Law Porn in the New York Times

When I read Case Western Reserve’s law school dean, Lawrence Mitchell’s, op-ed in the New York Times (thanks all who sent me links, though I read the Times too, ya know), I quickly issued a typically snarky twit :



Case Western Law Dean Lawrence Mitchell in op-ed: Do these hotpants make my butt look fat?

While it’s not really law porn, only for lack of glossy pictures of naked lawprofs, the content of Mitchell’s opus would make any marketeer blush. It was shameless.  Rather than rush here to expose this nonsense, I waited for Paul Campos at  Inside the Law School Scam to deconstruct it, and I was well rewarded with gems like this:



Taking   potshots at unnamed critics is fun.



The hysteria has masked some important realities and created an environment in which some of the brightest potential lawyers are, largely irrationally, forgoing the possibility of a rich, rewarding and, yes, profitable, career.


Translation: Getting people to spend $200,000 for a 50/50 shot at a legal job of any kind is getting harder every day.



The starting point is the job market. It’s bad. It’s bad in many industries. “Bad,” in law, means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially at law firms. But a little historical perspective will reveal that the law job market has been bad — very bad — before. To take the most recent low before this era, in 1998, 55 percent of law graduates started in law firms. In 2011, that number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic. And this statistic ignores the other jobs lawyers do.


If we define “law graduates starting in law firms” in the broadest way possible, by counting every single job any law graduate in the class of 2011 got at a law firm, 41 percent of law graduates whose employment outcomes were recorded (this data is missing for 4 percent of ABA law graduates in the 2011 class) got a job with a law firm.  If we define “starting in law firms” to mean “got jobs as lawyers with law firms,” which is surely how readers will interpret that phrase – that is, if we don’t count people who got jobs as secretaries, paralegals and clerks, i.e., jobs they could have gotten without acquiring a law degree first – that percentage drops to 34.7 percent.  If we limit the phrase to full-time lawyer jobs, the percentage drops to 32 percent. If we exclude new grads who listed themselves as members of “firms” consisting of one lawyer (themselves) that figure becomes 29.5 percent. Statistics  here.

But then, why bother to post here what Campos has already posted? When I stopped by his blog, I found another post, one that reminded me a great deal of this post, that demanded wider airing.  It’s an email from a young lawyer, and it reflects things I’ve heard far too often.


 

I started law school in 2002 and graduated in 2005.  Prior to going to law school I had heard rumblings about how being an attorney was not as profitable as the schools made it out to be.  I was also warned by other attorneys that it was very stressful.  Unfortunately that information did not sink in and I bought the hype that [average-ranked law school] offered.  So I spent three good years of my life working on a degree that I believe should have only taken two.

Then reality really hit when I entered the job market.  It was not good.  You could find jobs but for $40,000 to $50,000.  At first I thought that it was me, that I had not done the right things, ie kiss up to the right people, done unpaid internships, etc.  So I decided to hang up my own shingle.  I opened my own office, and tried to make a go of it.  It has been an incredibly difficult five years.  For many of those years I would blame myself for not doing better; I began to believe that there was huge mistake that I was making or I had made that had alienated clients, or that I wasn’t advertising properly, or any number of things that could be attributed to an office that produced income, but not that much.  I worked long hours by myself trying to satisfy clients that could not be satisfied.  I panicked at little mistakes, and thought the worst case scenarios for every misstep.  It was a miserable existence and it put me in a depressive state with bouts of anxiety that were difficult to control.


For us old guys, like me and Mitchell, we’re debating the virtues of a profession.  For the writer of this email to Campos, it’s his life.  Mitchell waxes vague. The writer lies awake in his bed at night wondering how he will feed his children in the morning.  I’m damn angry about this.

It’s not that making the decision to go to law school, to become a lawyer, has no virtue. It is, or at least used to be and can be once again, a worthwhile and important profession.  It’s that the marketeering, the law porn, reflected in Mitchell’s empty prose is designed to do one thing, and one thing only: obscure the downside and deceive the unduly optimistic.

As much as I may rail against deceptive legal marketers for pushing their naive, ignorant or scummy lawyer-clients ahead in the race to the bottom, their smiling faces have nothing on this law dean.  His words will comfort parents who remember lawyers as being prominent members of the community, with fine houses and manicured lawns, who want nothing more for their children than to be secure in a comfortable life, guaranteed by generations of vested Solomons. 

And their children, unclear of where their life should be and seeking refuge from a troubled world, assume that following the crowd will assure them that they will get that BMW and corner office.  All those smiling faces on law school websites can’t be wrong.

Yet the email to Campos reflects the brutal reality.  The writer concedes the depression his choice brought him, and later in the email, admits to thoughts of doing harm to himself.  Would it bother you greatly, Dean Mitchell, is you found out some kid read your op-ed, became a lawyer, and took his life?  Or would that just be collateral damage to the more important cause of filling your law schools empty seats?

It’s time to make it plain. Cut the crap. These are real people’s lives you’re screwing with. Law deans don’t get a free pass on bullshit any more than anyone else.




26 comments on “Law Porn in the New York Times

  1. Concerned Citizen

    Thanks Scott. When I first saw Mitchell’s Op-Ed when it came out, I had to check the date to be sure it wasn’t some April Fool’s Day spoof from Turkewitz or some such.

    Sheesh.

    [Ed. Note: If you want your comment posted in the future, use a real email address. This is a one-time-only posting.]

  2. Wyrd

    The first I’d heard about the new meme “being a lawyer isn’t all it’s cracked up to be” was when a lawyer friend of mine facebooked a link to the xtranormal video “So you want to be a lawyer?” (readily available in many versions on youtube).

    Until then it hadn’t even occurred to me to question the classical mainstream perception of lawyers as an always highly lucrative profession.

    So what I’m wondering now is: what happened? I’m guessing to some extent, it’s always been like this? I.e. for every one financially successful lawyer there’s several others that are struggling. But maybe it’s gotten worse over time perhaps? If so, would this be in part due to the significant amount of hype coming both from deans like Mitchel and also all myriad “and you can too!” marketers out there?


    Furry cows moo and decompress.

  3. Erika

    i kind of have to disagree slightly in that the email of the kid complaining about being able to find jobs paying $40,000 to $50,000 to start is not without blame. Around 2005 that would have been the starting salary for an Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney or Assistant Public Defender in a smaller jurisdiction in Virginia.

    In most of the United States (certainly a small jurisdiction in Virginia) you could live reasonably well on $40,000 to $50,000 a year even paying back student loans (as long as they were reasonable) and even in a small jurisdiction’s Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office you still would have had salary increases.

    Thus while the overall issue is valid, it seems that the writer has partially himself to blame for scoffing at only making $40,000 to %50,000 to start and trying to make more as a solo.

    i believe that the real problem we are seeing now in law schools is a combination of increased law school tuition and the lack of hiring in those state and local government jobs such as those within a Commonwealth’s Attorney’s office or a Public Defender’s Office. Local and state governments simply are not hiring new law school graduates which means that one of the primary former ways for new attorneys to graduately gain experience through working in a public defender’s or prosecutors office is gone. And even if they were, their starting salaries is still set for a time when law schools cost a reasonable amount.

    If you could still go to a good public law school for under $20,000 a year (including everything), a $40,000-50,000 a year job in a low cost of living jurisdiction is quite feasible. The problem is that the good public law school i went to in the 2000s for under $20,000 a year total is now charging a cost of over $40,000 a year even with instate tuition. This past year, they sent out a franic email begging for any sort of job leads for their graduates and students and eventually wound up subsidizing several graduates to work in public interest jobs for a year (the public interest agency where i work took one). And that is a very highly regarded law school.

    When even the “affordable” option is costing over $40,000 a year and even graduates of highly regarded law schools can’t find jobs there is something wrong. There is simply no possible way i can recommend to anyone going to law school in this environment. Anyone who asks me if i think they should go to law school, i tell them no. And i’m an employed attorney with a job i love (and while i don’t make a lot of money working in public interest law, i’m perfectly happy with my little house and my decade old car)

    Way happier than anyone at the biglaw firm where i used to work anyway – if only law school students knew how misrable people who actually receive the law student dream of high paid biglaw jobs really are much of this problem could be avoided

  4. SHG

    This is one of those posts directed at lawyers and lawyer-wannabes. Why would you have a clue? No reason for a non-lawyer to speculate about such things, but if you decided that law school was for you, then you would need to exercise some due diligence about your future.

  5. SHG

    Be careful about falling into a bit of a trap. No matter what one’s complaint, there is always someone who suffers worse or makes do better, thereby diminishing its point. Maybe he’s not good at budgeting, or lives in Manhattan. Maybe he’s got three kids to feed. Maybe he’s a whiner or delicate teacup. There are a wealth of maybes that we don’t know.

    But if the core message is accurate, then to nibble around the edges about matters lacking sufficient information to challenge isn’t a good use of time, effort or brain cells, and only detracts from the valid message for no good reason.

  6. Wyrd

    “No reason for a non-lawyer to speculate about such things”
    No reason to speculate? I’m a philosopher. (not professionally) Speculating is what I do for a not-living.

  7. Erika

    Sorry, i do not want to distract from the overall point which i am in complete agreement with :)

    Maybe i’d just be better off pointing out that potential law students should be as concerned about the risks of “success” as the risks of “failure” before entering law school. The risks of failure (unemployment, working at Starbucks, crushing student loan debt) are well documented – the risks of “success” in the legal profession are much less well documented.

    Biglaw also has an elevated suicide and depression risk and it is present throughout the legal profession as is alcohol and drug abuse. Some of the most misarable people you will ever meet work at BIGLAW. One has to consider that there is something about the legal profession in general which leads people to become misarable since everyone in the legal profession from the struggling solo to the biglaw partner or top government official is at elevated risk of depression, drug and alcohol abuse, and suicide.

    Law was in many respects a terrible career choice even when law school was relatively inexpensive and law jobs were plentiful – that is why so many lawyers left the practice of law.

    In fact, when i was in law school, i actually realized that statistically that one of the primary reasons why any new lawyer actually was able to get a job was older attorneys leaving the profession :)

  8. Kokuanani S

    As a complement to Campos’ article, see [Ed. Note: Link deleted per rules, with the note that link spamming is particularly not appreciated. Narcissistic endorsement left in for lulz.]

    Don’t let the “girls’ guide” name put you off; it’s really quite good.

  9. Joe Pew

    I think Dean Mitchell’s comments are even more troubling in light of the first paragraph of the email regarding warnings that “didn’t sink in”. I think that happens to almost everyone. I know that when I was considering applying to law school I spoke with several lawyers who were brutally frank in their assessment of the realities of the profession. I think I fell into the “it won’t happent to me” mindset. You hear about stress, and not making as much money as you’d like, or not finding a job at all, or hating the job you do find. You hear that you’ll be saddled with ridiculous debt. But you don’t believe it will happen to you. In some ways, I think law school self-selects for precisely that attitude. So you ignore the warnings and go to law school. Because those warnings came from bitter guys (ignoring, of course, that those bitter guys are your friends and family who you respected right up until they gave you advice you didn’t want to believe). And because there are deans of law schools saying precisely what you want to hear – that the bitter guys really are just bitter. I’m not sure that wannabe lawyers will ever really listen to the pre-law school warnings, but the situation certainly isn’t helped by Dean Mitchell glossing over the very real problems facing the majority of law school graduates.

  10. SHG

    Confirmation bias is a terrible thing. We are always more inclined to believe that which agrees with what we already believe.  Combined unwarranted optimism (I will be the one who does great!!!), sadly a very common trait of millennials, raised with the belief that each one individually is a special little snowflate, it’s nearly impossible to counter.

    And yes, all us mean, old naysayers are just bitter. Because we fear the competition/hate our lives/want you to suffer like we did/whatever.  It’s tough trying to warn young people. It’s tougher still when they are absolutely certain they are brilliant and their life will be fabulous, while we’re just old, mean and bitter. Very tough.

  11. Joe Pew

    By the way, I didn’t intend to imply that the people giving warnings were actually bitter, just that it is an easy way to disregard such warnings. And, frankly, it didn’t happen to me – I got lucky enough to land two different jobs that I actually like, though there were definitely some tough times in between. Now, though, I’m the one giving the same warnings, trying to make sure people go to law school with their eyes open. And I get to see the faces close up and the eyes lose interest as the person I’m talking to starts to view me as “bitter”. Because an article in the New York Times said everything will probably be just fine.

  12. SHG

    I didn’t think you did, or that you were speaking of yourself.

    But what you did do, and do quite well, was capture a lot of the reaction I’ve experienced in trying to shed a bit of light on these problems.  Not only is it unappreciated, but it most young people respond very poorly to be told anything they don’t want to hear.

  13. JMS

    As someone who went to law school in 2005-2008, one factor in that decision was, “If I want to get a decent, middle-class job, I need to get something more than a B.A. in English. An M.A. isn’t worth much more; a Ph.D. locks me into chasing terrible-paying jobs in academia chasing a vanishing tenure track. I’ve got a bunch of science credits, so maybe I could get an M.S. or Doctorate if I went back to undergraduate school. But hell, that is a lot of time, a ton of money, and still not necessarily a great outcome, job-wise.”

    In comparison, law school was only 3 years out of my life and probably cost the same or less as my other options.

    I’m not denying that there’s a Law School Scam. There certainly is. But one reason young people keep tumbling over that cliff like lemmings is because our undergraduate education system isn’t coupled with job counseling for a post-industrial society.

  14. SHG

    There is a point somewhere in your comment to the effect that a liberal arts education ain’t worth spit, though somebody has to be erudite in our society. That said, there is also a point hidden between the lines that you could take that amorphous undergrad degree and, well, go to work somewhere.

    Even with a degree as pointless as a BA in English, there are plenty of jobs you could do. Assistant manager at Dairy Queen, for instance? Great career potential. Walmart greeter? Perfect for the people-person. Plumber? Pays well and the degree wouldn’t necessarily get in your way.

    None would require the opportunity cost of three years of your life plus tuition. I wonder why you didn’t choose plumber?

  15. JMS

    I did go to work somewhere – several somewheres, actually – in the 8 years between undergrad and law school. But I found that if I wanted an actual career, and an income that would support a small family in modest comfort, I needed to go back to school.

    Because, from a career standpoint, I and I alone made a stupid choice–but one that my school was more than happy to let me make. But law schools are equally happy to take people in, knowing it’s a bad decision for those students.

    I’m agreeing with you that it’s a scam, but I think the scam is broader than just law school.

    I don’t especially regret going to law school; there are days when I’m happy to be a lawyer; but I don’t really know what else I would have done.

  16. SHG

    I don’t disagree at all that liberal arts undergrad degrees ought to come with a warning, but I understand that (a) there’s a reason for its existence and (b) it’s not like kids don’t have a chance to pick their major.

    But to the extent undergrad is a quasi-scam, isn’t law school just doubling down?

  17. Erika

    If you look at the comments on Campos site you will see just how pervasive the problem of perspective or former or current law students not listening to experienced lawyers warnings really is.

    Despite the fact that there is ample information available that working in biglaw is horrible, most of the commenters are still operating under the paradigm that if they would just be one of the “lucky” few to get the biglaw job than everything would be alright.

    Thus, even on a law school is a scam website, most everyone doesn’t question the idea that what may make going to law school a bad idea is failure – but there is little discussion of what happens if you “suceed” out of law school and get the job of your dreams (and then find out that you hate it). It doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter of the problems with law school and the legal profession.

    The fact is that even if law schools were cheap and law jobs were plentiful and well paying law would still be an extremely miserable profession for many.

    But its not like potential law students will listen to that warning either ;)

  18. SHG

    One of the most pervasive problems in addressing the problems of law students/new lawyers is that almost all the blawgs that talk about it are one trick ponies, dedicated to eradicating a particular aspect of the problem without recognizing the broader problems, both for law schools as well as the profession.

    And consequently, they tend to gather an audience similarly focused on their particular gripe, and either ignorant or at least unconcerned about the other problems or their interrelationship.  Put a group together with a similar focus, and you’re bound to end up with myopic discussions.

    If you think the commenters there are bad, consider the level of discussion on lawprof blogs.

    I’ve advocated bringing all the problems and players into the same room to hash it out. The silence of the response was deafening. There’s a basic rule of life, nobody gives a damn about a problem until it touches their lives.

  19. Andrew

    You missed the point of the email that I sent to Professor Campos. There is a serious problem in the legal profession as it relates to depression, anxiety, and alcohol abuse. Money is a small component of it. I have poured my heart and soul into my practice for the last 5 years and it has taken a toll on my and everyone around me, including my three kids. Law schools do not adequately prepare your for being an attorney. And I’m not a delicate little teacup, I’m just a normal guy that burned out and now feels trapped.

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