Sunday, January 9, 2011

Lawyers, Bucks, and Hot Sex

This isn't usually my territory.  I leave it to Greenfield and Bennett and Tannebaum and others to do most of the finger pointing at the narcissistic, self-declared entitled, slackoisie.  But when the Gray Lady speaks, I'm called to the fray.
The Business Section of today's Times leads off with a major article by David Segal, "Is Law School a Losing Game?"  The issue, and this isn't really news to anyone who's been paying attention to this stuff for a while, is how
  • Law schools mislead prospective students into thinking there are biglaw riches for them.
  • US News and World Reports law school rankings encourage that deception.
  • The ABA provides the system that enables the deception.
  • Guaranteed student loans provide the cash to keep this not-quite-Ponzi-scheme running.
  • Newly minted lawyers are stocking shelves at WalMart because there are no jobs for lawyers in big firms.
  • And oh, yeah, those hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loan debt aren't dischargeable.
A whole lot is wrong there, and I'll happily blame the law schools, USN&WR, & the ABA for conspiring in a major consumer fraud.  But there are also all those students.
On a listserv where I'm a relative newcomer and suspect I just pissed off or bored (or both) pretty much everyone who bothered to read it, I just posted this response to the Times article (reformatted here, and edited some for blog purposes).
In 1971, when I started graduate school in English, there were essentially no jobs for new PhD college teachers. And the market became worse during the years I was in grad school. Three important points.
  1. The English Department at Michigan State (where I went, a top 20 department), and I gather this was very unusual, never pretended that we would likely find jobs. Oh, they worked really hard (I'm serious about that) to help us find positions, but they told us over and over that if were in this for the job, we should quit. "You will never find work in your chosen field" was the department's mantra.
  2. Of course, we each held out hope we'd be the exception (one was), but we stuck it out not for the fantasy but for the love of what we were doing.
  3. When I started law school in 1984, after years of underpaid and exploited part-time and temporary positions teaching English, there were several people in my class who were about my age and whose prospective academic careers had tanked. I was the only one who wasn't bitter because (at least in part) I'd never been gulled into believing there was a pot of gold at the end of that rainbow.
OK, almost nobody loves law school. But the people who go because "Gee, I can get rich and spend a lot of time playing golf," frankly get none of my sympathy.
There are two and only two good reasons to go to law school, maybe three.
  1. The desire to practice law.
  2. Desire to acquire a legal education for its own sake, you know,  because it's interesting or intellectually stimulating.  Yeah, I know.  I also believe that a liberal arts education is valuable for its own sake.
  3. For use in work you're already doing (you know, the CPA or the medical ethicist or reporter the court beat, say, who thinks more legal background would help). Not to make big bucks. Not to be admired by the multitudes. 
I'm seriously old-fashioned and get-off-my-lawn cranky about this, and I've never had much interest in getting rich, but then I see a ton of really really bad lawyering done, too often by folks who have no interest in the work and/or won't put in the time because golly, they don't pay me enough or I've got to
spend more time working on my tan. And I see a lot of clients doing time they shouldn't be doing, or even getting executed because of it.
I stopped there on the listserv, but you who read this blawg know that I'm not that quick to finish up.
See, here's the problem.
We've got law schools fudging the numbers to encourage more students to cough up vast sums of money they have to borrow and will have no serious likelihood of repaying because the schools are cash cows for the universities that house them.
And they're sucking in not the students who actually want to do legal work but those who want to be lawyers with all the cash and fast cars  and easy lifestyle and hot sex with an ever-changing set of young babes/studs that goes with being a lawyer.  (Wait, I want to be a lawyer, too.  Ooops, I am.  No cash to speak of, a 7-year-old Accord, living in a nice but peculiar rental house, and happily if stodgily married to the same woman for 40 years.  Where did I go wrong?)
And those students are graduating saddled with this enormous debt and, surprise, no job starting out with biglaw at 160 grand plus a signing bonus.
But I can't seem to get past that thing about doing good work.  Back in the summer, Bennett made an offer to the hopeless, whining lawyers doing document review for $35/hour because they couldn't get real work.
But what then? Well, you have a law degree, and you are clearly capable of learning new areas of law. And there are ways to make a living without subjecting yourself to degradation—indeed, without an employer.
You want an example, you say?
There are thousands of people who need lawyers for one thing or another—family law cases, landlord-tenant disputes, consumer disputes—but can’t find competent counsel because the number of competent lawyers willing to work for $50 an hour is exceedingly small.
Representing people in such disputes is not glamorous—your fellow document reviewers might even call it “shitlaw”—and you’ll never get rich doing it right, but it’s a service to your fellow humans, and you can make a living while working for people who are grateful for your time and your service. Show some competence—hell, show some interest—in such cases, and I’ll spread your name far and wide to our fellow lawyers who would appreciate having someone to refer the small stuff to. Maybe it’ll even grow into something bigger, so that instead of just making a living, you’re a success.
There's something, isn't it.  No glamour. Not much cash.  No fast cars.  
And it may be damn hard to pay back a couple of hundred grand in student loans at that rate.  But it gets you going.  But it takes some grit, some willingness to do some actual legal work without lots of secretaries and receptionists and recessed lighting and a bevy of attentive . . . ah, who knows.  I never worked in biglaw and have only very rarely even entered its hallways.
The one thing is there is legal work out there.  But you actually have to do the work.
See, for me it keeps coming back to this.  It shouldn't be all about the money.  Law schools have helped make it that.  So has television.  So has biglaw.  But it shouldn't be.  It should be about practicing law.  
Imagine, if you will, a world in which people were paid and were able to live according to the social utility of the work they did.  Think about the nice homes garbage men would have.  Think about the wealthy suburbs where our pre-school and kindergarten and grade school teachers would live.  Think about where in that world, lawyers would end up.  Different ones in different places, of course, and we might argue for hours about whether this or that lawyer should actually have to pay, rather than be paid, for the work done.  But who really thinks that some kid fresh out of law school, even a really good law school, deserves, by an rational standard, a starting salary roughly equivalent to what a federal judge makes.  (Forget, for the moment, whether a federal judge deserves that much money.)
What nobody talks about in all of this, certainly not in the Times, is that the system is corrupt even when it isn't also dishonest. 
It's the money that corrupts, of course.  And for so many reasons.
Also the hot sex.


  1. Jeff, I don't agree with everything you've had to say in this post (I would not be as hard on the law schools, and I do not subscribe to your Animal Farm economic view), but I do agree with much of your sentiment, both about the expectations of some law students and about the important need for lawyers to help meet unmet legal needs. Last year, I visited with the Legal Services Corp, and I learned a new term, the "justice gap," and I learned that the gap was even larger and more troubling than I had realized. It would be great to match these temporarily unemployed and underemployed lawyers with clients who need but can't afford legal services. Legal Aid can directly meet only a small part of the justice gap, and many people with serious civil matters end up, not by choice, representing themselves. Not only are these people not necessarily getting justice, but their matters take longer, use more court resources than they should, and contribute to delays for everyone else in the justice system. I'd love to see us develop a way to put all this potential legal talent to good use.

    Eric Brown

  2. It's a serious need, and it's obviously not well-enough met (not even close) by bar association pro-bono programs and legal aid clinics and major legal aid organizations. It's not just the desperately poor who are victimized. In some ways those who suffer most are the ones who make too much money for services but too little for counsel.

    But I'm not talking about new agencies or programs. I'm echoing Bennett's suggestion. If you're bitching about not being able to find high-pay, glamor work as a lawyer and either doing legal scut work for 10 or 20 or 30 bucks an hour or you're unhappily scraping along delivering pizzas, why not instead choose to do real legal work helping real people. Do it really well. And charge $40 or $50/hour instead of the $75 or $100 or $125 that even the low-cost, established guys are charging.

    You won't be taking their work, because your clients are the ones who can't afford to hire them. You'll learn something. You'll perform a real service and help real people. And if you do the job right, you can maybe grow a profitable practice from it and let some other new lawyer take over that niche.

  3. The waste is, in fact, astounding. We are awash in lawyers, and at the same time awash in people who need lawyers and don't have them. We are awash in houses and at the same time awash in homeless and evicted people. But don't get me started on that.

    Bennett and you are quite right. Just go ahead and go to work on something worthwhile and see where it goes. When the system is as bad as ours is, one thing you can say in its favor is that there is opportunity - lots of room for improvement.

    But I have to say, at the risk of being a one note Charlie, that the perfidious bench is a large part of why the legal profession has turned to shit. And as far as monetary reward goes, every time they decline to follow the law in your favor they are not only screwing over your client; they are taking something from you that you have justly earned. They're stealing from you. They are thieves. And worse, they are pikers. They do it to protect their silly little position and their silly little robes, trappings that become all the more hollow as they repeatedly soil them.

    If they started doing their jobs there would be a lot fewer lawyers who were idle, a lot more student loans that were repaid, not to mention a lot more justice in the world. I'm assuming, of course, that you have reconsidered your ridiculous agnosticism on the justice thing.:)