A law student client – already an MBA – said she needed convincing to drop out of her third-tier school.
I told her to calculate the return on investment for the final three semesters.
She crunched the numbers.
“Debit-wise, I’ve burned $80k in savings and I’m looking at another $100k of borrowed money. On the credit side, I might find a low-salary doc review gig.” She pretended to scratch notes. “So… big loans, interest payments, inadequate cash flow…opportunity cost of eighteen more wasted months learning legal mumbo-jumbo followed by the bar exam…”
“In other words…” I egged her on.
“I’d be totally screwed.” She affixed the cap on her pen. “Thanks. I’m convinced.”
I posed the question we were dancing around: “Why are we having this conversation?”
My client laid out the background: “My dad’s a lawyer. My mom’s a lawyer. My little brother’s taking his LSAT. This is what my family does. If I quit, I feel like I’m failing.”
She added: “It seems like it was different in my parents’ day.”
That’s because it was. A generation gap has opened in the legal world. On one side there are lawyers over-50, for whom law still looks like a safe, reliable ladder to the upper-middle-class. From the other side – where their kids are perched – law more closely resembles un ascenseur pour l’échafaud.
My client’s parents live in a time warp – a world trapped in a snow globe. Mom’s worked for 25 years as an in-house lawyer for a state college – safe, not terribly stressful (or interesting) work, with a decent salary, good hours and benefits. Dad’s worked for decades as general counsel for a local business. It’s no wonder that for them – and their generation – law still epitomizes a safe, low-stress career with good pay and benefits.
These over-50 types can’t imagine how bad it gets nowadays for someone calling himself an attorney. Their Weltanschauung doesn’t encompass windowless warehouses packed with contract lawyers logging 18-hour shifts of doc review for hourly wages, no benefits. Mom and Dad haven’t seen young partners at top firms getting de-equitized and struggling to snare in-house positions. If they knew that reality, they’d also realize their own sort of safe, steady work with benefits, a decent wage and reasonable hours constitutes a pipe dream for a kid graduating law school today.
Another client of mine – a 20-something from a decent school entering her third year in biglaw – summed up her reality thus:
“Really? I spent myself into life-long debt, endured hours of property law lectures, analyzed Erie problems on brutal exams, crammed for the bar…all so I could waste two years on doc review, then wait to get laid off (with the de rigueur bad review and zero career prospects) so someone younger and cheaper can take my seat? Really?”
If she’d studied computer science, or gotten an MBA or just quit school after college, she might have become a better-paid “e-discovery provider.” As a JD, it’s strictly “e-discovery peon.” In any case, five years from now a computer program will do doc review all by itself. As one client put it: “that’s when attorneys start living in cardboard boxes on the sidewalk.”
This isn’t your grandfather’s biglaw.
It’s astonishing, the degree to which misguided Ozzie and Harriet nostalgia still convinces’ parents to pour money into law school – and only law school – for their kids. They steer their kids towards law at the expense of other degrees – any other degree – which might lead to an actual future. It’s lunacy – but I see it all the time.
One client’s father insisted he would pay his son’s tuition – but not for urban planning, only law. The kid had to get a “practical” degree, that “guaranteed him a future.” It took this twenty-something a year – with his shiny new $180,000 JD – to score a low-paying six-month fellowship at a not-for-profit. Six months later – one day for every thousand dollars his father blew on this “practical” degree – he’s back on the street, scratching for whatever he can find, which is to say, not much.
Another client’s rich uncle wouldn’t consider funding his nephew’s start-up – just law school. No wild-eyed schemes for uncle – he wanted the safe route to success for his young charge. But the kid wasn’t naïve – he saw his friends graduate from law school with zero prospects and wanted none of it. On the other hand, given uncle’s obduracy, he had no choice. The kid finally took the tuition and used his law school dorm as an office for his start-up. After the first month or two he gave up on Law entirely, and started cutting classes. He got kicked out after a few months, but the plan worked – uncle has plenty of money, and the kid got a few months free rent for a place to live and an office for the new business (which is progressing nicely and may soon turn a profit.)
There’s still a generation out there that thinks “safe, reliable…” and – don’t laugh – “worth the money” when they hear “law school.” These folks cling to the notion that it’s reasonable to expect your children to do what they did: finish law school, put time in at a firm, and settle into upper-middle-class contentment. It’s no different from the smug Tea Party graybeards who protest “big government handouts” while luxuriating in Medicare. If you grew up amid – and still enjoy – abundance and opportunity, it’s tough to grasp the reality of a new, younger generation for whom health insurance – and a steady job – are aspirational goals.
The generation gap in the legal world is symptomatic of a larger malady. The US has become a nation defined by the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor. The wedge creating that gulf is the collapse of social mobility. As Sarah Palin might say: How’s that “American Dream” thing workin’ out for you?
Not so good.
Even at the top – the elite biglaw shops – there’s a change. These institutions aren’t merely hierarchical anymore, as in a pyramid of command. At this point, it’s more like aristocrats and serfs. The aristocrats are the one’s with the ear of the king – the client – the Mr. One-Percenter with billions who generates business.
In the old days, if you lacked polished manners and connections with the super-wealthy, you might have become a “service partner.” Nowadays, they’re a dying breed. Good lawyers are a dime a dozen, and with more money concentrated in the hands of ever-fewer ultra-rich clients, you can either bring in a big fish, or you are expendable.
As one of my clients put it: “If you’re coming from a lower middle-class background, like me, you’re never going to fit in at my firm, because you’re never going to bring in any work.” She’s shy and bookish, and grew up in the Mid-West without much money. That never used to be a problem – she’s entirely professional and a fine lawyer. But no more.
The other day a partner at her firm proposed she learn to play golf. “He said it would help me ‘nurture client contacts’. Can you see me playing golf? I grew up in Nebraska. ‘Schmoozing’ meant knitting sweaters and baking pies for church socials.”
Back when the USA wasn’t owned by Super-PACs (thank you, US Supreme Court!), the practice of law – like medicine and other professions – was an engine of social mobility. You could work your way up as a lawyer and lift yourself out of the blue-collar world. Now firms are returning to their old role as closed preserves of the elite, resting atop sweatshops populated by disempowered laborers – just as our country as a whole is returning to its Gilded Age status as a plutocracy of billionaire monopolists.
How much have things changed? Earning a JD nowadays is typically an express train back into poverty – real poverty, as in worrying about a place to live and food to eat. Massive loans that are not dischargeable in bankruptcy are no joke, and while Law may no longer be a ladder to the upper-middle class, it can be (while I’m mixing metaphors) the empty elevator shaft you hurtle down on the way to the bottom: a new, professional-degree-bearing underclass. If you owe $180k of non-dischargeable debt and are out of work with little or no income, you disappear off the social map. You experience indentured servitude – what the esteemed sociologist and Harvard professor, Orlando Patterson, terms “social death.” His book on the topic is entitled “Slavery and Social Death.” If you don’t even have a job, you’re not even an indentured servant: You’re more like an outlaw.
If you manage to squeeze into a top Ivy League school – and somehow find the money to pay for it – then adapt to life with the elites, you might rise to riches like the hero of a Horatio Alger story. You might also win the Super Lotto – they both happen, but most commonly to people you hear about, not to you.
Otherwise, if you really want to borrow a small fortune and blow three years of your life on law school, prepare for horrors out of the Nineteenth Century. That was the last time our social safety net frayed this badly, making it frighteningly possible for just about anyone to fall into the terrible gap between this nation’s naïve view of itself – and a far harsher reality.
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.)