Monday, August 15, 2011

Understanding the rage of recent law school graduates

The comment thread following this post throws a useful light on both the anger of many recent law grads, and the defensive reaction this anger tends to elicit even among that subset of legal academics, such as HDL, who are not simply burying their heads in the sand in regard to how bad the situation has become.  That's unfortunate, because the comments of posters such as Morse Code for J, Shark Sandwich, and Dumpy are the kinds of things law professors and law school administrators need to hear.

Everyone likes to think well of themselves, and naturally the people running law schools have a long list of rationalizations for why we aren't to blame for the dire plight of our recent and soon-to-be graduates.  These include, but are not limited to:

(1) The system was working fine until the Great Recession, and will soon work fine again.

(2) Law students are adults who are responsible for their decisions, and anyone who really wants to know the score about employment prospects can find it.

(3) Students who work hard in their classes and network outside them will still do well.

(4) The law is a learned profession and the study of it is a personally enriching experience, not merely a way to make a buck.

(5) After all, what alternatives do these people really have?

(6) I'm a dedicated professional who works hard at my job, and anyway I didn't create this system, i.e, hate the game not the player.

All of these rationalizations tend to throw law students and especially recent law grads into a rage, and understandably so.  Let's look at them in turn:

(1) Everything will be fine again when the economy picks up.  This is a very inadequate response to the current crisis, for a couple of reasons.  First, nobody knows to what precise extent recent changes in the market for law graduates are structural rather than cyclical, but it's clear that some of these changes are here to stay. It may well be that the current economic structure of legal education, which doesn't really work for a huge percentage of current law students, is never going to work for an acceptable percentage ever again, even after the overall economy picks up and the going rate for new Wall Street firm associates rises to 200K or what have you.

Second, even before the current crisis, the trend lines for legal education were bad.  Costs were rising much faster than expected return on investment, and a significant minority of graduates found themselves worse off than they were before they went to law school. We in legal academia tended to ignore those outcomes, because we allowed them to remain largely invisible to us. This is what BL1Y calls "the graveyard problem" -- and it's not going away even if and when the market for new law graduates improves significantly.

(2) Caveat emptor, basically. Of course few legal academics will phrase the matter quite so crudely, especially given our habit of engaging in encomiums to The Majesty of the Law (see #4, infra).  Still, this rationalization resonates loudly in American culture, because of our commitment to a vastly exaggerated concept of individual responsibility.  Nobody is willing to defend outright fraud, so it's tempting to dismiss the employment and salary statistics advertised by law schools (which are fraudulent on their face) as mere "puffing," as they say in first-year Contracts.  Giving in to that temptation, as I have heard many legal academics do, is particularly unappetizing given the constant blather about professional ethics emitted by the profession's elites.  The "it depends on what the meaning of the word 'employed' is" response is, under the present circumstances, less than inspiring.

(3) Horatio Alger, basically.  This is another choice bit of American cultural mythology which law schools are finding particularly useful at the moment.  If you failed it's not because the system is heavily slanted against people like you -- it's because of your personal failings, which you could have overcome if you had been more diligent and graduated in the top 10% of your class, while taking care not to make the mistake of having parents who don't have enough cultural capital to hook a brother (or sister) up with Daddy's best friend, who just happens to be the hiring partner at Crony, Nepotism & Merit.

(4) If this seems to you like a helpful thing to tell someone with $200,000 of non-dischargeable law school debt and no job, please stop reading this blog now. Also, try to avoid spontaneous conversations with your recent grads, especially if you live in a state with a concealed-carry law.

(5) This at least reflects that the respondent has a grasp on economic and social reality.  I've heard it more and more lately from my smarter and more cynical brethren. From an ethical point of view it's a deeply disturbing response, since the only way to make this position defensible is to assume that it's OK to, as the Law and Econ crowd phrases it, "maximize one's personal utility," even if this maximization consists of essentially ripping off people who have no power (of course to the Ayn Rand types running much of our political and economic system, ripping people off who have no power is the highest ethical calling to which anyone can hope to aspire).

(6)  It's true: you didn't create this system you now find yourself enmeshed within. In most cases you entered the system when it was working a lot better (although far from ideally, see #1) for your students. But let's be frank, shall we?  How hard do you work, really? Maybe you're like my friend whose personal qualities and institutional circumstances have produced a legal academic career full of genuine hard work (although as he fully acknowledges, much more rewarding and flexible work than practically any practicing lawyer will ever get paid big bucks for performing).  But if you're a typical tenured law professor at a non-elite school (which isn't to say that elite schools don't have their share of tenured slackers -- they most certainly do), you don't work nearly that hard at your job. You don't have to, and there's rarely much tangible reward -- other than personal satisfaction -- for doing so.  A generous estimate is that the median hours worked per week by the typical tenured law professor at a non-elite school during the eight months of the year when school is in session is around 30. And it's a lot less during the other four months. (More later on how these estimates, which I emphasize are if anything on the generous side, are derived.)

In other words the TTLPAANES gets paid a lot of money to do a soft job of dubious social value, which at present is producing very bad economic results for a whole lot of the people who pay his or her salary.  It's perfectly predictable that this makes a lot of those people very angry. It's even more predictable that throwing a bunch of lame rationalizations in their faces positively enrages them. That, on a visceral level, is what the scam blogs are all about.


  1. Well said. Thanks prof. you're awesome. Don't worry about anyone "outing" you as once that happens you will be a hero.

  2. Why does my name come up as that odd string of letters when I try to login through my AOL account? lol.

  3. The system was not working fine until the Great Recession. Law schools and the profession just don't bother talking about the past.

    I graduated nearly 20 years ago from a top tier school, during another recession. Big Law passed out pink slips just like they did a couple of years ago. I struggled, although not nearly so badly as young lawyers do today and my debt load was by today's standards very small.

    When I started law school there were parties at least 4 nights a week. Eat, drink, and be merry, we were all headed to Wall Street.

    By the time I graduated, when summer offers failed to materialize, the Dean of Students sent us all a flyer (we didn't have email in those days) inviting us to seek counseling if we thought we had developed a drug or alcohol problem because of the job pressure.

    At the mass graduate student loan "exit interview" someone hung a sign that said "debtor's prison."

    At graduation the Dean of the university talked about feeling good about graduating from law school even if you didn't have a job.

    And then I never heard from them again. Except alumni fundraising drives.

    At the time I graduated from law school there were 174 ABA accredited law schools. Today that number tops 200 I believe.

    At the time I graduated from law school the average graduating class at my school was about 175 to 185 students. Today it tops 200.

    Oh, and tuition has more than doubled.

    Just like the mortgage melt down this crisis has been created by institutional greed and funded by easy debt.

    Shame on you all. This was avoidable. I've recovered (but no I'm not a Big Law partner) but lots of these young people won't.

    Keep up the good work scambloggers. If anyone fixes this problem it will be because of you. God knows it won't be the profession or academia who fixes it.

  4. Professor, please do not allow anyone to intimidate you into silence and please do not delete your blog. You are doing a great job and your perspective is an important one as we take on the industry shills.

  5. Just to be clear, the 'graveyard problem' isn't my own idea. If I recall correctly, I first read about it in The Black Swan (the Taleb book on finance markets, not related to the movie), and I believe he was referencing an established principle, not his own idea.

    In finance, we see only the firms that thrive. We don't see the people who went bust early on. If you take 1000 investors, and have them all pick stocks based on absolutely no knowledge or expertise, a few of them will do well. With a big enough pool to start from, some people will do well, through sheer luck, for a long time.

    If a million people flip coins, someone will get that "one in a million" series of all heads (20 in a row). It's not because he's a good flipper, or especially lucky, it's because it was a 1 in a million shot, and we started with a million.

    So, what happens in finance is we see firms that continuously invest better than the market, and we think they must know what they're doing. What we don't see is the million other people flipping tails regularly.

    Track the careers of the 45,000 law students who just graduated this May, and you will find some success stories. But, those successes are only meaningful in a context where we look at the number of bodies in the graveyard it took to produce them.

  6. Excellent job calling out the intellectualy dishonest and morally questionable justifications that are popular with law schools these days. Your
    ability to speak truth to power is refreshing and in the highest traditions of honesty and liberal education. Further, anonymous or pseudonymous publication has been an honorable facet of our national discourse since at least the Federalist Papers. It is the thought that matters, not the identity.

    Additionally, my preferred response to #4 when uttered by a law professor would be "Of course, that's why you teach classes pro bono, right? For the personal enrichment?"

  7. LawProf, another aspect of the 4th issue you've identified is that professors are likely out of touch with student dynamics. Law students are generally under the impression that doing anything other than kissing up and thanking profs for their transformative brilliance will result in a dearth of recommendations. Few of us are willing to see what happens if we tell our real-life profs what we actually think.

    Law profs usually don't treat us like future colleagues who might have something to bring to the academy. Why should they, when they rely on the gate-keeping function of the job market to keep our pesky questions at bay? It's easy for profs to brush our discontent aside as a sign that we're potentially loony, obsessive, or unaware of "how things work." And, at least at my T-30 law school, profs' assumption that we'd be telling them if we really had doubts contains (unintentionally) sexist dimensions. Male students are just gunners if they want to talk to profs outside class, but female gunners also risk classmates' comments that we're trying to draw attention to ourselves and sleep with our profs if we dare to express anything dissonant. If we can't talk to you to tell you that our lives aren't getting sufficiently enriched given the lack of jobs, that we need to find some way to step it up a little for our $160k, we're going to be even more dissatisfied as graduates.

    A legal academy without dialogue is inherently disrespectful to the study and practice of law. Law profs should be on the front lines of creating an environment where students and faculty alike can examine the problems confronting the field. Anonymous grading isn't enough because profs aren't doing the heavy lifting to apply it as a mechanism to support debate without retaliation. Before profs go about congratulating themselves on their successes, they should consider whether they've earned students' respect. Profs have to win our trust if they want us to tell them what's wrong while they can still do something about it.

    It's a mark of genuine friendship, or at least common goals, if we decide to stop by office hours and break our silence. When profs demonstrate that our complaints will not be ignored or dismissed, and when profs have the courtesy to avoid drawing burgeoning lines of communication into the open, they actually make a difference. Blogging right before the academic year is also a very productive choice. I hope this project will continue to spark genuine discussion.

  8. There's a terrific scene from Michael Mann's "The Insider," where Mike Wallace and his production staff are discussing how Big Tobacco gets around being held liable for the millions of customers who become addicted and develop illnesses related to their product. There's somebody there, ostensibly from CBS' legal department, to walk the audience through the particulars.

    Mike Wallace and his producer agree that the tobacco companies can't be afraid of a prospective whistle blower because of the mere fact that cigarettes are bad for you. The lawyer knocks on the table (presumably, to knock on wood) and says,

    "What that is, is Tobacco's standard defense: it's the we-don't-know litany. Addiction? We believe not. Disease? We don't know, we take a bunch of leaves, roll 'em together and you smoke 'em, after that, you're on your own, we don't know."

    The upshot is that the tobacco companies had conducted research and knew nicotine's addictive properties as a scientific certainty. Unlike the tobacco companies, the law schools have probably not conducted any such research; as lawyers, they know better than to ask questions that might hurt them later. In all other respects, their manifest attitude towards transparency in employment reporting resembles the tobacco companies' refusal to disclose what they knew about nicotine. They don't want to know, and if they knew, indications are that they wouldn't volunteer the information.

    Knowing with great particularity what happens to law graduates is the first step towards determining what's effective legal education and what isn't. It's the first step towards right-sizing the lawyer population in this country, as properly informed and risk-averse 0Ls vote with their tuition or career choices. It's the first step towards acknowledging that there is a total mismatch between what law school promises and what it delivers for most of its graduates.

    Needless to say, I'm not holding my breath waiting for my alma mater or any law school to take this first step.

  9. Well, wait a minute, though.

    As long as you're saying "throwing a bunch of lame rationalizations in their faces positively enrages [law graduates]", what about:

    "So no, law school is not a scam in the literal sense. What it is, for a huge number of law students all across the law school hierarchy, is a practical, intellectual, and economic waste of time and money"?

    And, yet, here, you've swung back again all the way to fraud (which it is). Are you taking back your earlier qualifications about whether it is a scam? What about the earlier crap about torts and this not really being intentional? Do you take that back? Do you admit you were wrong?

    And what about the fact that as between the students, the administration and the faculty the only class of people with both the power and the responsibility to have prevented this were the faculty? Doesn't that simply erase any rationalization that might be offered up in defense to the scamblogs? Doesn't that make all arguments (1) - (6) completely irrelevant and all counterarguments unnecessary?

  10. Profs and admins should be alarmed by the counterargs to these statements.

    1) I'll say it again, this recession is creating a lost generation of lawyers. Even if the economy boomed tomorrow, everybody who graduated since 2008 would still be screwed. In fact, anybody graduating this year or next year would be screwed too, because of the nature of OCI hiring.

    2) A person can only rely on what information is giving. Any prof or admin who spouts this answer should be insisting on total transparency in career/salary stats as well as publicly tearing down the "all lawyers are rich" myth.

    3) Most of us work hard. But if you don't get it by the 1L fall finals, you're screwed. Few professors can actually give you advice on how to do well on their exams. "Spot more issues," is pretty common advice. Well, what does that mean? TEACH me how to do better. Profs are only interested in the all stars, and why wouldn't they be? They were all stars themselves, and dealing only with top students validates the profs' sense that they are a good teacher.

    4) Come on. Does anybody believe this bullshit? People go to law school to make money. Schools perform bait and switch by telling kids they can make a lot of money as a lawyer, and then let the students discover the grim reality themselves. It is an outright lie to let students enroll on the belief that they can make a lot money, and then not help students achieve these goals. If the admins really believe in this "education for its own sake" nonsense, then they need to price and market the schools accordingly.

    5) Nursing school? Engineering? Starting a small business? Traveling the world for three years? There are any number of things a twenty year old with ambition and energy can do with 200 grand.

    6) The system wasn't like this before you came along. Before the current crop of admins and profs, there were a reasonable number of law schools, and they were reasonably priced. Whether or not you think this is your fault, you ARE responsible for what is happening now, and you need to be part of the solution. This is a major news story now, and it isn't going away. What are you dedicated to, anyway? Your job or your students? Your students pay your salary and do your work (TA's, law review, etc.). I don't give a fig if you're dedicated to your job, your responsibility is to your students.

  11. Yes, obviously agreed, Shark Sandwich! #6 especially. Bang on!

  12. "(of course to the Ayn Rand types running much of our political and economic system, ripping people off who have no power is the highest ethical calling to which anyone can hope to aspire)."

    Awesome line. Can't wait for your next entry.

  13. @Shark Sandwitch

    About #3:

    I recall that there was a study of over 100 variables (IQ, High School Grades, Median Family Income, LSAT scores, etc.) and only one correlated with success on law school exams: the length of the written response to the exam question. Essentially, give your professor more chances to mark a correct answer.

    #3 frustrates me to this day. Networking can be taught (by experts) and fostered. Heck, much of the expertise for legal practice lies outside of the academy.

  14. CreidS,

    Yes, you're absolutely correct. I learned this the hard way after my first semester. Whenever I write an exam now, I try to write as much as possible, and don't consider an answer complete until its hit at least ten typed pages.

    Of course, you would never know this by asking a prof., who would tell you they value quality over quantity. The little joke of law school exams is that the profs' idea of quality means spotting lots of issues, which can only be done with quantity. All of this is fine, if that's how the system is going to be, but profs need to stop hiding what they want from the students, especially after the fact, when you ask them about the results of your exam.


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