Common Cents

America, the cheapskate. With this new administration, there’s a lot of talk about balancing the budget, reducing taxes, and that old chestnut–“job creation”.  Part of the problem is that we don’t have people developing skills that are more relevant to the economy than coal mining, but that’s another post for another day. But conservatives love to talk about how policies are helping or hurting small business owners.*

There’s all this talk about job creation and how things like the Affordable Care Act discourage business growth. **The truth is that it takes money to make money. If you can’t afford the expenses for your business–including reasonable employee wages–then you need to reevaluate before you start talking about growth. If you can’t pay your employees, you can’t afford to grow– period! So either you need to reevaluate your business processes to see how you can better handle your workload with what you have, or up your marketing game to get more business in the door.

It’s really unfortunate to me that so many business owners are so cheap. Everyone knows the saying “it takes money to make money”, but few seem to truly understand that. It’s not hard. When you are starting a business, most of your profits should be reinvested as working capital. That’s not to say you shouldn’t pay yourself something to live on. But the first three years are not for you to run out and buy an expensive new car or wardrobe, or lease an expensive office downtown in the hip neighborhood. They are for you to master your branding, network, market yourself, and find out what processes will allow you to scale up from the current skeleton crew operation.

As you all know, I’m a lawyer. As a service professional, an attorney’s or law firm’s reputation is everything because a lot of business comes through word of mouth. Doing a half-assed job on cases you shouldn’t have taken, and missing deadlines because you can’t manage your docket, is bad business and will potentially get you in trouble with the state bar.  Discounting every client who complains about your fee will bite you in the foot. If they are a repeat customer, they’ll expect the same discounted rate. The clients they refer to you will expect a discounted rate. They also won’t take your seriously. In my experience, the clients who get a discounted fee or are on contingency are the most high maintenance, demanding clients. They want to go to trial long after it’s clear they should take a settlement and go home. You waste precious billable hours wrangling them when you could be working on more lucrative cases. All of this for a client who is not substantially contributing to your bottom line.  Many of these things are true for other professionals as well.

So that’s why my interview the other day irked me so much. The firm had a standalone building with a dedicated reception lobby, two conference rooms, four offices and a break room. There was a recent model year BMW parked close by. My interviewer’s shoes looked designer and their shirts and suits looked custom tailored. Yet, they want someone to work for them 7 days a week for a pittance.  See, we millenials peep game. The same Baby Booomers who claim we’re lazy and entitled, told us to know our worth, negotiate everything, and demand respect. Now that the rubber has hit the road, they’ve changed their tune. They want us to do better, just not better than them. And that’s messed up.

 

*Everyone thinks about the Mom & Pop diner when you say small business, but they don’t give a crap. Under tax law you can create an S-Corp, literally “small corporation”, which can’t have more than 100 shareholders. But there are S-Corps which are multi-million dollar  international operations. #TheMoreYouKnow

**The ACA requires that businesses with 50 or more employees provide sponsored health insurance coverage. The cost of this coverage is deductible by the company as a business expense.

What they don’t teach you in law school

Every day when I wake up, I have to remind myself how blessed I am. Approximately 1/3 of the population has a college degree. There are about 1 million active, licensed attorneys and the US had a population of 316.1 million people as of 2013. I am part of an extremely elite profession that encompasses a mere 0.003% of the population. given that I am female and African-American, my status makes me somewhat exceptional.

So when I wake up and start applying for jobs on Craigslist in my bathrobe, thinking of those things reminds me that I’m not a failure.

I also make myself remember why I got into this line of work: to help people. I get a real sense of accomplishment when I can solve a problem for someone. But it’s not as easy all that. There’s rules of procedure, courtroom etiquette (aka trying not to piss off a nitpicky old judge), research, depositions, brief writing, motion pleading, etc, etc, etc. Most of which you only scratch the surface of in law school. Solo practice is hugely intimidating. Doubly so when you’re a minority and know that everything you do is scrutinized even more. Triply so when you’re new in town and don’t know the lay of the land. I went to a CLE today and everyone was saying you need to basically stalk the courthouse and pick up pro bono work (which ostensibly leads to paying case referrals if you do a good job), or just hand out business cards and pick up a random client. Sounds great in theory. But:

1. Malpractice suits are a real and present danger. Westlaw subscriptions are expensive. I have access to Fastcase through the bar association but it only lets me see Texas cases. Thus, I mostly stick to editing and drafting contracts because the law because the law tends to be easier to find and less variable across jurisdictions.

2. Who’s going to help me learn how to present a hearing, or conduct a trial? The procedural manuals tell you a lot, and so does courtroom observation. But it’s not the same as having someone to walk you through it and fill in the gaps. Clearly the judge isn’t going to do it, so…

3. Where I am supposed to meet my clients? I don’t have office space or money to rent it. I suppose we could conference at the courthouse but that raises issues with breaking privilege and confidentiality since it’s a public space. Same thing with a random coffeehouse.

I could go on….Let’s not even get into all the money I have to spend on gas and parking- I live 30 minutes away from the courthouse and there’s no such thing as free parking in Houston. Working for free costs more than just your time, contrary to what people believe.

I went to a seminar today for new lawyers and the privilege disgusted me at times. Then there was a very awkward session where a retired lawyer went on a rant about the lack of respect for authority- in my opinion, a dig at the national unrest stemming from Ferguson but I could be reading too far into it. When he started talking about professional attorney, he basically stared me (and my fluffy twist-out) down. It was pretty apparent because there were only four other attendees, all sitting to the left of me and more directly in his line of sight. It really rubbed me the wrong way. Why is it that natural hair is only professional when it’s braided or bunned and essentially, tamed? My hair grows out instead of down. What of it? And although you think I just rolled out of bed and achieved this afro, in point of fact I spend a few hours each week maintain it and several minutes every morning coaxing it into its current shape. The microaggressions are real out in these streets.

I don’t really have a point to this post. Except to say that there’s a lot they don’t teach you in law school. And life can be much more unfair than you thought. But there’s always hope. I’m going to make it, one way or another.

In Defense of Millenials

I love to see a good anti-millenial article. It makes me chuckle. Why? Because all this concern trolling intentionally ignores the fact that the world is fundamentally different than it was when our parents were our age. Like, 180 degrees type different. If I had graduated from law school in the 90s, I could have easily landed a $60k/yr job with full benefits at a local firm (BEFORE passing the bar) and that would have been considered mediocre. These days you’re ecstatic to get $40k/yr. And if you can get $50/mo on your health insurance premium and two weeks PAID vacation? Ballin’!

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So in defense of my generation, today I’ll be cheerfully dismantling some of the vicious lies spread about us. All aboard the Snark Express!

 

1. Millenials are responsible for stores being open on Thanksgiving day because they’re “more than happy to leave the dinner and go shopping.” Well, when you’re already living with your parents, Thanksgiving is just another Thursday! The turkey’s gonna last a week and we can DVR the football game. We definitely can’t afford a house and the new smart tv only goes on sale once a year. Fiscal responsibility FTW!

2. Millenials are destroying brands like McDonalds and Coke. When you can’t afford health insurance, you realize pretty quickly that your health is your greatest asset- and maintaining it means staying away from the things that you know for a fact are going to kill you. Coke? Nah, we’ll have the water without the side of stomach ulcer. McDonalds? We’ll save our dollars for Chipotle- at least their meat is 100% actual meat. *shudder*

3. Millenials are failures at dating and don’t know how to love.  Ha! Money can’t buy you love, but it sho nuff pays the bills. Between grad school, our unpaid internship, our minimum wage part time job, and our side hustle, who has the time (or disposable income) to date anymore? Sex is free and we can squeeze it in between class and updating our resumes. Besides, if the Greatest Generation had Tinder back in those days, they wouldn’t have bothered with dinner dates either. Don’t hate the player, hate the game.

4. Millenials don’t know basic skills like sewing. I’ll take that L. The only thing I can do with a needle and thread is stitch a hole and put a button on. It would be nice to be able to make an outfit from scratch, but when you can just pick up a $12 shirt and $25 pair of jeans from Old Navy…why bother? Besides, these skills were usually taught in classes like Home Economics, which are getting cut all the time to make room for more standardized test cramming. Knowing how to make  Rice Krispies treats and wool socks isn’t going to get us into college.

5. Millenials are to blame for Hollywood’s excessive mining of nostalgia to sell movie tickets. When you’re thousands of dollars in student loan debt and can only afford an apartment by living with 3 roommates, you tend to take comfort in your childhood pastimes. Since our childhood memories are wrapped up in media that is still readily available, we can and do indulge frequently. The emergence of social media also means that our media consumption habits are amplified and easily quantified by the Hollywood brass. Sorry we’re not sorry! #TeamAutobot

6. Millenials are lazy and taking too long to grow up. Ah, the catchall indictment of 20-somethings. The great irony is that not a single one of us is really excited to be living the struggle life. I for one would love to have the funds to put down $10k on a house. I look forward to the day when I make $300,000/yr and don’t have to rely on a tax refund to pad my savings account. Unfortunately, the business world simply can’t (or won’t) support the influx of young, educated people at a wage where we can achieve complete financial independence. Sure, many of us are entrepreneurial- but it usually takes 3 years for a business to turn a profit. In the meantime, our choices are a) hit up mom and dad; b) sell drugs or get on the pole; or c) give up and live in a box on the sidewalk.

All humor aside, any rational adult should be able to realize that millenials are just trying to make it. There were plenty of self-involved Boomers, they just weren’t visible on the same scale that we are. The only reason many of us seem “entitled” is that we know for a fact we’ve worked harder than previous generations and have zero to show for it. Think about it: high school math now goes through calculus; the SAT has an extra section;  many of us had to pass a standardized test just to graduate high school; college admissions are more selective than ever; and we’re competing for jobs with people who will work for pennies overseas. Expensive cars and home ownership are out of reach, so why not buy the new iPhone? Until the government intervenes in a big way- like forgiving some (or all) of our student loans, subsidizing mortgages for folks with advanced degrees and low incomes, or making corporate America funnel some of that bailout money into entry- and mid-level jobs that require professional skills- we’ll just have to muddle through as best we can. And instead of crying about it, we’ll smile- and take a selfie.

 

Millenial Blues

It’s been a rough year for me.

I graduated from law school last May and still haven’t found a full time job. Obviously, a forced relocation that uprooted me from my network and delayed my taking the bar exam for an additional six months didn’t help. Still, who knew it would be so hard for an educated, able bodied person to find meaningful work? And by meaningful I mean something in a professional field (I’d prefer to at least be a paralegal but at this point, I’ll take a secretary job) that pays at least $10/hr. It just seems like every time I get close, something happens to knock me off my ass again. I had a great internship at a non-profit last summer that was an audition for a full time job. They gave the full time position to another intern who was less qualified than me, who kept the job for just under a year and moved on (I know that because we’re connected on LinkedIn). I really wanted that job and had they given it to me, Tex and I would still be in Atlanta. But I guess it just wasn’t meant for me.

Seeing as Texas hasn’t been hit as hard in the economic downturn, I had high hopes for finding employment in Houston. Tex is employed but underpaid- we’re a hair above “just barely making it” without any income from me. I had a talk with one of my law school gal pals and realized my law degree was screening me out, so I have removed it from my resume. So I spend my days getting up at 8am like I have a job to go to, applying to jobs, working out in the afternoons, and watching tv. It’s depressing. I don’t have any friends or family of my own here. I gotta say, being a housewife is no fun unless you’re rich. It’s almost enough to make me wish I had a baby just so there would be some purpose and meaning to my days. I’ve still got the tax preparer gig, but summer session is slow and they overhired. Since I’m the newbie, I’m not getting hours anymore and tax season doesn’t start until January. Bar results aren’t out til November. So what the fuck am I supposed to do in the meantime?

I know that you shouldn’t worry and pray. But it’s hard not to be anxious when your bank account balance is always hovering close to zero after paying rent, and you have to keep borrowing from your ever dwindling savings account just to make ends meet. I wish I had Tex’s assuredness that everything is going to be okay. Part of me is just angry. I feel like I did all the right things, and even if I didn’t, I worked my ass off and made the best decisions I could. As a working class black girl from the south side of town, there were certain things I just didn’t know. Sure, I could have chosen a different major, done different extracurriculars, or chosen a different graduate degree but that only would have happened if I could somehow go back in time with what I know now. I’m not expecting to be on easy street before I turn 30. But can I at least make some fucking progress? I know there are plenty of folks out there who aren’t as smart or as hard working as I am who are doing far better financially. I try to count my blessings instead of other people’s. But will the struggle ever end? Can I at least get to the point where I can maintain instead of playing catch-up? I just want to be able to use my God-given, school-refined talents to make a living. Why is that seemingly so impossible? On top of everything, my car is breaking down so I’m scared to  go farther than the grocery store for fear my car will overheat. I’m trying to preserve it for when I really need it, like to go on job interviews. But that means I can’t go out to networking events, which are all 20-30 minutes away in downtown Houston. I don’t know anyone I can catch a ride with either, and Tex works on the opposite side of town so he can’t get me anywhere I need to be before 7pm, which is when most events are ending. Plus, apparently networking ain’t free anymore- you’ve got to pay cover.

I try really hard to put a brave face on. I pray and try to put it out of my mind. But every day I don’t have a job is a day I feel useless. Unwanted. What was the point of 7 years of higher education, when I could have stopped at high school and been in the same position? Possibly a better one, since I’d have 7 years of work experience? By the way, entry level ain’t what it used to be. Jobs that required a college degree when I was in college, now only require a GED. If you do need a degree for the job, you also need 5, 7, 10 years work experience- just to be able to make $50,000/yr or $40k/yr with benefits. It’s insane. *sigh* In my heart, I know that God will provide. He’s never let me down yet. But the doubt in my mind is hard to quiet. I used to feel like I could never fail. I was valedictorian, voted most likely to succeed, got into the honors program at a top ten public university and survived law school, even if I didn’t necessarily conquer it. I guess this is just my test…patience isn’t my biggest virtue. But giving up isn’t an option. I have to make it. I have to.

Spaceships

“I’ve been workin’ this grave shift/ and I ain’t made sh*t/ I wish I could, buy me a spaceship and fly. . .”- Kanye West

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5pB8qGLFvic

I spent my New Year’s Day working. Although the store wasn’t that busy, I clocked out feeling drained. Retail/customer service work is light on pay and heavy on emotional labor. Smiling and being pleasant even though the person in front of you is all but calling you an idiot. Swallowing a snarky reply when the voice on the other end of the line is serving up attitude because they don’t like the answer you gave them. It’s hard. Bad enough that I’m working way too hard for the minimum wage I’m getting, and that I haven’t yet found a position that in any way utilizes my natural talents or the skills I developed through 7 years of postsecondary schooling. Nope, I’ve got to put up with being belittled and pretend that it’s okay. Not to mention that people treat the store ten times worse than they would treat their home. The kinds of trash that people leave and where they leave it is horrifying. (Pro tip: If you didn’t know already, make sure you wash your new lingerie before wearing it if it isn’t in a sealed package. You can thank me later.)

I’ve never been a nightmare customer. My parents taught me to acknowledge and respect everyone, even the guy mopping the floors. When I shop, I leave the things I don’t want at the fitting room or back on their proper rack. I throw away my trash and if I have a question, I ask politely because I know that whatever problems I’m dealing with have nothing to do with the person in front of me. So of course I was shocked at the complete and utter disregard that I experience daily. I used to feel a bit miffed when a salsesperson wasn’t appropriately cheerful, or got impatient with me when I asked for help but now I get it. 8 out 10 customers you encounter are helpless at best (asking you for the price without bothering to check the tag, walking through the department they’re looking for to ask you where it is), and a complete a-hole at worst. It’s discouraging. I really want to quit, but I’m holding out for what few post-holiday hours I’m getting because I’m not sure how many I will get doing taxes. I’m only on the schedule for 12 hours my first week, and I haven’t been scheduled past that but I think it’s incomplete. I have an office meeting on Saturday so I plan to find out then. If I can get at least 30 hours a week I’ll have some breathing room.

I hadn’t applied to any jobs since I started the retail gig. I honestly didn’t have time since I was so busy. But things are slowing down and I’ve put in several new applications this week, including a non-profit position much like the one I almost obtained in Atlanta back in the spring. Fingers crossed. It’s only about $30k/yr, but so much more advantageous to my career, in addition to being personally fulfilled. Big bro says things are going to turn around for me and Tex in 2014. I hope he’s right. It’s getting harder to be optimistic but I haven’t given up hope. I know that I’m meant for better things, if I can just hang on through the storm.

“So I’mma live hard, I’mma dream big/ Cause in the end, homie I’m just tryna live good” – Ryan Leslie

Holding Pattern

I’m feeling a bit out of sorts today. I’ve been chugging along on faith and optimism for the past month, but every so often it starts to flag and I struggle to remind myself that this is just a phase. I know that “comparison is the thief of happiness” but I’m not so much envious as wistful. There’s no one common denominator between my friends who are employed and those who aren’t. We all went to school and graduated, we all networked, we all had internships. It just seems to be more about luck of the draw.

Job applications are currently the bane of my existence. I feel like I’m an outdated model– the only things I’m an “expert” in are history (there’s no lack of social studies teachers) and law (these days, you’ve got to be licensed to do something as menial as document review). I’m a Renaissance woman who can do a lot of things with above average competence, but nobody wants that anymore. If you have to be trained, you’re out of the resume pool. Tex is actually back in Atlanta today, interviewing for two different positions at the same company. It would be highly ironic if we ended up moving back there and I’d miss Whataburger (lol) but I’m definitely rooting for him to succeed. I got a part-time job with a tax preparation firm, but I’d imagine they have some openings back in Georgia so I could transfer. Even if I couldn’t, I’m not making nearly enough to justify staying here if Tex gets the offer.

Today I interviewed for an office assistant position–shockingly, I hadn’t been screened out. I say that because I created a dumbed down resume that omits my law school experience precisely for applying to jobs that I would otherwise be overqualified for. However, I realized that I had accidentally sent in my real resume to this listing. After introducing myself the guy asked, “Why are you here?” and I couldn’t bring myself to lie. I was upfront about the fact that I simply need work, and have no problem doing administrative tasks. I actually enjoy keeping things organized and helping people out.* I figured that honesty couldn’t hurt since he already knew I was ridiculously overqualified. Surprisingly, he said he understood and even more, that he liked me. He told me he had several more interviews to conduct,  and asked would it be okay for him to forward my resume to some of his business friends in the event he decided I wasn’t the best fit. Of course, I said yes. I don’t expect to get that job, and I won’t be mad if I don’t. But it was nice to have a moment of authenticity and compassion, and to be seen as a person instead of Candidate #56.

Tex and I have agreed that applying for jobs all too often feels like selling yourself, except there’s no money on the counter when you leave an interview. Chasing down a customer? Dressing the part? Check. Pulling out your best tricks in hopes of eventually getting paid? Check. Psychologically, the process would be easier if you at least got a rejection email. Instead, you get really pumped up about any listing that even seems like a slight fit for you, craft an amazing cover letter and anxiously wait to hear back…until you forget you even applied because you do that every week. I really feel for Tex because unlike me, he’s had probably 20 interviews, all with different companies, since he got laid off. You’d think that at the point where you put on a suit and go talk to a human being they’d at least give you an idea of why you didn’t get picked, but that’s not the case. It’s always about the “right fit”. Why does fit matter if I can do the job? With the exception of domestic workers, who are around your home, children and personal belongings, the perfect personality shouldn’t be a big deal. It’s not as if you’re going to have work with that person for the next 20 years. That kind of career longevity is reserved for the big companies, and even their retention rates haven been steadily falling. Job hopping is fast becoming the rule and not the exception.

Ah, well. Just wanted to get some things off my chest. Trouble doesn’t last always, and it’s a beautiful day for a walk around the neighborhood.

 

*I could have been a librarian in a past life. Actually, I seriously considered getting a Master’s in Library Science. Except the idea of 2 extra years of school to learn the Dewey Decimal system when I already knew the local library like the back of my hand seemed silly.