More NY Sales Tax News

I’ve noted recently (here and here) that New York changed its law to require out-of-state Internet retailers that receive customer referrals from in-state business to collect and remit NY sales taxes on transactions with New York residents. The law went into effect on Sunday June 1 and the NY Times reports that Amazon, among other online sellers, began collecting the tax on that day while it continues to press its legal challenge to the new law. Overstock.com, which severed its relationships with 3,400 NY affiliates in response to the law, on Monday filed its own challenge to the law in New York state court, seeking to enjoin the law pending resolution of the legal issues.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

The NSA is not the only one monitoring every move you make, every breath you take. In their desire to anticipate our wants and needs before we know them ourselves, the New York Times reports that major web companies–Yahoo!, Google, AOL (it’s still around? I’ll be damned)–are “gathering clues about the tastes and preferences of a typical user several hundred times a month.” They too are ever-careful not to abuse our privacy and besides, “the data [they collect] is a boon to consumers, because it makes the ads they see more relevant.” You know what would be even more of a boon than more relevant ads? Fewer ads.

You’ll Never Walk Alone

The NSA is not the only one monitoring every move you make, every breath you take. In their desire to anticipate our wants and needs before we know them ourselves, the New York Times reports that major web companies–Yahoo!, Google, AOL (it’s still around? I’ll be damned)–are “gathering clues about the tastes and preferences of a typical user several hundred times a month.” They too are ever-careful not to abuse our privacy and besides, “the data [they collect] is a boon to consumers, because it makes the ads they see more relevant.” You know what would be even more of a boon than more relevant ads? Fewer ads.

Facebook Two-Step

As discussed previously (here, here, here, here, and here) when it comes to issues of user information and privacy Facebook has shown an unerring ability to get things right, sort of, only after it gets things really wrong. The latest example surfaced last weekend when the New York Times reported that “[s]ome users have discovered that it is nearly impossible to remove themselves entirely from Facebook, setting off a fresh round of concern over the popular social network’s use of personal data.” When users deactivated their accounts Facebook kept “copies of the information in those accounts indefinitely.” Said former Facebook account holder Nipon Das “”It’s like the Hotel California . . . You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.” On Wednesday came the story that following the inevitable creation of a Facebook user group protesting retention of account content the company “modified its help pages to tell people that if they wanted to remove their accounts entirely, they can direct the company by e-mail to have it done. But . . . representatives of Facebook stopped short of saying the company would introduce a one-step delete account option.”

This is the dark side of Web 2.0/social networking sites. Users may create the content but it is controlled by and treated as the property of the networking sites.

Don’t Go to Law School

I’ve posted before that prospective law students must honestly consider their prospects for success in law school because, unless they attend one of the very top-ranked schools, their job opportunities will be limited if they are not ranked at the top of their classes. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog recently interviewed “law school naysayer” Kirsten Wolf, a 32-year old BU law graduate. Wolf went to law school a few years out of college believing that she would obtain a marketable skill that would justify the cost of borrowing to pay tuition. In the fall of her second year, when she realized her B+ average was not good enough to land her a summer associate position with a large firm, she began to question her decision. Already $45,000 in debt she stayed, graduated in 2002, passed the Massachusetts bar, and found no law jobs waiting. She went back to the company she worked for before law school and then eventually moved to New York where she landed a job she enjoys, as an office manager for a literary agency. She is paying her $87,000 student loan debt over 30 years–which means she’ll still be paying for law school as she approaches her 60th birthday. In Wolf’s words:

I’m on a one-woman mission to talk people out of law school. Lots of people go to law school as a default. They don’t know what else to do, like I did. It seems like a good idea. People say a law degree will always be worth something even if you don’t practice. But they don’t consider what that debt is going to look like after law school. It affects my life in every way. And the jobs that you think are going to be there won’t necessarily be there at all. Most people I know that are practicing attorneys don’t make the kind of money they think lawyers make. They’re making $40,000 a year, not $160,000. Plus, you’re going to be struggling to do something you might not even enjoy. A few people have a calling to be a lawyer, but most don’t.

Legal Blog Watch Alert picked up Wolf’s story and also reported about a lawyer who auctioned his law school diploma on eBay. The post notes the lack of discussion on academic law blogs about whether to attend law school.

For years I have advised students that exceptional performance in law school is more important than where you go. Wolf’s story bears this out. She must have been a good student and gotten good LSAT scores–BU law would not have admitted her otherwise–but that doesn’t put you at the top of your class. Even at BU, which is always ranked as one of the top 25 or 30 law schools in the country, a B+, top-half of the class performance will not open the most lucrative doors. I’m seeing this again with a friend who is currently in her second year at BU. She is quite smart, works exceptionally hard, is one of the most personable and engaging people I know, and yet has been unable to crack into the Big Law summer associate track. And if you aren’t on that track after your second year of law school, your earnings horizon changes dramatically. Yet had Wolf gone to a lower-ranked school and finished at the top of her class–say in the top 10 or 15 places, or top 3.00%–odds are that she could have obtained a high-paying job. Finishing in the top 3% of one’s law school class does not happen without brains and lots of hard work. That’s why those at the top of their class will still merit a look from the most selective employers, because the employers know what it takes to get there.

I’ve always taken a laissez-faire approach with prospective law students. I’ll be honest about the risks and pitfalls of a legal career and then support the student’s decision to attend law school notwithstanding my warnings. I’m now rethinking my approach. Should I recommend a student who has not shown the academic ability to finish in the top five percent of his or her law school class?

Rumplestilts-berg

Maybe Mark Zuckerberg’s youth–he’s 23–explains Facebook’s ham-fisted schemes to weave its users’ personal information into skeins of gold. I don’t believe his purposes are nefarious. As Facebook Beacon and Facebook Social Ads show, he does have a knack for letting dollar signs get ahead of his judgment. He is developing a skill for reversing field when what looked like a great idea around the boardroom table runs into the buzzsaw of user opinion.

First a recap. A few weeks ago Facebook announced Facebook Beacon, “a new way to socially distribute information on Facebook.”

The websites participating in Beacon can determine the most relevant and appropriate set of actions from their sites that users can distribute on Facebook. These actions can include posting an item for sale, completing a purchase, scoring a high score in an online game or viewing of video. When users who are logged into Facebook visit a participating site, they receive a prompt asking whether to they want to share those activities with their friends on Facebook. If they do, those friends can now view those actions through News Feed or Mini-Feed stories.

In other words, if a Facebook user lists items for sale on eBay or buys a movie ticket on Fandango, a pop-up asks whether the user wants to share this news–and on Facebook this is considered news–with their Facebook friends. The breathtaking narcissism of such newsy updates aside, Facebook Beacon takes a giant step towards a future when we will all be defined by the commercial value of our online data trail. Facebook stated “[i]n keeping with Facebook’s philosophy of user control, Facebook Beacon provides advanced privacy controls so Facebook users can decide whether to distribute specific actions from participating sites with their friends.” However, those “advanced privacy controls” are less assuring than promised. Yesterday a student and I read through Facebook’s user agreement and privacy policies to see whether one could elect not to participate in Facebook Beacon, other than by not using Facebook. Users can elect not to distribute to friends news of specific transactions, but to date there is no one-stop mechanism to opt-out entirely.

Facebook Social Ads are another part of the story. They “leverage the power of Facebook News Feed by serving relevant stories about friends engaging with your business.” Here’s how Facebook pitches them to businesses:

Reach the right people.

Instead of creating an advertisement and hoping that it reaches the right customers, you can create a Facebook Social Ad and target it precisely to the audience you choose. The ads can also be shown to users whose friends have recently engaged with your Facebook Page or engaged with your website through Facebook Beacon. Social Ads are more likely to influence users when they appear next to a story about a friend’s interaction with your business.

The concept is brilliant–every Facebook user can, through association with purchases, downloads, ratings, and other digital flotsam, become his or her own brand. Facebook “friends” (which should always be in quotes in this context) could follow my data trail and decide “my father is sort of like Professor Randall, so maybe he’d like a pound of Malabar Gold Espresso, No Country for Old Men (the book, not the movie–he’s old school, remember), and Lindsay Mac’s Small Revolution for his birthday.” Or, back in the real world, cool hunters will track young fashionistas to decrease the lag between cutting edge and The Gap. Clickstream data, just laying around waiting to be turned into skeins of gold.

Brilliant. Except for the backlash.

Facebook: What Would Google Do?: There is something astoundingly tone deaf about how Facebook has handled its recent advertising initiatives. Mr. Zuckerberg is right: there are lots of people who would find it cool to tell the world what movies they just rented and even what color socks they just bought. But they’ve got to know that others would find this intrusive. And they couldn’t have picked a worse way to implement the Beacon system first: automatically telling your friends everything you did on participating sites unless you found and pushed a button to cancel the disclosure. (This timeline shows how hard it was at first to figure out what was going on.)

Are Facebook’s Social Ads Illegal?: There is at least one problem with this idea: It may be illegal under a 100-year-old New York privacy law. The statute says that “any person whose name, portrait, picture, or voice is used within this state for advertising purposes or for the purposes of trade without the written consent first obtained” can sue for damages. Moreover, such a use is also a criminal misdemeanor.

MoveOn Launches Privacy Campaign Against Facebook Social Ads: Calling Facebook’s new Social Ads strategy an invasion of privacy, MoveOn.org is asking Facebook members to sign a petition against the social network’s new ad plan.

Facebook’s “Fan-sumers:” Do Social Ads Violate Users’ Privacy?: [Law professor and privacy expert Daniel Solove] noted on his blog, “Facebook . . . assumes that if people rate products highly or write good things about a product then they consent to being used in an advertisement for it. Facebook doesn’t understand that privacy amounts to much more than keeping secrets — it involves controlling accessibility to personal data.”

Zuckerberg isn’t stupid, just surrounded by true believers who can’t view Facebook from outside the bubble. After ten thousand slaps upside the head Facebook has made Social Ads opt-in rather than opt-out. Under Pressure, Facebook Modifies Social Ads Program: “As of late Thursday, Facebook users must now proactively consent to alert friends whenever they take various actions, such as renting a DVD or purchasing a pair of sneakers . . . Now, as part of the changes enacted on Nov. 29, consumers who make such purchases will receive notices that Facebook intends to inform others about their actions—but only if they approve by clicking an “OK” button.” Problem handled, until the next wrong-footed product roll-out.

The Sun Always Shines . . .

. . . when you are a summer associate. Last week I was comparing notes about our legal careers with an acquaintance. We met when we overlapped briefly at a large Boston firm–I was on my out the door to become general counsel with a real estate development company, he had just come in as a lateral from another Boston firm. He stayed for about five years, went into private practice, and is now very happy as general counsel for a travel-services company. Our reasons for leaving BigLaw were similarly family-driven. As he said “I got to see all of my kids’ school plays, coach their baseball and basketball teams, and be part of their lives.” I thought of this conversation and our mutual gimlet-eyed view of the BigLaw experience when I read this lead paragraph from Legal Blog Watch:

Summer associates gave their firms overall good reviews in The American Lawyer’s 2007 Summer Associates Survey, and why shouldn’t they? After all, what’s not to like? Some found exotic adventures abroad, with one traveling four-and-a-half hours by horseback across the Egyptian desert and another put up in a fancy apartment in Paris. Others were treated to skyboxes at baseball games, cooking classes, musicals, symphony concerts, whitewater rafting trips and scavenger hunts. In New York, there was Kobe beef and Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art, while in San Francisco there was helicoptering under the Golden Gate Bridge and debauchery at Half Moon Bay. All that and a paycheck of nearly $3,000 a week.

I’ll put it like this. None of our recollections of BigLaw life involved Paris apartments, camel rides, or helicopter rides below or above the Golden Gate Bridge. And the debauchery did not occur at Half Moon Bay.

Lawyer’s Life

Scraps from the briefcase for prospective law students and lawyers:

Pay and Workweek Differentials by Law Firm Size from the Empirical Legal Studies blog charts the relationship between law firm size, associate salaries, and associate happiness. It reports that the median salary spread over the first eight years of the associate track amounts to $631,000 for associates in firms with 2-25 lawyers versus those with 500+ lawyers and to $524,000 for associates in firms with 51-100 lawyers versus those with 500+. It’s no surprise that big firm lawyers make more money but I’ve not seen a calculation showing exactly how much more. It also reports that almost 47% of lawyers at 500+ firms work more than 60 hours/week. The number of lawyers working more than 60 hours/week is 27.2% at firms with 51-200 lawyers, 19.4% at firms with 16-50 lawyers, 19.3% at firms with 5-15 lawyers, and 16.1% at firms with 1-4 lawyers. Last, it reports that 36.2% of those in firms with 1-4 lawyers report a very satisfactory work/family balance, compared with 31.3% in firms with 5-15 lawyers, 9.7% in firms with 16-50 lawyers, 10.3% in firms with 51-200 lawyers, and 4.9%–4.9%!!!— in firms with 200+ lawyers. I’ve summarized the findings. Read the original for more data and analysis.

Will Lawyers Continue to Exist? at Human Law Mediation blog entertains the notion that information technology and the ability to carve up legal work into discreet tasks–commoditization of legal work–will transform the profession. If you want an example read this piece from Legal Affairs: Are your lawyers in New York or New Delhi?

Last, Tax Prof Blog hashes data from the Princeton Review’s Best 170 Law Schools and rates schools in categories such as Professors Rock (BU is #1) and Students Lean to the Left (my alma mater Northeastern is #2).

How about a survey of undergraduate business school law faculty? Now there’s a niche market.

Like Chalk Across a Blackboard

If, when you were growing up, your family always said “you should be a lawyer” or “you’ll make a great lawyer some day!”, what did it mean? It meant you were an argumentative, stubborn–and possibly obnoxious–pain in the butt. Not all lawyers fit that mold–I don’t, of course–but the popular conception of attorney-as-irritant finds constant reinforcement. Take these two stories: A Lawyer Bride Sues Her Florist (Wall Street Journal-Subscription Required) and At Firms With “No Jerks” Rules, Abusive Attorneys Need Not Apply. The first reports on New York litigator Elena Elbogen’s breach of contract suit against Posy Floral Design Studios for “substitut[ing] pastel pink and green hydrangeas for the dark rust and green hydrangeas that she had specified for the centerpieces . . . using wilted and/or browned flowers, leaving the event without filling half the centerpiece vases with water, and using dusty and dirty vases.” The bride and groom paid $27,435.14 for the flowers and are seeking $400,000 in damages. Stamos Arakos, co-owner of Posy Floral Design, responded “My father used to tell me, ‘Don’t deal with lawyers.’ Maybe he was right, God bless his soul.”

The “No Jerks” article discusses how companies are adopting hiring and firing practices to reduce the number of abusive bosses: “The emergence of these practices should be of particular interest to those working or hoping to work in the legal industry, where the only thing larger than the significant book of business may be the bearer’s ego.” For example, Perkins Coie began dealing directly with incidents of abuse a few years ago. “Associates who frequently yell at or mistreat secretaries damage their prospects of becoming partners” and Fortune magazine named the firm in its Top 100 Best Places to Work for five years in a row. This sounds great, and the article states firms are implementing these practices “regardless of how many hours the offenders bill or how much business they generate,” but I’m dubious about the last statement. I bet that a few million dollars in annual billings would still buys considerable latitude for jerky behavior in most firms.

“A New Life Phase”

A few days ago a friend sent me The Odyssey Years, a New York Times op-ed piece by David Brooks about “the decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood. During this decade, 20-somethings go to school and take breaks from school. They live with friends and they live at home. They fall in and out of love. They try one career and then try another.” The Brooks piece resonated with my friend, a former student who graduated in 2006 and now works for an investment bank. He said “there’s just so much pressure to succeed for young people (and it’s such an obscure definition, it no longer involves forming a cohesive family unit and living a pleasant life.)” It spoke to me as a college professor who spends hours talking with students about What Comes Next, and as a parent whose children do not spend hours talking with him and his wife about What Comes Next. I sent the op-ed to my sons, all in their 20s. One said “it fits a little too well.” Another said “good to know I’m not alone.” The third, a law student on the verge of graduation and a career, delivered his message by not responding.

If you are in college, a recent graduate, have friends who are in college or recent graduates, are moving from job to job with no clear plan, know someone who is moving from job to job with no clear plan, or are the parent of anyone in any of these categories–in other words, if you are anyone who is reading this post–read the op-ed piece.