Friday, December 11, 2009

"The Talk" and Why Law Schools Will Never Have It

It's a time in a child's life that all but the most liberal parents dread - when they have to have "the talk". Law schools too should also have a "talk" to explain some important facts that students really should know sooner rather than later. Parents tend to avoid their "talk" out of the embarrassment of sharing the facts of life. Law schools, on the other hand, keep their students in the dark out of greed and self interest.

"The talk" of which I speak in regard to law schools is the - "Are you sure you really want to continue?" talk. To my knowledge no school actually does this.

Let me elaborate. Law schools know pretty well what happens to their students after graduation. Whether it's based upon survey data they receive from graduating students or just the school's reputation in the local legal community, they're aware of how the graduating classes place.

That means they know if their students are working in the large regional (or national) firms. They know how many of them can only find work working for smaller offices. They should have a good idea if their students end up doing PI work or actually find their ways into more substantive areas of the law. They're well aware of how many of their graduates end up taking temporary jobs and toiling away in document review. They also know how many graduates are forced to "hang a shingle" or give up on the law altogether.

Furthermore, it shouldn't be too hard to discern which students get which jobs. Do only the top 10% end up with the type of firm jobs where there are summer associate positions, personal secretaries, and six figure salaries awaiting them? Are there decent options for people who miss the top 10% but still are in the top half? Does ending up in the bottom 50% sentence students to a life of ambulance chasing and document review? Do state judicial clerkships actually lead to desirable positions or do they just delay the inevitable by a year? Are those who are at the absolute bottom more likely to be abducted by aliens than to ever get a job with a firm?

I don't buy that most law school deans (or their underlings) don't have pretty good answers to each of these questions. As most of us know, for those school outside of the Top 25 (sometimes better), the answer ain't pretty. In the current recession, things are even worse.

Many students from good schools (good ranks, high minimum LSAT scores, low acceptance rates) and those with strong academic/extracurricular records will likely end up disappointed.

Think of the body count: Law is 4 Losers finished in the top 1/3rd at a tier 2; Loyola 2L finished just outside of the top quarter at another 2nd tier; Angel the Lawyer went to a top 30 school; Third Tier Reality earned (and maintained) a full scholarship to (albeit) a third tier school; the comments and e-mails our blogs have received indicate that this is a common sentiment even among those with even better credentials; you could fill Madison Square Garden with the number of posters who have logged onto JD Underground to voice their dissatisfaction; "good" schools like Brooklyn, Seton Hall, Syracuse, and Suffolk are casually referred to as expensive diploma mills.

Given the empirical data law schools have and the amount of dissatisfaction that exists, can't the law schools do something to minimize the carnage out there? Sure, it would be nice if they stopped distorting the employment figures and salary data they report, but if they're unwilling to do that, I have another solution: "The Talk" I mentioned earlier on.

"The Talk" would vary by the prestige of the school, but essentially it would consist of providing an honest assessment of the job opportunities that await those in the bottom X% of the class after the first year. Those who have particularly struggled at all but the best schools should be strongly urged to reconsider their options.

This would be quite fair. At least during good times, everyone does have the chance at all first tier (and most second tier) schools to land a good, legal job. After the first year is over, this is no longer true (except among the best schools). True, some people wouldn't have taken the gamble but for the inflated figures (which make it seem like less of a gamble), but at least they'd have a clearly marked exit after all hope is lost. "The Talk" would also only be a suggestion - If the guy who is dead last has an uncle who has guaranteed him a job as long as he graduates, fine. If some schlub at the median of his class at St. John's thinks doing document review in NYC beats digging ditches in Kansas, that's fine too.

Does this seem unreasonable? It shouldn't. Law schools do the same thing when their own self interests are at stake. Schools in the fourth tier, which are barely hanging onto their accreditation, regularly and involuntarily axe those at the bottom of the class to keep their bar passage rates at an acceptable level. Even at my tier 2 school, there apparently was a little "chat" with the "less gifted" students urging them to take some remedial measures to make sure they could pass the bar. Supposedly it was billed as an offer to "help us, help you", but it's pretty clear that they wanted over 90% of the class to pass the bar on the first attempt.

Think about it, at those fourth tier schools, it probably feels bad to get told that you're going to be a casualty of academic attrition, but I'd wager that's a much better fate than just barely making the cutoff. The former student is booted out of school, but is only down one year's worth of expenses and can go off and do something else. The poor chump who was able to just barely hang around is looking at six figures worth of debt and worse job prospects than a high school dropout.

Shouldn't better schools also try to stop the bleeding? If most people who attend a tier one or two school attend because they're hoping to have a nice office, earn a nice salary, etc., shouldn't they be told that their class rank makes them virtually ineligible for this dream? What harm is there in telling this students or sending them the following letter:

To: Class of 20xx [Admin Note: Do not send to URM's; we can't risk losing our "diversity"!]

From: [Some TTT Dean Who's Making A Modest Effort to Avoid Jacob Marley's Fate]

Dear Class of 20xx,

Congratulations on successfully completing your first year at [Some TTT] law school!

In truth, at all but the worst law schools, it's pretty hard not to successfully complete your first year of law school. Ordinarily, we'd just pat you on your back and continue to allow you to mortgage your futures, so I can buy a third house. This year, however, you're in luck! Three spirits visited me this past Christmas Eve, and convinced me to issue you this note of caution.

Some of you may be happy with your first year grades. Some of you are not. To once again be honest (boy, this is hard), most of you should not be.

You see, historically, at our school, anyone outside of the top 25% is usually unsuccessful at fall OCI. In fact, once the courtesy interviews are over, the percentage falls to about 10%. Those of you outside of the top quarter should take this into consideration when determining whether you should return to law school in the fall or try to bag a rich spouse over the summer.

The news is even more grim for those of you in the bottom half of the class. Very few people with your class rank end up making more than $50k a year after graduation, and it isn't unheard of to land attorney positions that pay around $30k with no benefits. You do know Starbucks offers health insurance, right?

Sadly, for those of you sad slackers stuck in the bottom quarter, I'm afraid you're the most likely to end up not even working a job that requires (or even prefers) a J.D. Save yourself the future headache and just submit to the inevitable right now. As they say, the world needs ditch diggers, too.

Finally, for those of you at the absolute bottom, I feel ethically compelled to inform you that while we've lost contact with most former graduates in your position (I don't know why USPS won't deliver to cardboard boxes), a not insubstantial number of the ones we do know about end up fleeing to Uzbekistan to evade their creditors. I'm just saying...

There - this will almost certainly ruin my Christmas next year. I hope after you all make your decisions, I can still make it a "December to Remember" by being able to buy both my wife and my mistress new Lexuses. Those ghosts better have been right...


The "Repentant" Dean

The reason why you won't see this letter is that "A Christmas Carol" is a fictional tale, and greedy malcontents don't get visited by the undead to convince them to change their wicked ways. The law school deans obviously don't care that they're sending at least half of their classes (if not more) to lives of low wages, temporary work, and/or crippling debt. They just want to make sure the checks keep rolling in and that a high attrition rate won't adversely affect either the prestige or profitability of their diploma mills.

[Look for my upcoming "Open Christmas Letter to the Law School Deans" as I say Bah-Humbug to these bums. Coming soon!]


  1. But if the bottom half drop out, then the second quartile becomes the bottom half.

    Seems like a problem.

  2. Well, mathematically, there will obviously always be a bottom half, but of course, if something like that were to happen across the board, there would be fewer (and higher quality) people searching for legal jobs.

    Additionally, it's really 1L grades that matter the most, so employers would still recognize those who made the top half, quarter, etc. after 1L year even if they have a lower rank when they graduate. In fact, at that point, they may not even have to rank students post 1L.

  3. I finished top third. Don't even ask me about first year. I should have quit after first year. But anyone would have thought I remedied first year by getting really good grades after first semester. I did eventually get to the dream BigFirm job--only to be laid off. It's really just a shitty profession.
    Sometimes, I think that for a brief second that I'm blowing this out of proportion. But really, I'm not. Because more and more people continue to flood the market, we will not recover.... even if the economy does. I work with many people (on a doc review) that graduated with law review, moot court and big firm jobs out of law school... now they are scrounging by on $30/hour for 70 hours a week. There is really no solution.

  4. Wow! Congrats man!

  5. Law schools are going to encourage their fee-payers to go away?


    You think someone coming last in the class doesn't already know he's not going to become Barack Obama?


    WAH WAH WAH I made moot court at a school nobody's heard of now GIMME MY 160K and if I don't get it this second I'm going to hold my breath until a new career emerges for me!

    If you spent half the time that you did MAKING CARTOONS on actually finding a solution, then you would have a job in the industry or a new job somewhere else by now.

    Nobody said this world was easy, CRY BABY.

  6. Chief, Why are lawyers so literal? You are a complete moron for taking this at face value. One day, you'll trip on life and no one will be there to pick you up. Esq. Never doesn't want to be an attorney... and I am happy he's exercising his artistic side. You're a doofus.

  7. So, is "Chief" the Temple or Northeastern Dean? Thanks for checking in.

    I did not expect $160k at graduation, and I do not currently want to be an attorney. I went to law school because virtually all resources (including the law schools themselves) informed me that it was a path to a stable, decent paying career. This claim is untrue.

    If I was the only person in this situation, your response might be fair. As I noted, many other people with far better credentials are in similar or worse positions.

    Your claim that I (or others) could simply find a job if only we'd stop "whining" is nonsense. The number of lawyers (even from good schools) that are unemployed, overqualified, or barely scraping by in document review right now is staggering.

    Even in good times, there are loads of students from tier 1 and tier 2 schools stuck in dead end legal jobs who have difficulty finding jobs in other industries.

    I am currently taking measures (as I've chronicled on this blog) to make myself marketable in other industries. I do believe that with effort, I will be successful. Part of this blog's purpose is to be instructive rather than just critical.

    That said, I don't see why my solution isn't a reasonable one. Recall, law schools bill themselves as non-proft institutions of higher learning. If they have no qualms about inviting more students than can possibly find good jobs to join their school every year, I don't see why such august insitutions can't bother letting their students (or at the very least the worst students) know that their degrees may not be as helpful as they think. There was a time when law school would actually flunk out people who weren't successful.

    Finally, while you may so artfully denounce me as a "cry baby" (touche), I'm afraid I do have a right to be critical. You see, I spent three years of my life and went into six figures of debt under the assumption that I would at least have some modest improvement in my career options. As I've written about before, that is not true for me or for many of my contemporaries.

    Anyway, thanks for checking in, Dean. I'm glad you could spare a moment of your time at 3 AM to share your thoughts. You must really have to burn the midnight oil to think up new ways to induce next year's class of lemmings to come...nay, to have to have the privilege of attending your fine insitution of higher learning.

  8. Here's hoping that the private loans I have from my law school misadventure will be dischargable in bankruptcy in the not so distant future.

    Honor system my ass. Thre's no way you're ever going to get accurate statistical data on career outcomes from the schools. The stats are based on anecdotal evidence and self-selecting pools of grads that choose to report their salary data.

    The only way to ever improve law schools from the students' perspective is to subject them to market forces through exposure to bankruptcy law.

    I predict that within a few years we will see this come to pass. Law schools are too arrogant to lower tuition in recognition of the recession. There will always be some suckers willing to sign up for the indentures. Eventually, the system will collapse under its own weight when the private loans are found to be largely uncollectable.

  9. I read your response to the comment about your "artistic side" and I have to agree now that in reading your blogs, you seem seem very creative and artsy-fartsy like me! Your blog is invaluable and I have helped talk my own brother out of law school. I am 25 yo going to take the MCAT in May and thought my dream was to be a lawyer. I feel your pain--it is only by serendipity that I was hugely turned off by the law profession at the last minute of my senior year (undergrad in Finance). Anyways, keep posting! You have already saved 1 person from law school (my younger brother) so just trust that there are people out there listening. Take care and I hope you have options to fall back on.

  10. JJ, thanks for the comment. I'm very glad to hear that I helped convince one prospective student to stay away and not throw his life down the drain.

    It's surprising to be described as "artistic" because, that's usually not how I'd be described. Maybe my blog just brings out my creative side. :)

    Anyway, good luck with med school, but be careful. While the doctors probably have more security than lawyers, there does seem to be some angst in that field as well. Post a comment on JD Underground about it - I think there are a few disgruntled med school grads who can give you an alternative view.

  11. Wow, now I'm depressed. Of course, I should look at this as a good thing--I'm not alone. I went to law school instead of pursuing a Ph.D. under the misguided idea that the law was more of a "sure bet" than academia. I could not have been more wrong. At least if I had went for the academic doctorate I could have extended the carefree years of living on borrowed money for a bit longer before facing the harsh reality of being unemployed and, apparently, unemployable.

    And, just in case you need another example for future posts: top 15% grad of a Tier 2 Midwestern state school (top 10% when BigLaw came for OCI), Law Review editorial board, etc., and here I sit with a shiny new (never used) bar card in my wallet, a framed J.D. diploma still in the cardboard box, surfing the internet from my mother's living room. Yeah, life is great.

  12. I hear you, friend. I too thought the PhD was a fool's errand while law was the path to success. Alas, both us now sit in our parents homes, the recipients of an expensive lesson.


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