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May This Be My Final Warning to You About Law School

20120707-184136.jpgLaw schools have not always been entirely honest about employment statistics, including post-graduation employment rates, starting salaries, etc. Now, they’re beginning to let the reality slip out.

The news for would-be attorneys keeps getting worse. According to analysis from the Wall Street Journal released yesterday, only 55% of class of 2011 law school grads were employed full-time as lawyers nine months after graduation. The other 45% may be unemployed, working at Starbucks or starting their own law school hate blogs. Couple this with declining starting salaries (they fell $9000 between 2009 and 2010) and the fact that 85% of law school grads are facing an average debt load of $98 500 and you can see why law school as a career path has taken a public lambasting in recent years.

Why the suddenly dire news? Forbes can fill you in:

There’s a good reason that the WSJ’s data – based on figures from the American Bar Association – may seem shocking. It marks the first look at employment figures related solely to jobs requiring a legal degree and passage of a bar exam. Previously, law schools reported employment rates that counted all of their grads with jobs, regardless of whether they were working at a white-shoe firm in New York or teaching ESL in Taiwan. These misleading stats have actually been the subject of class-action lawsuits against 15 law schools filed by recent grads who allege that the schools used deceptive post-grad employment numbers to boost their rankings and attract more students.

Law school is now kind of like tobacco. The companies have been less-than-candid about certain key facts, such as whether or not their service is a worthwhile investment of substantial time and resources, or whether their product will fucking kill you. Now that the cat is out of the bag, there are no more excuses. People who smoked before we were all inundated with warnings about the dangers of cigarette smoke had a point in some of their lawsuits. People who smoke today have the benefit of much more information. Yes, I know it is hard to quit, but the evidence of why it is important to quit is out there. Now, people who are considering law school have some new information to factor into their due diligence.

Our elders may have told us to stay in school to have a better life, but we’re seeing more and more that this is pretty much bullshit.

Photo credit: ‘Hammurabi Code’ by Gabriele B. on Flickr [CC BY 2.0], via Fotopedia.

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Something’s rotten in the state of legal academia (or how law school is like a penis-enlargement supplement)

Via Andy Mergendahl at Lawyerist, we have this gem of a quote from a law school admissions officer:

I used to be amazed by how little research students did before deciding to go to law school. Thousands of hours and thousands of dollars are invested based on a school’s marketing materials, US News ranking, and a hunch. But there is a wealth of useful, and underused, data available online from sources other than law schools.

'Danger School Traffic Signal' by Jorc Navarro on stock.xchngTo provide a bit of context, solo attorney David Anziska has filed (so far) fourteen lawsuits against law schools related to inflated and otherwise-exaggerated employment statistics provided to prospective students. I’m not holding my breath that these lawsuits will get the plaintiffs any significant relief, but I think they may help put law school on notice that we are on to them. Since I have already commented on various shenanigans of Thomas M. Cooley Law School, let’s take a look at the complaint filed against them (PDF file).

Filed as a class action in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Michigan, MacDonald, et al v. Thomas M. Cooley Law School “seeks to remedy a systemic, ongoing fraud that is ubiquitous in the legal education industry and threatens to leave a generation of law students in dire financial straits.” Cooley allegedly pumps out up to one thousand new J.D. recipients every year, with four thousand total students at any one time on four campuses. The school’s marketing materials allegedly claim that seventy-six to eighty-two percent of its graduates find employment within nine months of graduation. The rub, according to the complaint, is that the school strongly implies that this number refers to full-time legal employment, when it actually refers to employment of any kind. At the same time, the school reported average starting salaries based on a small subset of employed graduates. Therefore, according to the plaintiffs, graduates whose sole employment one year after graduation is as a part-time dog sitter get counted as “employed,” but their salary might not be included in the statistics. All told, this is not information that would allow a prospective law student to make an informed decision.

The complaint goes on to discuss the non-intervention of the American Bar Association and various other miscreants in legal education. The plaintiffs, by and large, are Cooley graduates who couldn’t find a job and had massive student loan bills. They say they relied to their detriment on the promises made by Cooley’s admissions materials. They assert three causes of action: violation of the Michigan Consumer Protection Act, fraud, and negligent misrepresentation.

Let’s go back to the statement of the law school admissions official above. Mr. Mergendahl has a good analysis of it, but I think this sentence really cuts to the heart of these cases. Time and again, law school officials seem to invoke caveat emptor (buyer beware) in response to allegations of misrepresentation or outright fraud in employment and salary statistics. In other words, law schools are chastising law students for not figuring out that the law schools were lying to them.

To my knowledge, no court has ruled on any of these cases yet, so let’s say allegedly lying.

It’s actually a fair point, to a degree. There is a wealth of data available to prospective law students now (far more than was available even to me when I applied to law schools in the ancient days of 1999.) Any prospective law school who isn’t blinded by either a desperate search for a new path in life or giddy anticipation of the riches a law degree will bring can find this information. Anyone applying to law school from this point forward should be on notice: DO NOT TRUST EMPLOYMENT STATISTICS FROM LAW SCHOOLS!!!

That covers all present and future law school applicants. What of the people who were taken in by the promises of the moon and the stars in years past, only to find themselves left to fend for themselves when the bottom fell out of the law business? Perhaps they should have known better than to trust the marketing materials of a law school. Should that let a law school off the hook for essentially committing fraud?

By way of comparison, first consider tobacco. Anyone picking up a cigarette for the first time in 2012 anywhere in the United States has a wealth of information available to them regarding the health risks inherent in taking on that habit. Should they try to sue a tobacco company years down the road after they develop lung cancer, there is a good chance that a judge would laugh them straight out of the courthouse and into the street to get hit by a bus. This is because they would be making a decision to take up smoking in the face of extensive evidence of how doing so will kill you.

For people who took up smoking years ago, when information on tobacco’s tendency to turn you into a wheezing phlegm factory was less widely available, the answer is less clear. At any rate, judges and juries have concluded that tobacco companies are liable to people killed by their products, based at least in part on their tendency to understate the product’s deadliness. Misrepresenting or withholding key information has its consequences.

In the tobacco cases, misrepresentation or withholding of information had fatal consequences. Law school, generally speaking, does not kill people. It just saps their finances and leaves them riddled with debt. The debt is voluntary, but arguably obtained under false pretenses. For a less dire, much sillier analogy, consider Enzyte.

Anyone who watched television after 10:00 p.m. between roughly 2002 and 2010 remembers the obnoxious commercials with Bob, the middle-aged guy with the enormous penis. Or enormous grin, since the commercials couldn’t actually say that Enzyte would make your junk get bigger. They couldn’t say that partly because of FCC standards, and partly because they knew that would be pushing the bullshit too far. Of course Enzyte didn’t work. It’s easy to look back and think that only an idiot would think that it would work. That didn’t stop the Federal Trade Commission from prosecuting the company for mail fraud, sending several executives to jail and the company into bankruptcy. Even with completely asinine claims about their product, they still got into major trouble with the law. At least they didn’t kill anybody.

How is law school like a cigarette or a fake dick-embiggening pill? False or misleading claims induce a person who probably should have known better to invest resources into a product or service. That person suffers injury (e.g. death from lung cancer, personal embarrassment, or mountains of student loan debt). Legal liability ensues. The remaining population is wiser.

That said, people still smoke cigarettes, Enzyte is still on the market, and people are still applying to law school in droves while that admissions officer implicitly calls them fools. One thing I learned doing family law, which applies here, is that you often cannot save people from themselves.

Photo credit: ‘Danger School Traffic Signal’ by Jorc Navarro on stock.xchng.

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Links I’m Reading Today, October 30, 2011

  • The Silliness of Busyness (zenhabits)
  • Occupy the No-Spin Zone (Dahlia Lithwick, Slate) (“I feel it’s time to explain something: Occupy Wall Street may not have laid out all of its demands in a perfectly cogent one-sentence bumper sticker for you, Mr. Pundit, but it knows precisely what it doesn’t want. It doesn’t want you. What the movement clearly doesn’t want is to have to explain itself through corporate television. To which I answer, Hallelujah. You can’t talk down to a movement that won’t talk back to you.”)
  • Why Occupying Wall St. Should Be Only Phase One (Brilliant at Breakfast) (“It’s a subdued albeit vitally important revolution that Wall Street is scared shitless will actually succeed: A paradigm shift in which banking will not be solely dedicated to printing money on the fly but one in which the community’s needs will be paramount, including reasonable student and home loans that empower those who wish to elevate their status in life.”)
  • The E-Mails The Feds Say Show Texas Lawmakers Trying To Limit Voting Power Of Hispanics (TPMMuckraker)
  • Police seek pink bikini burglar (MSNBC Weird News) (Don’t click on this. Seriously.)

Photo credit: alvimann from morguefile.com

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A thought experiment using football

I have not yet used my occasionally-read soapbox here to discuss my thoughts on the Occupy Wall Street movement. Honestly, when I’m not working I’m reading and commenting on other people’s content and getting progressively angrier at some people’s dogged insistence on Not Getting It.

Yes, my use of the word “progressive” above is now retroactively claimed as a political double entendre.

I have however, been using my other blog (which is much easier to maintain, I must admit) to share news, pictures, and the occasional brain burp on matters pertaining to Occupy Wall Street. (When I’m not sharing animal welfare stuff and Star Wars kitsch, of course.)

So this is really just a cross-post of something I started over there:

Suppose that NFL referees applied the rules of the game as follows:

  • The wealthiest players, because of the value they bring to the game by attracting fans and television revenue, get one yard added to each play where they advance the ball.
  • Referees will not penalize minor rule infractions by the wealthiest players, in order to entice them to continue playing.
  • Penalties against African-American players, particularly ones who do not pull as high a salary, will be enhanced by three to five yards.
  • The score will start at 5 points for home teams with nice stadiums.

Would football still be a fair game? Would football even be a good game anymore? Would anybody want to watch that kind of sport?

Anyone see where I’m going with this?

Clip art licensed from the Clip Art Gallery on DiscoverySchool.com

Feel free to discuss.

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Links I’m Reading Today, October 20, 2011

Losing Their Immunity (Paul Krugman, New York Times)

Student loan debts crush an entire generation (Salon)

Republicans Channel Their Inner David Cronenberg (Open Salon)

The liberal class has become a useless and despised appendage of corporate power and all hope lies now with those in the street (And, yes, I DO take it personally)

They always whine when they see the pitchforks (Brilliant at Breakfast)

Police: Teen girl forced to wear armor, swordfight stepfather (MSNBC, in today’s WTF? entry)

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Plotting the murder of your child could cost you your visitation rights. Who knew?

A judge in Connecticut has denied visitation rights to a man who served two years in prison due to a murder/suicide plot involving his child.

Judge Frank D’Addabbo Jr. ruled against Daniel Swoverland, who served just under two years for the plot to kill his daughter and himself. Swoverland had laid out funeral clothes, wrote a note saying where the bodies could be found, armed himself with a gun and took his daughter to Halls Pond in Ashford. State police found father and daughter, unharmed, in his car after the two had left the pond.

I now present my reasoned, detailed legal analysis of the judge’s ruling in this case:

Well, duh.

I believe in second chances (I think I probably say that a lot on this blog). It is entirely possible that Swoverland has fully paid his debt to society and is truly reformed. But this is not about his rights.

This is about his daughter’s right to not be around people who have tried to kill her. The key consideration in any child custody determination is the “best interest of the child.” It is an ill-defined, subjective concept almost entirely left to the discretion of the trial judge, but it is also the best standard anyone has been able to come up with.

By all accounts, the Judge D’Addabbo looked at every possible perspective and did not just railroad Swoverland. Swoverland and his attorney also only asked for highly-supervised visitations. Still, it seems hard to argue that the child’s best interests are served by some time away from dad. The door is open for future visitation, but only when the child is ready.

The judge adopted the position of the sentencing judge, Superior Court Judge Joan Alexander, who held open the prospect of visitation at some future time, but only when the daughter, 8 at the time of the crime and now 12, was old enough to protect herself and seek help if she felt threatened or uncomfortable. D’Addabbo noted that Alexander envisioned that the child would be at least 18 before any visits occurred.

Even the mom agrees that some visitation should occur someday. But not now. This case is a good, albeit extreme, example of when a parent’s rights to their child are secondary to a child’s “best interest.”

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The Dogs of Law

Staci Zaretsky at Above the Law offers a snarky bit of mockery of a recent job posting at Texas Wesleyan School of Law:

Above the Law received word of this awful job listing from a current student at Texas Wesleyan University School of Law. Yeah, we know it’s not UT Austin, but the students there surely deserve something a little better than a job at Fort Worth’s Muttroplex Doggie Daycare.

[snip]

Can you imagine putting this on your résumé? “Oh, I see you had a part-time job during the summer of your 1L year… as a dog handler. Are you here for the custodian position we advertised on Craigslist?”

Seriously, dog grooming? At “Muttroplex”? When we first got this tip about an “awful dog job,” I thought it might be a low-paying post at some animal law and advocacy firm, or better yet, something from PETA. But no, this job is in no way, shape, or form related to the law.

[snip]

At least whoever takes this job will gain a keen sense of what being a lawyer is really like, in that you are constantly cleaning up other people’s sh*t. Only at this job, you get to keep your hands clean and use a pooper-scooper.

From AboveTheLaw.com

Yup, life is crappy for today’s law students (pun so totally intended). Personally, I think this may be an ideal job for a first-year law student, particularly one who might have gone straight through from high school to college to law school and has never had to work full time. Those tend to be the law students most likely to graduate and enter the job market thinking their solid waste effluent lacks strong odor–what better way to prepare them for the grim realities of life in the legal profession than to have them handle actual solid waste effluent? This may mark my official entry into the “get off my lawn” phase of my legal career, but a little dose of reality may be good for people expecting a six-figure income with little to no work experience upon graduation.

Besides that, dogs are awesome, and law school curriculum is not known for being fun or comforting. I am hard pressed to think of a better way to relieve first-year stress than to spend a few hours a day doing some paid canine therapy.

Law school therapy

Law school therapy

Now, I can see a problem or two with the idea of doing dog handling during or after law school. First of all, dog handling probably won’t get the student loans paid. I have my doubts that a dog handler, or even a dog trainer, could command the kinds of hourly rates lawyers charge.

The second problem, snarkily suggested by the Above The Law article, is that dog handling is somehow beneath a law student. To that I say: get over yourself. A law firm would be lucky to have an associate who would choose to spend time helping animals. Many lawyers and law firms might not appreciate it, but many lawyers and law firms are also #!$*&#’s. Some lawyers more than others.

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Too many lawyers?

Are there too many lawyers in America? You would certainly get that impression from blogs like Overlawyered. It is by now widely known that there are more new lawyers graduating law school than there are legal jobs available. Young lawyers, holding a brand new shiny law license and a mountain of debt, are going solo in increasing numbers. More and more functions traditionally performed by lawyers are being automated, shipped overseas, or converted to DIY by individuals and businesses looking to save money. The “circle of life” of the legal profession (and most other professions) is being interrupted by economic conditions, as older attorneys postpone retirement.

Net result: more lawyers for less work.

This is leading to a significant generational clash between older, more experienced lawyers and their younger colleagues who might have been promised the world only to find a desert. While the older generation laments hordes of fresh-faced newbies with newfangled ideas (yes, I’m overgeneralizing), the younger generation looks for ways to chart their own path and tries to innovate without getting anyone (or themselves) in trouble. I’m not convinced that younger lawyers get into ethical trouble at any greater rate than older ones, but it is a growing concern among older lawyers, justified or not.

Something will have to change about the legal profession. Technology has made legal information available to anyone, and the internet allows anyone to be their own lawyer. Despite the loudest protests of the legal profession, this change is unlikely to reverse. We will continue to have new lawyers and old lawyers, and in the quest to make a living new ideas will be tested. Some will be disastrous, and lawyers have a capacity to do more harm with bad business ideas than most other professions or industries (perhaps second only to medicine). We can fight each other and resist change, we can fight each other and doggedly embrace change regardless of the possible negative consequences, or we can help one another out and make the law work for as many people as possible. The era of the lawyer as warrior may be nearing its end. The new era has yet to be defined.

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Solo lawyers are not prostitutes

Photo by ehpien

I got a surprisingly small number of results when searching for royalty-free images labeled "pole dancer" on Google (photo by ehpien)

The title of this post may be offensive to some. Especially to prostitutes. I got the idea from a post from The People’s Therapist, in which he compares practicing law at a big law firm to doing sex work.

Many of my big firm lawyer clients aren’t sure what they’re doing at the office or why they’re doing it. You keep showing up in the morning and keep leaving at night. Sometimes you aren’t doing much of anything. Other times you’re slaving away at a task you half-understand. People keep smiling and saying hello when they pass you in the hall – and that paycheck, the point of the exercise, keeps getting deposited in your bank account. As long as the firm keeps paying – heck, you’ll make phone calls, chase down research, prepare a closing table, do doc review…or whip quivering buttocks, dance on a pole, or murmur gentle exhortations while your toes are licked. What’s the difference? Who cares?

I’m not entirely sure if this is more a denigration of big firm lawyers or of sex workers, or of both equally, or of neither. I think the point is that big firm life is an unpleasant slog done almost exclusively for the money, with about as much emotional appeal as licking toes (unless you’re into that, of course). At first, his post put me in mind of my quasi-libertarian arguments on why much sex work shouldn’t be criminalized the way it currently is (a topic for another post later, perhaps), but then he went on to address the type of legal work he (presumably) respects.

It does raise an issue: Are there lawyers who aren’t prostitutes?

I never shook off a strong regret surrounding my legal career – that I never learned how to practice law. You know – real law. Like when your friend calls because his cousin got arrested for a DUI. I have no idea what to do with a DUI. I wasn’t even a litigator – I was on the corporate side. I wouldn’t know where to start.

Here are some other things I know next to nothing about, other than in some vague, theoretical bar exam sense:

How to file for divorce.

How to close on a house.

How to write a will.

How to handle the legal necessities of a small business.

At this point, if a friend rang up with any legal question short of how to prepare for the closing of a multi-million dollar merger – or proof a securities offering – my advice would be useless.

There are lawyers out there who are not proletarian sex workers, right? Lawyers not owned by the capitalists. Lawyers who possess the means of production (as Uncle Karl would say.) Lawyers who crawl out of bondage and ascend to the petite bourgeoisie. Lawyers who “hang a shingle” and do real law. Lawyers who work for themselves.

I have never worked for a big law firm, nor have I ever desired to do so. What I have done is nearly all the work listed above. I have filed (or defended) over a hundred divorces. I have closed on sales of houses, both as an attorney for a party and as an escrow agent. I have written a will. I have seen dozens of new businesses through their “legal necessities.” I am secure in the knowledge that my work over the past nine years has benefited real people, not just giant faceless corporations. I have made a difference, for good or ill, in the lives of hundreds of people (maybe more).

What’s the trade-off? Money, of course. A friend at a big firm was once telling me about a new, small case his firm has just started. I asked him what constituted “small” in his universe, and he told me that they expected about $100,000 in legal fees. That would have been a good two-year period for me at the time. Many of my law school classmates made upward of $120,000 in their first year of practice, while I earned the rough equivalent of minimum wage (since most revenue went to overhead).

At times I think there is no single legal profession, but rather those who practice for ordinary folks inhabiting the same earth as lawyers who practice some astronomically larger, yet infinitely less personal, form of law. There are also government attorneys, but they do not fit in my dichotomy so I will not mention them again. I do not even have a real concept of what these well-paid, overworked lawyers actually do during their 40+ billable hours per week. I encountered some confusion as to my daily routine from big firm colleagues as well. Courtroom time and “client contact” are like the proverbial pot of gold to many young big firm associates; I had both in droves within the first few months of my practice (and found them a mixed bag at best.)

I’m happy to know that I am not a prostitute (again, no offense intended to prostitutes by comparing them to lawyers). I’m also flattered to know that at least some big firm attorneys look at the sort of practice I have had with something that resembles admiration or even envy. I can honestly say that, aside from the big paycheck, I do not feel that I missed out on anything I wanted by choosing my path. Each lawyer has their own path to follow, and each path seems to lead to one of two worlds (or government).

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Won’t someone please think of the yuppies???

Funny or Die has really captured the pathos of Netflix‘s latest onslaught against upper-middle-class Americans.

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