Tuesday, September 1, 2009

The Noble Plight of the New Law Graduate

Personally, I think that the fundamental problem with the Law School Industry is that far too many prospective students are able to enter the field, not because they have all that strong an interest in law, our legal system, or in justice, but because they see the profession as one that will, in a mere 3 years, garner them (a) status and (b) a solid income.

This New York Times article only reinforces this belief. In it, the author discusses the dimming prospects of law graduates in our current economy. Unfortunately for new law grads, the denial of the six-figure salaries they felt entitled to upon entering law school is coinciding with the reality that educational debt is not, actually, Monopoly (tm) money and does, eventually, have to be repaid.

Of one graduate, the author writes:

"[S]he expected to find a lucrative law firm job in three years — if not collecting the $160,000-a-year associate salaries at one of the uppermost partnerships. By the time she obtains her J.D., she says, she will have around $200,000 in debt."

Many people who choose to go to law school justify paying enormously high tuition fees because they think it ensures a "golden ticket" in life.

Once you stop laughing, let's take a moment to sympathize.

To a degree, I can actually sympathize with the plight of those who are fresh out of law school (or college, or graduate school) having bought the American Dream narrative where if one works hard enough long enough they will Have It Made. I bought into that myth myself somewhat, but I also knew exactly what I was getting into when I decided to attend law school. Choosing a path remarkably different than that of BigLaw, I was under no illusion that my degree guaranteed me anything other than the privilege of putting two additional letters after my name. Those were two letters I needed to do what I wanted with my professional life, but still, it is and was no guarantee of a certain income or, even, a job.

Yet now, saddled with mortgage-sized debt and dim prospects for employment, many new graduates are facing economic crises that resemble what got our nation into this economic downturn in the first place: Great numbers of people who took out massive debt to buy something that used to be very valuable but that is now less valuable. Now, these people cannot pay off their loans and, unlike mortgages, educational debt is not "erased" with a bankruptcy filing.

So yes. I do sympathize with them. But, just as many are looking at what got our nation into this economic crisis, I think the Law School Industry and, especially, prospective students, need to look at why some are in this predicament, also.

Personally, I am incredibly frustrated by the greed, status-worship, and irresponsible ignorance on the part of so many parties that have contributed to this "crisis."

For one, the private student loan industry is big business, and many students- out of necessity- utilize private loans. Those who take out private loans pay higher interest rates and have less protections than those who take out public loans. Law students in particular justify taking out large amounts of loans because (a) most people don't have $120,000+ sitting in their bank accounts to pay tuition up front and (b) they believe they will earn a large enough salary to pay off their student loans relatively easily.

Yet, I think people should better educate themselves about what they are and are not guaranteed with their education. I mean, we are talking about supposedly educated folks who make really unwise decisions about massive amounts of debt. For instance, I know that many people choose to go to an expensive private school over an infinitely less expensive public school in the same city all because the US News and World Report ranks the private school a few notches higher on its notorious list of rankings. Yet, having attended a particular school is, for most people, not a guarantee of a specific salary or a specific position.

Two, since there is no practical way to screen future law students for their motivations for attending law school, those who see The Law as a way to become rich and/or elite should take a pass on attending law school. Why someone would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to embark on a lifelong career that one is, at best, lukewarm about is beyond me. Besides, I would argue that lawyers already don't have the best reputations and that those who enter law school without a particularly strong interest in our legal system, in justice, or in the public interest are probably likely to become, as they say, part of the problem.

I don't have statistics on that, of course. But it was my experience in law school that those who were unable to easily articulate their reasons for being there tended to be somewhat... apathetic and equality-challenged. So to speak.

That being said, I find it interesting how some graduates think they are going to handle their situation:

"For students now, the promise of the big law firm career — and its paychecks — is slipping through their fingers, forcing them to look at lesser firms in smaller markets as well as opportunities in government or with public interest groups, law school faculty and students say."

That is, since they can't make lots of money like they originally set out to do, they want to work for the public interest.

How noble.

It is quaint, albeit non-reality-based, that some law graduates unable to find BigLaw jobs believe they will nonetheless be able to find a government or public interest job in this economy. I don't blame them. For one, many BigLaw attorneys have convinced themselves that they are the profession's Real Attorneys and that everyone else, unable to land those 80-hour-per-week "dream jobs," has "settled" for the backup plan of public interest or government attorney. I honestly don't think it crosses some law students' minds that some people might attend law school with the goal of working for the public interest. Or if that thought even registers, they vaguely remember the public interest students as that small group of weird hippy-types who were always hanging up those Amnesty International posters in the hallway, whatever that was about.

The ignorance is startling.

And sadly, these law graduate are in for another rude awakening if they think they can rely on some sort of public interest/government job "safety net" to catch their fallen dreams. For those unfamiliar with the industry, when I was in school my public interest advisor screened people for internships in the following way. First, she asked if we understood that legal positions in the government or at public interest organizations were incredibly competitive. Then, she asked if we understood that they were relatively low-paying. Then, she asked if we were still interested. It was a practical way to keep from squandering a limited experience opportunity on someone who wasn't actually invested in a long-term public interest career.

I'm not sure if the intent of this article is for us to feel sorry for the law students and graduates who are mentioned. Nonetheless, I do feel sorry for them. For one, they are facing unenviable and dire economic circumstances.

But more than that, I am sorry that so many are now drawn to public interest work, not out of a pre-existing sense of professional obligation to make our legal system more accessible and fair to all in our society, but because they only thought to use their law degree to help others once their own economic viability was threatened.

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