Tuesday, August 23, 2011

They write lettters, Part II

This comment was posted a few days ago in a thread on Prawfsblawg. The thread was closed to further comments immediately afterwards. It does a very nice job of summing up in a concise way how dire things are for what we can safely say are tens of thousands of recent law school graduates.  (Despite my use earlier today of the same Mafia wife metaphor employed by the writer, I didn't see this comment until it was forwarded to me by a reader this afternoon). Courtesy of  "Jack White," this is the crisis in a nutshell:

I'm not sure why this you profs aren't getting it. I'm not trying to get personal, so I'm just going to explain to you how non-T14 law schools (and even some T14 nowadays) look from the outside.
1. Naive early 20's kids with liberal arts degrees and little concept of the real world go to law school. They are lured in by borderline fraudulent employment statistics.
2. Having been told all their lives that "education is priceless" and having almost no financial experience they borrow six figure sums for school (which has risen in cost faster than inflation for decades).
3. They work themselves to the bone, giving up a good part of their youth for the prospect to join the profession which they have been told is necessary, noble, and valued.
4. A lucky few get into BigLaw and are able to pay their debts. (Albeit while working in miserable conditions and usually being discarded after a few years.)
5. The rest scramble to get a job with a starting salary that is a small fraction of what they owe.
6. They don't pay their debts on time and so penalty fees and interest pile up. Their credit is ruined forever as these debts (unlike virtually all others) cannot be discharged in bankruptcy. They can't buy houses, cars, rent a decent apartment, or ever have a family. They are basically lifelong failures at the age of 26. (There are a few ways out, but they are pretty drastic).
7. Their loans, being guaranteed by the government, are paid for by the taxpayers, who have just paid gobs of money for basically nothing. (This even happens with IBR.)
8. Law Professors live an upper middle class lifestyles built on the misery of their former students and the fleecing of the American taxpayer. (Some people in Administration live just as well, so I guess you guys aren't the only ones). Their work in the meantime is neither practically useful nor theoretically groundbreaking (according to LawProf).

If something else is going on here you'd better speak up with something better than this posting's attempt to muddy the waters. It just looks like evasion. At best you look like the Mafia Wives of Academia, looking the other way while the administration hurts people for your money. You are far along in the process of creating a generation that is incredibly cynical and will try to smash your ivory tower if they get the chance. 
Since you seem to very much be interested in the circumstances of those who criticize you I'll give you a picture. Basically I went a top 50 LS and realized I didn't want to be a lawyer. I dropped out after 1L. It was the best decision I ever made. When I see some of my former classmates I get something like survivor's guilt as I have an okay job and a manageable debt load. One of my former classmates told me that his life was just a miserable wait to die. I'm not sure you truly grasp the desperation of some of your former students.


  1. The author of this letter did the right thing. If you're neither attending a top 10 law school nor at or close to the top of your class after your first year, you should cut your losses & get out.

  2. Currently the archives are set up so that the oldest post that one can read is one from August 13 called "Law and...?". Given that it announces itself as the last of a series of posts, I'm presuming there are older ones. How about setting it up so that the older ones can be accessed too?

  3. That's another thing I don't understand. If you're at a lower tier school and you realize during OCI that you're not getting a good job, how come people don't quit?

  4. I think the psychology of the law student as they move through the process is something somebody should study. I don't think anybody has and I don't think any of us really understand it. But I remember when I was a law student, there was a lot of rationalization. I was committed to completing the 3 years because that's just what you are supposed to do, you're not supposed to be a quitter and because things were going to work out somehow. I didn't know how yet, but they just were. I used all of my rationalization powers to convince myself the situation was ok up to and until the day I graduated (jobless) and even beyond that for a year or two.

  5. Just curious, but what was the environment like at your school? Like, were there a lot of depressed 3L's without jobs, etc. or was there a general everyone finds jobs atmosphere?

  6. Despite my use earlier today of the same Mafia wife metaphor employed by the writer, I didn't see this comment until it was forwarded to me by a reader this afternoon)

    Hell they're starting to smell like Marie Antoinette.

  7. @5:41 and 5:51, I sometimes wonder if even more important than spreading the message "don't go to law school" would be spreading the message "quit after 1L." There will always be people who think they will land in the top 10% of the class despite their low LSAT or whatever, but after 1L year there is no more fooling yourself. But at that point, the pressure not to quit is too intense.

    Surely that pressure comes in large part from friends and family, as it's hard to tell your parents and everybody else you quit. But some of that pressure comes from the schools themselves. They encourage students to keep going, even when it becomes obvious that individual prospects for a career in the law have all but vanished. Yes, we need lawyers and schools to train them, but after 1L it becomes clear who will be a lawyer and who won't be.

    Of course, having the bottom 80% of the class decline to pay tuition for years 2 and 3 would pretty much destroy the law school business model. But I'm sure that has nothing to do with why faculty rarely explain the true odds and the concept of sunk costs to the rising 2Ls who most need to hear it.

  8. I just don't see how people don't figure it out. At my school people knew you either got a job at OCI or you were screwed.

  9. I think quitting if you have an unsuccessful first year sounds like a great strategy, especially if you are nervous about law school (which is increasingly happening to me). That is so rarely advertised as a viable option :/

  10. My old commanding officer quit after his first year and I always wondered why. Turns out he went to a fourth tier school and I assume he did poorly.

  11. @ Anonymous 5:41:

    You wrote:

    "That's another thing I don't understand. If you're at a lower tier school and you realize during OCI that you're not getting a good job, how come people don't quit?"

    Well, first, it's quitting at school, which until very recent months was an utter shame, especially for those of us who were motivated enough (misled in that, albeit) to sign up for 7 years of school after high school.

    Also, you know, a lot of us are not in school now. I would venture a guess that tens of thousands got caught in the recession - and went from eventually landing a $30K/year job in a hot economy to getting shut down everywhere, and so we never had a chance to entertain our better reason - much less a chance when you consider the environment of law school and what perversities are considered "failure" in that world.

    And, honestly, a lot of us just aren't quitters, and definitely to a fault. Dunno. Just my thoughts.

  12. I remember this entry on prawfsblawg. It was excellent.

  13. I graduated from law school a couple of years before the recession. In those days, at my school, most people didn't find a job until well after graduation, but at least there was still reason for hope. This lead to the feeling that things would work out somehow, someway. And for most people, things did eventually "work out", although that usually meant finding a crappy job they never would have gone to law school for had they known. I think a lot of people wish, in hindsight, that they had cut their losses and walked out.

    If the environment has changed today, such that the students no longer cling to hope, I'd say that's a positive development. We need to see more 1Ls walking out, recognizing what a SMART move it is, and not something to feel ashamed of, given the circumstances.

  14. "If the environment has changed today, such that the students no longer cling to hope, I'd say that's a positive development. We need to see more 1Ls walking out, recognizing what a SMART move it is, and not something to feel ashamed of, given the circumstances."

    Yes! This is the message that needs to get out there.

  15. Now here's the counterpoint: what's the realistic short-term employability of a 1L Law School dropout? My sense is that it's quite low, especially these days (where an exit from the workforce is especially difficult to undo). I, for one, knew that my goose was cooked after my first year (and this was back in 2003, when magical thinking was still endemic across the legal profession), and I know this concern was the chief deterrent to me dropping out at the time(that, and this penumbral notion that things somehow work out for me if I just "stayed positive". Ordinarily, though, this advice was doled out to me by people who already had jobs themselves).

    I have been underemployed in various capacities across the legal profession for six years now, and I would rather simply have not chosen this career path at all, than have jumped from it one third of the way past the point of commitment.

    If law school were less economically burdensome, and if we lived in a totally different society that left a little more room for individual error, then I would accept the drop-out option as more viable for a wider swath of people. But in practice, there's an extremely limited social valour to dropping out (of anything, really), and this blog would never have come to pass if there wasn't tacit acknowledgment throughout the profession (if not in the academy) that the individual law student has to live in the world in ways which the academy remains utterly-and, it appears, wilfully-divorced from.

    And I say this as somebody who agrees wholeheartedly with everything this blog has said up to now. To say nothing else of it, I have yet to read a criticism of this blog that wasn't thoroughly steeped in clucking villager self-regard.

  16. Now here's the counterpoint: what's the realistic short-term employability of a 1L Law School dropout? My sense is that it's quite low, especially these days (where an exit from the workforce is especially difficult to undo).

    This is absolutely true, and a lot of people stay in law school because they have absolutely no other way to eat. They will gladly take on the $200,000 of debt, even though there isn't a job at the end, because otherwise they would be living in their car for the next two years.

  17. I'm the commenter from 6:32am:

    I've known people who dropped out and (very often) returned to their previous job fairly easily. This, however, was many years ago and, almost to a person, the jobs in question were paralegal gigs. I bet that with the increased number of JD holders having to seak out paralegal gigs, that these types of positions are even harder to re-enter. I understand the (non-legal) cw that seniority and good will should help someone re-enter a position they had only recently left, but a year is a lifetime in a law firm practice and I have no sense that previously work epxeirence earns you very much sweat equity if you've already made the choice to trade up.

  18. To what extent are 22 year old 1Ls, fresh from college, simply not willing to work at the kind of jobs they could get if they left (or never entered) law school?

    Whem my roomate and I graduated from college, I went to law school and he, having no options, continued to work as a pizza deliverer for a corporate pizza chain. Fast forward to today, almost ten years later, I've had the sort of difficult unemployed/underemployed legal career we're all familar with. He is a corporate executive making close to 200K and is climbing a corporate ladder where the first run was, believe it or not, pizza delivery driver.

    Obviously, this is no kind of solution or anything. But its an example to illustrate a phenomenon that might be occuring here, where the sorts of career paths that are there for the taking require one to start at levels that 1Ls feel are beneath them, and so they never get started.

  19. I don't believe that any trepidation over working pizza delivery routes (or related professions) is the exclusive hang-up of law students . Where I live, pizza delivery drivers are almost always barely English conversant immigrants whose employers can probably afford to play them criminally low wages; they are the migrant farm workers of our particular job market.

  20. He is a corporate executive making close to 200K and is climbing a corporate ladder where the first run was, believe it or not, pizza delivery driver.


    I call bullshit. A miniscule percentage of pizza delivery people become Domino's executives pulling $200k. You just made that up to create facts to support your "drop out of law school and deliver pizzas" argument.

  21. However, you can be sure that law schools couldn't have nearly as much success with their scam if college graduates could get decent paying jobs. It's the terrible state of the American economy (which, for the middle and lower classes, has been like this for decades and decades) that allows the schools to feast on 22 year olds.

  22. I totally believe the pizza driver-turned-executive story; I just don't believe it's anything more than an outlier. One of the most problematic aspects for people who find themselves in the current predicament of many JD holders, is that there are literally no non-risky "ways out" that don't involve double-down on your lack of viable options.

    For example, a common kernel of advice offered to me by persons outside the profession is that I should "just go solo", because then (I'm told) I would have more control over my schedule and get to take on only those cases that I want. This is usually based on the fact that most non-lawyers only ever encounter the legal profession at the level of solo practice (pace Governor Romney, corporations are not people). Thus, because they might know a reasonably self-fulfilled T&E, Tax, or Family Law attorney, they believe this route to be an easier and more practical route for JD holders to take.

    Of course, there is no easy precinct of legal practice (apart from much of the academy, it seems), but suggestions like these glibly elide over the tremendous difficulty and economic strain most solo practitioners experience. While I'm sure many find it very rewarding, it is a field which (by necessity) must be self-selecting and not pursued as a path of last resort.

    And therein lies the rub, we have reached a point where a plausibly majority of JD holders are at their last resort. If you don't believe this is a problem, then you owe it both to your credibility (and to the profession as a whole) to explain why.

  23. I'm serious :). I realize its an exceptional case. He went from driver to assistant manager and rose up through the ranks as a manager, from store to regional, etc, before getting a job at corporate HQ. And while he did eventually get some sort of masters degree in night school to bolster his credentials, he told me that the credentials that mattered the most to his particular company where whatever sort of performance metrics he pulled off in the last position. They never cared about his education or grades or class rank.

    Thing is, he was well positioned to work a shitty job for low pay at the bottom of a ladder. Well positioned because he had little to no debt, and because he was 22 years old, when its more socially acceptable to have a shit job. By the time you're 25 or 30, people expect more from you and you probably expect more from yourself.

    What would happen if people stopped trying to plan their careers via graduate school and just took the best job out of college they could actually find? Would results be worse? Can it get worse than 300K in law school debt?

  24. Well, the legal profession is completely impervious to advancement of the kind you have identified. However, because of the barriers to entry are low(it isn't hard to get an average score on the LSAT), because the costs and benefits of a JD skewed by lending and employment stats, and because few incoming law students have any actual work experience in a legal setting, the pursuit of a JD is seen as a more respectable route to getting in on the ground floor. What aggravates this dynamic further is that there is widespread misconception about the benefits of a JD held by those outside the profession, coupled with a very glib idea of advancement in the profession should be by those in, what I would call, the "Achiever Caste".

    Many law school professors speak only in platitudes about the practice of law post-law school, while many non-lawyers seem honestly to believe that a JD is applicalbe to a variety of field outside the law. I recently had a conversation with my non-JD brother where he expressed frustration with the idea that firms would never consider promoting staff attorneys from within to the associate rank because . . . well, there really wasn't a good rationale for why, except that it's vitally important for firms to not be seen (by both their clients and one another) as promoting anybody through the back door. For the "Achiever Caste" (whose vanguard is the hiring departments of BIGLAW) it's up or out, but never just up (if you understand what I mean); the legal profession, for many of them, is simply a luxury good.

    Meanwhile, there are a reasonable number of people who enter law school after a tour of duty in a BIGLAW practice. I did this, and while I did fine as a paralegal, I faltered as a first year, largely because I couldn't square the abstraction of legal education with the reality of law firm practice; it simply didn't add up. But as $30,000/yr jobs go, it was hardly the worst way I could have started. Had I staid as a paralegal, I probalby could have made twice my salary, even transitioned into an in-house gig.

  25. Also, I think if law is the only field you've ever worked in, you don't realize that obsession with status and credentials is not standard. Corporate executives at YUM brands are not expected to have Harvard MBAs or anything. At least, not until you reach very high levels, there are plenty of jobs paying way more than lawyers make where all you need is a good track record of work for the company.

  26. Right; "a good track record of work for the company" is a startingly irrelevant factor to one's ability to keep a job in BIGLAW.

  27. I'm the original person that asked about why people don't drop out. I disagree with the lack of employability if one drops out. Most jobs aren't like law firms where everything you do is under a microscope. One year off at the beginning of your career can be explained away (Family illness, travel, etc.). Worst case, you get a temp job at a company and work your way up. If you're reasonably intelligent and a hard worker you can do ok.

  28. I do have a thought for those of you who feel stuck. Consider joining the military. You probably won't get JAG as it's very competitive, but there are a lot of officer positions available. As a former enlisted guy I can tell you the officers have it pretty good. You'll make around $40K but you get other benefits (free healthcare, low cost housing, etc.). The military also offers loan repayment options which will help with some of your debt. I think you can use it in conjunction with IBR? Anyways, after a few years you can either try to transition into JAG, continue in your chosen branch, or use your contacts to work your way into a contractor job after your time is up. It's not glamorous and it's hard work, but I'm sure it beats starving.

  29. "I'm the original person that asked about why people don't drop out. I disagree with the lack of employability if one drops out. Most jobs aren't like law firms where everything you do is under a microscope. One year off at the beginning of your career can be explained away (Family illness, travel, etc.). Worst case, you get a temp job at a company and work your way up. If you're reasonably intelligent and a hard worker you can do ok."

    Psychology is critical to understanding the current predicament of JD's, and the reality is that very few people have the presence of mind to cut their losses so soon, especially when the stakes are so high (in terms of financial consequence).

  30. And while the individual wisdom to dropping out is probably contingent on a lot of different factors, I think we can all agree that there is something very , very wrong with a program of study that easily three quarters of those enrolled in should plausibly want to leave less than half-way through its completion.

  31. Anon at 8:08 AM,

    Great post. I concur completely. The Army OCS enlistment option is a great path for law grads/students to consider. While it has gotten more competitive recently for active duty (40-50% selection) compared with 2003-2009 (95%+ selection), it is a better shot than the legal industry.

    Those not selected for active duty are usually offered the opportunity to go to OCS to become an Army Reserve officer. This is nothing to dismiss. Reserve Officers are eligible for myriad benefits, not the least of which is incredibly low cost, high quality (and government subsidized) family health insurance through TRICARE Reserve Select. Moreover, after 20 years of service, reserve officers qualify for a defined benefit pension at age 60 (generally $1400-$2400 a month in 2011 dollars) and TRICARE For Life health coverage at age 65 until death.

    Best of all, OCS allows law grads to serve in one of 16 career fields in the Army as an officer. This is the best way I can think of to "recareer". Law grads can serve as officers in fields as diverse as the Signal Corps (telecommunications), Transporation, Finance, Infantry and even the Corps of Engineers (even as a JD with a Poly Sci. B.A.!). After service as an officer you have the great new GI Bill for further education, demonstrated leadership and management experience on a resume and veterans preference for Federal jobs.

    OCS incurs about a 3 year and 23 week active duty commitment (23 weeks for Basic training an OCS and 3 years service after OCS graduation).



  32. Can you imagine graduating from medical school with the prospect of not being able to get *any* job? What if half of your medical school class had the same fate?

    Obviously, medicine and law are different. But they are the two professional schools that are often compared.

    I've been out about 10 years. I know roughly 50 lawyers as friends. Only 2 make over $100k.

    Here's a typical example:

    A good friend graduates from a Tier 2 school. Good grades, passes the bar on first attempt, gets a job at the best firm in the city where the law school resides (good sized city). 5 years go by, and she hates her life and is making $44k. She has about $160k in student debt. Life is very hard and she has very few options. I can't blame her for feeling desperate; hopeless.

    This is not a problem simply caused by the recession. It is a structural problem that existed before the recession which the recession has made worse.

  33. Actually Voodoo that's not entirely correct and I would be remiss if I allowed incomplete information to go uncorrected. The committment is actually 8 years for all military contracts with the last few years being Inactive Ready Reserve. Typically these individuals are not ever called up, although there has been an increased use of the IRR more recently.
    8:05 and 8:08

  34. This gets into another point all together, in that America's "volunteer" army is really an army of poor people with few other options.

  35. 8:36,

    I was talking about the ADSO for OCS (3 years) which in my experience, is the biggest concern prospective officer candidates have about joining the Army. They want to know up front how long they have to be in the Army. I tried to address that up front.

    To round out your commentary, all individuals joining the military incur an 8 year military service obligation (MSO). For most individuals, at least half of this time is spent in the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). You are quite correct that until recently, IRR members were almost never recalled for duty - let alone overseas combat service. In fact, prior to 2004, the last time IRR personnel were involuntarily mobilized and sent to combat was the Korean War. Though thousands of IRR folks were recalled for the Berlin Crisis in 1961 and Deser0t Shield/Storm in 1990-91, they were not employed in a combat capacity overseas.

    For individuals who elect for the active duty OCS option, you generally must spend 3 years and 23 weeks (give or take a few weeks) on active duty, with the remainder in the IRR. Reserve officers (new to the military) incur a 6 year commitment of active reserve participation with a unit, with the remainder of their 8 year MSO in the IRR.

    I hope this clarifies.

  36. 8:43
    I disagree. I joined by choice so that I could go to college for free. I had a great job although there were times when it was miserable (people that outrank you can do obnoxious things to you that are unimaginable in the corporate world). It's also a guaranteed paid summer job as in the reserves most units are happy to have you work more than one weekend a month two weeks a year. The threat of being sent to some hellhole is out there too but all in all it wasn't so bad.

  37. Sounds fair, appreciate the clarification Voodoo.

  38. " I joined by choice so that I could go to college for free."

    Exactly, a rich kid isn't going to be incentivized by free college nor are they going to be incentivized by a "guaranteed paid summer job."

    I guess you were being sarcastic.

  39. My parents were middle class and could afford to pay for my college but I wanted to pay for it myself. It's a pride thing and I was a much more dedicated student because of it.
    Yeah, I guess the rich wouldn't be incentivized by that, but certainly the middle class would be.

  40. One solution to some the problems described in this comment set would be to offer some kind of a non-practicing terminal degree, say a certificate in Law, after the first year. Most of my colleagues who have thought about these issues agree on one thing: the first year of law school has value. A certificate might serve to monetize that investment as well as avoid the dropout stigma.

  41. Shouldn't the onus be on the LAW SCHOOL to weed out those who can't make it? I'm not necessarily suggesting mandatory curves where 1/3 of every class fails out, but I definitely think that people who have no business practicing law are graduating from this nation's law schools. More people need to be failed out. This a) will cause those who can excel to excel, and b) will reduce pressure on the industry as a whole by reducing the number of incoming students.

    Alternatively, the ABA could also "fail out" the 1/3 of law schools that are failing their students -- remove their accreditation.

  42. The bigger question that arises from the penumbra of this discussion is this:

    Just exactly what the hell is a young person to do these days?

    Aside from the very limited number of jobs on Wall Street, or on a C-level career path at an S&P 500 company, Medicine is still the golden ticket, thanks to the AMA. Even in primary care, one is virtually guaranteed employment at $150k+, and we have pretty much outsourced primary care to foreign medical grads. The upshot is just get into and through an American med school and you are virtually guaranteed the opportunity to complete a specialty residency, and earn $300k and up.

    OK, but not everybody can be a doc. Some people are pretty smart and/or driven, just not quite smart and/or driven enough to make a high GPA in a science major and ace the MCAT. Suppose you are one of these people, ordinarily but not exceptionally bright, reasonably diligent, of good character, etc. Nothing in life is certain but death and taxes, but you want to have a fair level of confidence that if you "work hard and play by the rules," in Bill Clinton's immortal phrase, you'll lead a secure, stable, respectable middle-to-upper-middle-class existence. A generation ago, you'd have latch on as a management trainee at a major corporation, bank, or insurance company. These jobs are gone, or at least sufficiently reduced in number that they aren't readily accessible to the rank-and-file of college grads. So, what does one do?

    Much of the angst prevalent in society now arises from the lack of a good answer to that question. But, from my vantage as a small-town lawyer, one can do much worse than the military. Lots of career options, and they'll even pay for your training. Plus, private sector pay increases have been so pitiful for most of society for the last 30 or so years that military pay, increasing inexorably at 3-5 % per annum over that same span, looks rather comfortable these days, particularly as it includes one of the last defined-benefit retirements around.

    That's just the way I see it. I would never recommend law school to anyone today unless he/she had some combination of credentials to gain admittance to a T-14 school, parental or personal funds, or access to scholarships to pay for all or most of it, a family firm at which to land, or an inside track to employment in a firm or a DA's office, etc. To just go wherever you get in, pay full price, and hope for the best is insanity.


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