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Posts Tagged ‘law school’

Last February I appeared on Steven Spierer’s radio show, and he brought on a caller, Matt, who had just started work at a big New York City law firm. You can listen to that interview here.

Now – 9 months later – I went back on Steven’s show, and caught up with Matt, and heard how things are going for this newly-minted corporate 2d year.

Here’s the show – Steven always does a great job, and it was especially fascinating to catch up with Matt and talk about how his views have changed now that he’s been working in biglaw for more than a year.

Thank you, Steven, and thank you, Matt, for another terrific experience on Talk Radio One.

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Please check out The People’s Therapist’s new book, “Way Worse Than Being A Dentist: The Lawyer’s Quest for Meaning”.

I can also heartily recommend my first book, “Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy”.

(Both books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.) 

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It’s mid-September. I’m talking with a client , a 3L at a top-tier school.

“Here’s how it works,” she explains. “There’s the have’s and the have-nots. Either you have a job offer, or you don’t. If you don’t, it sucks. You feel like an illegal alien.”

Unfortunately, she’s a have-not. Yes, she’s working to correct that situation – trawling small firms in her hometown, attempting to milk connections. But “have-not” might as well be printed on her forehead. Around her peers, she says, it’s the body language that betrays have-not status. As a have-not, you don’t talk much, keep your eyes down, and behave generally like the undocumented guy lugging tubs of dirty dishes back to the kitchen. The aroma of failure – let’s say it, loser-hood – clings to the fabric of your clothes.

Some thoughtful charity – maybe it was Oxfam – threw a fund raiser dinner some years back, with the worthy goal of educating socialites about world hunger. The guests were divided the way the world is divided. Behind velvet-ropes, at a small central table, a handful of diners savored a gourmet meal. Across the ropes, a larger group picked at bowls of plain rice. Further out, beyond non-velvet barriers, a sizable fringe of outsiders observed the others and listened to their own empty stomachs rumble.

It was just like law school – at least at the good law schools. At the second and third tier joints, it seems like everyone’s a have-not. If the personal experience of poverty derives from comparing oneself to one’s peers, then maybe everyone feels less impoverished at the lower-tier schools, where no one gets a job, everyone’s in massive, crippling debt – and the whole class occupies the same boat.

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I spent the second year of my social work internship working at a community center, which offered one of the top smoking cessation programs in the country.

One fine spring day I was sprawled, sunning myself, on a bench in the courtyard of the center when a fellow intern lit up a cigarette. I proposed she give the cessation program a try.

“No one likes a quitter,” she quipped, exhaling a cloud of toxins.

Uh…huh. Except there’s a proviso in that statement – a “carve-out” in the contract language – covering the quitting of something self-destructive. Like smoking.

Or a pointless march through law school.

I’d like to speak in defense of quitting, and quitters.

Quitting can be about more than stopping whatever you’re doing. It can be about waking up and asking yourself if what you’re doing makes sense and is worth continuing.

If you’re plugging away dutifully through the legal education process with no real idea why – it might be time to quit.

Does this mean I’m seriously advising young law students all over the country to give up and drop out – simply abandon their legal education mid-way through?

Yes.

I am prescribing a mass exodus from law schools. A semi-mass exodus might do the trick.

Tune in. Turn on. Drop out.

If you don’t know why you’re there – and you’re not sure what you’re getting yourself into – if you’re not at a top school, or even if you are, and your grades are a little iffy, and likely to stay that way – then please, get out. Today. Before you spend another cent.

The legal education scam works because it follows two key rules of all successful Ponzi schemes:

First, it plays to your greed. You dig your own hole because you’re in it for the money.

Second, it keeps you distracted. You never realize you’re getting fleeced.

The process is like a cattle chute. From the LSAT to the bar exam, you never look up because you’re moving too fast, racing to compete against the others…right up to the bolt gun in the forehead. Even if you awakened midway and realized you weren’t having fun and wanted to flee, there’s no obvious route of escape. That’s how it’s designed.

Along the way, you sign documents to borrow the purchase price of a Rolls Royce Corniche with nothing to show for it but a piece of paper saying you’re theoretically prepared for a job you know nothing about.

You end up $200k in debt and either stuck in a field you never understood and don’t like – or unemployed (the unemployed part isn’t the problem since it turns out you really want to be a jazz drummer anyway, not a lawyer.)

But that $200k in debt is there to say – sorry, you work for us now. In fact, we own you – own your future. Just like that cow on the feedlot.

You don’t have to go out like that.

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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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My client was sitting at her desk, drafting a complicated, rushed memo. The topic was an obscure derivative. She’d worked all weekend, then come in again early. Her head hurt. It was due at 5 pm. She could barely focus and was feeling panicked. It was 4 pm.

The phone rang. Not thinking, she picked up and barked her last name, sharply, the way the partner she worked for did.

“Jones.”

It was her ninety-two-year-old grandmother.

“How are you, Sweetheart?”

My client couldn’t stop crying.

“All she did was ask how I was,” she told me. “That’s all it took. I fell apart.”

When you enter the world of biglaw, you pass through a ritual of initiation – LSAT, law school, bar exam, interviews.

Then you enter the bubble.

On the inside, propositions that seem insane in the outside world are taken for granted:

  • Two hundred thousand dollars in student loans is within the normal range.
  • You have to earn six figures or you are a failure.
  • You can’t take a vacation just because you “have” a vacation. It must be “convenient.”
  • Leaving the office at 5 pm shows a serious failure of commitment.
  • Taking a weekend off shows a serious failure of commitment.
  • Working night and day and doing your best shows a serious failure of commitment.

Last week, another client’s mother was rushed to the hospital. He got a call from the emergency room, then sprinted to the train station to buy a ticket home. It was serious – a perforated appendix that could have killed her. He spent the weekend by her side. Once she was back in her own bedroom, recovering, he found himself tucking her plastic hospital id bracelet into his briefcase.

“I know, it sounds crazy, but I didn’t think they’d believe me.”

“They’d think you were lying about your mother being rushed to the hospital?”

He rolled his eyes. “I know. I know. But they’re like that. No one trusts anyone. An excuse to leave for a long weekend? Someone might try it.”

The rules are different in the bubble. The worst distortion? Money becomes more important than people.

When my client’s ninety-two-year-old grandmother called to ask how she was, it reminded her this old woman is a precious treasure – and she’s elderly, and frail. She won’t be here forever.

When you work at a law firm, things keep coming up. My client hasn’t seen her grandmother in more than a year. That’s part of the reason she was crying. The rules inside the bubble take over. You forget who you are. Then an old woman calls and reminds you.

As the author of this column, I’m asked the same question all the time – how do I survive this?

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There’s one thing every lawyer, no matter how miserable, seems to agree on: law school wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was kind of fun.

Things take a nosedive when you get to a firm. That’s when you start hating life.

Maybe we should take a look at this phenomenon, and ask ourselves why this might be the case.

There are a few prominent disparities between the experience of law school and that at a big law firm.

First – in law school when you work hard, you get a reward. There is an “incentive” for “doing your best.”

I remember a guy in my class at NYU who used to grow an exam beard every semester. He’d stop shaving a couple of weeks before exams. The beard would start to get scraggly – then, after the last bluebook was filled with scribble, he’d shave it off and everyone would hit a bar to celebrate.

It was silly, light-hearted fun, designed to focus attention on completing a goal.

Contrast that to a law firm, where nothing is silly, light-hearted or fun – and there is no such thing as completing a goal.

At a firm, you don’t “complete goals.” Thanks to your massive student loans, you are now someone’s property, and you work to avoid punishment. That means you work until midnight, then go in on the weekend. Rinse. Repeat. There is no end of semester. There is no end of the week. There is no end of anything. There is no vacation. There is no end.

Your reward for working harder than you’ve ever worked in your life? If you do a good job, no one complains – and you get more work.

That is, unless there isn’t any work, in which case you’re in trouble, because that means you’re not going to make your billables, which means you’re a parasite and a useless drain on the firm and you should feel terrible about yourself and fear for your job.

It’s also possible that you didn’t do a very good job on whatever it was you were working on harder than you’ve worked on anything in your entire life. That might be because you’ve been working eighty hour weeks with no vacation and receiving a steady stream of criticism, all the while fearing for your job, which is a problem because you have a wife who wants to have a kid and you’re $180,000 in debt. The Zoloft and Klonopin your shrink prescribed don’t seem to be doing the trick. Nor does the Adderall you’re popping with alarming frequency – the left-over Adderall from the first shrink, who diagnosed you with ADHD before the second one decided it was actually depression and anxiety.

It might be that all the other work you did for the past six months at the firm was good, or even very good – until you handed in this latest assignment, which wasn’t good. However, at a law firm, if you do something that isn’t good, it doesn’t matter if you did one hundred other things that were good. You did something that wasn’t good, which means you are bad.

The reason this thing wasn’t good might be that you had no idea what you were doing because they gave you something unbelievably, insanely, laughably complicated to do over the weekend with a totally inadequate explanation.

That brings me to a second way in which law firms are not like law school.

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So many cases like this appear at my office that I’ll construct him/her as a composite. That way perhaps I can spare myself the chore of receiving those “how dare you write about one of your clients” comments that I receive every week when I get specific in detailing my fictions and some of you decide I simply must be writing about your roommate.

So here goes.

He/she is very young – 22 or 23 or 24 or 25.

He/she moved across the country to go to a law school that I’ve heard of vaguely. It turns out to be number 79 or 83 or 66 out of the top 100, according to some hack newspaper that profits from disseminating this sort of nonsense.

He/she is the son/daughter of immigrants from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland.

His/her immigrant parents operate a doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service.

His/her parents are adamant that he/she marry someone from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland in a traditional ceremony – soon – and produce male children.

Before then – quickly – he/she has to become a doctor.

He/she is no good at math or science or dating, so that’s not going to happen to him/her any time soon. Being a lawyer is the official second choice – not as good as a doctor, but acceptable.

He/she has just started law school at number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100 and is presenting with anxiety around test-taking and deep feelings of insecurity about his/her abilities compared to those of his/her classmates.

We talk about CBT – cognitive behavioral therapy – to identify the thoughts that are triggering the anxiety – fears of being unable to live up to dad/mom’s demanding agenda, especially when, despite getting accepted into number 79 or 83 or 66 out of 100, he/she suspects he/she has never been all that great at school. College was a struggle, too. It is possible that he/she is simply doing his/her best, but isn’t cut out for academics and would be happier doing something else, such as operating a doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service. But he/she runs from that idea – it doesn’t compute with the dreams and expectations of his/her immigrant parents from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland.

We learn his/her parents remind him/her that they sacrificed everything for their son/daughter, so he/she could have a future. His/her parents gave up their own happiness so he/she could succeed. This notion is recited to him/her in some form or other about five times each week, most recently in the form of phone calls from home.

We learn he/she has an older brother/sister, who is a doctor, is married to someone from Bangladesh, Peru, Kenya, Romania or Ireland, and has two male children.

We also talk about the ever-widening pharmacopeia available to him/her, should he/she decide to go that route. There are the anti-depressants, which take two weeks or so to work, and have side-effects he/she might not like. There are the anti-anxietals, the benzos, like Xanax and Klonopin, which might be habit-forming. There are the stimulants, like Adderall or Concerta or Ritalin, which will help you focus on studying, at least unless you abuse them, like many law students, and stay up night after night without sleep and start hearing voices – which happened to a client of mine (no – for you helpful comment-writers out there – not while under my care, and no, I’m not a medical doctor, so I didn’t prescribe the stuff.)

But there is another issue that I can’t help discussing with him/her: magical thinking.

Because even as he/she talks to me about his/her anxiety around being back in school, a few more facts are glossed over.

First, he/she is in the process of borrowing $170,000 which he/she cannot discharge through bankruptcy.

He/she has never seen that much money in his/her life and has no concept of how much money it is. Remember, he/she is only 22 or 23 or 24 or 25.

He/she has never worked in law. He/she only graduated from college 1 or 2 or 3 or 4 years ago, and spent most of that time working in his/her parents’ doughnut bakery, dry cleaner, small hobbyist shop, motel or air-conditioner repair service.

When I ask him/her why he/she is pursuing law, I get a canned speech of the law school essay variety.

He/she wants to become an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge.

Pressed on the details, he/she admits that he/she might have to spend a few years at a top law firm first, earning $160,000 per year, minimum. But he/she isn’t doing this for the money.

Pressed to describe what precisely an environmental lawyer/ international human rights attorney/ entertainment lawyer/ executive director of a group to help the oppressed/ federal judge actually does, or how one attains these titles, things grow vague.

Pressed as to how he/she will pay back the $170,000 in loans that he/she will have accumulated at graduation, he/she looks at me like it’s obvious. If you make $160,000 per year, then you need one year to pay off $160,000 and maybe another month or two for another $10,000 and it’s paid off. Duh.

Oh yeah, and maybe taxes or interest or whatever – say a year and a half.

I stare at him/her. He/she stares back at me. There is a steely determination in his/her eyes. He/she isn’t going to back down. This has all been arranged. It is decided.

We are at a stand-off.

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