Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They write letters

I've been getting a lot of things like this  (redacted and posted with permission from the author):

I am a 2007 graduate of a T2/3 law school (I worked for 3 years between my BA and starting my JD coursework). Though a good undergraduate student, I did horribly on the LSAT. I went to law school to promote social justice, not to earn the big bucks. I believed that being a lawyer and having a law degree would provide a very stable career. Eventually, I decided to pursue tax law. Tax is great because I can serve low-income taxpayers, while still working with a segment of the law that is constantly changing and the policy for which I find incredibly interesting. Of course, coming from a T2/3, I had to get an LLM to get a job in tax. So off to the top tax school I went, to study tax for 9 months for an exorbitant fee.

I generally did well in law school--I was one of the students who "got it." I graduated with honors, honor society, journal etc. I managed to land an associate position at a large regional firm in the same city. Though I had fully intended to work for a non-profit or a legal services-type organization, my debt prevented it, and I felt I HAD to take a job at a firm. I hated it. I worked for just over a year and was laid off in late 2009. After losing my job, I did some soul-searching. I decided I hated private practice, and wanted to go back closer to my roots: I decided to pursue jobs in progressive tax policy. I moved to DC, where policy/law jobs are plentiful, but so are un- and under-employed lawyers. I have to say that I briefly considered getting into the Academy--even signing up for the AALS "meat market." I got a couple calls from small law schools in Iowa and Ohio, but decided that I no longer believed in the law school model and could not stomach becoming part of it.

Since losing my job it has been a downward spiral. After moving to DC, I took odd jobs with solo practitioners, legal writing companies, and an unpaid "fellowship" on the Hill, and I lived in a depressing basement. In the weeks I wasn't working, I claimed my meager $400 a week in unemployment. There were days I was quite hungry. My family (all of whom live on the West Coast) were incredibly supportive, but could only send me so much money (there might have been a little pride involved, too :)). Finally, after a stint in doc review (which my friend and I have affectionately dubbed "lawyer sweatshop"), I landed a long-term temporary position at a prominent legal publishing firm. Our contract ends December 31, 2011, at which point I will be unemployed. Again.

Though I am incredibly grateful for what I have, I cannot help but wish for more: I have a JD with honors, an LLM from the top tax school in the country, and meaningful work experience. Yet, I cannot land a full-time, permanent job. I am lucky to have health insurance, but I have no time off. No sick time. My work situation is flexible (I can come in late/leave early for an appointment, etc.), but I only get paid for the hours I work. I am very grateful that it is unlikely I will default on my loans--thus far, I have been able to manage my nearly $250,000 debt with IBR and unemployment forbearance.

I know that I am better off than a lot of these younger lawyers. That I qualified for unemployment is huge. I get job interviews. I can afford the apartment I share with my friend. I have a great resume. I am an excellent researcher and writer. I rarely go to bed hungry anymore. I just have to be patient.  As soon as the economy picks up I'll get a permanent job. Right...?

Should I have been "kept out" of law school because my LSAT was too low? I'm not sure. Should I have been dissuaded at the time I made the decision by the debt and lack of job prospects from going to law school? I don't think so--though I didn't fully understand how much debt I would have, in the early 2000's folks from my law school didn't have much trouble finding jobs in the surrounding area. While I don't feel scammed, I simply wish I'd never gone to law school.

I am discouraged. I'm humiliated and demoralized. Worse yet, I am not challenged on a daily basis. I've resigned myself to the fact that I will never have a career. I won't have retirement savings. I will be living paycheck-to-paycheck for the next few years. I will continue to be immune to the rejection letters I receive in response to the litany of resumes and cover letters I send out daily (if I even receive indication that my resume was received). I will be just another number in this generation of lawyers who will fall by the wayside . . .

It's true here is a certain amount of responsibility on the part of the students who sign the loan papers, and who decide to go to law school simply because they think they'll get rich (and who are now whining because they aren't). But, in the end, the bulk of the responsibility lies with the schools, and their administration, faculty, and staff.

My law school is one of the most expensive in the country, and had to give so much of our tuition to the university (I always joked--a bit tongue-in-cheek--to pay for the basketball team, a huge money maker for this Big East school). Minority students almost always failed out. Our Dean was never at the law school--always gallivanting around the country to raise money. Our bar passage rate flailed. I will say that I chose to take classes from professors who were incredibly engaged with their students. Though their scholarship may be esoteric, I always felt cared for, and welcome in office hours. 

P. S. One thing that you haven't touched on (and maybe you will, though it doesn't have much to do with the law schools' failings) is licensing. I am now licensed in 3 states. I took 2 bar exams (2 summers in a row, 2 summers of bar loans) and waived into my 3rd. On meager earnings, I now have to pay nearly $1,000 a year to keep up these licenses (because who knows where I might land a permanent job?!), in addition to paying for CLE courses (some bar associations have been great about allowing me to pay a reduced fee--or no fee--when I explain my situation).
 How many stories like this are out there at this moment -- stories of talented, dedicated, public-spirited people, who are being ground down by a system that doesn't even bother to collect accurate statistics about its, as the economists say, "outputs? " These are the stories behind the statistics, and the law school world needs to listen.


  1. The story above is neither an aberration nor anomaly. More and more, this is becoming the new norm for many law school graduates. There are highly credentialed, well-intentioned, smart, concerned people who went to law school well-informed and for the right reasons, whose situation is similar to the one you posted above. Yet law school administrators and a good number of the professors continue with the "blame the victim" routine. At some point this situation will reach a critical mass and spur change, but not before many, many people basically have their lives ruined by the legal education complex.

  2. "While I don't feel scammed, I simply wish I'd never gone to law school. I am discouraged. I'm humiliated and demoralized."

    That pretty much sums it up.

    "But, in the end, the bulk of the responsibility lies with the schools, and their administration, faculty, and staff."

    The leaders in the legal profession make their money by eating their young. There is no protection, no camaraderie, no mentorship.

  3. This is a very poignant story. One thing that sounds a discordant note is that he says: "in the early 2000's folks from my law school didn't have much trouble finding jobs in the surrounding area." There is no question that the law school model needs reform. But we cannot pretend that the fact that the US and the world are now in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s is not a part of the writer's problem. From his own words, it would seem to be a major part since students from his school had little difficulty in getting jobs at the beginning of the decade. Even when reform comes, it will not insulate people from the kind of near global economic catastrophe we are in and have been in for the past five years. It looks like we may be in it for a while.

  4. I agree that we can't ignore the economy, but part of the problem is that law schools are churning out 15% more students today than they were 10 years ago (see the numbers here http://www.abanet.org/legaled/statistics/charts/stats%20-%206.pdf)

    law school class sizes CANNOT keep increasing, while the number of jobs capable of paying off the debt incurred is decreasing.

  5. this is Anon from 12:12 again.

    Another issue, related to class size, is that law students don't fail out of law school anymore. My first day I remember my LS dean (this was in 2002-5) saying "look left, look right." Well, that just didn't happen. We lost maybe 2-3%, and some of that was through attrition not related to grades.

    From my perspective, it seems that the only thing LSs care about is money. Education is a far second, and Jobs are on the radar only to the extent that it helps to increase student headcount.

  6. I am a *1998* grad with a "prestigious" federal appellate clerkship, several publications, adjuncting, and Biglaw experience under my belt, and I lost my job at a law school--my alma mater--when I was 9 months pregnant. (Allegedly for refusing to *double* my hours, which I had never been asked to do; more likely it was because a co-worker informed HR that I had been sexually harassed by a fundraiser who had been accused of same by several other women.) Like the person whose story is set forth above, the thousand bucks a year for my various bar memberships (not to mention CLEs) really added insult to injury!

    I feel like your 2007 grad and wish I had never gone to law school, because in this profession even the slightest misstep and you are pretty much cast out forever. (At least this has been the case for almost every woman I know in the profession -- men's mileage may vary, but probably not by much.) After searching high and low for a job in private practice, state government, or "law related" in my community (I had done contract work the whole time I was at the law school, to keep up my skills) and not even being able to score a first interview, we actually ended up emigrating to my husband's home country, primarily so that we would have health care and our children would be able to attend (free) university.

    The one thing I am grateful for is that we are not in a common law country, so I am not even tempted to try to find legal work other than the briefwriting that I am continuing to do while I look for a real job here. How sick is that?

  7. Here's one sad story I read on Volokh this weekend:

    Let me provide my anecdotal story. I graduated from a tier 2 law school in 2008. Top 20% of my class and completely unable to get any sort of job. The school has a terrible reputation (undeserved if I might say) and to make things worst, the career services office and professors’ lives revolve around getting jobs for the top 5% so the rest of us are on our own.

    So I attended an LL.M. program in the field in which I wanted to practice, the best LL.M. program for that field. I digress to make a quick observation about life at this T6 school as compared to life at my tier 2 school. It was like going from a Toyota Camry to a Rolls Royce. Kids at top schools have no idea how good they have it. This is completely ignoring the career placemen advantage. I’m talking about quality of life and quality of education stuff. There is absolutely no reason why my tier 2 school’s tuition should be comparable to the T6 school’s tuition. It should cost maybe 1/3 of that amount. I could go on and on about the ways the T6 school was better, but any way, back to the debt issue. I graduated from the LL.M. in 2009 and I was still unable to get a job despite good grades (although that may party have been due to the economy).

    Fast forwarding two years. I am in over $300,000 of student loan debt. I had zero debt of any kind (and savings, in fact) before I went to law school, but now I am in $300,000+ of student loan debt. Most of this is government debt which I can defer indefinitely via Income Based Repayment (although if the government ever takes that option away I am going right into default). There is however a private debt component (my first year, in 2005–2006, GRAD PLUS loans did not exist and you had to borrow privately). The private part of this amount is funded by a $550/month payment that barely covers the interest.

    You might be wondering how much money I have earned over these past two years. I earned $0 in 2009. $21,000 in 2010 and so far in 2011 I have earned $4,000. My days are mainly spent networking for short term work and I exist due to assistance from my horrified family. We all hope this is a temporary situation but it’s probably not. I hope I can be excused for viewing my tier 2 school as a scam of an institution.


  8. @ Anonymous 11:45 AM: Good point. Discussions of this sort would make more sense, I think, if we could look at hiring data for grads over the past 20 years, and sorted according to US News tier and also according to class rank. But I doubt that the data needed for doing this exists (or it is not in a usable form, or it is just bad).

  9. I still can't understand why anyone would pay the same price to attend a tier 2 or 3 school as a t-14. Even if kia produced a car that performed like a benz you still wouldn't pay benz prices for the kia.

  10. @ Anonymous 3:39 PM: It's because the people buying a Kia don't have a choice. They're not allowed to buy a Benz. (And the people buying used Chevy K cars aren't allowed to buy Kias.)

  11. They can walk or ride a bike?

  12. Dear God these stories make me so glad I got out of law school "with only" a few thousand down the drain. The fact that I might not be able to get a job no matter how well I did scared the living crap out of me. The debt terrified me. The combo of the two threw me into depression.

    I'm still taking on debt in my one year Master of Accounting program - but at least I have job offers a whole two days into the program. Maybe law should look at Accounting as an example...

  13. This sounds mean, but on the one hand, your student (I think it's a she) should not have gone to law school. Law school is mostly an extremely expensive two way sorting mechanism, and if you don't get into the schools at the top, you aren't going to do well. You were sorted out. Give up the ghost and move on; don't let lower tier law schools scam you.

    HOWEVA, then what? There's almost nothing else in this economy for young, intelligent people to do, other than engineering (if they're really good at math) or nursing. A handful are allowed into medicine (because the AMA is a much better guild than the ABA), and some with great connections& a lot of luck can do ok as sales people. Teaching positions are drying up rapidly, and journalism as anything other than a hobby is dead.

    What we need is redistribution, through the channel of massive amounts of government jobs for people like this law grad. Not scamming her out of tuition would be nice, but that's not a holistic solution. That (writ large) is just going to add a whole bunch of people to the unemployment lines.

  14. These are the stories behind the statistics, and the law school world needs to listen.

    It needs to get past that environ out to the real world where parents and future "victims' can cut of the law schools supply.

    How do you do that? Hell if I know.

    There are actually people out there who think that being a lawyer is recession resistant because we are such a litigious society.

    The feeling is lawyers will be in demand because someone , somewhere always wants to sue.

    More lambs for the slaughter coming to a theater near you.

  15. cut ^off^ the law schools' supply.

  16. Great posts today, LawProf. Thank you. You make sure you tell this side of the story and drop it down into broader questions about ethics and why this was allowed to happen - why the academics who are the show let the admin run away with it - then you're onto something. This will motivate the reform. We'll get to that, but honestly after years of unemployment and misery, and almost at one point jumping in front of a train, it's nice to hear the argument put forward by someone other than me.

  17. Why does anyone go to a tier 2 school? What are these people thinking?

  18. Ten years ago, it was possible to go to a Tier 2 or Tier 3 school, graduate with a decent class placement, not run up a huge debt, get a decent job, and pay off any student loans in relatively quick order. I went to the University of Missouri at Kansas City law school, tuition and books for three years cost about $30,000, most students were able to work their way through and end up with maybe $15,000 in debt. Most students came from Kansas City, UMKC is mostly a commuter school and about 90% of the grads end up working in KC. Now, those costs are estimated at nearly $40,000 per school year; three years cost is therefore close to $120,000. At those prices, it's not worth it. If you don't get pretty close to a full-ride scholarship, you'll never pay back the loans for the rest of your life; the total cost of the loans may run you closer to $300,000 and you aren't going to be getting paid enough to make this a good deal, or even a marginally good deal.

  19. I found a job without any problems. Target big markets and you will be fine. Go to where the money is, not where you went to law school.

  20. You should not have gone to Syracuse


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