Tuesday, January 8, 2013

There's No Crying In Law Practice.

Is Law School Worth the Effort?
To go to law school or not to go to law school?  Thoreau would tell you to go confidently in the direction of your dreams.   The question is can law school help you live the life you've imagined for yourself.  Does a law school degree guarantee you a big salary, a house with a white picket fence and a Mercedes in your garage?  The worth of a law school education has again become a hot topic on legal blogs, social media sites and at various Starbucks locations situated near LSAT prep course centers.  When we originally published our take on the subject, the response was overwhelming from readers.  It even led to a few threats towards yours truly.  They included fond wishes that I lose my job, wistful dreams that I get my tie caught in a paper shredder and forlorn prayers that I choke on a Skittle.  So without further adieu, the NL presents an encore presentation of "There is No Crying in Law Practice."

I was recently approached by a law graduate friend who was bemoaning his decision to go to law school.  This past October, he learned that he had passed the Connecticut bar exam.  Nevertheless, three months into his job search he had not found employment that he considered worthy of his status.  He had job offers but none at a salary level he thought he deserved.   Three months and your already giving up on your pursuit of a legal career?  I told him he needed to build up his resume and get some experience under his belt. He broke down to me. "What am I gonna do? 

My eye began to twitch.  Suddenly, I turned into Don Correlone berating his godson Johnny Fontaine. "You can act like a man [slap] what's a matta with you?" I quickly calmed down.  "I never wanted this for you. I work my whole life--I don't apologize--to take care of my family, and I refused to be a fool, dancing on the string held by all those bigshots. I don't apologize--that's my life--but I thought that, that when it was your time, that you would be the one to hold the string. Senator Law Grad; Governor Law Grad".  But I digress.....

A trending topic on social media these days is that law school is a waste of time.  I have run across countless blogs of disgruntled grads complaining about the job market and the ability to make a buck.  Many complain of empty promises and high student debt. It's an old vintage of whine.  The anti law school flames were stoked further when the Old Gray Lady wrote a piece on how law school is a losing game.   In that particular NY Times article, the paper quotes recent law grads who have had trouble finding a good legal job.  Really, you have trouble finding work in one of the worst economies since the Great Depression.   You can't find a job even though you emailed your resume to all the big firms.  Career services stinks and they don't want to help you?  You made a bad life decision and suddenly no one should go to law school. Excuse me while I play the world's smallest violin to ease your sorrow.  Besides, there's no crying in law practice.  (Unless it's for the benefit of a jury.)

My intent is not to belittle the experience some have had in finding a job.  I acknowledge that there is a problem with the way law schools market their success rate.  I agree that tuition is out of control.  I am also not naive to the obstacles facing recent law grads and that law school debt can be suffocating.  You think you're the only one.  I went through it too.  Many of us did.  I still experience days where I reconsider my choice in professions.  It's tough.  .For solo and small firm practitioners, it can be hard to compete with an attorney whose budget allows them to plaster their number on television, billboards and buses.  You have to compete with do it yourself legal forms sites and a glut of other attorneys.  For Big Law applicants, it can be hard to compete with a slew of job seekers for only a handful of spots.  I understand that there is a real problem.  According to a Northwestern Law study, over 15,000 attorney and legal staff jobs have disappeared.  But let's be frank.  It's tough in every job sector.  So what are you going to do about it?  Are you going to be a statistic or are you going to make yourself stand out from the crowd.   

I recently had this conversation with a handful of recent graduates.  After speaking with them, I was not surprised some did not get jobs.  For the majority of them, their job "searches" were limited to emailing cookie cutter resumes to a hodge podge of firms. They were addressed to "dear Hiring partner."  They relied on their law school's career service listings.  Their resumes mirrored those found in the career services example book.  They never took part in clinics, bar association events or career oriented seminars during law school.  They didn't spend their summers working and networking.  They never approached alumni.   Many went straight from high school to college to law school.  Only a few had any real job experiences.

I could have easily fallen into this hole of self loathing misery.  I graduated from a lower tiered school.  I was an evening student. I worked during the days and took classes at night. I wasn't a law review, cum laude graduate. To make matters worse, I decided to practice law in a state where law jobs were few and far between compared to the offerings in the neighboring meccas of Boston and New York City.  My law school contacts, career service leads and my friends were all in New York.  Here, I was starting from scratch.  (Did I mention walking up hill, both ways in blizzards and that I lived in a log cabin?)"  

Granted, it was tough.  When I didn't land a job my first few months out, I decided to take on an internship at a small firm for experience.  To pay the bills,  I spent my nights working as a bar DJ.  Every time I started feeling sorry for myself, I thought of my father coming to this country as an immigrant.  He had nothing.  I wasn't exactly standing in a soup line at the local shelter.  I had a law degree.  I passed the bar.  All I needed was a client and I was in business.

Thankfully, my sacrifices paid off.  I would eventually provide my own salary. I became a rainmaker of sorts.  I joined civic and bar associations.  I did pro bono work for the experience.  I reminded family and friends that I was a lawyer.  I didn't wait for career services to find me a job.  I networked.  I pounded the pavement. I did contract work. As my experience and client base grew, so did my salary.  Word of mouth spread.  The money I made, I put into the firm's marketing efforts.  I gave seminars.  I started a blog. I created a website.  I developed a niche practice.  In two years, I had made partner.  

Law practice isn't for everyone.  It can be very stressful. But it can also be extremely rewarding.  To be successful in law practice, you can't be doing it just for the promise of a big paycheck.  I know several people who entered law school for just that reason.  They never had an interest in practicing law. For most lawyers, it's a love / hate relationship.  And it beats digging ditches.

Besides, since when did a law degree guarantee you a BMW in your driveway and a huge salary in  your wallet.  Neither does a teaching degree, an engineering degree or any other degree.  Would you tell your kid not to go to college because its a tough job market?  A law degree will still open doors for you.  If you think the market is tough with an advanced degree, imagine the market without it.

There is no doubt about it.  Law school can be a miserable experience.  What's your point? Nothing is going to be handed to you.  Not every law student will find work on Park Avenue. No likes hard work.   But hard work can lead to great things.  There are countless directions you can go with a law degree.   Even if you can't find a job you can always hang your own shingle.   That's what is great about having a legal degree.  The possibilities are endless.   To paraphrase Ben Franklin, you are only guaranteed the right to the pursuit of happiness. You have to catch it yourself.  


Corinne A. Tampas said...

I suggest Anonymous, above, go to dental school. Then, s/he can graduate with twice the debt and the prospect of purchasing several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment just to practice his or her profession. Toss in the absolute need of several employees and high rent for an office to house all those expensive dental chairs. ... The bottom line? The law is the only profession I know of where you can be in business for the cost of a laptop and an Internet connection.

Adrian M. Baron said...

Anonymous, Thank you for your kind comments. I know very well how bad it is out there. Unfortunately, you missed the point of my post.

John Henderson said...

Finally someone said it. Wonderful post. Tough love and the hard truth. Anonymous needs to grow up.
To tell someone that you hope they lose their job hiding behind "anonymous" is even worse.

Frankly, its that kind of attitude the bar can do without.

Anonymous said...

We have entered an age where everyone has to win. No first place. Life isn't like that. Spot on post.

Juums said...

As a recent graduate from a low-tiered school who spent his time in law school anchoring the left end of the grading curve, allow me to express my thanks. It's wonderfully refreshing for someone to remind us that there's an entire cosmology of practice beyond Big Law and that there's no shame in being there.

And that it really is better than digging ditches.

JackofGreen said...

Thanks for this post I couldn't agree with you more. You are exactly right in that I'm tired of listening to graduating law student talk about, "how hard it is" to get a law job. Yes, law schools should be a little more honest about how not everyone who goes to their school is going to get a $100K job with a BMW.

However, if you are in law school that generally means that you have a college education and should be able to be an adult and do some research BEFORE you go to see if you can find a job with your bright shinny law school degree.

Evil HR Lady said...

Excellent post. So many people just send out resumes hoping for a job.

I have a brother who is a lawyer, and while he graduated in 2007, he had a plan from the beginning. He knew what town he wanted to live in, so after college graduation he sent resumes to every lawfirm (every single one) in this town and said he was going to law school in the fall and he would do anything.

One law firm had a storage shed that needed cleaning and organizing. So, he spent his summer cleaning and organizing a storage shed. They were so impressed with his hard work they offered him a summer job the next year.

When he graduated, guess who had a job? That's right. The guy who was willing to sweep up mouse droppings in 110 degree weather.

Anonymous said...

I'm a lawyer in the south and I have to say this:

As a whole, law students and recent grads have zero idea what sacrifices are. 3 months of misery looking for a job and you bitch?

I see the very small time of joblessness translate into bitterness and anxiety during interviews.

Well, guess what? You want anxiety? Put $1.1 million in costs into a contingency case. Or review 2 million documents with a small staff.

If you can't handle it now, I don't have time to spoon feed you the law when others with more experience, and families, and ones who are hungry to work at $25 an hour are competing for a job.

Better yet, quit. There are too many lawyers anyway.

Anonymous said...

I agree. So many entered law schools after the dot.com bust looking for a quick buck. No interest in actual practice.

The Bar doesn't need lawyers like that. Already enough whiners

Anonymous said...

Great post, and I loved the ending. Your law degree doesn't entitle you to six figure salary. With a little work, it's very possible to make a respectable salary in the $50-60k range right out of law school. That's significantly more than your American Studies degree would have provided you, and it's a fine salary if you're not comparing it against artificially high expectations.

Plus, students now have the IBR loan payment plan, which allows your loan payment amounts to be contingent on your income. Better yet, if you work for a nonprofit you can have the remainder of your loans forgiven after 10 years. That's a huge benefit, and really undercuts the argument that crippling debt makes the six-figure salary a necessity.

Anonymous said...

Law school is a cash cow and student loan interest rates are outrageous for a good reason. People buy into the myth that law equals big bucks and there is a never ending supply of knuckleheads to take the bait. People have a habit of hearing what they want to hear. But nothing worthwhile comes without hard work (and maybe a little bit of passion?)
Don't blame law school. Blame misguided expectations. Chose your career based on your interests and values. And a sense of perspective would also help.

Anonymous said...

This article (despite the several excellent points it makes) is somewhat incomplete (TO THE POINT OF INACCURACY).
My own perspective is that I graduated in the middle of my classfrom a large top tier public law school law school in 1977. I had no debt since the tuition was about $500 a semester. I never make six figures as a worked primarily for the government (very good benifits and no worries about payroll and other costs of doing business, which are no minor). Today I have a perfectly adequate pension from my 20 years of government work.

These additional points should be considered:

1)The largest firms are interested only in grads in the top ten percent of their law school class. All of the people in these firms were in the top ten percent and the assumption on their part is that great lawyers (like themselves) will all have this quality. In addition, this assumption, whatever its validity) relieves them of the job ofdeciding things for themselves. so if you can't get into a top 5 law school consider going to the worst law school in your area...there will be much less competition and you'll have the best chance of being able to say you are in the top ten percent.

2) The system of study and testing in law school is different than undergrad. Whatever else you do get some (or several) lawyer to give you his or advise about studying before you go to law school. Don't know ant lawyers? Just call up lawyers in your area (one who went to your law school) and explain you have just been admitted to law school and would like some tips about what to do. I guarrantee that most of them will give you an hour of their time. Take notes and acton what they tell you.

Anonymous said...

No, DO BLAME LAW SCHOOL, because the employment data they send out is full of lies. BLAME THE ABA for accrediting law schools left and right with no regard for the quality of lawyers being churned out or whether this oversupply is sustainable.
While I understand that some of these blogs give a slight whiff of whininess, they are doing a great service by raising awareness about the law school racket.
Also, while it may be easy to dismiss new lawyers as lazy and entitled, the vast majority of young lawyers I know care deeply about the profession but struggle with the oversupply of lawyers. I suggest some of you actually take the time to get to know newly licensed lawyers and you will understand that most are decent hardworking people who are struggling and this struggle wont end when the economy bounces because we are competing with far too many of our kind.

Adrian M. Baron said...

Its like anything else. A degree doesn't guarantee you a job. I know the market is tough. I am only a few years out of lawschool. But I see the efforts some make. They email resumes. They don't network. They rely solely on career service listings. Of course every case is different but you can't blame law school. You're an adult. You wanted to be a lawyer. You went to law school. Its a tough economy. You can't blame law school for that. My post was intended more for those that went to law school with no real interest to practice. They went because they assumed it was a guaranteed pay day. It's not.
What degree can guarantee you a job? At the very least, you're better off with an advanced degree than without one

EPLawyer said...

Many years before I actually went to law school I read "Slaying the Law School Dragon." The author mentioned that during the Depression, lawyers who couldn't find work set up apple crates in the subway system in NYC and typed on them. That was their office. The guy nearest the payphone answered it for everyone. Someone they managed to work and use their degrees rather than whine.

If you are not at the apple crate stage, you have nothing to complain about.

KiKi said...

Thank you for your post. I think it's important to remember how lucky we are to even have had the opportunity to incur the kind of debt we new graduates have. After a J.D. and an LL.M., I have debt amounting to a mortgage on a nice house. That being said, with so many people in this world living in misery, I can't complain that I don't have a job. I have my health, a great brain, and more education than many people in this world are privileged to attain. I'm networking, doing volunteer work and have plans to open a practice with my husband if no firm "picks" me. My legal education changed my life in ways that money can't buy and I'm eternally grateful to my creditors for making it possible.

Rick Rutledge said...

I find it interesting to note which comments are posted anonymously.

I have a post in a similar vein from a few months ago, because I grew tired of the "I can't find a job." whining. You don't need an employer when you have a profession!

Christine McCall said...

I am a partner in a small 3-attorney niche firm. Occasionally I get frustrated and cynical about the business of law. My partner Mike, who worked his way through law school working for a swimming pool contractor, always snaps me out of it by reminding me that one's worst day as a lawyer is better than the best day digging trenches in the rain. That observation always shuts me up, and rightly so.

Anj said...

Hey there,

Thank you for posting this. I graduated with my BA last year (2010). Traveled overseas, got random jobs after coming back to US, currently working in Higher Ed/state gov't. making low 30's.

I have been following, researching, reading, reading, reading a lot of articles, blawgs, and meeting law grads that sound depressed, miserable and unemployed.

It's almost the end of 2011 and you know, I get what they're saying, feel sorry and even considered forgetting law school/ my goals. But here's the thing-- I never wanted/want to go into Big Law. I just want to eat, be clothed (not naked), have a place to call home and practice law serving others. I would pick law vs education, nursing, counseling, social work because I can help others utilizing what I am naturally good at.

I am hoping to snag any law related entry-level court/ state gov't (switch agency, same or less pay) to learn and keep saving.

So yeah, I am planning and willing to wait, save an d go to law school one day, graduate and be happy to work for free as long as I have my basic needs.

I would do that now, but I can't because I'm a mom and it wouldn't be fair to make my child sacrifice so I can go help others.

So, the plan is to save a lot, work, learn-- even if it takes a couple years and go when it makes financial sense so I can utilize a law degree to help others while taking care of my family.

Thanks again for this article and everyone who shared.

Civil Litigation Attorneys said...

I know it's quite hard to sustain in the law firm but if you fight hard back to it , you will definitely find a successive place to sustain.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this. I'm going to be a 1L at a top-tier school in the fall and still fall prey to reading blogs by disgruntled law school graduates regretting their decision to earn their J.D. I try to remain positive and hope to use the great networking skills I picked up along my undergraduate career to (hopefully) succeed in law school, but there still is a general feeling of anxiety. Your advice is really great though and I will definitely keep it in mind!

Rob said...

More than just in the legal sector, it's pretty tough to get a job of any kind these days. Whether it be a huge uk umbrella company or a small start-up, having the skills, education, and experience really makes a difference.

Anonymous said...

Law has ceased to be a profession and is a game of sales

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