I participated recently in a panel discussion at a conference, speaking with other lawyer/blogger types in front of an audience consisting largely of people from law firms and law schools.
After we finished, I did the decent thing and sat and listened to the panel that followed mine. I happened to choose an empty seat next to a woman who introduced herself to me later as a Dean at a law school, in charge of career placement, or whatever the euphemism is for trying to find students non-existent jobs. The law school was obscure – one of those dreaded “third tier” places.
She confronted me afterwards. “I guess I’m the bad guy, huh?”
I was startled by her candor, but knew what she meant. This was one of those people from a third tier law school – the greedy cynical fraudsters signing kids up for worthless degrees, then leaving them high and dry – unemployed and deeply in debt.
Despite her participation in crimes against humanity, I had to admit she didn’t seem so bad, in person.
Then I snapped back to my senses – and went on the attack, assuming my sacred role as The People’s burning spear of vengeance.
“At very least, you have to admit the tuition is too high,” I vituperated.
“Don’t talk to me about tuition,” she rejoined. “It’s the tenured faculty – that’s where that money’s going.”
She took a step closer and lowered her voice, taking me into her evil confidence.
“I’ll tell you what I’m looking at. I’ve got to find kids jobs – that’s it, my assignment. Here’s how bad it’s gotten. Someone called the other day and said ‘I’m getting evicted – you have to find me something, anything.’”
Her face looked dead serious. She wanted The People’s burning spear of vengeance to hear this.
“I called in every favor – I called everyone I knew. What more can I do?”
I acknowledged her point, grudgingly. Maybe this was a lesser villain. Perhaps some vestige of good remained in her corrupted, blackened soul.
“The best thing,” she continued, “and it’s going to happen – will be a bunch of schools shrink their class sizes or close down completely.”
She paused while we mutually processed the implications – namely, that she’d lose her job.
“That would be the best thing,” she repeated for emphasis, as though daring me to believe her. I did.
I left the conference chewing over the big question: If that lady I’d just met, and chatted with, was Lucifer herself – then she failed to convince. In which case, who’s left? Who is the Great Satan?
Someone out there must wear the Sign of the Beast. Someone struts and cackles atop a mound of bleeding victims. That someone – whoever it is – carries the blame for the mess law has created in so many lives.
Peruse the list of candidates. Start at the top, with the Dark Lords of Mordor themselves, the senior partners who preside over biglaw with an iron cudgel.
These ogres (well, not the ones who come to my office every week for psychotherapy – they’re sweethearts, but the others) embody evil, and run a Ponzi scheme that exploits young people – damaging their lives by enticing them into debt, then over-working them in a brutal environment of intimidation.
What’s their defense?
They might begin by suggesting it’s the same everywhere in biglaw. They can’t change things at their firm unless all the firms change. Otherwise they’d be risking their business.
Do I buy it? Not particularly. These partners are rolling in dough. They could decide to earn less – hire more associates and ease the workload.
But here’s where the annoying shades of gray come in. The wicked law partners could – more convincingly – counter that the associates don’t want that – that these kids have loans to pay off and will always run for the highest salary. The top graduates from the top schools flock to whichever firm is most “prestigious” – i.e., the firm that pays most. Remember, these kids carry massive debt and can’t predict how long they’ll stick it out in biglaw hell. They want money – as much as they can grab – as quickly as possible. The only way to pay associates that much money (and still make a tidy profit) is to work them like slaves.
It’s the same phenomenon that makes it uncomfortable to fly coach. Economy airline ticket purchasers will – each and every time – choose the lowest-priced ticket. That inescapable fact results in cramped, uncomfortable seats. But when push comes to shove, they don’t care about legroom – they care about money.
A managing partner – evil though he might be – could accurately parallel economy airline passengers with junior associates, who will similarly pack themselves into notorious sweatshops if that means they can earn more money to pay loans. Wave $160k in the face of a first year, and he’s going to take it. Wave $120k and better hours in his face as an alternative…and he might not, especially if – like most of these kids – he has $200k in loans to repay.
Okay, so maybe the loathsome fiends who preside over biglaw hold claim to a valid point.
But if that lets the partners off the hook, we can still blame the students themselves. By now, these greedy little vermin ought to know better. Chasing dreams of riches via law school? C’mon…been there, been done by that.
This argument makes sense – and to some extent it’s borne out by falling application rates at law schools– especially those sleazy third and fourth-tier operations. Some kids do know better. Even potential law students – who define the term “mindless lemmings” – are starting to catch on.
What’s remarkable is how many law students still buy into the dream of law as a path to easy bucks. According to one placement director I spoke to, even when you give the kids completely accurate, utterly dismal employment figures, they still bite.
Tell a potential law student ten percent of his class will get a biglaw job. Try it. The egomaniacal grade-grubber will cling to the belief he’ll number among that ten percent. It’s an article of faith.
Harvesting good grades encompasses the signifier and the signified of most potential law students’ entire lives – and with the wildly inflated grades at undergraduate institutions, that doesn’t represent much of a trick. As a result, if you tell them they’ll need a B+ average to maintain a scholarship, they believe - somehow – they’ll do it.
Law students who see a chance – even an imaginary chance – to earn big money, will always go for it. We’re talking about grasping, risk averse super-achievers ready to chew through steel to transform good grades – their only tangible asset – into filthy lucre. These aren’t entrepreneurs or creative types – they aspire to one goal: Go to school, work like crazy, cash in.
But aren’t we being a bit harsh? These are vulnerable kids – youngsters, with zero experience of real life. Can you blame them for trying to impress their parents? Many are under crushing pressure – as the “smart” one among their siblings and cousins – to outdo their progenitors in money and status.
Fine. So let’s blame the parents – the bullies who attempt to fulfill their own dreams by shoving children into a trap that cripples their futures.
Most of these parents never stop to ask what’s best for their child, or what he might want for himself. They pressure the kid from birth – it’s either medicine or law, or you’ve disappointed Mom and Dad. The whole ugly business is wrapped up in the gauze of “parental love” – but it’s really intimidation.
What’s the parents’ alibi?
Alas, they have one, and it’s airtight. They push the kids off the cliff honestly believing it will work. Remember, in Mom and Pop’s day, a law degree didn’t cost as much, and usually led to a stable, boring career – and maybe a leg up the ladder. They’re just parents. They want what they think is best for their kids. They don’t know any better. They’re victims, too.
The real villain? Okay. We’re back there again.
It’s the schools, who lie to the parents as well as the kids, promise impossible wealth, pump up tuition – then pull the ol’ switcheroo as soon as the kid graduates.
The nice dean of career placement lady wasn’t evil – we already agreed on that. She doesn’t appear to earn much, kills herself trying to locate jobs for her students and even embraces the prospect of sacrificing her job if that would improve things for others.
But she steered us in the right direction – the scent of brimstone leads directly to the plushly-appointed offices of the tenured law school faculty. Bingo. Gotcha.
Here’s a bunch of overpaid blowhards who consider it their prerogative to pocket half a million dollars annually for twelve hours work per week (with summers off), delivering tired lectures and maybe scribbling the occasional article (with the assistance of student peons.) That’s blood money stuffing the pockets of these sad excuses for humanity – blood-stained takings from students bamboozled into financial seppuku.
At last, we are presented with The Great Satan.
So what’s their excuse?
Well…these guys worked their way to the top, didn’t they? You don’t become a distinguished professor of law, an authority in your field, without sacrifice. Right off the bat, they didn’t sell out and become biglaw partners. They’re among the few at the pinnacle of success in their field who pursued education all the way to the top. And their fat cat salary doesn’t look all that fat-cattish compared to what a biglaw managing partner stuffs down his gullet.
The world would be a better place if law professors abandoned their cushy posts and flocked back to biglaw – but that might not be so easy. Partner positions have grown scarcer – especially if you lack a book of business – and in any case, they’d be putting current partners out of work in the process. Easier to stay where they are, and earn what – for them – seems like a modest salary. Yeah, it’s evil. But not Great Satan evil – at least from their point of view. They’re just earning a living – one they took risks and competed furiously to claim.
You sense we’re running out of candidates for Overlord of Hades.
Don’t worry, there’s one left. Yes – Mammon. Greasy fingers in the till. Dough. Greenbacks. Bucks. Moolah. Dinero. Dead presidents.
Money’s the common thread. The reason partners abuse their associates. The reason young lawyers line up for this abuse. The reason parents push their kids into law school. The reason law schools pack their classrooms with students then spit them out into a flooded market. The reason tenured faculty remain in their jobs instead of arranging to be paid less or quitting and doing something useful.
Each of these players viewed law as the path to an easy buck.
Now that it isn’t such an easy buck – and gets harder each month – things will, to some degree, take care of themselves. Every bubble pops at some point. Students – and their parents – will catch on. Enrollment will decline at marginal schools. Some will go out of business. Firms will have to ease up on abusing associates. Partners will earn slightly less to pay valued underlings to stay.
Partners are already earning less. The industry is contracting across the boards.
That’s good news, since the United States is drowning in the aftermath of a cloaca bursting with freshly-minted, entirely un-needed attorneys.
I have seen The Great Satan and he is us – when we put money before people and lose our humanity – our hearts – our souls.
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.)