All the Wrong Reasons

 

So we’ve been hearing about this new blog, “UnemployedJD.com,” where some guy named Ethan is documenting his hunger strike “to bring awareness to the concerns of [his] classmates. Their primary concerns are inaccurate employment statistics, ineffective career counseling, and rising tuition costs. [His] intention is to have these concerns addressed by law school administrators.”

Really?  A hunger strike?  Because most law students aren’t guaranteed a high-paying job on graduation?  We figured it had to be a joke.  Some hipster irony, or an Onion article being taken seriously, or something like that.  But no, it turns out this kid is totally serious.  (Well, not totally.  He’s letting himself drink juice.)

Putting aside his sincerity, it’s a stupid tactic.  It’s not as if awareness needs to be raised — the news has been saturated for a couple of years now with stories of law firms cutting back, not hiring, and law schools continuing to pump out graduates without jobs.  And it’s not a problem that law school administrators can fix, much less one that they ought to fix.  It’s up to the students, not the school, to make sure they’ve built the necessary transcript and resume to get the job they want.  The school can provide the opportunity, but only the student can do the work.  It’s not the school’s fault if the student didn’t do what had to be done.

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Here’s the deal: High-paying entry-level law jobs are extremely rare.  They are offered to the top sliver of students from the top sliver of “national” law schools.  Top students from regional schools will be in the running for local firms, but not for firms in other parts of the country.  And if you’re not a top student from a top school, you can forget about getting a big-money job.  Period.

Of course, if you’re going into the law for the money, you don’t belong in the law.  There’s nothing wrong with making a good living as a lawyer, but if that is the reason for wanting to be lawyer you simply don’t belong in the profession.  People who are going into law school because it seems like a meal ticket are doing it for the wrong reasons.  Ditto for people who go to law school by default, because it seems like a safe placeholder until they figure out what they want to do with their lives or until the economy picks up again.  They’re wasting all that time and money on law school, for all the wrong reasons.

And if you’re going to a lesser law school, in order to make the big bucks when you get out, you’re not just wrongheaded but stupid.  The school you go to really does matter to what kind of job you get on graduation.  If you weren’t good enough to even get into a top school, what makes you think you can compete with those who not only got in, but outperformed everyone else who also got in?  To think that somehow you’re entitled to a high-paying job after graduating in the bottom of your class from a second- or third-tier school… that’s beyond unrealistic.

Apart from the money, nobody has ever guaranteed that simply going to law school will result in a job.  No law school has ever made that representation.  And it is just silly and inane for a prospective law student to decide to go to law school with the expectation that employment is guaranteed on graduation.  Even in the best of times, that’s wrong.  To think that in the job market that we’ve had for the past few years is beyond dumb.  It shows that one didn’t do one’s homework before making a huge life decision.  The law requires intelligence and judgment, and that kind of thinking is yet more proof that one doesn’t belong in the profession.

Also, law schools don’t exist to get people jobs as lawyers.  They exist to meet the demand of people who want a law degree.  Whether people want that degree for all the wrong reasons is not really the law school’s fault.  Someone wants the education, they’re more than willing to provide it.  There is a huge demand for a law degree, even (or perhaps especially) in tough economic times.  The law schools did not create that demand.  They merely serve it.  (And in so doing, they often become huge cash cows for universities — they can pack in a few hundred students per class at staggering tuition, which more than covers the cost of a small faculty and a library.  It costs a bit more to operate an ABA-accredited school — oh, were you considering going to an unaccredited school?  Really? — but even there the profit margin is still quite high.)

The biggest part of the deal is this: The law is an extremely competitive profession.  If you want the good jobs, if you want the high pay, you’re going to have to earn it.  You’re going to have to compete against all those other people applying to law school, and get into a good one.  You’re going to have to compete against everyone else in your class to get the best grades, get on law review, edit your law review, do moot court, and otherwise be one of the stars of your school.  You’re going to have to compete for summer jobs.  You’re going to have to compete for your first job.  You’re going to have to compete against everyone else out there who wants your job.  You’re going to have to compete for clients — good clients come to lawyers almost exclusively based on reputation, and reputation can only be earned by results.  It’s not about your potential, it’s about what you actually do.  None of this is the kind of competition where someone else can make you lose; it’s not a battle.  Nobody’s pushing you down as you all struggle to reach the top.  There is always room at the top for anyone good enough to get there.  It’s just a matter of whether you’re good enough.

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Ethan’s blog has an account of a typical victimized student, an example of what he’s fighting for.  You can read it here, but we can sum it up for you pretty quickly:  (1) The student went to law school, not because he actually wanted to be a lawyer, but because his friends were going to graduate school, and he didn’t want to be a teacher or a doctor, so he opted for law school by default.  (2) The student got into a lower-tier school, and figured that even with a $60K salary he “couldn’t afford not to go.”  (3) At this less-than-impressive school, he got even less-impressive grades.  He doesn’t seem to have done anything exemplary, like law review or moot court or a clinic.  (4) He did an internship with a solo practitioner his first summer, but didn’t work his second summer, and didn’t line up a job before graduation.  (5) He flunked the bar exam.  (6) Once he finally did pass the bar, he finally got in touch with the career counselor at his law school, who could only provide leads for jobs he wasn’t qualified for (it’s hard to imagine any jobs that he was qualified for).  Somehow, the fact that he could not get a job was the law school’s fault.

In the comments to that post (some of which are priceless for their inanity), others post their own horror stories.  “Angel the Lawyer” wanted to work here in NYC, but the best school she could get into was a regional school that had nothing to do with the Big Apple.  She racked up massive student loans anyway.  Only through nepotism — and even then only by fighting tooth and nail — has she been able to work in NYC since graduating 10 years ago.  And then she got laid off, and only blogs now.  Now she wishes she never went to law school, and whose fault is it?  “Law schools need to be held accountable for their shortcomings and misinformation,” she says.

So what we seem to have here is a bunch of people who went to law school for all the wrong reasons, with unrealistic expectations, and then didn’t even do all that well anyway — and who are now angry at their school because there isn’t some cushy job waiting for them on the outside?  Correct us if we’ve got this wrong, but that seems to be pretty much it.

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Well, we’re just not sympathetic.  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you decided to go to law school for all the wrong reasons.  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t assess the demand for your services before entering the market.  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t do what it takes to get into whatever law school you needed to get into to pursue the career of your choice.  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t do what it takes to do well in law school (even the best law schools aren’t really all that difficult — the winners aren’t necessarily the brightest, but rather those who put in the time to do all that work, starting before Day 1).  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t pass the bar (the bar is not that high, folks).  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t prepare yourself to get the job you wanted.  It’s nobody’s fault but your own if you didn’t earn the transcript and resume that employers are looking for.

If you did all that, and you still can’t find a job — well, then we do feel bad for you and it’s probably not your fault.  But you’re not one of the people this guy is doing his hunger strike for.

Ethan’s doing his strike for the wrong reasons, on behalf of the others who’re doing it for the wrong reasons.  And it’s not going to get any results.  We hope he gives it up before all that juice gives him hyperglycemia.

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5 Comments

  1. J.B. (via Facebook), August 8, 2010:

    Dude, you are so completely out of liine here! How dare you make an argument for personal responsibility!? Seriously, you make a very convincing argument. However, I would counter that the professors and counselors at the law schools hav…e a moral obligation as “educators” to make their students/charges aware of the potential pitfalls and hazards associated with pursuing and degree and career in law. I agree that ultimately the students are responsible for their lot in life and have the most impact in how things turn out, but I do not think you can completely dissolve the law schools of any responsibility.

  2. Ethan Haines, August 8, 2010:

    I agree that everyone is responsible for his or her own career choices but I also acknowledge that each person’s situation is different. The reality is that people do experience the stories that my readers have posted. Personally, I had a different situation than most of my readers. I do not blame law schools for my experience or the doomed job market. I merely stand for the premise that law schools should be transparent in their employment reporting to deter students from attending for the wrong reasons and showing law students that going to the higher ranked law school (with the associated higher debt) may not get you any closer to a six-figure salary than a lower ranked school, among other things. I also strongly encourage career counseling (the method used for career planning and training) reform. Law students should know what opportunities exist for them inside and outside the legal field. They should further be made aware of options regarding their career paths and undergo a candidate assessment test to explore their career goals, professional abilities, and desired employment markets. Lastly, law schools should have career strategies that adequately incorporate the employment tools used today (i.e., professional networking sites, virtual seminars, and the art of the virtual job hunt). My heart is in the right place. Thank you for posting this.
    Ethan

  3. Nathan, August 8, 2010:

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. You’re certainly getting awareness, and it’s only been a few days. I may not be sympathetic, but I did get your point. (Seriously, though, eat something. You don’t need to harm your own health to make the point.)

  4. sapos, August 13, 2010:

    Interesting story, it seems that any school is a business and it should be held accountable. There should be a review on this issue the man has some good points, but you need to have done this while going to school, like in class to change it or stop going there.. Overall, dude get off that couch stop feeling sorry for your own actions and stop acting spoiled. I was an older student and noticed alot of this kids all hot headed chilling in the computer room or lounging everywhere like they had all the money and time to waste. I am sure you owe money but who doesnt. Nothing is guaranteed and life is not like the movies..this is not like matlock , some tv glamorized courtrooms..I have no pitty for you pal..stop blaming others for your own decisions. I am sure your probably doing this to raise money anyhow. Yup, money is not the driver to happiness. I am sure you found your motivation..whining….thats what beggars do…o and by the way..they make alot of money…look on the bright side…

  5. johnny doe, January 3, 2011:

    Ever heard of an unemployed doctor? Or an unemployed dentist? No, because they don’t pump out those type of graduate students at an alarming rate to turn a profit. You know why? Because someone’s life, or someone’s mouth is in the hands of the professional. It’s a grave responsibility. That’s why it’s so difficult to get into to either type school. You get in and get out, you WILL get a job, that’s not even an issue. The issue is are you someone who can be trusted with a patient, who basically surrenders to you?

    The way law schools pump out graduates, and spring up in every part of the country, tells me that they do not care about the public’s perception that attorneys have grave responsibility as well. But the reality is, not everyone can be a lawyer. So why are they so concerned about giving EVERYONE access to a legal education? It’s just to make money, and most future law students have not caught on yet. BTW OP, define cushy salary? Not everyone expects $165K out the gates. Some of us do expect $50-$60K out the gates. 3 years of hard work, tuition, and passing the bar exam should be enough to guarantee some kind of a job within that pay range. Some undergraduate positions like engineering or business accounting guarantee $50K out the gates if you are good enough. If law school does not, then they need to start shutting down law schools and stop oversaturating the market. Or tuition should not be $30-$40K a year, it should be $5-$10K max a year, because it’s blatantly clear, you don’t make a return on your investment. Given how many law schools and lawyers there are, it is funny that it’s even called an investment. More like a crap shoot.

    The effect of the way things are, more lawyers who mess up client’s legal options, and a less than favorable perception of attorneys, because everyone will have access.

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