January 26, 2012

Before You Head Off To Law School

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What is the issue?

So there used to be a joke — not a good one, mind you, but certainly traditional — that went, “what do you call the dumbest kid in law school?” And the answer was a millionaire or rich or simply a lawyer but intoned with some sort of gravitas. The premise being that lawyers were rich and respected (to an extent) and that even the slowest of law students could reliably expect some form of gainful employment upon the completion of law school.

And for a very long while, this was true. The world economy grew and with it came the accreditation of more and more law schools, the process overseen by the American Bar Association (the ABA), whose job it was — not unlike the AMA — to ensure that the whole industry didn’t get horribly screwed. Actually, not a difficult job. Economies grew, financial sectors grew alongside, and Big Law grew in their own gleefully parasitic way, eating up the detritus that comes with the world of dealbreaking. If you’re thinking that all sounds a bit bitter: please don’t; I say this with affection — for a long while I was on the path toward corporate work.

So the ABA keeps accrediting more and more schools and why not? Supply and demand doesn’t seem to be an issue when America’s operating in a state of perpetual growth. Big Law gets bigger alongside the economy, and it doesn’t matter how many new schools and thus newly-graduated law students enter the job market — there are jobs for everyone! Woohoo!

So the ABA is loving it. The law students are loving it. And the universities are loving it, too. Law school tuition has outpaced the rise in undergraduate tuition, even, but nobody bats an eye at paying the exorbitant fees because it’s a guaranteed job; it’s guaranteed riches. And the federal government is backing all these huge loans for law students because, why not? They know law school means jobs and riches, too. Literally everybody is making out like bandits here. And so every year seems to be a new all-time high in law school enrollments.

Like me! Fancy me with my 99th-percentile LSAT. I’m just the cock of the walk. Can’t wait for the recruiting and the fancy dinners and the strip clubs and all the fun that comes with Lockstep. Have I mentioned Lockstep yet?

So, basically, every prestigious law firm wants prestigious law graduates. Not because they’re better at practicing law — law school is extremely theory-heavy to the point almost all graduates start their first job without any grasp whatsoever on even the most basic elements of legal work — but because it’s easier to market the prestige of your firm if you’re full of prestigious graduates. But there are only so many of these grads to go around. Enter On-Campus Interviews (OCI). In the middle of your second year of law school, a whole horde of hiring partners from the various firms across the country descend on your law school to interview and recruit en masse from the second year class. The interview portion means you might have twenty rapid-fire interviews with hiring partners over the course of a couple days, your class rank and extracurriculars — I’m talking about Law Review here and, to a lesser extent, Moot Court, but I’m only including Moot Court here in the way one might include Windows XP under the Skills section of their resume — dictating the firms to which you’ll end up talking. The recruiting part… well. That was the firms knowing that there are only so many Best+Brightest at any given school and wine+dining them to the best of their ability in the hopes that you’ll sign a contract — not unlike a sports contract — with their firm as opposed to the fancy firm down the block. It was wonderful. Front row seats to the game. Fancy restaurants. Expensive drinks. Wonderful.

And that’s just the beginning of Lockstep. Once you sign with a firm in your second year, you’re locked into a career path with several pay steps. After interning, basically, your second summer, you come back after your third year of law and work for the firm while studying for the bar. Once you pass the bar, you get hired on. For a lot of money. A lot. Of. Money.

Again, not because you’re talented at what you do. I said before first year associates are all but useless. But because of market forces. If one firm pays graduates $5,000 more a year than the other, they are going to get more of the prestigious graduates, which means they’ll be able to attract better clients, which means they might get a leg up on Firm B. And so Firm B won’t let that happen; they’ll go one better and offer graduates a salary $10,000 higher than Firm A. So then Firm A ups their offer and back and forth over the decades until first-year salaries far, far outpace the actual value of the hire, but since economies keep growing the firms can subsidize these outrageous pay scales by pawning the cost off to their Financial District masters, who don’t care at all and just assume the quote they receive for this work is normal or are so wealthy they can’t be bothered with things like value anymore.

So.

Recession.

The financial sector got hammered and that pain trickled down to the attached law firms. It was a slaughterhouse. You could read about it in the papers. For a while there, every day saw massive layoffs. Grown men and women. Experienced attorneys. Middle-aged folks with nice homes and kids in university. Out on their asses. An acquaintance of mine was a VP at one of the bigger NYC firms. He’d get drunk — more so now than ever — and tell me about how many people he’d had to fire. Friends. Slaughterhouse. The industry would have to get leaner.

Which meant no more Lockstep. If firms couldn’t afford to keep their own employees on salary, they sure as hell weren’t gonna invest huge sums into a bunch of asshole know-nothing law students if they can’t bill them out at inflationary rates. But they still needed prestige to market themselves. They still needed some of the new grads. Maybe not the Top 30% anymore. Maybe just the Top 2% of students at Tier 1 schools. But then they couldn’t pay them as much — they couldn’t pay them hardly anything. In the heart of the recession, they started handing out waivers to would-be hires: $20,000 for the exclusive right to hire a graduate should the money become available after the recession. Law students were fighting over the rights to hypothetical jobs now. They had to finish in the Top 5% of their class to even have a chance at decent work. And if you finished in the top quarter?

Well, you see, OCI completely dried up. No longer would the hordes descend. No longer would students be wined and dined. A few hiring partners would trickle in and collect information from the top one or two students, maybe give them a summer to help out around the office, and then make an offer to maybe a quarter of them. Or give them a waiver. Lockstep was gone. And all the students that could no longer count on OCI? Well, competition for what jobs remained was fierce. A friend of mine opened a spot on a traffic court in the Carolinas. He had two hundred applications in three days. From top students. Law Review folk. T6ers. A Yalie. He ended up hiring a local — less of a flight risk.

So things seemed bleak. But that’s not the worst part. The worst part is that despite repeated exposés in the Wall Street Journal and the Guardian and the New York Times and just about every paper, the public perception was still that law school was a safe bet — a road to riches. And so many people were out of work and looking for a place to weather the recession. Enrollments exploded. Every single LSAT was the highest-ever attended. Enrollment hit an all-time high every year. Schools saw applications skyrocket. There was so much demand for seats that the ABA went nuts and accredited a never-ending glut of schools. And the universities — oh, the universities! — hit by constricting public budgets and endowments, schools turned to the moneymaker of law schools to make up the lost cash. They built larger buildings and stuffed them to the brim with federal loan-backed students.

Did anyone notice or care that the massive supply of new law graduates would be faced with an anemic demand for their negligible services? That even if you throw out things like the increasing availability of boilerplate documentation or the exponential productivity of newly-incorporated discovery software which turned years-long projects staffing hundreds of hour-billing lawyers into something that could be handled in just a few weeks with just a handful of engineers, even if you throw all that out, the dissolution of Lockstep meant the careers all these new law school enrollments had in their heads simply did not exist on the scale or with the availability they had envisioned? Did nobody stop to think that the look of pride on their mothers’ faces might have come from the perception that the legal field was something which it no longer could be? Anyone?

No.

The salary distribution in the legal sector is strongly bimodal. Means the average looks good, but the reality is a bunch of people making a lot of money, then a ton of people making $30,000 a year. That’s if you have a job; which, owing to the massive supply and minimal demand, is something a lower proportion of recent graduates than just about ever before in history have obtained. The classmates that had connections already — guaranteed jobs through their social networks or families — got jobs. The rest got slaughtered at an anemic OCI. Did you know Harvard had to postpone their OCI in order to give firms more time to clear space for their graduates? Not something that goes on the brochure, I’m sure. But there are so many unemployed law graduates now. You can read about it anywhere. Every publication has done a story or two on it now.

Of course, that’s the thing: everyone assumes it won’t happen to them. It’s the ‘special snowflake syndrome’ that law professors talk about. Literally anyone with an undergraduate degree can get into law school now — such is the availability thanks to the ABA — that you can get a seat at some schools even if you got every single answer wrong on the LSAT. And yet newly-admitted students could not be more proud of themselves. Every last one of them is going to be in the Top 5%. All of them. And they are going to practice ‘International Law’ or ‘Sports Law’ or ‘Video Games Law’ or ‘Space Law’ or any number of fields that exist solely in the law school’s promotional material. And all their classmates — who, by the way, also found their undergraduate classes to be pretty unchallenging — are total mouthbreathers who could never hope to compete. They’re definitely going to be sitting alone at the top of the curve come exam time. Never mind the old joke about law professors grading tests by hurling the stack down a staircase and letting gravity set the curve. Never mind the often-arbitrary rubric by which professors appraise their loathsome mounds of IRAC (Issue, Relevant law, Application to facts, and Conclusion). Everyone is a special snowflake on their way to the Hague, and the rest of their classmates are a bunch of idiots. The herds of recent law grads working in warehouses doing temp doc review for twelve bucks an hour lacked the ambition or else their schools lacked the prestige of the ‘special snowflake’ student. Actuarial realities do not apply to them because they were valedictorians in high school.

That’s not to say that nobody gets jobs. Plenty of people get jobs. They go to school and they get really good grades or they meet the right people and give a good interview or they have connections and end up with a great, high-paying job. This happens. It happened to some of my friends. But this is more the exception than the rule now. The dynamics of the previous century have changed. This is life post-recession. Most of my classmates and friends — all from top schools — do not have the job they imagined. Many are out of the industry. Some were given temp jobs in university law libraries so their respective Offices of Career Development could report them as ‘gainfully employed in the legal sector’ in the employment numbers on the school’s promotional material. Others work as copywriters, analysts, or managers. Still more work hourly, having long since removed the J.D. from their resumes to assuage the flight-risk and over-qualification worries of HR directors.

Things are different now. Just recently, the ABA finally released an article indicating that a legal education is now, in general, no longer a financially sound investment. That’s coming from the ABA. So think about it. I know you’re flattered by the scholarships various schools have offered. I know your family is suddenly proud of you; your mom is telling all her friends that she birthed an attorney. You’re already deciding between bone and eggshell for your business cards — the ones that end in Esquire. I get it. I understand. And maybe you are truly exceptional. And maybe I am just sitting on my piles of Thought Catalog money and crying of sour grapes. Maybe. But either way: do some research. Don’t trust the myths. Talk to some recent graduates. Get coffee with a hiring partner. Law school is research — so start now. TC mark

image – Paul Lowry

Jack Cazir

Jack Cazir is definitely not one of those people who moves to Brooklyn to attend an MFA program and then …

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