My recent posts about careers in law (Legal Careers and Not Covered By LSAT Prep) is generating interesting discussion both online and off. My wife, a very happy solo practitioner for over 21 years, takes a more expansive view of the value of a legal career. She considers a law degree to be a great credential that opens doors to many fields. I did not mean to suggest that the cost/benefit calculation is, or should be, the only way to assess the value of a law degree. Every prospective law student should ask at least three questions: The first is can I afford law school–that is, can I make enough money after I graduate to pay back student loans and live the type of life I want to live? The second is what will a law degree enable me to do that I could not do without a law degree? If your only answer to this question is “practice law” then you need to consider it more thoroughly. Most non-lawyers equate “law practice” with “litigation,” but most lawyers are not litigators. The only times I’ve entered courtrooms since graduating law school in 1981 were to get sworn in, to hear oral arguments as a law clerk, and for jury duty. My law degree led to practice in real estate and municipal finance, which led to expertise in the arcane field of non-rated tax-exempt bonds, which led somehow–here the trail gets fuzzy–to teaching full time in a business school. This is not the type of career you map out in your first week of law school, but it is the type of career a law degree makes possible.
Which does not mean, of course, that I agree with my wife’s position. The third question is do I want to do those things that law school allows me to do? Too many law graduates discover that they really do not like being lawyers. A lot of what lawyers do is mundane, tedious, repetitive, and nit-picky. When I left my BigLaw life in 1988 I learned that I enjoyed being the client much more than I enjoyed being the lawyer, even though as general counsel I was still practicing. I enjoyed it even more when I left practice behind to make business decisions. I only started to enjoy law again when I was free from the constraints of practice. I was lucky to find in teaching an outlet for my interests and talents, but it was not only luck. I was willing and to make profound changes in the nature of my work. When success in practice requires becoming the go-to guy or gal for Section 1031 like-kind exchanges or local permitting for shopping center development, the horizon can become too limiting. Not for everyone, but for many.
A comment on my post Not Covered by LSAT Prep takes exception–quite respectful exception–to my statement that “If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a law degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.” The poster writes “such a statement may be easier to make in retrospect than prospectively. According to your bio, you graduated in 1981.” His point is that in the century since I graduated from law school the cost of legal education has risen faster than wages and inflation, and it is much more difficult to pay back student loans on a law graduate’s average salary now than it was then.
I’m sure that’s true. I see that reality in the pressures facing my oldest son, who is a 3L, and in students I’ve mentored over the years. A friend who graduated law school six years ago owed more in student loans for college and law school than the outstanding balance of my home mortgage. She is one of the fortunates who landed a BigLaw job at what was then the highest starting salary in Boston because she is smart, talented, incredibly hard-working, and proved herself while working as a law student.
The increasingly-skewed relationship between the cost and economic benefit of law school education only reinforces my point about doing due diligence. My mantra for the dozens of prospective law students I mentor each year is get life experience, investigate whether law is a good choice for you, and consider the enormous commitment of time and financial, psychological, and emotional resources law school requires. The profession is filled with unhappy lawyers. They can be unhappy because they don’t make enough money, or their practices are stultifying, or they are worn down from years of arguing, or they don’t like their clients, or they think they would be happier raising goats in Maine. The legal profession suffers disproportionately from alcohol abuse. Why would any sensible person enter this profession without assessing honestly how well it fits them?
And why would any sensible person enter law school without assessing honestly their chances of success? The Wall Street Journal article that prompted my prior post discusses the tiered nature of the legal profession. There are the few who finish at the top of their classes and garner BigLaw offers, but they are the exception. The income gap between the high and and low-paying poles is enormous. If financial necessity dictates that you start at $160,000/year when you graduate and your historic academic performance suggests that you won’t be among that top ten percent (or fewer) of the Type A personalities who will dominate your class, you need to ask “what am I doing?” You need to revisit your expectations. Note that I’m not saying don’t go–that admonition applies to those who don’t do the due diligence and make the risk/reward calculation. But don’t count on a payoff and define success on terms that are likely to be unattainable.
My stack of to-be-written law school recommendations makes this Wall Street Journal headline especially timely: Hard Case: Job Market Wanes for U.S. Lawyers (Amir Efrati, The Wall Street Journal, 24-Sep-07 Page A1 Subscription Required). The story in a nutshell:
[T]he majority of law-school graduates are suffering from a supply-and-demand imbalance that’s suppressing pay and job growth. The result: Graduates who don’t score at the top of their class are struggling to find well-paying jobs to make payments on law-school debts that can exceed $100,000. Some are taking temporary contract work, reviewing documents for as little as $20 an hour, without benefits.
The article cites an increase in the number of lawyers–43,833 J.D.s granted during the 2005-2006 academic year, compared to 37,909 granted 2001-2002–, slack demand, and decline in practice areas such as personal injury and medical malpractice. According to the IRS “the inflation-adjusted average income of sole practitioners has been flat since the mid-1980s.” The result is a huge gap between those law school graduates who snag Big Law jobs paying upwards of $160,000 year and everyone else. Graduates are squeezed to pay back law-school tuition loans; according to the ABA “[g]raduates in 2006 of public and private law schools had borrowed an average of $54,509 and $83,181, up 17% and 18.6%, respectively, from the amount borrowed by 2002 graduates.”
I can empathize with the disappointment these folks face but a law degree has never been a guaranteed ticket to fortune. The article notes that many of these folks “are blaming their law schools for failing to warn them about the dark side of the job market.” Please. A law school isn’t your mommy or daddy. If you can’t assess and accept the risks of spending three years and $150,000 to earn a law degree there is a simple and cheap two-word solution: Don’t Go.
If any of the prospective law students waiting on my recommendations are reconsidering their career choices, my door is always open. And for those of you taking the LSAT this Saturday–sorry for the timing. It’s not too late to decide to spend 9/29 at the beach.
A number of people have sent links (here is one) to YouTube videos of the Tasering incident during John Kerry’s speech at University of Florida. Viewing it on these videos it seems the police may have overreacted in subduing the young man, but it is very hard to see what is going on. The victim was more interested in making a scene than in having Kerry answer any of his questions, which of course is not a reason to hit him with the Taser. As he is escorted from the hall more officers get involved in subduing him and they use the Taser while he is on the ground. In the first video I watched the Taser is neither seen nor heard but the video linked above provides clear audio evidence of the Taser. The incident bears some resemblance to last November’s Tasering incident at a UCLA library. To my viewing the UCLA incident, in which campus police repeatedly used a Taser on a young man who was leaving the library after and ID check, is more disturbing. The UCLA student was complying with police directives, while this UF student was struggling with police removing him from a hall for disrupting Kerry’s appearance. Kerry’s ghostly voice-over is strangely passive throughout. Again, I’m not agreeing that the student deserved to be Tasered for the disruption. Police may have been warranted in removing him from the hall–I haven’t looked into the circumstances of Kerry’s speech and the student’s presence there–and if so, they can use appropriate force to do so.
I wrote recently about the lawsuit brought by owners of the Life is Good brand, which I referred to as the Gen X version of the WalMart smiley face, against “parody company” Life Sucks for trademark infringement. I learned today that Life is Good dropped its suit, which is the right result. Since I last visited the site in early September Life Sucks has added items to its product line so, if you’d care to support your local parody company, check it out.
BU Today features a story about BU’s role in the Boston rock scene, and opens with a story of “five guys who didn’t exactly go to college” renting a Comm Ave apartment and playing gigs around Boston University. Those five guys–Aerosmith, and how amazing is it that Aerosmith’s original lineup is still intact?–were common sights around West Campus during my freshman year at BU. They were friends with Jeff Green, the resident grown-up in the first tower. The first time I saw them was in the dining hall one Friday evening. They trailed Green through the food line and are together at a table while everyone else wondered “who ARE those guys?” They were high profile. Imagine Steven Tyler and Joe Perry (who I also encountered once in the appliances department at the defunct Lechmere in Cambridge, shopping for a refrigerator) and the rest looking 36 years younger and not as healthy as they do now, wearing full rock-star garb, carrying plastic trays loaded with mac & cheese, Cokes, and frosted white cake, sitting in the dining hall surrounded by young college students with mouths agape. Jeff Green also let them practice in the basement rooms off the tunnels connecting the West Campus dorms. You’d go down to check on your laundry and hear Train Kept a Rollin’ reverberating off the cinder blocks. In the spring of 1974, when Aerosmith had a major Boston presence and were on the cusp of going national, they played at one of the Wednesday night dance concerts–“BU Boogies”–in the George Sherman Union. They’ve always been great in concert.
Just the headline of Adam Cohen’s op-ed piece in today’s New York Times–Larry Craig’s Great Adventure: Suddenly, He’s a Civil Libertarian–put me in mind of an old joke: “A liberal is a conservative who has been arrested.” Indeed Cohen offers up this punch line as he calls Craig to task for his belated embrace of civil rights after a senate career in which he supported judicial nominees eager to dial them back. What Cohen doesn’t mention is the other part of the joke: “And a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged.”