Tenacity in Tough Times

How four law school graduates are making the most of their degrees in an industry still recovering from the recession.

A law degree once promised a stable, secure, and lucrative career. But like most other industries, the legal profession was hit hard by the 2008 recession. Over the next several years, employment opportunities diminished and law school enrollment dropped, and those who did enroll found themselves faced with mounting debt and a bleak job outlook.

Yet, while law school enrollment continues to fall — down 27.7 percent from its historic high in 2010, according to 2014 data from the American Bar Association (ABA) — some still see it as a viable career path. For those — like recent graduates Rene Ugarte, Christina Huszcza, Teddy Reese, and Chinazo Anachebe — the potential benefits of a law degree outweighed the perceived risks and guaranteed debt.

For Rene Ugarte, the decision to go to law school was sparked by necessity.

ugarte“I had a job working in marketing when the recession happened, and it hit the company I worked for really hard,” Ugarte says. “Within a short period of time, there were probably five people left in my department. Eventually, it was my turn to go.”

Ugarte’s experience left her disenchanted with her career, and she found herself searching for a new path — one that she would enjoy and, more important, offer her a return on her investment. “I was looking at job requirements, and suddenly the job I used to do with a bachelor’s degree paid about $10,000 less and required a master’s degree, and I wasn’t that in love with that job to want to put that effort into it,” she says.

So in 2010, at the age of 38, the Colorado native enrolled at the University of Kansas School of Law to pursue her dream of becoming a public defender and providing legal counsel to people who are unable to afford it. “It is very clear in the U.S. that money can buy freedom, but most people can’t afford that type of legal assistance,” says Ugarte. “I strongly believe everyone is entitled to a defense, no matter what they have done.”

With an equal focus on her studies and securing a job, Ugarte worked through law school to make herself as marketable as possible upon graduation by taking both criminal and civil classes, interning, and honing her writing skills.

“Everybody was really clear about how bad the job market was, so my philosophy on getting a job was — because I worked in career services — I will do everything they tell me to do,” she says. “I did all the things I didn’t want to do. I went to cocktail parties and networked; I [participated in] this club; I met with these people. I did as much as I could do to build skills to get a job. So I told myself, if I do all that and I still don’t get a job, then I can blame it on the school.”

After graduating in May 2013, Ugarte took the first job offer she received, prior to passing the Missouri bar exam in July: a supposedly yearlong contract position, which only lasted six months. But she never lost sight of her goal.

“I had interned with the public defender’s office after my first year of law school, and so it was something I wanted,” Ugarte says. “But [when I graduated], there was a hiring freeze in the state of Missouri, so I just kept an eye on the posting to see when they were hiring.”

After finding and applying for an opening in the Missouri State Public Defender’s office in January 2014, Ugarte received an offer in August and began her new career as an assistant public defender in September.

“It’s a very difficult job, but I enjoy it, and in terms of jobs that are really appropriate for my personality, I think it’s probably the best one I’ve ever had,” she says.

For Ugarte, working in the public sector was a dream — and one that provides added benefits. Under the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program, if she continues to work in the public sector and makes regular on-time student loan payments for 10 years (120 payments), the remainder of her student loans will be forgiven.

“The program … will make a huge difference for me,” says Ugarte. “But if I wasn’t doing this, and if I didn’t have a job that qualified, then the highest paying job — regardless of what I do — would be the most important thing.”

From the age of 14, Christina Huszcza always knew she wanted to be a lawyer.

Huszcza“I didn’t have a really good understanding of why I wanted to be a lawyer. I just knew that I did,” Huszcza says. “It was kind of like following my gut a lot more than other people probably would, considering the investment of time and money.”

She originally planned to take several years off after college to work before going to law school, but after graduating in 2008 to a “less than ideal” job market, Huszcza took a detour.

“I had an opportunity to get my MBA with a huge scholarship from the University of Denver,” she says. “So I did that for a year hoping the economy would get better, but then it was 2009, and it was worse. And I couldn’t find a job.”

From there, she decided to go straight to law school. Huszcza was admitted to her two-time alma mater, the University of Denver, where she realized she wanted to be a litigator at a large firm.

Motivated only by the goal of getting hired directly out of school, she pushed herself to seek out different types of opportunities and to always be working, regardless of the pay.

“The only thing I cared about in law school was getting a job. From the first summer until I graduated, I was working somewhere — and usually for free. I didn’t care if I got paid, and I didn’t particularly care about where I was employed, as long as it was getting me really great experience that would later make me marketable,” she says. “If there was an internship I wanted, I would figure out a way to get it, or a type of law I wanted experience in, I would find an internship that offered that experience.”

In addition to interning and working, Huszcza participated in the Elder Law Society — of which she was president for a year — and was a member of the student bar association during her first and second year of law school. She was also careful to select classes that offered both theoretical and hands-on experience.

And when it came time for on-campus interviews, she took full advantage. “I applied to almost every firm or company that came through the University of Denver,” she says. “So that was probably 30 or 40 applications at a time, both in my second year and my third year.”

Although none of those employment opportunities came to fruition, being in the top 10 percent of her class offered Huszcza an advantage. By January of her third year, she received her first job offer, saving her the stress of job seeking after graduation. From there, it didn’t take her long to get where she always wanted to be.

Now a litigation associate with Tucker Ellis LLP, a large firm with nearly 200 attorneys nationwide, she says she owes her success to always keeping the employer in mind.

“I would say that law school was the best decision I’ve ever made because now I’m in a job that I absolutely love and in the exact position I hoped I would be in from the day I started law school,” Huszcza says. “And I think the way that I got here is I focused on making myself a marketable employee. From the day I stepped into law school, I was thinking about how I was going to get a job when I graduated, and I did that throughout my entire three years.

For Teddy Reese, getting a law degree wasn’t about becoming a lawyer as much as it was about furthering his professional career. 

ReeseAs the first person in his family to graduate from college, as well as graduate school, he was determined to continue on his path to success.

“I didn’t want to be in a position where I had to report to someone for the rest of my life. If I decided to venture out or do something differently, I wanted the academic credentials to help me pursue that,” Reese says. “I figured a JD would give me the widest net to cast in determining what I wanted to do professionally, or in keeping myself entertained professionally.”

In 2009, after working in business and administration for half a decade, Reese left his job with the City of Atlanta Department of Watershed Management to attend Florida A&M University College of Law. He was 29.

“I was a little scared leaving a full-time job where I was making pretty good money to [having] no employment,” he says. “And I tell you, every exit was an opportunity to turn around, and they begged me to turn around — to go back and tell the city I was just playing, I want my job back. But at the same time, each mile instilled courage.”

At Florida A&M, Reese took full advantage of every opportunity: serving as an editor of the school’s law review, as president of his student bar association, and in his last year, as the national chair of the ABA’s Law Student Division. He also clerked with a judge, worked at a law firm representing a property management company, and spent time observing court proceedings.

“I think that I was able to handle that load because of my professional experience prior to going to law school,” Reese says, “because I worked in corporate America and learned the importance of prioritizing, scheduling, budgeting, and things of that nature; and because I worked in the public sector and learned how to work with boards [of directors] and elected officials. Those skills didn’t just disappear during law school.”

In 2012, he graduated cum laude, and after taking the Florida bar exam that July, was packed and ready to move back to his hometown of Gordon, Ga., when he received a phone call. It was the executive director of the Georgia Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, calling at the behest of Portia Holmes Shields, the former president of Reese’s alma mater, Albany State University.

“Shields was serving on the board of directors, and when they discovered they were opening an office in Columbus, Ga., she was there to speak on my behalf,” Reese says. “I’m sure she only did that because of the leadership, direction, and determination I showed as a student [at Albany State University]. Sometimes one person can make one call and make a world of difference.”

Reese is currently director of community operations and affairs with Georgia Appleseed — a nonprofit organization and policy center that seeks justice for marginalized individuals — where he also serves as a staff attorney.

“It was all worth it. I wouldn’t do anything differently,” he says. “Whenever I get to look into a child’s eyes and see that flame of inspiration and hope because they see someone who looks like them and someone who talks like them, it’s inspirational.”

When she was a pre-physical therapy major in college, Chinazo “Chi Chi” Anachebe’s thoughts were far from law school.

Chi-Chi“I never, honestly, had any kind of interaction with a lawyer that I knew personally until college,” she says. “Just talking with friends and [hearing] what they wanted to do after graduation, a lot of them said law school. I initially did not start off on that path.”

But in her sophomore year, she changed her major to political science and set her sights on law school.

“I felt like that was the next step,” Anachebe says. “My parents, their thing was [for me] to find a career that would provide stability, and so — I guess before the fall of the market and how things are now — being a lawyer provided stability then.”

After taking a year off post college to focus on studying for the LSAT exam, she entered Mississippi College School of Law through an early summer program in 2011, which allowed her to get a feel for what law school would be like.

Once there, she hoped to pursue her initial dream of becoming a sports entertainment attorney. “I had dreams of that even while I was in undergrad,” she says. “So when I did take a sports law class, I found myself thinking I could use my expertise in a different area. I thought, well, maybe it’s best if I see what else is out there.”

With a little encouragement from her school, Anachebe started interning and working in various areas of the legal profession, and from those experiences, began to discover where she could see herself.

She interned with a judge at the court of appeals in Georgia, a congresswoman in D.C., the Maryland State Medical Society, and the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s regional office in Atlanta. She also was a member of the National Black Law Students Association and the Georgia Association of Black Women Attorneys. And she was intrigued by and enjoyed every opportunity.

“My experiences changed the game for me. [I was] like, OK, I like politics; OK, I like employment law. Either of those I can see myself doing,” Anachebe says.

Since graduating in May 2014, she has worked hard to pass the bar exam. She is currently studying to take the exam in July.

In between studying for the bar, she has been volunteering as a legal aid with Atlanta Legal Aid Society — which provides legal services for those who can’t afford it — and has begun looking for work in other areas, such as politics, which she says is proving to be just as difficult.

Beyond passing the bar, Anachebe’s goal is to start an organization, or pipeline program, to help others who will be the first attorneys in their families in order to provide them with the skills to be a successful lawyer. But until then, she continues to pursue new learning experiences and build her résumé.

“After a certain point, it’s time to create my own opportunity,” Anachebe says.●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.