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Posts Tagged ‘law school debt’

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“I never thought I’d end up working as a contract attorney doing doc review in a windowless basement,” my client bemoaned. “But then I read that piece about the lawyer who’s working as a clerk at WalMart. At least I’ve still got it over him in terms of job prestige.”

Well, you know how obsessed lawyers are with job prestige.

There’s a phrase, “The Downward Drift,” that crops up in discussions of serious mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia, and/or chronic substance abuse. The idea is that you are afflicted with serious mental illness, or become addicted to a harmful substance, which in turn leads to a slow, inevitable slide downward in terms of social class. Before long, the wealthy, Upper East Side business executive suffering from schizophrenia and/or severe alcoholism finds himself jobless, friendless and eventually even homeless, sleeping in shelters and begging for change.

Weirdly, the same phenomenon – the Downward Drift – affects people who acquire Juris Doctor degrees. It sort of makes sense, since – at least nowadays, with people like me bellowing jeremiads on every street corner, it would be evidence of utter madness – textbook psychosis, perhaps – for anyone to head in the direction of law school, at least unless that law school is one of the top three in the country and someone else is footing the bill. But try to persuade a kid with a high LSAT score not to apply to law school – it’s nearly as tough as persuading a kid who’s gotten into a “top-500” (or whatever) law school into not attending (especially if he’s “won” one of those risible $20,000 so-called “scholarships” they hand out like pushers showering crack vials on newbie users.) If that task sounds Herculean (or Sisyphean), try talking a kid who’s blown $80,000 on his first year of law school out of “finishing up” the other two (useless) years – even if he’s hated every moment of the experience so far. This is where the parallel with addiction comes in because I guarantee you it’s no easier than convincing a chronic alcoholic that ten martinis is really enough. Even my own much-vaunted powers of persuasion come up short at that juncture. Because it’s impossible. An addict will keep drinking and drugging until he passes out face down in a puddle on the sidewalk. And a law student will blow that additional $160,000 to finish those two more pointless years. It’s a sure thing – just like zombies like eating flesh, the sun likes rising in the morning and Pat Robertson likes blaming bad weather on the homosexual agenda.

So how does the “Downward Drift” work, at least for lawyers?

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For the record, a law degree is not “versatile.” Being a lawyer amounts to a strike against you if you ever decide to pursue another career.

So why do people keep insisting it’s an “extremely versatile degree”?

A bunch of reasons.

Law schools are in it for the money. Teaching law doesn’t cost much, but they charge a fortune – made possible by not-dischargable-in-bankruptcy loans. That makes each law school a massive cash cow for the rest of the university. Money flowing from the law school pays the heating bill for the not-so-profitable Department of Neo-Structuralist Linguistics.

Law students play along with the “extremely versatile degree” farce to justify the three years of their life and the ungodly pile of cash they’re blowing on a degree they’re not interested in and know nothing about. This myth is also intended to calm down parents. You need a story to explain why you don’t have a job, but that it’s somehow okay.

No one else cares. And that’s chiefly why this old canard still has some life left in it.

Time to put it out of its misery.

Why is a law degree not versatile?

Let me count the ways.

For one thing, it costs about $180k. Anything that leaves you two hundred grand in a hole is not increasing your “versatility” – it’s trapping you in hell.

For another thing, studying arcane legal doctrine for three years (a purely arbitrary number) leaves you with no translatable skills. The arcane legal doctrine you learn in law school isn’t even useful at a law firm, let alone anywhere else.

And let’s talk about the “skills” a lawyer “hones” in his “profession.”

A litigator is about the worst thing you can be if you want to do anything else. Why? Let’s examine the skills you “master” as a litigator.

Pumping up billables. Dragging out discovery. Dreaming up and laboriously penning pointless motions to create delay. Behaving in an oddly aggressive and hostile manner at meetings that end in a standstill. Organizing complicated information into folders, and folders of folders and labeling everything and organizing that into lists, and lists of lists, then billing for it by the hour. Researching recondite issues and writing memos you’re not even sure you understand. Wrapping your head around Byzantine procedural rules and forum and jurisdictional niceties and arbitrary court filing deadlines, all so you can trip up the other side with needless delay and expense.

Okay. Now translate those skills into the real world, where people make products and sell useful services.

See my point?

If you’re on the corporate side, at least you get to watch business people do their thing before you spend the night typing it up. That’s why corporate partners are considered more valuable at firms when it comes time to recruit. Corporate guys hang out with business people, so they bring a “book of business” (i.e., customers) with them. A litigator doesn’t even have clients, just cases, which might (God forbid) end some day. A litigation partner without a live case is dead wood awaiting pruning. Sorry.

Of course, the actual “stuff” of corporate law could drive you mad. Studying securities law is like learning the rules to the most boring, complicated board game ever invented. All you want to do is quit playing and go home.

But there’s a bigger, broader problem with switching careers when you have the letters JD after your name: people hate lawyers.

Why do they hate lawyers? A bunch of reasons.

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