2012 law grad happy to work in his hometown

Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of stories profiling young lawyers and law students facing a tough job market.

By Jo Mathis

Legal News

Jeff Alber was so sure he had flunked the bar exam he took last July, that he opened it up in the bathroom in case he threw up. He had also poured himself a glass of whiskey, knowing he could either toast his success or drown his sorrows.

"I thought I just bombed that thing," he said, recalling the way he felt leaving the exam.

So oh what a relief it was to see he was among the 55 percent who passed.

He's been on a roll ever since.

Alber's plan all along was to return to his hometown of Chelsea to practice law, and if he could work at Keusch, Flintoft & Conlin, PC, all the better.

"John Keusch was friends with my great-grandfather and my grandfather," said Alber, 27. "If I couldn't get in here, I was just going to kind of wing it -- hang up my own shingle and try to make a living."

That wasn't necessary, as Alber now works there as of counsel, with an office in the lower level of the downtown firm.

"Every once in a while I get kicked out for a deposition," said Alber with a laugh, referring to his corner of the conference room. "But I love it."

After graduating from Chelsea High School in 2004, Alber earned his degree in political science from Albion College.

"I still don't know what political science means," he said. "I wasn't sure what I was going to do."

Though he was all set to attend The Institute of Culinary Education in Manhattan, he decided instead to take his LSAT and give law school a shot.

"I didn't want to look back and say, 'Damn, I should have done it,'" he said, adding that as it turned out, many of his classmates at the University of Detroit Mercy Law School were in their 30's.

"In law school, there's no emphasis on being a small solo practitioner or a small firm lawyer in a small town. It's all, `Oh, you're going to graduate. You're going to work for Honigman, you're going to be an associate, you're going to bust your ass and you're going to be a partner and that's the way it is."

So during law school, he met with Flintoft to learn how he had managed to have such a long, successful career in Chelsea.

"On the way out of that meeting, I said, `If you need a clerk, I'll work for free,'" he recalled. "He gave me a project and actually paid me, which was incredible because no clerks in law school get paid unless you're extremely lucky."

He was also an intern for the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office and for Karl Barr in Ypsilanti, and he worked at a criminal defense clinic one summer.

After graduating in May of 2012, Alber did contract work for Fink Law in Dexter as well as for Peter Flintoft and Pat Conlin.

He was happy when Flintoft and Conlin hired him as of counsel to do municipal prosecution for the city of Chelsea and Dexter Township, and consult on cases.

He also still does some work for the Finks, and he picks up a few clients through Jeffrey Alber & Associations, PLLC.

Pat Conlin describes Alber as a "bright, self-motivated hard worker."

"I have confidence in any project I have given him," he said.

Just for the heck of it, and to test the waters, Alber recently went on an interview for a job he'd applied for months ago when he was doing contract work and would panic during weeks of little work.

"(The office manager) asked me all the standard questions ... and then said, `This job is long hours, there's no money, the benefits are bad, the boss is a jerk, and it's horrible. Is this something you want to do?'"

Working 65 hours a week as an associate, he would have earned less than $35,000.

He turned it down.

"Every once in a while, I'll get a hit from a job I applied for months ago, and I think: What's there to lose? It's a great position to be in, because I'm not nervous, I have a good thing going. If it ends up being something interesting, I might consider it."

He appreciates the chance to work for several attorneys, picking up on different ways of doing things.

"Pete and Pat both have a different way they work, and Elisha and Mariah Fink both have a different way," he said. "I'm learning a lot from a lot of people."

Practicing law is far different from law school, he said.

"It was kind of a shock, getting out and learning how to do it day to day, wrestling with court rules and things you don't have any experience with in school," he said. "I do like it. But there are days I wonder what I've gotten myself into. You leave law school and you feel so smart and you think you know everything there is to know once you take the bar. And then you sit down at your desk on your first day of being a real attorney and it's all new."

"There are days I get a lot done and I do it well and I'm happy. And there are days I'm just struggling over some innate project and that's frustrating. But for the most part, I love it."

Before his parents decided to help him out, his law school debt totaled $150,000.

Though the debt now is "only" in five figures, it's still daunting. It also keeps his motivation high.

Is the country turning out too many lawyers?

"I kinda think college is overrated," he said, adding that it's not the best path for everyone.

"On the days I get frustrated with what I'm doing, I think: Why didn't I, straight out of high school, go learn to be a carpenter or something? I'd have a tangible skill and could go anywhere and do it. I think the emphasis on learning trades and learning how to do things with your hands has disappeared."

Though he insists networking doesn't come naturally, he enjoys attending Washtenaw County Bar Association events, where he meets more attorneys every time.

"It's way more tight-knit than Wayne County, which is just gigantic and flooded with attorneys," he said of the WCBA.

As an undergrad, Alber was a bass guitarist in a Detroit-based band, and toured the U.S. and Canada during the year before he entered law school.

"It was the best time in my life," he said, noting that it didn't matter that he was broke.

His girlfriend, Annie, who just graduated from the University of Michigan and is the daughter of Elisha Fink, is considering law school.

He suggests she think about it carefully.

"Looking back, I wish I'd taken more time off between undergrad and law school and done something else just to have more experience," he said, adding that in today's job market, that experience gives applicants an edge.

One of his closest childhood friends is a sous chef at Eat on Packard Road.

"It's a small, kind of hip catering place with take-out, and one table in it," he said. "Every time I hang out with him, I get a little jealous. But nah. I'm happy with what I'm doing."

All in all, he feels fortunate to be where he is, and enjoys living down the block from his downtown office in a flat above a barbershop.

He says the only reason he's doing so well one year out of law school is due to the generosity of others, especially Flintoft and Conlin.

"I would have to be offered a pretty sweet deal to leave what I'm doing now," he said. "It would be nice to have traditional, fulltime work, but I find I get plenty of work from here. I'm truly grateful. These guys are great to me. If it wasn't for them, I'm not sure where I'd be."

Published: Wed, Jul 3, 2013