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Posts Tagged ‘law school loans’

trump-university-3Congratulations, you’ve “gained admission” to a lower-tier law school! You might be wondering what the actual experience is going to be like. Well, if you’re one of those lucky souls who’s had the unique pleasure of matriculating at Trump University, you’re at a big advantage, because lower-tier law schools and Trump University are a whole lot alike. Let’s count the ways:

#1: It’s all about money. It probably didn’t take you long to ascertain Trump University was about money – and no, not about making you a millionaire, about making Donald Trump a millionaire a few more times over. Contrary to what you may have believed beforehand, when The Donald founded his “university,” he wasn’t on some idealistic mission to bring real estate investment expertise to the benighted masses. He wanted your money. He wanted it badly enough to shed all compunction with regard to tapping the limit on your credit card so he could squeeze out every drop. Emptying your wallet was the objective, plain and simple.

Guess what? It’s the same thing at a law school. The only difference is they have a leg up when it comes to wallet-emptying: Instead of bullying you into upping your credit card limit, they line you up at the bursar’s office with instructions to “sign on the dotted line.” You’ll hardly notice you’ve borrowed $200,000 in bankruptcy-proof loans at a high rate of interest – that is, until you’re condemned to financial ruin (which might be the least of your worries, once you wind up unemployed, or worse yet, stuck in a low-paying legal job with nightmarish hours and sadistic management. Trump stole your money – these guys steal your soul.)

Now that I’ve revealed these alarming details about law school, you’re probably mulling whether, given these drawbacks, it might be such a good idea to attend. Law schools worry about that, too – which brings us to another parallel between these two august institutions…

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munchkins3-lgReaders of my blog express surprise when they discover that all my clients aren’t lawyers – indeed, a small but sizable percentage of my clientele consists of ordinary civilians, non-combatants, plain folk who have nothing whatsoever to do with law. But the people surprised by this situation are mostly biglaw lawyers – and what really surprises them is not that I work with non-lawyers, but that I work with non-lawyers employed in biglaw – secretaries, law librarians, human resources folks, paralegals and so on. In other words, what surprises them is that I work with those people, those other people.

You know…the Little People.

Before you pile, on accusing me of snobbery, let me point out that I’m the one who’s treating these card-carrying members of the hoi polloi, and often for sliding fees. Let’s also admit that a rigid social hierarchy exists at law firms – in fact, a very rigid social hierarchy, something akin to the caste system under the Raj.

At Shearman & Sterling, where I summered one year, and at Sullivan & Cromwell, where I worked after blowing off Shearman & Sterling because it wasn’t (sniff sniff) quite up to snuff (yes, that’s a social hierarchy, too), I distinctly remember encountering what were referred to as “attorney dining rooms.” These were private dining rooms – partners and associates only. The very existence of these exclusive (as in, everyone except lawyers was excluded) dining chambers sent something of a…uh…message. The lawyers at the firm didn’t require separate water fountains, but message-wise, the effect was along the same lines.

Granted, back in the days when I worked in biglaw, partners arrived at the office in horse-drawn broughams and sported top hats and tails. I fondly remember Old Caesar, the darkie who toiled cheerfully in the S&C stables, and Irish Polly, the scullery drab – and who could forget wee Pip, the cripple foundling lad who maintained the fire in my office, always stoking it high with coal on a cold winter’s morning to earn his ha’penny and an affectionate pat on his cinder-begrimed cap as he hobbled off on his homemade crutches. Those were merry times.

But I shouldn’t permit misty nostalgia for another era to distract from my serious message: No kidding, there really were dining rooms reserved for the lawyers (and for all I know, there still are) and the message around them was clear: No Little People allowed.

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roachesMy client – a second year corporate associate working in a foreign office – compared remaining at her biglaw firm to eating cockroaches.

“You know, on one of those reality game shows where they dare you to eat a bucket of cockroaches and they’ll pay you a million bucks if you do.”

I requested she elaborate.

“My point is, at some juncture you stop and think – and this is probably a rational part of your brain: Hell, for a million bucks, I’ll do it. I mean, for a million bucks, you’ll do anything, so long as you can get it over with in a minute or two. The plan is to keep repeating in your head a million dollars a million dollars a million dollars until – bingo! – all done, and you’re rich.”

Alas, there’s a wrinkle.

“It should only take a minute or two to eat a bucket of cockroaches. You hold your breath, close your eyes, keep swallowing, and a minute later you’re a millionaire.”

“Then you realize it’s not so easy. The problem is, once you’re actually there, faced with the situation, you can’t get them down. Maybe one or two cockroaches, but then you’re gagging, and it all comes back up. And then you’re on all fours puking your guts out with half a bucket left to eat and you realize this might not work out as planned. You can think to yourself – I can do this, I can do this…a million bucks, a million bucks…but the fact is, you can’t pull it off.”

Why does eating a bucket of cockroaches serve as an apt metaphor for working in biglaw? Because at some point in many lawyers’ careers, you’ve paid off – or mostly paid off – the loans. And you know you’re not sticking around for much longer, because you hate it more than anything you’ve ever hated before in your life – it’s literally unbearable. On the other hand, without the loans, you are faced more starkly than ever before with the reality of why you pursued a career in the legal profession in the first place: Money.

Remember money? That was the whole point. Back when you thought a law degree could actually earn you some.

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Someone posted the following astonishing comment in response to one of my columns a few months back:

“I’ve never worked in a biglaw firm, but what happens if an associate just says no, I am busy this weekend, or no, I am on vacation that week, so I won’t be able to do that project. Do you immediately get fired? If that’s true, then you must not really have much to offer to the firm in the first place. In a situation where the associate had some real value to offer to the firm, I do not see why the firm would fire someone for that. Am I hopelessly naive?”

Go ahead – laugh. Get it out of your system. You know perfectly well your guffaws wear thin, right about when that twinge of poignancy creeps in. You, too, once mulled the notion of rising above the fray – going all Bartleby the Scrivener and muttering “I’d prefer not to” when asked – oops, I mean told – to work and work and work and work and work.

This “pure fool” of a comment-writer has raised a troubling issue (and that, by the way, was a combined Parsifal and Magic Mountain reference…this will be one of those classy columns larded with literary allusions.) Cower behind your carapace of cynicism, but sooner or later you’ll admit you weren’t always like this. You weren’t always a broken, cynical wreck who jumps at the slightest command. You used to be Bartleby The Scrivener, too. You imagined you were valued as a unique, complex individual. You imagined you held some sway over your own existence – some “preferences.”

I know it’s no fun trying to remember the stuff you read in college, but please attempt to keep up. Even if you weren’t an undergraduate English major, you might recall that the narrator of “Bartleby the Scrivener” was called “The Lawyer.” That’s right: “The Lawyer.” The whole thing takes place in a law firm! And remember what a scrivener did? It was the worst job in the firm – probably one of the worst jobs of all time. You sat at a desk copying legal documents – handwriting them – for hours. Reminiscent of doc review, or due diligence, or “running changes” – scrivening was mindless and, if you kept at it for too long, guaranteed to drive you bat-shit. You – and everyone else – would obviously “prefer not to.”

And yet, somehow or other, our narrator – “The Lawyer” (i.e., a partner at the firm) – is astonished when Bartleby, after being asked politely to scriven something, even more politely states in return: “I’d prefer not to.” The Lawyer explains his astonishment at Bartleby’s resistance by pointing out how he, as a partner – even in 1853! – possesses a “natural expectancy of instant compliance.”

You know all about that, right? The “natural expectancy of instant compliance”? Sure you do.

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I asked a client how things were going at work – or not-going. She’s a junior at a big firm where it’s been dead slow for the whole year she’s been there and partners are starting to flee.

Not horrible,” she said.

That’s a not-uncommon sentiment from to people in her position. As a junior, you’re asking for not-much. You’ve realized law school was a mistake – and the thought of your loans makes you queasy. If you get through the day without being criticized or given some god-awful assignment, you can go home and try to sleep. That’s a good day.

Not-horrible means not-unbearable, even if you hate what you’re doing, see no way out and cry alone in your office.

Not-horrible is not-unemployed. Better to not-complain.

One junior associate client has a corporate headhunter friend, who asked him to write something down and commit it to memory:

There. Are. No. Jobs.”

Okay. Got it.

Another client spoke for thousands when he said he hates the thought of waking up and facing another day at his firm, but with two hundred grand in loans, how can he leave a job where he isn’t working that hard and earns $160k?

The partner’s a psychopath – don’t get me wrong. He expects me to answer the blackberry at 2 am and criticizes every move I make. But he’s paying me a fortune to take this crap, right?”

Hey, it’s not horrible.

The week before Thanksgiving, my client reminded this partner he’d be away for the actual day of the holiday – Thanksgiving Day – to visit his wife’s family.

The partner looked shocked at this effrontery. “Will you be available remotely?” He asked.

I’ll be available anally, if that helps,” were the words my client struggled not to utter. Because that would have gotten him fired.

Of course,” is what he actually said.

Hey, it’s not horrible.

At a big law firm, it’s hard to imagine a life containing meaning or pleasure. This is a legal career: You exchange human misery for money, which pays loans.

One client’s firm has a “free market” policy, so each associate competes for work. That way, if you admit you don’t have any work to another junior, it invites him to look relieved and announce he does. My client isn’t sure which is worse – not having work and having nothing to do or having work and having to do it. Mostly, she does nothing, and suspects the others do, too.

It’s not horrible.

I hear this one from lawyers all the time: “It’s no better anywhere else, is it?”

But you know it is. Outside of law. The entire world isn’t as bad as a law firm just because you’re stuck in one. As they say in Alcoholics Anonymous – it’s simple, but it’s not easy. To escape not-horrible you just have to escape law. That’s the not-easy part.

Not-horrible is a holding pattern – you might be stuck there for a while. That’s what the loans are for. In the old days they used chains.

Does not-horrible ever end?

Yes. Here’s why: they’ll get rid of you.

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