Posts Tagged ‘Legal Hiring’
Something’s rotten in the state of legal academia (or how law school is like a penis-enlargement supplement)
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.
To 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
My friend Debra Bruce (a/k/a the Lawyer Coach) has an article at Law.com: “From Associate to Solo — Don’t Overestimate Your Value.” She discusses how young lawyers tend to overlook many of the expenses, both in money and time, associated with being a young lawyer. I can certainly relate to that. Law practice, as it turns out, is not necessarily the quick road to riches that it may seem to be.
You may dream of being your own boss, running a lean and mean shop with a lot less overhead than your current organization. With the technological advances of the last few years, that is undoubtedly an option. Just don’t underestimate the three crucial responsibilities in the success of any law practice: client development, collection of fees and taking out the trash.
Well, you may not really have to take out the trash, but you will have a lot of administrative duties that hinder your ability to rack up billable hours. Almost all businesses wind up writing off some accounts receivable, and for most lawyers, it takes a lot longer to bring in new clients than they expected.
I don’t want this article to dash your hopes and your belief in yourself. I want it to encourage you to do some realistic assessment and planning so that you don’t end up dashed on the rocks.
It is by now well-known that I have soured somewhat on being my own boss. There has been a steep learning curve in the realm of running a law practice, something law schools tend not to teach. Those” administrative duties” in the above quote certainly do pile up. Every profession has its unique expenses. Law has insurance, continuing legal education, and all sorts of other ethical compliance issues. Marketing is particularly tricky for lawyers, who cannot afford to leave their marketing in the hands of a non-lawyer. New York attorney Eric Turkewitz coined the term “outsourcing marketing = outsourcing ethics,” meaning lawyers have such a convoluted code of ethical requirements surrounding our advertising that we can ill afford to leave it to someone not intimately familiar with those rules (bad things have happened when marketing is left to non-lawyers).
Then there is client development. Clients will not just come to you because they need a lawyer and you are awesome. Client development is complicated, and unless you have an immediate family member with a corner office on K Street, it will not happen overnight. What’s more, the market is saturated with new lawyers. You will need to start getting creative, and that does not automatically mean going high-tech.
I started my firm in 2002 with two other lawyers. They had experience from law school doing criminal defense. I had some immigration experience and had worked for a civil litigation firm, so the plan was for them to build criminal practices and for me to develop civil clients. This was before “blog” was a household word, when most computers still had floppy disk drives. So we did our marketing the old-fashioned way: direct mail. Every day, we would get the jail roster from the Travis County Sheriff, develop a mailing list, and print, sign, stuff, seal, and stamp several hundred letters to prospective clients.
It’s not as crazy as it sounds. Not everyone has regular internet access, even today, relying on the mail. We stopped doing it for two reasons: (1) stuffing 250-300 envelopes per day sucks, and we didn’t want to hire staff just yet; and (2) more and more lawyers were sending letters and the rate of return was plummeting. Anecdotally, I heard that in 2002 about 20-25 lawyers in town were sending letters, but by 2004 there were almost 75. Now, everyone is so internet-focused, perhaps snail mail could have a Renaissance. Many people respond quite well to receiving a personalized piece of mail.
Personally, I think it is great whenever a young lawyer wants to go solo. The number of resources to assist a new solo grows every day (resources I wish existed, or that I’d known of, back in the day). It’s scary, but it can also be rewarding. What it definitely is not, is easy.
The job market for lawyers and recent law school graduates is, how shall I say it, poo right now. I’m not certain it is going to rise above the level of poo any time in the near future. Sure, some New Big Thing will come along, form a bubble, and lots of lawyers will get jobs in IPO real estate Next Big Thing Law for a while, until that bubble bursts, and then, poo again. Still, law can be a rewarding career if you’re either resourceful or lucky (or both). Part of being resourceful is going beyond normal job postings and selling yourself, but unfortunately that also includes the scourge of unsolicited résumés.
I rather like young lawyers, with their enthusiasm, “can do” attitudes and extraordinarily flexible work schedules. That said, I am not, have never been, and do not anticipate ever being in a position where I need to hire associates. Okay, I actually might need some lawyers on board with me in the future, but please don’t base your plans around me. The number has actually slowed down in the past year, but I have been the recipient of a great many unsolicited cover letters and résumés, printed on bond or linen paper and mailed, as though the internet never happened. Jay Shepherd at Above the Law takes on this phenomenon, asking “Does anyone seriously think that I’m going take them more seriously because they used cream-colored, 100% cloth, 24-pound bond paper? I’m not.” He offers eleven tips for would-be applicants’ cover letters, and since imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, here are the highlights:
1. Spell my frikkin’ name right.
2. Don’t say “Enclosed please find my current résumé.”
3. Don’t tell me how great you are.
4. Instead, tell me how great it would be for you to work here.
5. Make sure you know what I do for a living.
6. Speaking of which, mention something you learned when you Googled me.
7. I know what you did last summer.
8. Ignore well-meaning but dumb advice from your law school.
9. Don’t recite your résumé in your cover letter.
10. Tell me how you’re different.
11. Finally, write like yourself.
If you can master those items, you are well on your way to, uh, something. Like I’ve said, I have never hired an attorney at my firm. If I start getting some good cover letters, though, who knows?
So with all that said, to all prospective associates of the Law Office of David C. Wells out there who might have Googled this page, I am eager to be impressed. To anyone who has applied for a job at my firm in the past, I kept all of your letters. Really.
PLEASE DO NOT APPLY IF:
YOU THINK YOU DESERVE A BIG CORNER WINDOW OFFICE OVERLOOKING THE CITY.
YOU THINK YOU DESERVE $100K AS YOUR STARTING SALARY
YOU ARE NOT INTERESTED IN LITIGATING
YOU HAVE HORRIBLE PEOPLE SKILLS OR THINK THAT SAYING HELLO CONSTITUTES A CONVERSATION
YOU MUST WEAR A SUIT EVERY DAY TO FEEL SPECIAL
YOU REQUIRE 24 HOUR SUPERVISION ON ALL TASKS ASSIGNED
YOUR IDEA OF PROPER GRAMMAR IS SPELL CHECK
YOUR IDEA OF BEING ON TIME IS GETTING THERE WHEN YOU FEEL LIKE GETTING THERE
YOU THINK YOU ARE ABOVE ANSWERING THE OFFICE PHONE
YOU THINK A PLEADING IS WHEN SOMEONE IS BEGGING THEIR DOCTOR NOT TO INJECT THEM WITH A NEEDLE
I wish them all the best in their entry into the Austin market, and in their hiring process. I also wish them all the best with a spell checker.
In case the ad gets taken down, I preserved it for posterity.