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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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May I serve as a cautionary example to young lawyers everywhere (UPDATED)

As I attend the South by Southwest Interactive Festival this week, I suppose one could say my transition from a law-focused career to a writing-focused career is turning a corner or something. I’ll have to work on that sales pitch a bit more.

It got me thinking about anything I might have to offer young lawyers trying to do what I did over the past decade, and a few tweeting colleagues helped me realize the biggest piece of advice I could possibly give: get a freaking mentor.

'Manta Ray, Kona Coast, Hawaii' by SteveD on Flickr

I couldn't find a good stock photo for "mentor," so here's a manta ray instead

If you are a young, newbie lawyer condemned by the economy to solo practice, get a mentor. Stop whatever you are doing, I don’t care if it’s cooking breakfast, driving down the interstate, or even getting some. Just stop, ponder the type of law you are trying to practice, and find a mentor. A Twitter exchange yesterday between veteran lawyer Antonin Pribetic and newbie Stephanie Toronto encompasses the importance of mentoring. (Of course I had to respond too, and that inspired this post).

As a second, somewhat-related piece of advice, I’d say this: don’t obsess over technology. Gadgets are awesome, but technology changes constantly and the practice of law changes pretty much never. Young lawyers, myself included, can get hung up on having the most-efficient doo-dads. Read Scott Greenfield’s post about the dangers of tech innovation in a law practice, especially when you deal with serious legal matters like criminal or family law, where the cost of an inconvenient computer crash could mean someone goes to prison or loses custody of their children. Sometimes taking notes on a legal pad makes sense, is what I’m saying.

I did not have anything resembling a mentor for years after I started practicing, and it showed. In my first year, I left the courthouse almost in tears on multiple occasions (at least I waited until I got to the car, most of the time) out of a sense of shame, embarrassment, or just plain ol’ fear. Fear because I never quite knew what to expect when I walked into a courtroom. Of course there is always uncertainty when you go into court, but I mean I sometimes literally had no idea what was going to happen. That was bad for me psychologically, but it was potentially far, far worse for my clients. I was doing family law, and my then-law partners’ criminal practice had several assault with family violence cases that led to divorces. These were not simple cases. They were highly emotional and combative, with every conceivable issue that could be disputed in dispute. Luck was an enormous factor in warding off disaster.

I went to CLE seminars on divorce, and I took advantage of the list of more-experienced lawyers who had agreed to offer their wisdom to us upstarts. I always called them with a strange sense of fear or shame, as if I was exposing too much of my ignorance by admitting there was something I did not know. I have no idea where that notion came from but it is (and let me be clear) utter, complete, and highly destructive bullshit. Of course you don’t know what you’re doing – you just started doing it!

The only people who expect a brand new lawyer to perform perfectly in court are clients, judges, and juries.

And they are the only people whose opinions matter at the end of the day.

So how do you find a mentor? Again, I was never very good at it, but here are a few tips anyway:

1. The courthouse. If you’re there all the time, try talking to other lawyers there. You might get blown off a lot, but you never know who you might meet.

2. Local bar associations. Many cities and towns have their own lawyer organizations that offer opportunities for CLE, networking, and even mentoring. Some even have official mentoring programs.

3. Actually, that’s a long enough list for now.

Where should you not go to find a mentor? A few places spring to mind:

1. Craigslist

2. Answers.yahoo.com

3. Bus stops

4. Bars frequented by college students

5. Me

As a final note, if you are in court, arguing an objection, and you suddenly realize that you just recited nearly-verbatim an objection you heard Jack McCoy make on “Law and Order,” it is time to get a mentor. Or a new career. Up to you.

UPDATED (03/23/2012): Corrected an unfortunate spelling error.

Photo credit: ‘Manta Ray, Kona Coast, Hawaii’ by SteveD on Flickr.

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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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Contrary to what you might have heard, that’s not me in this video

h/t to Jordan Rushie for bringing this to my attention. I can only dream of having this guy’s acting and musical chops. Some day, perhaps…

I can see how one might confuse me for this guy, if you look at me in my full-bearded days. I have never gotten to sing in a commercial, although we did once have our own TV commercial, for two magical, grossly-unproductive months in 2004:

We got three phone calls as a result of that commercial. Two of them were people wanting to sell us stuff. The other one wanted to sue God or something.

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Not Every Lawyer Can Bill 3,000 Hours in a Year. Most Lawyers Shouldn’t

A lawyer who got axed from his firm for allegedly failing to make his billable hour requirements has filed suit against his former firm, claiming they essentially required him to commit billing fraud:

A California lawyer who says he was fired from his law firm because he couldn’t meet a quota requiring 3,000 billable hours a year has filed an employment bias suit over his ouster.

The former associate, Richard Unitan, claims the unrealistic requirement forced lawyers to lie about their hours, the Los Angeles Daily Journal reports. Unitan, a Riverside litigator, claims he was essentially fired for not committing billing fraud.

A 3,000 hour billable requirement would require working about eight hours a day, every day of the year. Most firms require no more than 2,100 billable hours a year.

They say that for every hour a lawyer works, they can only bill 30-45 minutes of that time. To bill 3,000 hours would therefore require spending 4,000-6,000 in the office every year, or 11-16 hours per day. (I’m not sure who “they” are, but they talk a lot.)

Some lawyers can probably take to that lifestyle with gusto. Other lawyers might enjoy exercise, the arts, food, or having a family. Some lawyers might aspire to be an interesting human being outside of the context of their periodic review with the managing partner of their firm. Some lawyers might aspire to spending some of the waking hours of their day not tracking their time in 6- or 15-minute increments.

But then, most lawyers don’t get to work at the big fancy law firms anyway.

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BigLaw Partner Leaves Firm to Write Novel, Rediscover his Family; Disses his Coworkers on the Way Out.

Riding away....Every time a lawyer leaves the practice of law and somehow manages to make the news, I take notice. As  I am still slowly extricating myself from the brilliant boondoggle that has been my legal career, the paths that other lawyers take to the exit is always interesting to me. From the ABA Journal, a litigation partner at Sidley Austin in Chicago has decided to take his leave of the firm to write a novel and, you know, live his life. He also left a few parting zingers:

I have realized that I cannot simultaneously meet the demands of career and family. Without criticizing those who have chosen lucre over progeny, let me just say that I am leaving the practice of law.

My epiphany may have come a bit late as my youngest child—I believe his name is Erik—is 24. But as I always said after missing a filing deadline, better late than never.

I have made friendships at Sidley that I will treasure well into the first quarter of 2012. But a career based on the perception of untapped potential, rather than on actual production, has a limited shelf life. I frankly would have expected management to have caught on years ago. I trust that my longevity will serve as a beacon of hope for underperforming lawyers of all ages. No need to name names: you know who you are.

As the saying goes (roughly stated), no one looks back on their life and wishes they had spent more time at the office. I’d be willing to wager that at least some people wish they had spent less time at the office and gotten to pick at a few co-workers. To this gentleman scholar, I say bravo. You are my kind of grumpy.

(Photo credit: scotsxc on stock.xchng)

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Grandpa lawyer doesn’t understand your newfangled technoggoly

I wrote the headline to this post on August 17, 2011, and I saved a draft that only consisted of four URL’s. Honestly, I have no idea exactly where I was going to go with this, but the headline was too, uh, weird not to post. Rather than try to piece together exactly what sort of thesis I was going after almost four months ago, I’ll just link to the articles that so inspired me.

Obviously it was something about older lawyers eschewing newfangled technology.

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Would you like fries with your legal advice?

Strange story, awesome quote:

If you meet your lawyer for the first time at McDonalds and pay a $36 retainer fee to get your kid transferred out of jail to a psychiatric hospital, you’re probably not dealing with a real lawyer.

via Practical Paralegalism: One Sign You’re Not Dealing with a Real Lawyer.

(h/t Geri Dreiling)

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The New York Times tells us something lawyers have known for years

Yale Law School @ New Haven, ConnecticutNamely, that a law school degree does not prepare you to actually be a lawyer:

Law schools have long emphasized the theoretical over the useful, with classes that are often overstuffed with antiquated distinctions, like the variety of property law in post-feudal England. Professors are rewarded for chin-stroking scholarship, like law review articles with titles like “A Future Foretold: Neo-Aristotelian Praise of Postmodern Legal Theory.”

So, for decades, clients have essentially underwritten the training of new lawyers, paying as much as $300 an hour for the time of associates learning on the job. But the downturn in the economy, and long-running efforts to rethink legal fees, have prompted more and more of those clients to send a simple message to law firms: Teach new hires on your own dime.

And it gets better:

Law schools know all about the tough conditions that await graduates, and many have added or expanded programs that provide practical training through legal clinics. But almost all the cachet in legal academia goes to professors who produce law review articles, which gobbles up huge amounts of time and tuition money. The essential how-tos of daily practice are a subject that many in the faculty know nothing about — by design. One 2010 study of hiring at top-tier law schools since 2000 found that the median amount of practical experience was one year, and that nearly half of faculty members had never practiced law for a single day. If medical schools took the same approach, they’d be filled with professors who had never set foot in a hospital.

So yeah, you spend three years and tens (or hundreds) of thousands of dollars to learn all about the rule against perpetuities. I’ve been telling prospective law students this for years.

They’re called legal clinics. If your law school doesn’t offer them, find a new law school.

Photo credit: Yale Law School @ New Haven, Connecticut by polytikus, on Flickr.

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Links I’m Reading Today, October 28, 2011

  • Fundamentalism Corrupts (The Bronze Blog)
  • Everything (xkcd: “I want to give you everything, just to see what you would do with it.”)
  • It ought to be up to Americans to decide what is true! (Pharyngula)
  • Treating Americans as nothing more than piles of money has consequences (Where’s the Outrage?)
  • MRAs are almost as hilarious as creationists (Pharyngula)
  • The Cop Who Shot Scott Olsen (a Poem) (Booman Tribune)
  • Clifford Winston’s Case for Abolishing the Requirement that Lawyers Must get Law School Degrees and Pass the Bar Exam (Volokh Conspiracy). I would point out that this makes as much sense as turning medicine over to people without medical licenses, but then I remembered that we already do that.

Photo credit: earl53 from morguefile.com

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