Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Essential Law School Talking Point: Blame the Recession

You don't have to tell me that recessions stink. With unemployment hovering around 10% and unemployment for folks under 30 usually reported at about 15%, who knows when I'll ever find a job. Moreover, those statistics don't include the underemployed and people who have just stopped looking for work.

Recessions aren't bad for everyone, however. Those with stable jobs that are largely unaffected by the business cycle (or are living off savings) can enjoy an indirect boost in discretionary income due to the falling price level. Certain speculators can take advantage of depressed prices and eventually profit when the economy and prices rebound. Even scam artists can take advantage of those who are out of work and are looking for an easy way to generate extra income.

Speaking of scam artists, law schools aren't exactly hurting during the recession either. For one thing, the economic collapse has resulted in a skyrocketing demand for graduate education as throngs of dupes flock to the ivory tower to wait out the recession. This has allowed the law schools to keep the scam (and tuition prices) growing stronger than ever.

Not only that, it has given them the cover they need to explain away the disastrous employment prospects that await their victims, err, graduates. "Surely, the law schools aren't to blame for the downturn in the economy," they contend. "Why everybody is hurting, and unfortunately the legal industry has been no exception." Plus, they make sure to add, "Prospective students should not be deterred; after all, the recession will surely be over by the time you graduate. Pay no attention to the plight of the classes of 2009/10."

It's, of course, true that jobs aren't exactly plentiful in any field. Nevertheless, as I pointed in in my "Craigslist Test" post, while there are few if any opportunities for attorneys (at least at the entry level), there are listings for positions in other fields - even in legal support roles!

There have also been multiple Craigslist ads offering salaries south of $40k in which the employer is only willing to consider the most elite applicants. Other firms have sought to hire new "attorneys" at hourly wages comparable to what one could make at Home Depot.

This ugly scenario can partially be attributed to the recession, but the reason why the market for attorneys is particularly atrocious (when compared to other industries) is because it never was all that robust to begin with. When the economy collapsed, the legal labor market got pounded into the ground.

To be sure, aspects of the legal industry were booming during the middle of the last decade. The large corporate firms were raking in the dough, and as a result, graduates from the elite schools, the top 10-20% of the "decent" schools, and a few "affirmative action" picks from the true toilets made their way into the coveted SA positions and eventually landed cushy first year associate positions.

Those who were truly gifted at networking, were born into the right families, or were just plain lucky also did alright. Also, those who were willing to accept the vow of poverty could likely find some DA or PD position to allow them to get the experience of working in the courtroom and to call themselves attorneys.

For pretty much everyone else, the golden age of legal employment wasn't exactly golden. Sure the media didn't really start to notice until their Ivy League golden children were no longer getting wined and dined by the big law plutocracy, but life wasn't so pleasant for the average unconnected graduate of virtually every school below the top 25 schools (and that's probably being generous) during this era.

For one thing, grad plus loans and the IBR plan have only been available since 2007 and 2009 respectively. While tuition was slightly lower a few years ago, going into six figures of debt for a private law school degree was hardly out of the question. That meant that it was easy to rack up nearly half of ones debt in private, non-dischargable loans and essentially become Sallie Mae's indentured servant for life.

But let's put that aside because the debt issue has been "solved". (At least until the the expense of the IBR blows up in the government's face.)

One cliche from that "golden era" was that law students were forced to take the high paying but largely unfulfilling associate positions at large firms in order to effectively pay down their debts. The truth was, of course, that only a limited number of students even had this opportunity.

What about the rest of the poor schlubs who were saddled with just as much debt but less impressive transcripts and/or academic pedigrees?

It's true that between 2004 and 2008, this wasn't an automatic sentence of unemployment and living in your mom's basement. Instead it usually was a sentence of wishing you were unemployed while working in Paul Weiss' poorly ventilated document review basement.

You see, this age of abundance was an era when the bright and well educated were flushed out of the back of law school machine only to work for some ambulance chasing parasite, click a mouse for $35 bucks an hour in a document review gulag, or abandon law altogether, rendering one's entire graduate education worthless.

And you know what? Those really were the good old days! I'm serious. As mentioned, today's toilet law firms essentially want top 10% students from tier one schools who were on law review. (All for the princely sum of $35k/year sans benefits.)

Doc Review gigs now requires experience - meaning entry level attorneys are actually under qualified to click a stupid mouse. I've personally been waiting for almost nine months to get a JUNIOR doc review position that pays $17/hour. We all, of course, know the score when it comes to finding a non-legal job.

Still, while I am left to dream about the days in which I could sit around in some third-world-worthy landlord tenant court or where I could actually be taken seriously at an interview for a job that doesn't require more than a BA, it probably says something about the law school industry when its most prosperous years were still a vile nightmare for most graduates.

Think I'm exaggerating? Take a look at our friend, Big Debt, Small Law. He graduated in 2005, top 1/3 of his class, from a second tier school. His reward? Cutting and pasting some mind numbing motions while representing the dregs of society for some ambulance chasing chop shop. Somehow, I doubt that this lovely career option was in the ol' Seton Hall brochure.

Tom the Temp was around long before unemployment launched into the stratosphere. In fact, his website gained notoriety largely based upon the sheer number of law grads who were being carted into these legal gulags to help the large firms keep up with their reams of discovery during the last economic expansion.

At least back then, watching your career and dignity slip away into oblivion before your very eyes earned you around $35 an hour plus overtime. Today, if you can even find this sort of work, you'll be lucky to make $20. (Experienced "attorneys" only, of course.)

Recall, it was during 2005, the height of the expansion, that the WSJ blew the whistle in its print edition on the fudged employment statistics published by the TTT diploma mills and helped expose the subterranean, doc review sweatshops.

How about trying to jump ship and finding a career outside of the law? Well, admittedly, back before the recession, it seemed like more companies were willing to give those with law degrees a second look (or at least were more forgiving about resumes with an unexplained gap).

To be sure, this wasn't because non-legal employers valued a JD; they just had a smaller pool of candidates from which to draw their "talent". A writer from the now defunct Barely Legal blog successfully transitioned into the corporate world before the crash, but guess what key piece of advice he has for those following in his footsteps:

"[Your J.D.] doesn't entitle you to anything more than you were entitled to coming out of college."

Did you catch that? After three years of law school and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt (and possibly securing a law license), you'd better not expect any special treatment when applying for entry level positions outside of the legal field. Just try going into an interview with any sense of entitlement, TTT Grad, Esq., and see how far that gets you.

On top of that, almost every employer that takes your application seriously for a non-legal position is going to grill you over your legal education to a degree that would impress even the fictional Jack McCoy. This might be the only time in your life that having moot court experience will actually be of any benefit - to help you quickly address a barrage of hostile questions.

Barely Legal claimed that the only way to handle this inquisition is to simply explain that law school was just a detour in your educational development that helped you prepare for entry into the business world. I have found this advice to be pretty accurate.

If you find this account unpersuasive, Calico Cat wrote a few years earlier (also during the same period of prosperity) that the only way he was even able to find a job was to leave the J.D. off his resume altogether. Oh, by the way, he graduated in the top 10 percent in his class* from a tier 1 school.

So, let's assume the economy bounces back tomorrow. Let's further assume that the legal market returns to the way it was before the recession. I'd be overjoyed.

Nevertheless, what would await the majority of graduates of the class of 2011 in this more prosperous environment? Working for toilet law firms for $30-$50k per year. Being able to take mind numbing, document review jobs for hourly pay without gaining any substantive work experience. Taking a job which only requires a BA/BS and therefore rendering three years of graduate education entirely worthless.

Not exactly worth the $150k worth of debt.

Here's the Essential Esq. Never Talking Point: DO NOT GO TO LAW SCHOOL!

*Based upon his final GPA; not his 1L GPA


  1. Wow, your best post ever. The past, present, and future, from bleak, bleaker, to bleakest. You nailed it.

  2. EN, I can tell you have had to fend off a barage of incisive questions from potential employers, because of your JD. And, yet the festering toilets of law keep touting to their victims/students: "You can do anything with a law degree. It is a very versatile asset, even among non-legal employers." THIS IS PATENTLY FALSE - AND THE LAW SCHOOLS KNOW THIS!

    If the "law professors" want to utter this garbage, it is only fair that they disclose that they have not interviewed for strictly non-legal positions. If they had, they would know that they would need to give a performance on-par with a criminal defendant facing a cross-examination from legendary L.A. County prosecutor Vincent Bugliosi - in order to explain how their JD will help the non-legal employer make money.

    Keep plugging away at these law school industry fallacies and outright lies.

  3. So true. I graduated in 2005 as well and I didn't see any signs of wining and dining grads in my class (TTT, so not to be unexpected.) We were all scared $hit-less, frankly. I wish I had seen Tom the Temp and Calico Cat earlier - I wonder what the alleged "Golden Era" was like.

    I manged to jump ship into the corporate world after enough interviews. You just have to keep looking until you find someone who thinks what you've done is valuable. It sure as hell wasn't the law firms.

  4. I am old enough to have lived through the last years (mid to late '80s) of the Golden Era. It was a great time to be a lawyer. Making $80K a year as a young associate with all the blow and hookers you could ever want made law a very attractive profession. Those days are long gone and geezers like me can only summon a smile by recalling those glorious days. Today, being a lawyer means making difficult decisions to maximize a profit (e.g., layoffs, salary reduction, office space downsizing etc.). I can tell you that when times are good, firms will treat you like family (as long as you make your hours). When the economy is in the shitter, you are a liability and excess fat that must be removed to preserve profits per partner. Many firms recorded slight increases in PPP last year. What irks me is that some people construe this as a sign of recovery. No, the increase was as a result of cutting on wasteful spending (associate layoffs, scaling back summer programs, "wining and dining," flying business class, etc.) and other unnecessary expenses.

    I was recently asked by my alma mater law school to come speak to the current crop of unsuspecting law students about the great virtues of being a lawyer. I declined citing a scheduling conflict. Truth of the matter is I am disgusted with what law schools are doing to these students. When times were good, even the bottom quarter of the class could gain legal employment. Now it seems even being in the top quarter does not guarantee you a legal job unless you are YHS. When law students at CLS and some at Harvard are having a tough time finding legal employment, it's time to say this profession is not worth the time and money. Indeed, the happy days in this business are gone and are not coming back. Will some attorneys be successful? Sure, but the game got harder and fewer will succeed. As for me, I bought some land in Brazil and will retire in 2 years. This profession has made me a miserable human being but at least I am young enough to enjoy another 20 years on this earth in paradise before I check out.

  5. Yep, hits the nail on the head.

    I especially agree with the DA and PD's Office points. In the past, it was only "low" to the T14 grads and maybe the top 10% grads in other schools because they had a realistic shot at $150k a year jobs at big law. Of course, many didn't take those jobs because the quality of life is so much better at these DA and PD's Offices. Everyone else didn't really have a realistic shot at these jobs, so to them it wasn't "low" at all. It wasn't a "vow of poverty" because those jobs would actually improve their incomes tremendously in all likelihood.

    Nowadays it is even more impossible to get those positions. Most offices have not hired anyone, or have very limited hiring for the past 2 years.

    The economy crashed around 2008, so any 2008 grad that didn't have a job lined up was screwed too. But I've met 2007 grads that have mentioned many of them haven't fared quite that well either, obviously Esqnever has pointed these things out, but people still tend to kind of forget that 2009 and 2010 aren't the only bad years.

  6. Yeah, it's a complete fabrication or self-delusion that public sector/government jobs are any easier to get than biglaw. They're just as selective and have just as many (probably more) budget constraints.

    Everyone trying to get the message out just needs to keep pounding the message that THERE ARE NO JOBS. I've talked to several prospective students who have said things like, "Well, I know big firms are struggling, but that's okay because I can just get a job for the government anyway!"


  7. Just a question: What exactly is "toilet law?" It sounds like you are saying there is "Big Law" or "Toilet Law" or "Non-Profit/Public Sector Law" and that's I getting that right?

    I'm only asking because I will be attending law school (on a scholarship) and would not work in so-called "Big Law."

    Don't bother telling me not to go to law school--I've weighed everything and am going, at least as long as I maintain the scholarship.

    And on a side note--why WOULD anyone think that a JD would help with a non-law job? I think anyone who would go to law school based on that (or give that any weight whatsoever) is kind of foolish to begin with. The purpose of a JD is to practice law. Of course a job that gains no benefit form that isn't going to pay a premium for you (or even hire you) based on that! Instead, I'm sure most employers look at that and think that you'll just want more money either now or down the road while a "less educated" applicant will not want as much.

    Gerald T. Studebaker

  8. People think a JD helps with non-law positions because many legislators, politicians and businessmen have law degrees, and law schools rely on that to sucker students in.

    If you do the research you see these TTT law grads with these jobs and you get suckered into thinking it's the degree that was a credential or helped them land these jobs. That's the beauty of the scam, the research gives you deceptive results, because it is hard to isolate cause and effect, and correlation is such a powerful tool in argument.

    In reality these people had connections or had these positions in advance and then went to law school afterwards. Of course the law student won't figure that out until afterwards, chances are he has no access to these people to begin with or they might outright law about the value of a degree, for them they can pretend they got value if they really didn't, which they didn't.

    Law school isn't bad on a full scholarship, especially, but the problem is if there is a GPA to maintain or it's only a partial. I had half scholarships at a 2T myself and planned on quitting after the first year if things didn't got he way I wanted them to. This is, it's hard to quit if you're top third/top 20% and you've already used up that year, even if that was your plan. And it's very hard to get top 5% or so, because everything is so arbitrary really. So you have no guarantee of anything at all, you're basically completely gambling here. A lottery ticket is a better investment, although the chances are lower the debt is non-existent. Sports gambling is even better though than law school, as there are ways to consistently make money if you know what you're doing.

    Now that I've responded to that, I want to mention how awful it is applying to jobs on usajobs. Most of the applications take forever and you won't get a response. Half of them want you to fax things, which might cost you money or is otherwise annoying to do, and they still won't get back to you. Most won't seriously consider a graduate without years of experience in that certain field. You will spend lots and lots of time for very little chance at actually even seriously being considered. I have been applying for about a year now on and off with no real luck.

    Forget state work, almost every state is in serious financial trouble and they are cutting employees, not hiring them. The fed can only hire because they just print more money, but it's not like they will hire lower level candidates, they have their pick of the crop and aren't looking to give most people a chance at all.

  9. Hang your own shingle.


Web Analytics