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Laid-off lawyer in predicament she never imagined

February 15, 2009|STEVE LOPEZ

"I can't get a job anywhere."

I've been getting a lot of e-mails that start like that. This one was from Ellie Trope of Mid-City in Los Angeles, near La Brea, who lost her job more than a year ago. She wrote me after reading my column two weeks ago about the endless mob scene at the employment office in Van Nuys.

Trope, 43, is an attorney with 15 years of experience, and she said lawyers are losing their jobs in droves.

When people in banking and the mortgage industry were getting the heave-ho, it came as no surprise. In fact, on Friday I spoke to a banking executive with 20,000 employees under him who got fired in December after 21 years on the job. But I would have thought anyone with a law degree would be able to talk their way out of a layoff, file for an injunction, whatever.

Not so. Trope told me it's gotten much worse of late, and when I made some phone calls and checked on the Internet, I found that law firms in California and throughout the nation have been handing out pink slips by the dozens and the hundreds.

"Job cuts in U.S. legal sector hit 1,300 for January," said a headline at Legalweek.com.

"Today isn't over, but it already has a name: Black Thursday," said a Los Angeles County Bar Assn. blog this week, making reference to hundreds of layoffs in the legal biz that were announced around the world the other day.

Trope sounded weary when I spoke to her by phone. The financial pressure of losing her job took a huge toll on her marriage, she told me, and she and her husband are now living separately. They share custody of their two children, and despite the financial strain, Trope hasn't wanted to put the nanny on the bricks too, so she's shuttling back and forth between households with the kids.

"I'm definitely not desperate," said Trope, who worried about coming off like a whiner when so many people are in far worse shape.

But she didn't sound whiny to me. Instead, she was very forthcoming about what it's like to fall from your perch and realize, to your surprise, that being humbled isn't entirely a bad thing.

"Attorneys used to be recession-proof," said Trope, and she assumed she was too.

From Fairfax High, she went to UC Riverside and then Whittier Law School. She had several jobs after graduating 15 years ago, mostly as an in-house counsel specializing in consumer products.

Last February, after 15 months with an international toy company handling licensing, copyrights, advertising and labor relations, she heard layoffs were coming because the 2007 Christmas season had been slow. Then she was whacked.

"I loved the people I worked with," said Trope. "It was almost like losing a boyfriend or a relationship. I was devastated."

But her disappointment didn't shake her confidence.

"I figured I'd find another job."

When it didn't happen right away, she did something she never expected to do in her life.

"I applied for unemployment insurance."

How did it feel?

"I figured I paid into it, and this is what other people do."

To stay on the dole, you've got to show that you're actively looking for work. So Trope checked various search sites and diligently applied for one job after another, and another, and another. But it was like fishing in an empty lake with a dead worm.

By then, she'd heard stories of other laid-off lawyers growing more desperate. She landed a maternity fill-in job in April, but it lasted only until August, and by then hundreds of lawyers were swarming the few available jobs, slapping their resumes on a mountain of others.

"I have great skills and great experience, but so do the other 500 people who are after the same job, and they might have gone to Harvard."

Her husband is a lawyer too, and he was having his own problems holding on to clients and finding new ones. Suddenly, said Trope, they were behind on the mortgage.

With help from a family member, she moved to her own place to try to figure out her marriage and her career. As for the latter, she reluctantly decided to lower her expectations and began applying for jobs as a contract administrator, an office administrator and a paralegal. But she struck out there too, in part because other lawyers were trying the same thing.

"After a while with the paralegal jobs, the listings said, 'No attorneys.' I think it's because they figured attorneys would leave as soon as they found work as lawyers."

In mid-January she got a temporary lawyer job for hourly pay, and this week she's switching to another temporary arrangement, hoping this one turns into a long-term job.

"In my life, things were always way too easy to get," Trope said. "I put my head in the sand and never thought about the worst that might happen. It was way too easy to not have a backup plan, and I didn't worry. I did a great job at work and I thought that was enough, and it's not anymore."

She never lived lavishly, she said, but she and her husband were overextended on the mortgage and private school for the kids.

Trope thinks back on how her grandmother, who lived through the Depression, always slipped sugar packets into her purse when she left a restaurant. Now Trope understands, and though she knows she'll never be hungry, she wonders how she'll continue to pay for health insurance and whether the house she and her estranged husband own can be saved from foreclosure.

"I've found strength in myself I never thought I had, and the things that were important to me before are now less so. Seeing my kids happy matters more to me than anything, and whatever happens, I think this will be one of the defining experiences of my life."

--

steve.lopez@latimes.com

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