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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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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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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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An editor at AboveTheLaw suggested some months back that I do a piece on the US News & World Report law school rankings. For whatever reason, this stodgy old weekly news magazine – which someone must still read – has created a sideline business publishing rankings of schools, including law schools. I’m not sure what the criteria are, but at least in theory, it’s a big deal for lawyers when the list comes out each year.

The rankings seem designed to make official what everyone knows anyway, i.e., that there are “prestige” schools that are harder to get into. But like any good opinion piece, they throw in a few twists – familiar names in unexpected places. It boils down to dissing one of the big places, or unexpectedly anointing a second-rank outfit. That way everyone can get riled up over the respective rankings of my school versus your school.

It sounded kind of boring, so I filed the idea away.

Then it started to gnaw at me. The US News list seemed like a good example of the amazing lengths lawyers go to in order to distinguish themselves from one another. The entire profession splits hairs like this because the career path is so conservative there isn’t much to distinguish one attorney from another. Every lawyer lines up to take the LSAT, then get processed and distributed to law schools based on hairline distinctions. In class you sit through identical lectures, take identical exams, and head off – for the most part – to identical firms to do nearly identical work.

You end up arguing over the details.

The law school curriculum is pretty much the same thing wherever you go – it’s standardized. I doubt the property law lecture at a “top” law school is much different, let along superior, to a property law lecture at a less “prestigious” place.

But, of course the students are “better” at the more prestigious school – because they did better on their LSAT. How much better? Some tiny fraction of a percentage, probably, representing a few questions that they got right and someone else got wrong.

I worked with one lawyer who went to a “second-tier” law school in New York, but rose to the top of his class and made law review. He said he still faces resistance at top firms because of snobbery over where he went to school – even though he’s been out and working for eight years. Those Yale and Harvard lawyers at the big firms, he says, turn their noses up at his top of the class record at a “lesser” school – as well as his federal clerkship and the years of hard work that followed.

I’m currently working with a couple of young lawyers who find themselves in the odd position of trying to decide how to appraise the “value” of a “top school.” One woman was accepted at a “top” place, but offered a full scholarship at a “second-tier” institution. Is it worth $150k to go to the prestige school? The education itself will be nearly identical. Is the snob value worth it? According to one of my clients, half the kids at Columbia Law are struggling to find jobs right now, so it doesn’t sound like the “top “ places are pulling their weight. On the other hand, maybe it’s even worse coming out of a “second tier” joint. Crucially, though – with no debt, she wouldn’t be as desperate as everyone else. I see plenty of young lawyers emerging from “top schools” (and every other kind of school) with shaky job prospects, huge debt and – worst of all – the sense that going to law school was a mistake. The debt reduces them to indentured servitude, making it impossible to do anything else, at least until they’ve paid the piper.

How about the law firms themselves? Surely some are “better” than others?

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