A visit to my office has evolved into something akin to the road to Lourdes. Pilgrims arrive red-eyed and defeated, faces etched with misery, searching for a way out of a trap.
The standard story is some variant of the following: You are either out of work or loathe your work. You have $180k in loans. You have either no income or an impermanent income paid to you in exchange for any joy life might offer. You see no hope.
Let me spell out the critical element here: You are one hundred and eighty thousand dollars in debt.
Just to fully drive the point home: that’s bankruptcy-proof debt.
You’ve yelled at your parents, but it’s not really their fault. You’ve wept and wailed and gotten drunk and stoned and consumed a script of Xanax. You’ve tried sleeping and pretending you don’t have to wake up.
Then comes the pilgrimage. Perhaps I can heal with a laying on of hands.
Okay, here’s the feedback I’ll receive for what I’ve written so far:
You’re exaggerating. You’re bringing me down. Law isn’t so bad. I love law.
Yeah, well good for you. I’m not exaggerating.
It’s their own damn fault. No one made them go to law school.
Yes. They. Did. Stop kidding yourself – the entire system is engineered to lead smart, conscientious kids exactly where it leads them. And get off it already with the no sympathy/blame the victim routine.
How bad are things? How many times can I pose that (at this point rhetorical) question?
Young lawyers look me in the eye and ask, how am I supposed to carry on with my life? What they mean is – how is one supposed to live a life worth living – a life that satisfies one as a human being – trapped in the hell of law and law school loans?
Sometime, I ask them what they would be doing with their lives, if they didn’t have loans. Here are some of their answers:
Teach yoga and healthy nutrition.
Become a park ranger.
Open a bluegrass bar.
Write a science fiction trilogy.
Open an antiques store.
Become a family therapist.
Work in a bakery.
Study Marine Biology.
These answers shouldn’t surprise anyone. Young lawyers – like most young people – yearn to take a risk on something mad, creative and unknown. To learn something new. To follow a passion. But you can’t pursue those things – or, at least, it’s darn tough – when a bank is dunning you for a missed interest payment.
What can you do to escape the debt trap? I keep fielding that question. I still don’t have a decent answer.
You could try to find a day job – something bearable that will permit you to pay the minimum on your loans for the next 30 years, and still live a meaningful life. Can it be done? Maybe. It tends to boil down to concentrating on hobbies while working your way through a string of mind-numbing legal gigs (often doc review.) That might work, so long as mind-numbing legal gigs (often doc review) remain available.
Some of my clients reject the day job route. They insist the loans can never be paid – to do so would consume a lifetime, and in the attempt, you’d lose years better spent building a meaningful existence. I’ve met lawyers who plan to move abroad where the banks can’t find them. Others talk about going underground – staying in the USA, but relocating with no forwarding address so they can work under the table or using an assumed name.
It’s amazing, but true – the law school loan nightmare is turning American kids into the equivalent of undocumented aliens. Remember those “Dream Act” kids, the American 20-somethings who, after living in the USA since infancy, have to hide in the shadows thanks to vicious anti-immigrant laws? They’ve got company – young lawyers hiding from banks thanks to vicious bankruptcy laws.
For better or worse, I’m a psychotherapist. I’m not an expert in hiding from governments or banks. I have no advice to provide in that department.
So, the pilgrims ask – what’s left? What can I do that might make a difference?
In this respect, they sound like my online comment-writers, who are typically blunter:
All you do is natter on and on – bashing law. You’re like a broken record. If it’s really so bad, then how about providing answers?
Everyone wants an answer.
Well, okay. Here’s an answer. I call it the “It Gets Worse” Project.
Dan Savage responded to the suicides of LGBT kids by creating the “It Gets Better” Project. You post YouTube videos telling kids what they need to know: if you survive the homophobic hell of high school, it gets better – being LGBT can be fun.
The “It Gets Worse” Project performs the same service for young people at risk of career-suicide. You post YouTube videos telling kids what they need to know: if you survive the hell of law school, it gets worse – debt-slavery sucks.
Is this project going to help you? No, it’s too late for that. It might make you feel better, but the plan is to protect young people’s lives from the law school loan racket. That’s something. It could make a difference.
Ready to post a video?
It wouldn’t take much – you know what to do. For about five minutes, you tell the truth.
Do I expect a lawyer to take that risk? I’m not betting the farm on it. A proposal for forthright candor in a public forum appears unlikely to take the legal world by storm. Look up “lawyer” in the dictionary. The entry reads: “risk-averse.”
Still… it could happen. Here’s why: Sometimes you have nothing to lose. That’s when the impossible happens, and change becomes inevitable.
Last year I told a guy at the Occupy Wall Street protest I admired his courage for camping in the cold to make a point about social inequality. His reply said everything: “I haven’t got a choice, friend.” He believed our society was way off course, and only way to correct it was to be where he was, doing what he was doing.
That conversation took me back to the 1980’s, and the ACT-UP protests. Americans were dying of AIDS by the tens of thousands, while the government mostly ignored it. (Ronald Reagan memorably refused to utter the word, “AIDS,” for most of his presidency.) For better or worse, my friends in ACT-UP had nothing to lose. They refused to die quietly, and insisted on telling the truth, in hopes of saving lives.
When you have nothing to lose, you stop being so damned risk-averse.
There’s a growing population of lawyers with nothing to lose. It’s not like there are jobs out there for kids with so-so grades from so-so law schools with no experience and eighteen months of unemployment on their resume (which describes the majority of young lawyers.) Maybe you’re damned if you do…but you’re already damned if you don’t, so who gives a damn anyway?
Ergo, let’s do something. Let’s prevent more naïve young people from falling victim to the same scam that left you in this mess.
If you lack the chutzpah to post a personal video – how about a collective one, like those “corporate” videos inspired by “It Gets Better”? How about a “Survivors of Sullivan & Cromwell” It Gets Worse video? (Let me know – I’ll be there.) Maybe “Unemployed Doc Reviewers of Los Angeles” or “Unemployed Graduates of New York Law School”? Maybe the “We Owe Over Two Hundred Grand Club”? Use your imagination.
If someone somewhere summons the moxie to post an “It Gets Worse” video, the movement could gather steam. That could lead to further direct action against the fraud being perpetrated by law schools. I envision tuition strikes, mass drop-outs, maybe an “Occupy Law School” movement. The little Michael Moore in me would glow with pride.
I’d settle for a video. A voyage of a thousand miles begins with a single footstep…yadda yadda. C’mon, people – we’re talking about crying “Stop!” before another youngster blithely signs another loan for another sixty grand and in the process wrecks his future.
You did everything you were told and played it safe. Look where it got you. Take a risk for a change – speak the truth.
This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.
If you enjoy these columns, please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning
I also heartily recommend my first book, an introduction to the concepts behind psychotherapy, Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy
(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)