When I Hit Rock Bottom as a Young Lawyer

Marina ModlinPlease welcome Marina Modlin, former freelance attorney and founder of Modlin Legal Services, to the blog today. Marina’s going to share the story of her early legal career…which wasn’t terribly successful.

Luckily, she turned things around through a lot of gumption and hard work, and we’re thrilled to welcome her to the blog — and to the Catapult Conference — where she’ll be a keynote speaker!

Welcome, Marina. 

On Thanksgiving 2007, I was a proud 26-year-old California-licensed 1st-year attorney, burdened with over $150,000 of debt, and completely unemployed. Like in all good stories, it was a cold and gray winter, and it was really, really scary.

Up to that point, the only time in my life I was not in school was during a short break I took after getting my university degree. And while that time was also uncertain and scary, it was filled with two part-time jobs, and lots of travel, and law school on the horizon. And no debt. And I was 22. So, it was different.

This time, I had nothing to do. Literally. Nothing to do.

It was scary — to think that a $1,000 payment is due in a few months … weeks … days … living at my parents’ house … enduring the winter months … and having nowhere to go.

I tried looking for jobs. My old waitressing job wouldn’t rehire me — they tolerated my B.A., but a J.D. was too much. There were no lawyer jobs to apply for, so I read different sections of Craigslist — writing, marketing, babysitting, truck driving, I don’t know, I must have some other marketable skills or attributes, besides this damn law license. Yet, each job required years of experience in marketing, or advertising, or truck driving, in whatever, just not in “reading caselaw, and thinking like a lawyer.” The whole  “you can do so much with a law degree” story was total B.S.

I couldn’t take my mother anymore, the shame of failure, the lack of prospects, watching her leave for her job, and come home in the evening… asking me if anything had happened during the day … having nothing to say. So I ran away. I borrowed money, and moved into my own 1-bedroom apartment, chosen for its proximity to the climbing gym — that was the only place I had to go. It was a lot of money I spent on that apartment, money I didn’t have, but it was my “well” — the dry well with no water in Murakami’s Wind Up Bird Chronicles — and in that well, I sat, by myself, for hours, thinking, sleeping, eating, and thinking some more. At least I didn’t have to face my mother.

Eventually, I couldn’t take the silence, the loneliness, the dryness.

And I would leave my well, and go climb at my gym. And then I’d bike to a café, and do something work-related. Edit my resume. Apply to the obligatory three Craigslist jobs a day. Look through the Martindale-Hubbell lawyer directory, daydreaming about how the peer-review-rated Cupertino lawyer has a 1st-year associate position that nobody but me knows about.

Now, in 2014, I can tell you that it all ended well: in one of the café “work sessions” I found a lawyer mixer, and I put on my suit, and I went to the mixer, and I met a civil litigator, and he offered me $40 for a special appearance, and I went to court, and there I met another lawyer, and lots of other things happened, and my freelance law practice was born, and then I wrote a book about freelancing, and now teach people to find freelance work (true story).

But back then, everything was unknown. The well was dry. And what I had to do — which remains, to this day, one of the hardest things I’ve ever done — was get out of bed, with nothing on my calendar, dress presentably, take my laptop to a café, and take those job search steps, that mostly lead to nowhere, but were nonetheless  steps in the right direction … because if you want to get somewhere, you must get out of bed and take steps in that direction … one foot in front of the other …  otherwise, you stand still.

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Marina Modlin emigrated from Saint Petersburg, Russia. She received her B.A. from UC Davis and her J.D. from USF School of Law. Immediately after passing the bar, Ms. Modlin founded Modlin Legal Services, a freelance practice, and grew it through referrals. By January 2010 she felt she had learned enough through her freelance law practice, and converted Modlin Legal to a full services wills and trusts firm. She authored a book titled, “The Independence Track: How To Succeed as a Freelance Attorney” and has lectured frequently on the topic. 

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Thanks, Marina! Great advice on creating your own career path…

You can meet Marina in person in San Francisco at the Catapult Conference on March 1st. Don’t miss it!

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Read On:

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Got questions for Marina? Leave them in the comments!

5 Responses to “When I Hit Rock Bottom as a Young Lawyer”

  1. David Russo says:

    Inspiring! Great job Marina!

  2. Marie Chan says:

    This is a great success story because you had the discipline to stick with what you need to do instead of what you’d like to do. You are one spunky and entrepreneurial lawyer!

  3. Joe says:

    Wow.. I just got goosebumps all over. What an inspiring and relevant story for so many. Thank you so much Marina.

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