Thursday, February 2, 2012

Stigma and Silence

In his book Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, the sociologist Erving Goffman makes a distinction between virtual social identity and actual social identity.   A person’s virtual social identity is made up of those attributes which are assumed by others to be a normal part of one’s make-up, given who one is supposed to be.   When a gap between one’s virtual and actual social identity becomes known to others, and this gap is socially discrediting, the person in such a situation is stigmatized by the “normals” -- that is, by those who do not suffer from a gap between their virtual and actual social identities.  A stigmatized person has a spoiled identity: he or she suffers the consequences that follow from the disclosure of the gap between what society expects that person to be, and what the person actually is.

Stigmatized attributes include physical deformities, putative character flaws or weaknesses, and tribal stigmas.  These attributes in turn come in two categories: the discreditable and the discredited.  Discreditable attributes can be hidden, while discredited attributes cannot.  (Of course an attribute can move from one category to the other depending on social context).  The stigmatized can deal with their condition by passing (successfully hiding their stigma), covering (minimizing the impact of their stigma on observers), and flaunting (emphasizing their stigma in a way that explicitly rejects the judgment of society).

For instance a gay person can pass by remaining closeted.  He can cover by, for example, engaging in no public displays of affection with his partner, or by get married to his partner in jurisdictions that allow this.  Or he can flaunt, by for example politicizing his sexuality in a fashion captured by the activist slogan, “we’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.”  (For an analysis of these strategies for dealing with various types of social stigma, and the implications they have for civil rights struggles, see Kenji Yoshino’s book Covering).

What does all this have to do with lawyers?  In our culture, the virtual social identity of the lawyer is of a member of a high-status, learned profession, who does intellectually challenging and socially important work for considerable sums of money.  Over the course of the last generation, larger and larger numbers of people with law degrees have found themselves unable to conform to some or all aspects of this identity.  Their actual social identities may include doing mind-numbing paper-pushing of dubious or negative social value for low pay, or, increasingly, not being able to practice law at all.  This in turn has produced a generation of lawyers who are both miserable in their work and financially stressed – conditions which lead to depression, substance abuse, and suicide rates higher than those found in any other profession.  It has also led to the fact that there are perhaps 600,000 Americans of working age who have law degrees who are not practicing law at all (in comparison to 750,000 such people who are in legal practice of some sort).   This latter ratio is getting worse all the time, which in turn exacerbates the problems of practicing lawyers, who cling to jobs they hate, knowing that it is extraordinarily easy to wash out of the legal profession altogether. Meanwhile, at least half of all new law graduates will not have real legal careers.

In other words, an enormous percentage of the 1.5 million or so Americans who have law degrees are struggling with the burden of a spoiled identity, and the stigma that marks it.   The lawyer or law  graduate in this situation can, to a point and depending on the audience, pass: he can pretend that his work is intellectually challenging and socially valuable, and that he is well-paid.  He can cover:  He can lessen the discomfort “normals” (especially but not only other lawyers) feel at the sight of his stigma by employing various strategies designed to minimize its presence, by for example asserting that his current non-legal job is a voluntary and temporary circumstance.  Or he can flaunt, by embracing his stigmatized status, and rejecting the meaning society ascribes to it (see, for example, many of the posts here).

The stigma of a spoiled identity haunts lawyers at all levels of the profession:  It can be found among, for example, small firm lawyers (derisively referred to by some in the profession as practicing “shitlaw”), many of whom have to struggle constantly to collect small fees for doing low-level criminal representation, divorces involving middle class families, civil litigation one level up from small claims court, and the like.  

It appears among associates at big law firms, who work extraordinarily long hours, often at clerical tasks that could be performed by paralegals, secretaries, or even machines, but which are billed out at $400 per hour, before these associates are kicked out to make room for a fresh crop of law school graduates.  

It can be found among the armies of lawyers doing temporary contract work, piecing together a semblance of a living (and the mirage of a career) by moving from short-term project to short-term project, getting paid by the hour, often for doing no more than hitting F5 on a computer thousands of times per day.  

It appears among law firm partners who suddenly find themselves out of work at mid-career -- an increasingly common occurrence -- because they don’t have a big enough book of business to satisfy the firm’s managing board. 

It’s seen among government and public interest lawyers who have dedicated their lives to working for the public good, and for the poor and marginalized, only to discover that cuts in public support for such work has eliminated their positions, after they’ve spent a decade or two making a mid-five figure salary to work 60 hours per week.  

The stigma of a spoiled identity haunts legal practice, but it is found most powerfully outside it, where it appears in its most unforgettable form among the rapidly increasing number of law school graduates working in low-status, low-paid, non-legal jobs, or who are completely unemployed, while trying to manage enormous amounts of non-dischargeable high interest educational debt.  Every year, tens of thousands of recent and not-so-recent law graduates come to realize at long last that, despite dedicating many years of their lives and hundreds of thousands of dollars to attempting to enter our profession, they will never get real jobs as attorneys.

What we need to do is to break the silence that still surrounds so much of the contemporary crisis of the American legal profession. That silence is a product of the understandable desire of lawyers and law graduates to escape the stigma of a spoiled identity: of not wanting to have one’s supposed place in a high-status, well-paying, intellectually challenging, and socially valuable profession discredited. 

The pursuit of that desire helps explain why the catastrophe that has been overtaking the American legal profession for decades now has remained so well hidden.   It is the silence of people who been taught to believe the structural failure of the American legal profession is their own individual failure.  That belief generates the internalized shame that has allowed law schools to, for so many years, get away with publishing deeply misleading statistics about how many of their graduates were actually well-paid members of the legal profession, or indeed members of the profession at all.  And that belief, and the silence it engenders, allows law professors and administrators to remain, ironically enough, among the relatively few “normals” in the legal profession – to be among that pronounced minority whose own perception of their actual social identity does not stand in marked contradiction to the virtual, and increasingly fictitious, social identity (high-status, well-paid, intellectually challenged, socially valuable) of the American lawyer.  But that silence is beginning to be broken.


  1. The profession's powerbrokers want the secret well kept for many, many reasons. They will severely punish anyone that speaks out. Hope springs eternal as they say, but if you speak out, you will never have any decent employment in the legal field or anything tangentially related to law. You will be labeled a whiner and a loser not worthy to be alive. The only thing keeping people going is the hope that things will improve, and if they speak out, there is no chance of that.

    Take a look at the comments made on Above The Law (and on this blog as well) concerning the LS lawsuits to get a feel for this.

  2. Another great post. As a veteran of DC doc review, I can attest that quite a few doc reviewers attempt to pass themselves off to friends and family as being associates of the biglaw firms where they work as temporary contractors. Especially to parents who live back home somewhere and have no idea what real biglaw associates do anyway.

  3. Why are you censoring posts now, lawprof? Did enjoy the tenth identical post treading on the same ground though. So much better than actually doing something like quitting your job (or donating a large portion of your salary that comes directly from the scam you movement you've co-opted) in protest or changing your courses to actually teach skills or actually organizing protests or ten other things you can be doing to actuate change. But yeah, you're an internet hero....20 years too late.

  4. It is important that lawyers, law students and JDs break the silence. After all, remaining quiet when the system is broken allows the system to continue uninterrupted.

    We know that the legal "profession" is highly stratified - and pretty much this has always been the case. For instance, the elite wanted highly educated lawyers. Once law schools were established, the elite looked down on working people who went to night law schools. Formal legal "education" was designed to price poor people and recent immigrants out of the job.

    Out in the field, the wealthy - including the ABA pigs - poked fun at "ambulance chasers" and those representing low-income clients. Often, there was racial contempt or political animus behind such criticisms.

    Check out Jerald "S. Auerbach's work "Unequal Justice." In it, he points out and documents how the powers tried to marginalize Jews, blacks, women, etc. Bar exams were expected to weed out Jewish lawyers and other ethnic white lawyers. Hell, for a LONG time, blacks and women were effectively not allowed to practice law in this country.

    Now, lawyers play this game among themselves. It is akin to watching a skilled chess master dismiss someone upon learning that the other person has an ELO rating of 1600 or 1900 - which is actually respectable. (Such a person is never going to win tournaments among elite players, but can at least be a formidable opponent for most.)

    Lawyers need to move past the stigma of being unemployed, or marginally employed. (We are aware that employers use their salary, as a way to measure their genitals, but this is ridiculous.) In the end, do you want the swine responsible for this mess to produce more unemployed, debt-strapped JDs?!?!

    The schools rely on this self-shame of the graduate, when producing their employment "placement" and starting salary stats. Since low-income lawyers and the unemployed have essentially opted out of the reporting process, the schools are then able to publish distorted numbers, i.e. average starting salary of $120K and a 97% employment rate.

    In the end, this also comes down to personal ego. Is that more important than shedding light on this filthy, reprehensible, vile industry?! Lose that pride, and report your Wal-Mart job and $10 an hour barista job to the school, as well as your senators - for good measure.

  5. Excellent post. Words like mission statement come to mind.

    "The cruelest lies are often told in silence." Robert Louis Stevenson.

  6. This post belongs on the NYT Op-Ed page.

  7. Law Prof,

    Last night I watched Tuesday nights Daily Show on their website. The guest speaker was Jonathan Macey, a Yale law professor. I am sure that Mr. Macey is an extremely intelligent and resourceful individual and professional. However, after watching this unedited clip of him squirm uncomfortably, with arms folded, rocking back and forth, stammering nonsensical answers, to questions posed by Jon Stewart about the procedure, tactics, and effects of Private Equity firms, I cannot understand how Mr. Macey is employed as a law professor, especially in the "pinnacle" position of legal academia, Yale. What I've come to determine, which maybe even worse, is that Mr. Macey's responses and actions may actually be EXACTLY why he is in the position he is in legal academia. Mr. Macey appears detached from realty, defending Bain Capital and Private Equity firms vigorously as if he were their General Counsel, and seems to never once have analyzed his position from the opposite view point. "When one's livelihood depends upon one NOT understanding something, it is difficult for one to understand it." When presented with concrete analysis and data by Jon Stewart about the illegality (at bare minimum immorality) of certain actions of Private Equity firms, Mr. Macey gave answers that reminded me of the answers given to those calling for law school transparency/tuition reduction/etc. by legal administrators, professors, deans, the ABA, and Senior practicing attorneys. "It's just a recession; people should've known better; it's more good than bad; it has more versatile value than just directly linked to what it is supposed to do; it has always been this way and therefore should continue to be this way." I felt that Mr. Macey's appearance was as much, if not more, a reflection of the unfortunate state that the legal profession has fallen into. Again, I am sure Mr. Macey is a very respectable and smart individual. It just seems appropriate that a "leader" in legal academia would propose an argument akin to a 14 yr old arguing with their parents as they get caught in a lie/bad act on one of the most watched television shows. For those interested, I highly recommend Dylan Ratigan's Greedy Bastards.

  8. "In our culture, the virtual social identity of the lawyer is of a member of a high-status, learned profession, who does intellectually challenging and socially important work for considerable sums of money."

    I'm not a lawyer, and no offense, the reputation of lawyers in society as a whole really isn't all that great. Ex-presidential candidate John Edwards is a good example of someone who satisfies the worst negative lawyer stereotypes.

    Maybe part of the problem is that people go into law having an overly high expectation of what lawyers are like. So when some lawyers in academic positions make up some bullshit statistics to increase enrollment, prospective students are actually surprised when they turn out to be bunk. So maybe part of the solution is to *lower* the reputation of lawyers in our society, that way people will expect the worst from their employment data.

  9. It's true that there are competing images of lawyers, a more favorable and a less. But both make good money. The stigma for young lawyers these days is explaining why they are poor or have to live with their parents.

  10. Well said. This is another issue that virtually every young person who graduated from college recently, but is particularly accute among law school grads. After you've trained for year to become something, with a mental image of that job is, and years of everyone telling you how good you are at it and what a great job you'll have some day, it's kind of a crushing let down to be unemployed.

  11. Great post. I'm left wondering how virtual identity (legal jobs are good) compares to reality (legal jobs are soul crushing). One could say perception is reality. One could say the legal industry is ripe for disruption. Ask yourself these questions the next time you get a gaint disclosure statement from your bank about account terms - does sending me 100+ pages of words really have legal effect when no one has any ability to negotiate.

  12. Nando: concur. I'm doing my best to get my unemployed/marginally employed friends to respond to our survey in full, and of course I have already.

    They probably won't count the zeros, but two or three $15k's should hurt.

  13. I think the view of lawyers is like the view of politicians. Polls generally show that people don't like politicians, but when asked if they like their local politician, like their US Rep, the same polls (across the country) are generally favorable. So everyone likes their own politicians but hates everyone else's.

    I think it's similar to lawyers. We all hate lawyers, as an abstract concept. But if you are asked if you like your lawyer or a friend who is a lawyer, it's probably a positive feeling.

  14. I know that feeling all too well.I didn't get into the profession yearning for that 6 figure salary just something to live out my life but that's something difficult too. I don't like telling people I'm a lawyer because I don't have the full-time job to back it up. Even though I'm currently working "part-time" for an attorney where my tasks at least require I'm barred,it's nothing close to the job security I seek.

  15. "I am a tenured mid-career faculty member at a Tier One school."

    And thus I must be better than a non-tenured faculty member at a Tier 3 or 4 school.

  16. Lawprof:

    Great article. I am gonna print it out and bring it into my law school...right before I ask for my money back.

  17. I admit that I am a law student and that I do think this way. I am very conscious of, or at least self-conscious about, people thinking that I am a bad person for not being able to do well enough in law school to get a good job. At the same time, I really do not want to be like an ape angrily hurling my feces in anger at the American legal profession. The best virtual social identity for the American lawyer would be something like "law is like everything else. Some people are well-paid, some people are intellectually challenged, some people are very socially valuable, some people are in the middle, some people are doing poorly."
    At the same time, I am concerned that many people are moving in the direction of "the legal profession is a scam where 1% academics and big law partners take advantage first of less successful lawyers and aspiring lawyers and then of the rest of society through nagging lawsuits and nonsense technicalities baldly called justice." Oh well.

  18. About my most recent comment, I want to make clear that I DO BELIEVE that the law schools have not been open enough about the statistics that they are using, and that anger really may be necessary for law schools to live up to the values of public citizenship that are supposed to be a basis for the legal profession. It was unfair of me to make the comparison to an ape throwing feces.

  19. Wido:

    You are just a law student. Wait a few years and see how you really feel when the loans around your neck impede you from getting a house, starting a business, or having to explain to your SO that you cannot have another kid (if any at all). The loans and their inescapable monthly payment have a way of taking a bad attitude and making it 6% @ 100K worse. I hope you don't have to experience these things.

    I hope, for your sake, that you don't have any loans so that you can keep your blameless attitude. I, on the the other hand, don't give a fuck anymore. I am done blaming myself. I did everything required of me (and more). These lawsuits against the schools are a wonderful thing. I heard that the lawyers for these firms are going to sue 20-25 schools every few months.

  20. The ABA (Always Be Accrediting)published a United States map, which is color coded with the average attorney salaries. According to this map, even in the remotest areas of the US, the average salary is $40,000-$60,000. Move into a mid sized city and you'll rake in $80,000. Or if you go to NYC or major metropolitan centers, you'll average $160,000!

    With the profession's official governing body publishing such gross misinformation, it is no surprise that people believe spending $100,000+ in law school is a smart investment.

  21. " It is the silence of people who been taught to believe the structural failure of the American legal profession is their own individual failure."

    Yea Brother!

    I recall reading that people that sold their souls to the Company Store (as in the song of the same name?) also blamed themselves.

    I'll take blame wherever and whenever it is due.

    But still.......

  22. Dear Professor:

    This is one of your most inciteful posts ever. Your empathy for the plight of so many young (and not so young) lawyers really shines through.

    However, I must take slight umbrage at your description of "shitlaw"---I suppose that is the kind of law I and my closest friends practice (though I've never done a divorce). We like it. Yes, it's ambulance chasing, but in my city, we are the lawyers still having some fun---maybe it's the slightly subversive nature of it--or the fact, that every now and again we get a little justice for someone.

    One thing that saddens me, is that young lawyers look upon having to do "shitlaw" as a failure. Along with their other sins, I think this view is fostered by many law faculty. I have a very sharp memory of running into one of my former professors at a seminar in Knoxville about three years after I finished law school. He ask what I was doing and I told him I was practicing plaintiff law in Chattanooga. "Which firm?", he asked. "I'm on my own", I said. In a voice that mixed condescension with disdain, he merely said "Oh" and strolled away. I remember standing there, feeling like a fool---glancing about enviously at the clump of young associates from Miller & Martin (what passes for big law in Tennessee). I thought I had been industrious---I was trying to build something. He thought I was a thorough loser.

    Two years later, that same professor had moved up the law school food chain. I had just had my first big "hit", as we say in "shitlaw". Tennessee is a small state, East Tennessee is even smaller and the news of good verdicts gets around fast. Learning of my good fortune, this same professor called me up, congratulated me and hit me up for a donation to the law school. It was rich.

    Kids, don't ever dread having to do "shitlaw". It's not bad, sometimes it's downright fun, you get to keep your soul, and sometimes, if you stick with it (and have a friendly banker), you can get the last laugh.

    Tricia Dennis

  23. This is a great post and I can see it as the introductory chapter to a book. This is a story that needs to be told.

    However, the story doesn't start at graduation (although it becomes more clear). It starts when prospective students apply and then is reinforced and cemented after the first year grades come out.

    The law school model, even before the recession, is mainly geared towards the top 50-30% (at least in my alma mater-- a T14 but not HYS).

    Remember, 1 out of every 2 lawyers will be in the bottom 50% of every class, no matter what, and will have to bear that stigma. It continues from there.

    Great post, and great comments as well.

  24. @ 3:28

    I actually wanted to do "shitlaw" and represent the legal interests of the common person. The problem is that the costs of law school prevent this as an option. If it cost 100K for a small business license, and missing a payment on that license meant financial ruin, you would see a lot less people taking the risk.

    A lot of bright young lawyers who could do a lot to increase access to legal representation are forced to find a job out of law to manage their debt.

  25. "This is one of your most inciteful posts ever." (per T. Dennis above).

    The post is actually both insightful and "inciteful." Quality stuff.

    And no offense meant to T. Dennis -- most of us sometimes lapse into "shitspelling." ;-))

  26. Just the other day I mentioned to a guy working in my building that I was a "lawyer" and he apologized for some reason. So much deference to me because I'm a lawyer. It boggles the mind.

  27. LawProf, permission to briefly hijack this thread if I may:

    My wife has just told me that she wants to go to our local (California-accredited, but not ABA) law school, which has a tuition of $54,000 over 4 years. She makes less than that now, and I think it's unlikely that the law job economy will improve by then.

    Any thoughts on how I can disuade her, besides talking about how limited the job opportunities are?

  28. Why do nonlegal employers actively loathe the JD degree? Why is it such a stigma outside the (rapidly contracting) legal market?

    This is speculation, but I think that the reason is traceable, in part, to the fact that law schools produce graduates who have near-zero training in legal practice, but who have been propagandized by the scammers to believe that the JD degree signals to the world that its holder has rare, though undefined, managerial talents.* In other words, to a nonlegal employer, a JD represents a bundle of elite expectations, but not actual skills.

    Suppose that law schools got off their high horses, and adopted a model of legal education that gave students a fast doctrinal grounding and then focused on training their graduates to actually try a case, write an appeal, and represent clients in several different practice. Not only would that be a boon to the legal profession generally, but it would probably restore a bit of the JD's lost cachet in society at large. The degree would say: "I have the knowledge and training to competently represent clients on their legal problems" rather than "My shit doesn't stink."

    *"We are not producing plumbers and bookkeepers, we are producing the leaders of our Society whose primary ability is the strength of their intellects. Law teachers hone the mind in a variety of ways through a variety of methods." Prof. Peter Bayer, UNLV Law, Sept 16, 2011.


  29. NBC did a story on the law school scam today and they contacted Senator Boxer's office for comment. Keep up the media pressure and let's hope there are Senate hearings soon!

  30. One thing I like about this blog, is that LawProf is well-read in the liberal arts and I learn stuff about other fields as well as the law.

  31. My wife has just told me that she wants to go to our local (California-accredited, but not ABA) law school, which has a tuition of $54,000 over 4 years. She makes less than that now, and I think it's unlikely that the law job economy will improve by then.

    Any thoughts on how I can disuade her, besides talking about how limited the job opportunities are?


    We really need more information on why she wants to do this, but be thankful that it's $54,000 tuition total instead of $150,000.

  32. @6:53

    She wants to do something in public policy, and thinks a JD would be more interesting than an MPP/MPA. I would imagine that policy gigs (something in govt/non-profit) are probably the only area outside practice where a JD is somewhat valuable, so I don't know. Her background is as an advocacy director at a non-profit. $54,000 is still a lot of money (especially when a Master's in anything would be cheaper.) Her undergrad is a generic Liberal Arts degree (we're both in our early 30's.)

  33. Will she go at night while staying in her current job?

  34. Yes, so no lost income.

  35. Then it's not that bad.

    I assume she could get into an accredited school (if she couldn't, then make sure you don't have kids with her because she's a fucking retard) so she's going to this non-accredited one to save money.

    Can she take teh LSAT some more to try to get a scholly at a night program in, say, Southwestern or Thomas Jefferson or some other similar socal shit but accredited law school?

  36. @ 7:20

    You can "read law" in California and take the bar exam. Have you looked into that? Maybe trying to get in with a small law firm in a field she finds interesting? I think you'd have a lot of advantages from taking this route. You get networked, it's free, practical on-the-job experience, no killer resume gap . . . worse comes to worse it would definitely look good on any app to become a paralegal. Especially without the scarlet letters that are the JD.

    Good luck!

  37. @7:40

    Thanks for the suggestion, The bar passage rate for Law Office Study (as its officially called here) is terrible, of the 5 people who sat the bar last July who took that route (a typical number over the years BTW) only 2 passed. Most other states require graduating from an ABA school then have a relatively easy bar, CA is the exact opposite.

  38. Just make sure she does not quit her day job. if she does that you risk disaster. Otherwise it's just an annoyance.

    Also, please make sure you show her the statistics on mental health and law school (4% of 0Ls depressed, 40% of 3Ls depressed) so that it doesn't impact your lives.

  39. As a total aside, yesterdays lawsuit was quite prominently discussed today by NPR. The spin was positive.

  40. @ 7:47

    I noticed that, but the uncredited colleges (and some of the ABA ones) have pretty abysmal rates as well. Maybe hit the ground running and starting BarBri right away?

    I know nobody in Cali so I am just throwing darts here.

  41. That salary map is BLS data, so it's probably reasonably valid for people actually employed in May 2009. Those are means, not medians, so the "1%" distort the numbers.

    I share Tricia's view of the term "shitlaw" -- it's an unforgivable insult to the millions of ordinary people, who have legal problems, and really need someone to help with them. I understand that debt levels are a real problem: shouldn't IBR take the edge off this, though? Yes, you're not going to live a UMC life -- you'll be an ordinary person helping ordinary people with their problems, and making enough to live an ordinary life.

  42. 8:15 again. I see that the BLS numbers have some real problems: they exclude partners and solos.

  43. 8:15 - agreed, plus (speaking as a BigLaw litigator alum), BigLaw is the true "shitlaw." Awful working environment, awful hours, and more or less pointless paper-pushing discovery-based litigation for faceless, interchangeable corporations. Now, I represent individual, indigent clients (my paycheck comes from the government) ... and it's the first time in my life that I feel that I'm really practicing law. Mindless privilege logs and pro forma interrogatory/document requests = felt like glorified, overpaid, barely-more-than-clerical work.

  44. Prof X, does it pain you that no one even pays attention to your posts? And what's with the "20 years too late" comment? I thought you (and others) have been talking about this issue for only the past decade.

  45. "My wife has just told me that she wants to go to our local (California-accredited, but not ABA) law school, which has a tuition of $54,000 over 4 years. She makes less than that now, and I think it's unlikely that the law job economy will improve by then." - 5:58pm

    @5:58 -
    I don't know if this will work, but you can tell her the following, true story:

    I wanted to also work in public interest law working for a non-profit. So, I spent years to do it, just like she will. Before law school, I made about $35,000 a year in my non-legal jobs. Paid about $60,000 for law school. Worked an additional year and a half FOR FREE after law school in unpaid internships(gotta show 'em you're eager, that you want to do the work so bad, that you'll sacrifice a salary.) = another $50,000 in lost salary to work for free.

    End result: Paid $80,000 for law school (my $60,000 with ever-increasing interest has now increased to $80,000), Lost $105,000 in salary for the 3 years in law school, had to take out an additional $10,000 a year for living expenses those 3 years ($30,000), lost another $50,000 in lost salary the year and a half I worked at unpaid internships. Plus, I paid $4,000 to study for the bar and lost another $6,000 in salary so that I could study for the bar = $10,000

    CURRENT SALARY - $13,000 a year for a non-legal job



    MY TOTAL COSTS FOR ENTERING THE LEGAL PROFESSION - (includes cost of tuition plus interest on student loans, bar fees, loans for living expenses, salary lost while in law school and doing unpaid internships - $275,000


    END RESULT - working in a non-legal job for $13,000 a year, which has nothing to do w/ my original goal of working in public interest law. A JD is not needed to do my current job.

    SUMMARY - Paid $275,000, lost four a half years of my life, did not do anything even remotely connected to my dream.

    CAVEAT - I am not a bad example. I speak 4 languages, worked overseas in gov, worked for a federal judge and a prosecutor's office, was an Honors Scholar in law school, on the Dean's List, on a National Team, graduated undergrad with high honors from an American and European university and have 15 years strong, solid work experience with excellent references. I am the new normal and will never have the opportunity to work in law.

    FINAL WORD: If it can happen to me, IT CAN HAPPEN TO HER and given the direction of the legal market, it probably will. SHE SHOULD ASK HERSELF IF SHE WANTS TO PAY THIS KIND OF MONEY FOR THESE KIND OF RESULTS.

    GO INTO ANOTHER FIELD! You'll get much better results!

  46. Oh cry me a river, 11:20. Sorry that law school destroyed your life. But without the law school scam we wouldn't have the "scholarship" of those like Prof X, whose general body of work gets less attention than each post on this blog.

  47. @11.27 Why are you censoring posts now, lawprof

    Because it's the only way to keep the comments section readable and on track, and Inam all for censoring posts on a private blog.

    Law prof, great writing, while I have nothing to do with law I really have enjoyed your blog


  48. 11:20 thanks it is imperative that she not quit her job. it is also crucially important that he tell her about the depression statistics. otherwise they will ruin not only her life but also his life since he is married to her.

  49. Oh, what have they done to my profession? It might sound quaint to most of the younger folks here, but when I graduated from law school ('88), a common reason we all went there was to, I don't know, occasionally try to HELP PEOPLE.

    Now that's called shitlaw.

    Don't get me wrong; I understand the reality that a young man or woman with $150,000 in debt really doesn't have the option of building a practice. These people HAVE to hold out for the brass ring.

    When I started, it was common for younger lawyers to do a lot of 'people work.' Some small criminal defense, divorce, minor litigation. We cut our teeth on that stuff. If a guy worked his butt off and treated his clients well after 5-10 years he'd be making $100k a year. Not everyone got there, but not everyone succeeds in ANY profession.

    Maybe you didn't get rich, but this was real, 'boots on the ground', law practice. You were in and out of court, busy as heck, and building a book of business. Eventually, you graduated to more stable clients, maybe an insurance company or two, the occasional plaintiff's settlement. Hell, I've won a class action settlement for a plaintiff class, represented my favorite law professor against my own law school, and now have enough clients to feed myself and a couple other lawyers/paralegals.

    Like tdennis says, it's pretty fun too.

    Most of us didn't care about landing the BIGLAW job, pushing paper, and mindlessly dreaming up discovery requests or complicated paragraphs for M&A agreements. We were doing real work for real people...still are to some degree.

    Now, the greedy bastards have unleashed a gazillion young lawyers with a gazillion in debt. I think there is still opportunity out there to build a practice like I and my colleagues have done, but who can afford to do it?

    Ironically, some of the same people who are constantly hectoring us about providing legal services to the poor are the ones who helped cause the problem.

    My practice isn't god's work, I've had to make some good business deals to get what I've got, and there are no guarantees I'll be around tomorrow. It is, however, honest and interesting work, I get to control my own life, and help some people along the way. I could have it a lot worse.

    Prof. Campos, on the other hand, IS doing god's work. It saddens me to see, day in and day out, how our legal education system is harming not only the lives of countless young lawyers, but also the practice of law.

  50. Oh cry me a river, 11:20. Sorry that law school destroyed your life. But without the law school scam we wouldn't have the "scholarship" of those like Prof X, whose general body of work gets less attention than each post on this blog


    your shitty law review articles are not read by anyone and that never stopped you.

  51. 11:20: Thank you for your testimony. Stories like yours -- and as you say there's nothing atypical about yours -- are ultimately more powerful than any purely academic analysis could be in the fight to bring about reform.

  52. Its so stupid when people “correct” other people’s spelling errors on blogs… it makes me hate people that much more.

  53. I've been reading news stories of the lawsuits and am amazed by the readers who want to blame the law students.  This is a very popular position, maybe even the majority position.

    This response seems clearly irrational.  Even if the students are partially to blame for not doing sufficient research or for feeling entitled, that has nothing to do with the intentional publishing of misleading employment statistics, which almost nobody attempts to defend.  Even the people blaming the law students don't defend the stats other than to say students should have known better and that "of course" the law schools were lying to them.  

    But I'm sure these people don't carry that attitude consistently.  Do these people go around assuming that everybody is lying to them all the time?  Do we not live in a society with consumer protections and government regulations designed to force some honesty out of people?  Is it really so "stupid" to assume the law schools are telling you the truth?  Is it stupid to trust that some governing body is forcing them to?

    A favorite line of these haters is to say that obviously the failed students would be poor lawyers, since they failed to do their research.  This is also completely irrelevant to whether law schools are lying.  Not only that, but the implication seems to be that being a poor lawyer means you deserve to be defrauded.  Maybe most law school applicants really would be poor lawyers, why does that make it ok to sell them snake oil?  If they are so unsophisticated, isn't that an argument exactly for the kinds of protections scam-bloggers are calling for?

    These "arguments" utterly fail to stand up to any kind of scrutiny, and yet they are being repeated over and over by smart people in the comments sections of smart publications.  What can possibly explain this?

    Some part of it I suppose you can attribute to conservative/libertarian philosophy generally, but I find it surprising that conservative/libertarians are willing to let law schools and law school professors off the hook so easily.

    I think the real reason must be that people simply HATE lawyers and/or law students and this hatred blinds them to reason.  Not only that, but they really do ENJOY hearing the pathetic stories of failed law students.  

    Anyway, I know a lot of people here resist calls to lump the law school scam story into the larger education picture generally.  I understand why, because so many law professors want to do this as a means to avoid any individual responsibility.  But if the movement is to get any traction at all with the public, it has to be about college generally and not about law school.  The public hates law school students and is actually happy to see them suffer.  

  54. @Mr. Smith

    I am so glad to see a fellow traveller on this blog. Everything you said is true. I wish our generation of small law could figure out a way to help these bright talented young people. If these folks could get some debt relief, maybe they would have a shot at doing heat we did (which in my view is the only bearable way to practice law.).

    I hope you will post more in the future.

    Tricia Dennis

  55. "your shitty law review articles are not read by anyone and that never stopped you."

    Because no one reads law review articles, including your own. BTW you're not a philosopher. You host a shitty blog that doesn't allow comments, and yet obsessively troll the internet anonymously commenting on others' blogs.

  56. Mr Smith and Ms. Dennis:

    That has been pretty well the world for me - though I represent clients that pay more, I am in two small firms on different continents and we have represented companies from around the kitchen table to being worth billions - and it did not happen overnight. We do some small work pro-bono or for minimal charges for small business, usually because a big player it trying to use its massive legal budget and Baker & McKenzie or Linklaters to crush them and it just pisses us off.

    I am in two firms of 5-10 lawyers in 2 countries and the clients are pretty blue-chip, but as you say it could all go away tomorrow, so today I earn, but who knows, next week it could be nothing - but that has always been the way of the profession.

    I nearly ended up in big-law a few times - the first time as a new graduate the offices broke up in the city they wanted me in after I finished my clerkship, later after being a GC for big name companies the big firms wanted me to guarantee a book of business - in return for which they would throw me maybe 1/3 of my billings - and I had to promise I could milk clients for $x-million and I turned that down and joined a classmate and a friend in a firm we are building - along with rejoining another firm in another country as of counsel.

    Our office is an old warehouse in a toughish part of town - because the nicer offices we had in the financial district were never visited by any of our clients - hell I never went there. Tech people....

    One of the biggest issues I see in the cost of law school is that no one has the real wherewithal to set up a firm anymore. Graduates in the last 3-5 years are for the most part so deeply mired in debt that even when they have a few years experience they cannot take the risk of hanging a shingle - they can't take the chance of a few months with no income. Meanwhile the big firms are set up with such massive overheads that they really need to keep the associates billing at $400 and the partners at $800 and cannot cut any sort of deal for a client.

    It as our very ability to be flexible with clients that helped us grow and take business away from the biggest and most prestigious firms in town - and partners. I'm not getting rich the way a Cravath partner does, and my office is a bit of a dump (I'm messy) but I am earning into the medium six figures - I'm happy doing it - and I am happy that what we do for our clients adds value and not just billed hours.


  57. @TriciaDennis

    One of the best things you could do to help is find a young "small-law" lawyer trying to make it on his or her own and let them receive mail and phone messages at your office and use your conference room for the rare client meeting or deposition. If you're aiming for Sainthood, teach a free or low-cost CLE course.

    I'm a new grad with a non-JD job and about a client and a half of business. In my jurisdiction it costs a couple hundred bucks just to file suit and God help you if you have to serve more than a couple people. Someone like me would fall all over the opportunity to pretend like I had a real office. Limiting your liability would be fairly simple and you'd be making a real contribution to the future of the profession.

  58. Mr. Smith and Ms. Dennis:

    I really, really appreciate your sentiments, and want you to know there are a fair amount of us making a good run at what you did.

    I graduated in May 2010 from Toledo with a legal aid job lined up, which was rescinded after the organization underwent massive downsizing. After driving a cab for six months and not finding a new job, I hanged a shingle. I have a tiny office in a motel-turned office building.

    It's been really hard and I've gone through bouts of despair and depression, but I feel like my future is only getting brighter, especially in the last couple of weeks.

    I do exactly what you describe: divorces, criminal defense, landlord-tenant, small-time civil litigation. I HELP people, and represent a lot of people who would otherwise have a hard time affording representation. And I've general done well for them.

    This is not "shitlaw:" in my opinion, "shitlaw" is working 70 hours a week at "big law" reviewing documents and answering discovery and never feeling the personal impact of having changed someone's life. I feel sorry for those people.

  59. Rob Switzer -

    Good for you. Keep going, it is the only way.


  60. I think the problem with going out for shitlaw isn't so much the lack of prestige as it is the difficulty of doing so when you're already in a lot of debt. I know I would be happy doing it if I thought I could get by on it but I barely have the money to pay my rent, much less go into even more debt to essentially start a small business.

    There's also the fact that law school doesn't really prepare you for solo practice. I worked for awhile at a firm that would be described as shitlaw with the intent of taking some lumps but learning how to do things right. I ended up at what turned out to be a mill (average associate lasted about 3 months) that was overloaded with ethical problems. I was basically forced to quit when I refused to put my name on sketchy documents and asked what were clearly too many questions about the place's procedures. Then for my trouble I ended up having to file a complaint against the loser who owned the firm with the state Department of Labor in order to get my last two paychecks.

    There are some very good people out there doing shitlaw but the stereotypes exist for a reason and I got first-hand experience with it. Now, semi-luckily, I'm doing legal services stuff in the General Counsel's office of a big company. It isn't really fulfilling and my job doesn't require a JD but at least the checks cash, I have health insurance, and I get to go home at 5.

    I'm sure the folks posting have good, ethical small practices, but let's not romanticize it. There's a very nasty side to what goes on in a lot of small firms and in my brief experience I found a total lack of professionalism and ethics to be rampant.

  61. Whoa, you're painting with a pretty broad brush, there. You are suggesting that there is a "very nasty side" to "a lot of small firms based on a "brief experience" with one firm.

    I know literally hundreds of lawyers who practice in small firms of 10 lawyers or less, and your "brief experience" is not representative. Further, in my 20+ year career, I have encountered just as many questionable practices in bigger firms as I have in small firms.

    Sometimes it's important to know what you don't...know.

  62. MacK: Thanks.

    5:37: You're absolutely right about the financial difficulty. The constant fear of running out of money has by far been my biggest source of stress. I have never been able to operate with truly adequate operating capital; my credit card balance has grown substantially.

    As far as your point about unethical lawyers: I honestly believe they're a tiny minority. The vast majority of lawyers I've encountered so far have been solo and small firm practitioners, and for the most part they've been highly professional, and often surprisingly willing to help out a beginner.

  63. Law Prof, I thought your comments made in this article were right on!. It is obvious that the situation with law schools and over production of attorneys has been going on for some time. The embarrassment factor really is a huge mechanism to keep quiet, no one want to face the fact that they did everything right, but there just not making it as an attorney.

  64. Why do non legal employers loathe a law degree? You will find that many employers feel threatened by anyone with any type of higher education, master's degree, JD, doesn't matter. Some employers even feel threatened by someone with a basic bachelor's degree. The less educated in our society often get ahead by keeping down others. If they can manage to get a job in a human resources office, they are going to do their dead level best to weed out anyone who might provoke their feelings of inferiority. This is based on my 25 years of experience in the workforce, but I think its an opinion that should be considered and addressed.


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