Lawyer-alum profile: Joseph Roche (Political Science 2005, Suffolk Law 2008)

Joseph Roche
Army & Lee, P.C., Worcester

What’s your current position and primary practice field(s)?

I am an Associate at Army & Lee, P.C., in Worcester, Massachusetts. I practice primarily in the Probate & Family Court dealing with divorce, custody, support, visitation issues and restraining orders. As part of my practice I also handle interlocutory and post-judgment appellate work.

How did you get here – what led you to this field and practice setting?

I graduated from UMass in 2005, graduated from Suffolk University Law School in June 2008 and was admitted to the Massachusetts Bar in November 2008. Essentially from the time I entered law school to the time when I was admitted to the bar the entire world economy collapsed. The legal sector still hasn’t recovered but the landscape in 2008 was bleak. I got to the point I am at now by (and please excuse this phrase) hustling. I networked with lawyers who I knew, or who members of my family knew and I took any scrap of work they had that needed to get done. I wrote legal briefs, legal memos, and attended unemployment hearings, just to get work and gain experience.

I was fortunate that I worked during law school through an internship with the Massachusetts Justice Project in Worcester. Through MJP I met an Attorney, Rebecca Brodie [Ed. note: UMass Amherst ‘97, Psychology], and when she began operating a solo practice and had some work for me I took that opportunity to get into the field. Around November 2008 I met with Attorney Elaine Gordon in Worcester—her primary practice area was family law and she took me under her wing and mentored me, giving me some great trial experience and helping me grow as a lawyer.

Through a series of fortunate events I met with Attorney Lawrence Army Jr., who asked me to do some work for him. Apparently he was impressed with my ability and offered me a full time position, and I’ve been working with him since about March 2010. I just kept looking for work, jumping from opportunity to opportunity, building my skill set, honing my skills and looking for the right situation until I found it.

Describe a typical day/week – what are the kinds of tasks you engage in on a regular basis?

One of the great parts of my job is that there really isn’t anything “typical” about my day/week. Of course at the beginning of each week I look at my planner and get an idea of what the set tasks are going to be – when do I have hearings, where do I have hearings, when are clients coming in, when do I have to call people back – those things are always set at the beginning of the week. However, things happen during the week that you can’t anticipate: emergency hearings, new clients coming in, new opportunities. Curve balls are a part of the job – you have to be able to adapt on the fly.

One thing you don’t see from TV shows is how much of the practice of law is actually done through legal research and writing. A lot of my time each week is spent drafting memos, drafting motions, drafting briefs, drafting correspondence, or researching the topics which need to go into those things. A very short time during my week is actually spent in front of a judge, or in a courthouse. 

How many hours/week do you work? How’s that work/life balance thing working out for you?

Personally it has always been important for me to maintain a balanced life/work schedule, which is one of the reasons that I am thankful to have found the spot that I am in now, because my work allows me to be home with my wife and my one year old son. There are lawyers who I know who are putting in 100 hour weeks, but that’s not what I do. I am in the office by about 8:15-8:30 every morning and I am out the door on most days by 5-5:30. There are days when those times are earlier or later but that’s the window I try to maintain.

The thing about being a lawyer is that you don’t just go home and stop being a lawyer. This is a 24/7 profession. I get emails from clients or opposing counsel at all hours of the day and I get phone calls at random points during the night, and my clients expect me to be available for those emails/calls. So just because I’m not in the office doesn’t mean I’m not working, but if I’m in my office at 6 o’clock at night and not at home having dinner with my family, I know something went wrong during the day.

What do you like most about what you do?

I like winning. I like when all the work that goes into a case or a hearing pays off. When the research, the writing, and the argument come together in perfect order and you get a positive result for your client. Sometimes even when you have all three things, you still lose – and that happens, but when I get a positive outcome for a client, that is a rewarding feeling.

What do you wish you could change?

I wish I could change the balance owed on my student loan bill.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

When I look at the dramatic advances that this office (Army & Lee) has made in the last two years I would hope that our trajectory would continue in an upward direction. I’d love to have the ability to have a team under me in 10 years, to have my name on the door (Army, Lee & Roche has a nice ring right?) and to have established some satellite offices in other areas of the Commonwealth to expand our reach.

Where did you go to law school? What’s your favorite memory from law school?

I attended Suffolk University Law School. I had a great time in law school but my favorite memory was absolutely walking across the stage and being handed my diploma. The good feelings go away pretty quick when you realize that the next step is the bar exam, but for one moment at graduation you have the opportunity to just step back and appreciate what you accomplished.

What did you major in at UMass?  How has it been helpful to you your law career?

I was a Political Science major at UMass. One thing that was always stressed in my PoliSci courses was the ability to think critically. That’s a trait which I believe has helped me tremendously in my law career. The thing that sets lawyers apart is their ability to craft arguments. That means being able to see the nuances of a situation, research the problem, write convincingly about the problem and then present the argument. These are all skills which I learned or developed at UMass.

What’s your favorite UMass memory?

I could fill a book with my favorite UMass memories. The 2004 major league baseball playoffs always sticks out to me as an amazing time to be on campus. The entire campus walked around for a month like zombies. If you remember the Yankees/Red Sox series went 7 games but each game was like 6 hours long. By the time the Sox had won the World Series people were almost more excited to be able to sleep then they were for the victory. I’ll also never forget the 3OT Hockey East Championship game against Maine in 2004. It was a great game but the Maine band sat in the upper deck of the Garden and played all night long, it was torture. One more sports memory, when the basketball team beat UConn in 2004 on ESPN2 and everyone stormed the Court. Kids on campus now can’t appreciate how depressing the Steve Lappas era of UMass basketball was.

As far as classroom related – Professor Goldman’s Con Law class, best course on campus.

Did you take time before, during or after college?  If so, what did you do?

Not me. I went straight through.

What non-law experiences have ended up being surprisingly useful to you in your legal career?

Becoming a father. There are certain things that you learn about marriage/parenting from having a child that you just don’t understand when you’re single or you don’t have children. After my son was born it was like a window opened in my brain and I saw things that I had never noticed before, began asking questions I had never thought of before and began empathizing with people where before I had never been able to connect on that level. I was told before my son was born that having a child will either make me a significantly better family law attorney, or will ruin family law for me forever. I like to think that it made me better.

Any choices along your career path that you particularly regret or are especially grateful for? 

I’ve always subscribed to the theory that you only regret the choices that you don’t make. I’ve done plenty of dumb things and taken roads that should have remained less traveled but I take things from each of those experiences and without the hard times you can’t get to the good times. For a long time I actually regretted law school – it’s an enormous expense and the debt will cripple you financially if you aren’t careful. However, I’m not sure what I’d be doing without this profession so I have made peace with that decision.

If you couldn’t be a lawyer any more, what would you do? (Or: what’s your second career going to be? Or maybe even, what was your first career?)

I’d likely teach. My choices coming out of UMass were teacher or lawyer. I took the lawyer path but if I had to change careers today, I’d get into teaching.

If you feel comfortable sharing, tell us something about your finances: How much debt did you take on for law school? How much (rough estimates are fine) do your currently make? How long do you expect to be paying off your debt?  How has your debt impacted your career and life choices?

If you have gotten this far please pay attention to this because it is the only important thing that I can pass on. Your decision to go to law school should take into consideration the significant debt that you will be forced to incur. I have been out of law school since 2008, I have been actively practicing as an attorney in the Commonwealth since then and I have not yet paid back any of my student loan debt. My monthly student loan payment when it comes out of financial hardship deferment will be something like $800/month, for something like 30 years. Please keep in mind at this time that I received a $25,000/year scholarship from Suffolk University Law School – so my student loan debt is $75,000 less than it would have been had I not received that scholarship.

If it was not for my wife, a registered nurse with no student loan debt, we would likely never be able to own a home, take regular vacations, or do any of the things that most people dream about because of my student loan debt.

Recently the number of law school applications has tanked across the country. I went to law school during the biggest boom in the law school industry, and right now there is something like 1 job for every 2 lawyers. The BigLaw jobs where people are making six figures (or more) just don’t exist right now for something like 98% of the people who are going to law school, and in the next five to ten years my instinct tells me that law schools will have to go through a significant adjustment (likely cutting the 3L year) in order to survive.

This may seem bleak but I don’t want to sugarcoat things. If you are going to law school because you expect to get out and immediately make six figures, you’re going to be disappointed.

How do you respond when someone asks your advice about whether to go to law school?

Right off the bat I tell them not to go. After that I try to explain that what I really mean is, don’t go unless you’re absolutely certain that this is what you want to do with your life and so long as you understand that there is a good chance that you’re going to struggle financially (at least at first). If you think you’re going to get out of law school and immediately get gobbled up by a big law firm making six figures I’d suggest you’re doing it wrong. I think law school is great, but during the good times the market became flooded with lawyers and we haven’t fixed that glut just yet – the job market is still flooded and now the firms aren’t making enough revenue to hire recent grads to high paying positions.

Law school is like the real estate market: you’re taking a huge gamble – in real estate you’re gambling on the price of houses, in law school you’re betting on yourself. You have to be ready to invest a lot of money into you in the hopes that your investment will pay off in the long run. There is no guarantee.

That being said, unless you’re looking at Harvard or Columbia or any of the top tier law schools, the most important things you should be looking at (at least in my mind) is cost and alumni base. Cost is obvious: if you get scholarship money that will reduce the cost of your law degree, take it – don’t get caught up in the idea of rankings. Once you’re outside the very top tier of law schools, ranking in my experience is meaningless.

Alumni base is a little less obvious, but in a bad job market the best tool you have at your disposal is the ability to reach out and connect. I work for two lawyers with Suffolk Law School degrees, and the head of my firm is a UMass Amherst graduate. Being able to speak to State Senators and Congressmen about Suffolk or UMass is a huge benefit. Going to alumni events—whether it is UMass football games or a Suffolk recruitment event—is a great way to meet people. I got a job in a desperate market because I was pounding the pavement. The bigger the pond you’re fishing in, the better chance you have of catching something.

If you could have dinner with any lawyer, real or fictional, living or dead, who would it be and why?

I so desperately want to say anything other than Atticus Finch but To Kill a Mockingbird is one of my all-time favorite novels so I think that’s the obvious answer. You find in this job that most lawyers fancy themselves as a Finch type character, as he appeals to both lawyers who want to do the right thing and fight for the little guy, but also to lawyers who act like hired guns (and believe me they’re out there). So yeah in a fantasy world I’d love for Harper Lee’s character to jump off the page so I could have a meal with him.