posted May 22, 2005
Scheherazade Fowler often says insightful things. Yesterday, however, she — admittedly —
got “a little carried away” in a ranty piece called Legal Lies (May 21, 2005). It’s Sherry’s
passionate plea that lawyers “recognize that our young people look up to the lawyers
who have come before them, and we owe it to them to tell the truth whenever possible.”
Besides the basic wrongheadedness of many of her points, and the total failure to suggest
alternative solutions, I have two main problems with Sherry’s litany of complaints:
- She assumes an infantile passivity and ignorance, along with a lack of both
curiosity and reponsibility, on behalf of college and law students; that’s insulting
to them and, if true, unacceptable in people who want to be attorneys for others;
(see prior post, “Homework for Law School Appplicants;” and
- She (mis)characterizes the attitudes of a portion of the legal profession (sometimes just
one or two weblog writers) and then attributes them to the entire profession.
I would have ignored “Legal Lies” as just a little blowing off of steam by our charming spinner of tales, but the enthusiastic response of her Commentors seems to cry out for rebuttal.
Below are some specific responses to Sherry’s complaints (do not assume
that I agree with points not covered below). Her statements are preceded by asterisks, and my
comments are indented under each statement:
** We tell them “you can do anything you want with a legal degree. It opens so many doors.”
Who the heck is “we”? I don’t know one lawyer who says this, nor one law
professor. Only a halfwit would believe it. Sherry takes the wishful thinking of
children hoping to put off career choices, and their desperate parents, and claims
that it is propaganda from the legal profession.
That being said, who can deny that there are many, many, many things that can
be done by the right person based on having a law degree?
For more on this topic see the Washington Post Career Track column “First, Make a Case:
Is Law School for You?” (Mary Ellen Slayter, April 17, 2005)
** We suggest that they go to the very best school that they can. Even though we know
that they won’t learn how to practice law there. (We don’t mention that.)
1) I’m not sure that you’ve linked to the best source for your assertion, Sherry.
Jeremy says in his post that he’s writing tongue-in-cheek, and he admits learning
a skill or two.
2) Unless a law student knows the exact job she or he will be getting right upon
graduation, “learning how to practice” straight out of school is a very slippery
concept. The more regional or national a school is, the more impractical the task
of instant readiness. (see the quote below from NEI’s Pre-Law Advisor) Of
course, law school education should be constantly evaluated and improved.
But, I’m on the side of those who believe law school graduates need to know
far more about human beings, rather than more about the nuts-n-bolts of producing
a particular form or pleading.
Sol Linowitz has said: “For some of us, the best thing
the law schools could do to improve the legal profession would be
a crusade to improve the liberal arts education of lawyers. (at 135
of The Betrayed Profession)
3) Is there any profession (worth calling one) where recipients, upon receiving
the initial degree, are ready to serve their clientele without either supervision
or a lot more preparation and “homework”?
4) Don’t most lawyers leave law school able to think, issue-spot, research,
brainstorm, listen, and speak “like a (new) lawyer”? Isn’t that a lot of what it
takes to practice law?
** We don’t talk to them, seriously, about what it means to one’s life and one’s choices
to take on a hundred thousand dollars of non-dischargeable student loan debt. . . [blah,
blah] . .
Again, who is this “we”? How inert, naive and lazy are college students and
their parents, not to mention their guidance counselors, that they need “serious”
talk from “us” to understand a little basic math and basic economic reality? Do
people apply to law school without knowing about the large debt? Hardly.
Aren’t they aware that some schools offer Low-Income Loan Repayment
Programs? Don’t they wonder why those programs are needed? At what
point should “we” be telling the basic facts of economic life to so-called adults.
** We act as though grades have some correlation to the knowledge a student has about a
course. [emphasis added]
They don’t? Not even at the very top and bottom of the scale? More
important: What’s the alternative?
** We act as though grades are a great predictor of the likelihood that a student will be a
productive worker and a good lawyer.
We all know that testing has its limits and is not perfect. But, again, as adults
in a real world, what good is whining but not offering at least one practical
alternative for those making hiring decisions (who, after all have limited resources
to expend making selections).
** We act as though law reviews mean something to us as a profession, besides as a marker
that a student is a decent writer and can follow the rules and buys into the system.
Gollly, isn’t that exactly what a lot of employers are looking for? And, how
come even a not-so-wise guy like me was able — without discussing it with
anyone else — to decide that law review wasn’t worth the effort, because the
things it led to weren’t important to me?
** We act as though it makes sense to ask young people to incur hundreds of thousands of
dollars of debt to get a degree that will force them into a type of practice that, statistics show,
will very likely make them unhappy.
There are now and have been for over a decade, many books, studies and
articles on this very topic. It is totally irresponsible of any person thinking
of going to law school to overlook such resources — and it’s totally impossible
for them to avoid hearing in the media about our unhappy, dissatisfied,
depressed profession. Here are a few of the books:
The Lure of the Law: Why People Become Lawyers and
What the Profession Does to Them (1991) by Richard W. Moll
Judgment Reversed: Alternative Careers for Lawyers (1997) by Jeffrey
Running from the Law: Why Good Lawyers Are Getting Out of the
Legal Profession (3rd. ed. 2003) by Deborah Arron
Should You Really Be A Lawyer?: The Guide To Smart Career Choices
Before, During & After Law School (2004) by Deborah Schneider
Full disclosure: Do you really want to be a lawyer? (1989) by Susan J.
In addition to Prof. Schiltz’s 2001 article, there’s some pretty good materials online
(found after a quick search on a Saturday night) . For starters, Northeastern Illinois
University’s Pre-Law Advisor, which says there is only ONE good reason to go to law
school (and then makes some points a lot of “us” have been making for years). The
reason to go:
“I want to be a lawyer. (If you don’t know what that means, go
“The mistake many students make is that they focus on law school instead
of on careers in law. . . . But ultimately, law school is just that—three years
of schooling that prepares you for a career in the law. You are not even a
lawyer when you graduate! You won’t know enough to be one. You’ll need
to take and pass the state bar exam before you can call yourself a lawyer,
and you’ll need to gain experience before you’ll be comfortable with that label.
“Since law school prepares you to be a lawyer, you will need to find out as much
as possible about what being a lawyer is all about before you decide to go to law
school. That means at least the following: (1) Talk to lawyers. Ask them if they
like their jobs, and why. Find out what they do, and what they like and dislike
about their daily activities. Find out if they are happy or stressed, challenged, or
bored. Ask them whether they’d do it again. (2) Read legal journals and newspapers
to find out about the advantages and disadvantages of the legal profession, current
trends in hiring, current salary scales, and the like. (3) Most importantly, take a legal
job of some sort. Spend a summer—or even better, a year—as a paralegal or legal
intern in a law office, volunteer for a district attorney’s or public defender’s office, or
assume some other legal undertaking. Nothing can substitute for this experience.
Once you learn first hand what the practice of law is like, you’ll be much better
prepared to decide whether it’s for you.
Part I does a good job of explaining the Wrong Reasons for going to law school.
Part II of NEI’s Advisor has a good list of questions to ponder, and books to read. Also, see
“Is Law School Right for You?: The Siren Song of Law School” (Princeton Review), and,
of course, JD2b.
supplement (5 PM): My ethicalEsq Archives should make clear that I am
not defending the state of the legal profession, and I’m not saying young
lawyers have no right to speak out in order to create a better workplace
and a better profession. I am saying that young lawyers have only
themselves to blame if they are surprised by what they find or how they
are affected. Given all the warning signs from many sources in our society,
and all the information available, there is no excuse for a college student
to get on the train to law school without looking long and hard at personal
values and how they fit within the profession. This needs to be done well
before someone spends $150,000 on your education and you commit three
years of your life.
The same is true of law students and recent graduates — you must take the
initiative and do the personal and profession development “homework.” The
best strategy for those choosing private law firms (especially the largest ones)
is to live well below your income while you try out your first job (or two), so that
your options are as open as possible. You snap those golden handcuffs on
** We do not talk nearly enough about what the billable hour really means.
It is laughable to suggest that today’s college student or law student does not
know that BigLaw (and often, BoutiqueLaw) jobs come with grinding work-
loads that will wreck havoc with their personal lives. Seen any Grisham
movies lately? The profession has been issuing reports on this topic for a long
time. It is no secret and the tradeoff is gladly and knowingly embraced by many
3Ls — with many more wishing they had the chance.
Of course, the problem is not billable hours per se — that’s just one method of
adding up fees due from clients. Changing the billing method will mean nothing
if the target income to be generated by each associate is not significantly reduced.
greedy aspirations of associates — is the problem.
Am I asking too much of law school applicants and law students, or is Sherry
asking too little? The legal profession is definitely not for everybody, and it doesn’t offer the
rewards that many have traditionally expected of it, in status, lucre, or satisfaction. (see Mark
L. Byers, Ph. D, “Career Choice and Satisfaction in the Legal Profession” (1996). If you’re
not willing to do the homework it takes to know yourself and the profession before choosing
it, either look elsewhere for a career choice or forfeit the right to whine about it later.
If you think that “we” need to be more direct, I offer some frank words from NYU ethics
professor Stephen Gillers (quoted in The Betrayed Profession, by Sol Linowitz, at 137,
“Once it may have paid to be an intellectual and a professional. Now
it pays to be technically proficient. When I was in law school I was
dumbfounded; I’d had no idea there was all this wonderful intellectual
excitement in the law. When I went into practice I was astonished at
how much a lawyer even at the highest levels is occupied with the
minute and tendentious aspects of cases. Questions of right and wrong,
I found, question of what the rules should be, played no role. It was all
finding the facts that supported your client and trying to keep the facts that
harmed him away from your opponents. I felt a discontinuity. I must tell
you that knowing what I know now, knowing how low are the chances of
finding a place in the law worthy of the energies of an intelligent and selfless
college student, I would not go to law school”
The reader is invited to take a breather now, maybe for some haiku. If you need more on
these issues, I’ve copied below (after the haiku) parts of two conversation threads about debt-choices and the
snobbery of the profession below, with Scheherazade, myself and others contributing.
so quickly you’ve learned
to eat and run
the ordinary bee
struts like a peacock…
the rice fields
greener and greener!
translated by David G. Lanoue
from Internet Lawsites Encounter the Profession’s Guild Mentality (Sept. 16, 2003
Scheherazade: What’s even sadder about the whole thing is that the debt loads new JDs carry gives them at least the perception (and for many, I think, the reality) that working for less than $100K a year is impossible. So they graduate with a vested interest in keeping the economics and the image of the profession where it is, just to pay off their loans.
David: This is an issue I wish you would think and write more about, Sherry, because I’m viewing it from a different generation’s perspective and want to hear yours. Students enter law school knowing about the debt that will follow, and merely assume that things will work out fine, given the anticipated stream of income. Most went for the big bucks and expect to obtain them. Perhaps some reality testing prior to law school would help.
Unfortunately, law schools are money-makers and their parent institutions keep increasing class sizes, despite the universal feeling that there are already too many lawyers.
In a normal economic market, we’d expect the excess of lawyers to produce falling prices for their services, or at least smaller increases in the price of legal services. The legal profession has been able to avoid that (except for its lowest economic strata), because — analogous to medical doctors — lawyers can in many ways create their own demand, once they are retained by a client, and can also delay or stymie alternative forms of legal services that would bring competition, innovation, efficiency and less expensive options for consumers.
The discussion about law school debt at Math Class for Poets leaves me a bit perplexed. A relatively new lawyer (still unmarried) is already feeling trapped by “golden handcuffs.” To be honest, it seems to me that those handcuffs are self-imposed. The key to releasing the cuffs is deciding that a less expensive lifestyle is acceptable — including less expensive neighborhood and home, auto, wardrobe, vacations, hobbies, and social life. It sounds like a rather flimsy excuse for someone who does not yet have a family to support to say, “I want to use my degree to change the world, but my debt is too high.” Maybe I should blame my generation of middle-class Baby Boomers for raising, on the whole, a generation of children who feel entitled to most of the amenities of a successful middle-class lifestyle, even when first entering their careers.
introducing their children
translated by David G. Lanoue
Yes, there are lots of things a lawyer cannot afford, if she or he wants to do public interest or public service law, or even wants to try new models of offering legal services as an entrepreneur. (Also, that lawyer may need to find a mate who can accept the consequences.) If you snap on those handcuffs in your 20’s, don’t kid yourself that they will ever come off. There will always be another level of spending that is “necessary,” after the debt is paid off — bigger home in the right neighborhood (with bathrooms for everyone), tuition for the right schools for the kids, ski trips, more and better cars, ad nauseum et ad infinitum.
For most neophyte lawyers, saying “My debt keeps me from trying to improve the world” actually means “My current and projected lifestyle needs are more important to me than trying to change the world.” That’s not necessarily bad (it’s an attitude that keeps our GNP high). Being honest about your own goals and values is far better than self-serving whining. That honesty might lead to a change in goals and a change in perspective about whether they can be achieved. (that’s my preach quota for today)
Scheherazade: I think we agree. Turned down a skyscraper law job in the big city after a remunerative and interesting summer associateship because while there I heard too much about “golden handcuffs” and I didn’t want to become accustomed to earning huge dollars at a young age. That and most of the lawyers I saw there were unhappy. I respected and enjoyed them but didn’t admire them. Here I’m at half what my salary would have been there. It’s still twice what my parents’ combined income ever was and I try to remember that. It’s let me buy a small house, save for retirement, and, perhaps, save enough for the medium term that I can someday scale back my practice and try writing or government work or something else. My own debt is ever-present, but not prohibitive, because I went to a state school. And my standard of living is just slightly better than it was when I was a poor student. But I will think and write more about it, I promise, because I think it’s more complicated than this. Some of my peers I most admire made different choices, and I understand why. In fact, I’m very happy with my own life and my law firm but regularly question whether I should have gone to a more prestigious law school or firm. There’s a pervasive credential-based snobbery in the profession that is almost impossible to get away from. I don’t think young attorneys who acknowledge this and try for the “brass ring” — expensive school, white shoe firm, can be taken to task for being selfish or short-sighted.
from Come Join Our Chat About Lawyer Snobbery (September 19, 2003)
[T]he best way to deal with snobbery is to ignore it. Unless your goal is to achieve maximum prestige, power and/or income, the fact that there’s a lot of snobbery in the profession should invoke bemusement and not frustration. Let them play their little ego games. Be grateful that you don’t have to see these people everyday and work with them — with everyone having to keep up the facade of superiority, and visiting their shrinks weekly.
David, the point I’m trying to make is that our profession, through a pervasive worship of credentials, makes it very hard to explore honestly (or even to consider) careers away from BIGLAW. People tell us that’s where the “interesting work” is and imply, explicitly or implicitly, that “ordinary” legal work for small businesses or consumers is somehow beneath us if we have brains and decent legal writing skills. So asking young lawyers to make other choices is asking us to choose a path that has been deemed intellectually less worthwhile by most of those we look up to.
But if you base your decisions on “what people tell you,” then you’re ingoring the most important voice–your own. Sure, there are going to be snobs in law firms. But there are snobs everywhere–in business, in charities–it pervades our culture. You just have to blissfully ignore those people. You’ll be much happier when you do.
Do work that is fulfilling to you, the rest be damned.
David Giacalone response:
Yes, Dave has it exactly right. It’s too bad that most people graduate from law school before they’re mature (experienced? confident?) enough to listen to that voice, or to even have a clear voice inside letting them know who they really are. Instead, they only hear a peer group and a society that puts prestige, power and profit above personal fulfillment — or, actually thinks that those 3Ps will give you personal fulfillment.
That’s all the better reason to live frugally while experimenting with big-time law practice — then, you won’t have those golden manacles when you discover who you really want to be.
Afterthought (May 24, 2005): As we posted last year, Prof. Bainbridge wrote a tribute to his Professor Stan Henderson, on Nov. 11, 2004, and quoted Henderson on the job of a law professor (and that of a lawyer, too):
The point to be underscored is that, whatever the time period, it is passion and commitment that
bring one to law study in the first place. And that is what carries one through law school and beyond, whatever the career path.
You now know that we teachers spoke the truth when we told you that we could do no more than prepare you for a lifetime of self education.
We passed on the culture mainly by sowing seeds. But the real game the discovery of self and a sense of purpose, of proportion was always yours, when you sat here in rows, and when, in the years since, you have faced into the headwinds, at times fierce
on the meaning of life . . . the crunch
of a student’s apple
from Almost Unseen (2000)