific role. Beware of those interviews that aren’t. Pay attention to your gut and your instincts. Both have been finely honed by Socratic method. Use them. It’ll help you avoid poorly-tailored employment situations. It helped me, because I finally advised my interviewer that we’d probably all be better off if he hired someone he was more comfortable with, and ultimately he did. Such was the power of Harvard, that he didn’t know what to do with me, but brought me in three times on the assumption that something would have to work, and for the value of being associated with the Harvard name. Remember that.

Had I taken the time to think about what transpired, I would have been better off. But I was facing unemployment, and a little bit of post-disaster burnout, and an objective examination of my experience from a sociological perspective wasn’t exactly at the top of my list. Nor was it on my list at all. Remember that, too. What happened next is the final lesson I can offer. I jumped too soon, again, and bulldozed any tinge of doubt.

On the face of it, the job I took was the perfect job. There was policy. There was politics. There was the opportunity, and the mandate, to make a difference. But there wasn’t a boss. There were eight of them, and I didn’t fully grasp it until I was on the job. It didn’t help that my title, “Energy Specialist,” was just circumspect enough to confuse everyone, including me. So here’s the lesson: Know what the job is, and know who’s in charge.

I was so enamored with the idea of making a difference that we never codified how I was supposed to go about it. What happens when one boss wants something different than another boss? And what happens when different bosses, all of whom you ostensibly work for and report to, are feuding with each other? With apologies to Sir Winston, it’s a problem-wrapped-in-a-conundrum-within-an-I-can’t-use-that-word. But it’s not a comfortable situation.

The fact is that I missed the warning signs about the difficulty of what I was being asked to do. Missing those signs, in post-Katrina New Orleans, says a lot about how wrapped up we can get in the “perfect” job. I had written about the problems jurisdictional uncertainty
created in the Katrina response, and then I went out and ignored the problems it created within my own “perfect” job. I didn’t know who my boss was because there wasn’t anybody at the top of the organizational chart with ultimate decision-making authority. It’s an untenable situation, it’s a conflict of interest, and it’s something to avoid at all cost, no matter how great the job. Know who your boss is. Along with everything else, remember that.

The perfect job is out there. Really, it is. If you’ve read this far you know it is, because you don’t want to practice law. So take a shot at something non-traditional, but do some planning, decide what you want, figure out who’s in charge, don’t jump before you think, be objective, and beware of Crimson Envy. While you’re at it, if you’ve still got room in your schedule, take Leadership in the Public Sector with Prof. Heymann. He’s got a lot of wisdom to impart, and it’ll be valuable for years. Because half of you are going to be Senators, and you can always fall back on that.

Mark Newberg was a visiting student at Harvard Law School for the Fall semester, 2006.

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