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In selecting a keynote speaker for the Vault/MCCA Legal Diversity Career Fair, organizers turned to a woman who took the stage on Friday and promptly mocked the uniformly uniformed attendees, reminding audience members that “you don’t all have to wear the same suit.” It should come as no shock that such an observation came from someone whose career trajectory has been anything but conventional: Adaora Udoji was finishing her third year at UCLA Law School when she received an unlikely call from an old undergrad professor. A television news network needed behind-the-scenes hands on its coverage of a high-profile trial (Udoji, of course, the political science major who’d never planned on stepping foot in a newsroom). The defendant? O.J. Simpson, alleged murderer. Udoji leapt at the opportunity, dropping plans to study for the Bar exam and heading to the courthouse. She apparently caught on quickly: Udoji would spend the next fifteen years later reporting around the globe for ABC and CNN, collecting an amalgam of prestigious hardware and later taking a star turn as an anchor for Court TV.
Over the course of a freewheeling, 20-minute speech Friday, Udoji leaned on personal anecdotes in urging the audience to consider alternatives to practicing law, or at least to following the typical BigLaw route. While Udoji has certainly embodied this approach for years, the message seemed especially prescient when she reminded jobless attendees that “there are always options for something else.” True to form, she’s again pursuing such alternatives herself, having relinquished her broadcasting duties to raise her infant daughter before diving into still-murky professional waters. (Later, Udoji clarified to me that she’s narrowed her focus to “the intersection of public policy, philanthropy, politics and corporate America”; practicing law and running for office are off the table at this juncture—though she wouldn’t be the first journalist to make the leap to the campaign trail.)
Alluding to the perception of BigLaw as a magnet for conformist workhorses, Udoji built from her lighthearted criticism of the audience’s collective fashion sense to urge listeners to spotlight their personalities during interviews—even going so far as to suggest that firms “really are looking for a little individuality.” Speaking casually and without notes, Udoji proceeded to comfort the crowd with a dash of dharmic maxim (“there’s a place for each of you”) and practical advice (“find a way to make it happen,” emphasizing the importance of finding joy in the workplace). Udoji again offered up her own story as inspiration, attesting that “I’m sort of entering the third chapter of my life, and I still haven’t decided what I want to be when I grow up.”
Later, amid bites of a roast beef sandwich in the Marriott’s atrium, Udoji listened as I suggested that the core of her message may not have resonated fully with people who had just sunk upwards of $100,000 into a legal education. Yes, law school is known to tamp down the urge to express oneself creatively. Yes, corporate law tends to weed out free thinkers. And yes, there were an awful, awful lot of black power suits in the building. But the fact remained that the people who’d shown up for the fair were evidently still keen on pursuing legal careers. This clearly wasn’t Udoji’s ideal audience; her speech would’ve likely been more effective among younger, more impressionable, and, notably, less indebted listeners. Acknowledging BigLaw’s tendency to lend itself to group thought, Udoji responded by pointing to the unprecedented paralysis of the job market as a unifying element: Recent law school graduates and unemployed laterals who lack significant portable books of business are no longer in demand. There are jobs to be had, to be sure—just not many, especially in the private sector. A burgeoning number of candidates are now faced with the imposing prospect of considering alternatives to practicing law. Many recent JDs are accepting support staff offers. Others are volunteering with nonprofits while they await deferred BigLaw offers that may be cancelled outright at any moment. Others still will follow Udoji’s path and put the skills they developed in law school to use in unrelated fields. All this while more and more legal pundits and players are kicking around the theory that there shall be no “Revival of Leverage”—not even a substantial partial resurgence, let alone a return to Cadwalader-esque gluttony. Should this be the case, current law students and experienced lawyers alike would be wise to take Friday’s deliverance to heart.
To date, Udoji has yet to take the Bar. She has no plans to do so.
- posted by ben fuchs
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