Still blogging away alongside three other talented bloggers. Each week, one of us chooses a topic and we all post a blog entry on that topic, usually on Thursdays. (Usually we are on time. Usually.)
Here are the links to the other fabulous blogs:
This week was my choice, and I asked the group: Can someone be overqualified?
Seventeen years ago, I made the decision to enroll in law school. I chose that path not because I was especially drawn to the law; I mean, it wasn’t a long-held dream, and no one in my family practiced law, so I wasn’t trying to fill anyone’s high heels. I decided to become a lawyer because my first choice of a career – print journalism – was quickly dying. I knew I needed to do something else, but I didn’t want a “job.” I wanted a profession, sort of the whole, “If you give a man a fish . . . ” thing. The law seemed solid, so I took the LSAT and applied to a zillion schools and was lucky enough to end up at a really good one. I loved law school, but I was never exactly enamored with the actual practice of law. And yet I managed to eke out a 13+-year career before taking a break in the late summer of 2013.
I won’t get into all of the reasons I stopped practicing, though I will say the practice of law – particularly litigation – isn’t always conducive to being a mother. It’s also exhausting in a way that’s hard to explain: unless you’ve ever been involved in a jury trial, you can’t possibly understand the amount of work or the number of hours it takes to get it all done. It’s stress times a hundred and ten.
After I stopped practicing, I felt this rather odd pull toward doing service work. I couldn’t fully explain it, other than maybe that I needed to get away from conflict-based relationships. That’s when I started volunteering for a local hospice. It could not have been more different than practicing law, and for that I was glad.
Of course, me being Type-A me, I began to look for something more. I needed a job, both for the money and for the mental stimulation. I wasn’t ready to return to the law, and I wasn’t qualified to do hospice jobs that pay, so I looked for positions with a slower pace and more self-contained hours, a job I could leave at work when I left work. My hospice work regularly brought me to a large retirement community near my house; I visited at least once per week, often enough that the employees knew me. One afternoon as I helped a patient with her lunch, a CNA told me the facility needed a new receptionist.
“You should apply,” she said. “You’re here all the time anyway. Might as well get paid for it.”
I liked spending time at the center: it was pleasant and well run and exactly one mile from my house. The hours were perfect, falling almost completely during school time. So I left a note for the woman who runs the facility, telling her I was interested in the job. She called me, and I interviewed a few days later.
I’d brought my resume, the one filled with more than a decade of legal work. I could tell by the look on her face as she read: she could not understand why I was sitting in her office asking to be considered to answer phones and greet residents and sign for UPS packages.
Eventually, she shook her head and said, “You’re great, but you’re overqualified. I’m afraid you’d be bored after awhile.”
I said what I could to temper her concerns: I wanted to slow down. I wasn’t bored volunteering so I wouldn’t be bored working. If she worried about the pace, she could always give me more work.
“I’m not overqualified,” I said, “I’m additionally qualified.”
She didn’t buy it.
What’s funny is that I actually wasn’t even qualified, in that the job required regular use of Excel, I program I’d only rarely used as an attorney. I’d also have to learn the phone system and the residents’ names and the endless procedures already in place. I was less qualified than at least one of the other applicants, who already worked at the center and who knew how the place ran. But it didn’t matter. In the director’s mind, I could not possibly be happy making such a change, and she gave the job to someone else (who, I might add, lasted about two weeks).
Shortly after, my family moved to Tennessee, and I again sought a part-time job. I interviewed for a job helping seniors with errands and stuff around the house; the guy offered me the job but not before noting that I’d be “leaving behind all that education.” (I didn’t take the job because of the hours, and not because of his comment.) I next met a woman who worked at a local farm that hired seasonally for part-time positions helping local kids visiting for field trips, perfect for students and stay-at-home moms. We’d take them to each part of the farm: the animal pens, the hayride, the corn maze. I went for two days of training, figuring it would be fun if just a little silly. On the second day, as we waved school buses into their parking spots, I chatted with the woman I met, talking about the job and the day. She said, “You’re the most overqualified guide we’ve ever had.”
I sighed. I wanted to yell, “Oh yeah?! Then why can’t I find my way through the damn corn maze?!”
Since then, I’ve continued my search for a job that I can do while the kids are in school, something not involving the practice of law, a job I think I’d enjoy but one I know I won’t get because I’m “overqualified.” I’ve found myself almost apologizing in my cover letters, explaining away why I no longer want to work 60-70 hour weeks prepping for trials, explaining away three years of law school and a two-day bar exam.
My predicament is ironic, really, since I went to law school so I would always be able to work. It never once crossed my mind that having my J.D. might instead prevent me from being hired in jobs I could have easily gotten had I stopped school after college, or even high school. I’ve thought about creating a resume that doesn’t include my legal background, but then I’d have to explain where I’ve been since 2000. And since most companies run their own background and credit checks, I know that won’t fly. And so I keep looking.
I don’t really believe someone can be “overqualified” to do a job. I mean, either you can do the job or you can’t. The fact you can do the job and other, perhaps more challenging jobs, to me, should not preclude you from being able to do the job at hand. I mean, if you win the PGA, are you never again allowed to play miniature golf? People leave and change careers regularly, and for a variety of reasons, including mine. Is it wrong to want to slow down? Is it truly impossible?
The hospice where I used to volunteer held a mandatory two-Saturday training course and, during mine, I inadvertently sat next to another female attorney. The volunteer coordinator later commented to us that a lot of her volunteers are attorneys. She seemed to wonder why. But I didn’t. Lawyers don’t want to be lawyers every hour of every day, no more than doctors want to be doctors, or police officers want to be police. People are multi-faceted: our personalities are neither static nor single-minded. Why must our career choices be so? Why is it so hard to believe someone trained to be a lawyer might want to spend time helping dying people? Or answering a phone and greeting seniors at a retirement center?
I’ve never before regretted earning my law degree, and I don’t really regret it now. But I never anticipated that once I became a lawyer, I’d struggle to be allowed to be anything else. I never thought I’d apologize for being driven enough to get into a good law school and graduate and pass the bar. I never thought I’d be defined by the three little letters I’m allowed to put after my name, the ones that seemed to have stripped me of an identity in ways I just could not imagine.