Advice to Struggling Lawyers

Question: What is your advice to a deferred law firm associate?

David Lat: In terms of associates who've been deferred from their law firm jobs, well, I guess I would say a couple of things. First, to be patient – you will start eventually, hopefully. There have been a couple of cases of law firms that told associates who thought they had jobs, "Well, actually you no longer have a job." But most firms seem to be honoring that commitment. The second thing I would say is focus on developing your professional skills. So if you are working in a public interest organization for that time, really take the ball and run with it. See what kind of responsibilities you can get. You might be able to get more responsibilities during the public interest year that you are waiting out, waiting to start for the law firm, than you will as a junior associate at a law firm. So the second thing I would say is really try to make the most of your time.

And the third thing I would say is enjoy your time. You will have a lifetime to work. And if you want to work at a firm, then you could work for decades if you make partner or if you move to another if you don't make partner. You could work at a law firm – one thing that's nice about lawyers is it is a mental discipline. Granted, there are physical demands as well, but it's not like we're baseball players. We can work into our 60s, into our 70s. So you'll have your whole life to work. And if you are deferred right now and you are either at your leisure or if you're working at a job say at a public interest organization with reasonable hours, enjoy it. Have dinner with your wife or husband or boyfriend or girlfriend. Go on vacation. Do the things that you might not be able to do once the economy turns around and you're at a firm and you're billing 2500 hours a year. So I guess that would be my advice.

Question: What about a lawyer completely out of a job?

David Lat: We actually have a series on the blog called Career Alternatives, where we focus on interesting things that people who have law degrees are doing that don't involve working at a law firm. So one thing that's nice about – one silver lining, I guess, to the recession generally is people are coming up with business ideas. Partly, because perhaps they lost their lucrative, stable job at a big company and now they have to come up with something else. So we've talked to lawyers who have started tutoring and admissions consulting businesses, a lawyer who has started a cupcake business. He drives around Manhattan in a truck selling cupcakes. We have talked to lawyers who have done all kinds of things. There's a lawyer who owns a chain of Subway sandwich stores. And a lot of them, even though they're not necessarily using their legal training, will talk about how valuable it is to have that kind of education – the critical thinking skills, the communication, the ability to look over a contract when they are trying to launch their businesses. These are all things that help.

So granted, a law degree is expensive. And so if you're thinking about going to law school, I would urge you to think very carefully about it. But once you have that degree, it is quite versatile. We've looked at lawyers who've gone into public relations, who've gone into journalism, who've gone into finance. There are a lot of things you can do with a law degree. I think it's a great credential to have. I think it's a great education. There is just a question of bang for your buck because there are a lot of other things that are good to have, but do you want to spend $200,000 for them?

Recorded on November 6, 2009

Former U.S. attorney and founder of Above the Law, David Lat offers tips on where lawyers should look for work in the economic downturn.

New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

Surprising Science
  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.

New study finds the egg may actually 'choose' the Sperm

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