The Law Students’ Lament

For a while there, it seemed like not a day went by without us reading of some firm or other laying off a mess of lawyers.  Things have changed.  Now, it seems as if not a day goes by without us reading of some law student getting upset at the dearth of law jobs out there.  It was bad enough hearing about the lawyers losing their jobs, but the students’ complaints are somehow more upsetting.  And not for the reasons they probably think.

Reading about the firm layoffs, day after day and month after month, evoked some real sympathy for our (mostly) transactional colleagues whose niche was no longer in so much demand.  But it wasn’t all that distressing.  The positions being eliminated had been created to satisfy the needs of a ballooning financial industry, and when the balloon popped, the elimination of those jobs was a rational correction.  Not pleasant, but not distressing.

What is distressing is reading the law students’ lament that there are no jobs waiting for them, that the jobs out there don’t pay enough, that they got saddled with all this debt with no way to pay it off, that the lives of young lawyers are miserable, and somebody (besides the students themselves, of course) must be to blame.  It’s upsetting — not to hear how bad they have it — but to think that so many of these people are getting ready to enter our profession.

To put it bluntly: they are not wanted here.  It only takes a moment’s thought to realize that, if they were wanted, then there would be a place for them.  But the ones complaining loudest seem to be the one who did the least research before deciding on law school, so perhaps they haven’t done this bit of thinking either.

They are not wanted here, because there is no market demand for them.  And they are not wanted in the profession, because when they join the bar they will only serve to weaken it.  They do not realize that it is a profession — the law is not a job, it’s not a business, it’s not a stage.  It’s not about you.  What sets apart the three professions — medicine, the clergy and the law — from all other occupations is that it is always about the person who came to you for help.  A professional’s duty is not to himself, but to his patient, his flock, or his client.  It’s not about you.  It’s never about you.

And if you’re going into the law for “a job,” or in order to make money, then you’re doing it for precisely the wrong reasons.  You’ll be the kind of lawyer who makes the rest of us look bad.  You’re not wanted here.

Now there’s nothing wrong with making money as a lawyer.  There’s nothing wrong with making quite a lot of money.  But that’s not the point.  If you’re very good at what you do, and you provide a service that’s in demand and has good value, then you’re going to have a hard time not making money — no matter what the economy is doing.

And there are always plenty of jobs in the profession… for those who belong here.  Seriously, there is always room for another good lawyer.  If you’re in law school because you really want to practice law, not just because you want a job as a lawyer… if you’re smart enough to have earned a spot at a decent law school… if you’re working hard enough to be getting very good grades (remember, it’s hard work and not brains that makes the difference in law school grades)… then you are in all likelihood a driven and accomplished person, who is here for all the right reasons, and you are exactly the kind of person we lawyers want working for us.  We want you in our profession.  No matter what the economy is doing.

So the irony is that the students most likely to be complaining about lack of money and jobs are precisely the students least suited for the profession in the first place.  Maybe they should think again about whether they really want to go through with it.

But they won’t.  They didn’t think about it before going to law school.  They didn’t do their research and figure out their chances of actually landing a high-paying job on graduation.  They went to law school because they “heard” that lawyers make a lot of money.  Or because they couldn’t decide what else to do with their life.  Or because law school seemed like a good way to ride out the recession.  Or because they want a job with status.  Or any number of reasons that are all about them and not at all about doing it right.

Well, those students do have good reason to worry that they won’t have a job.  But we in the profession have all the more reason to dread that they will.  That they will fill our ranks with exactly the wrong sort of lawyers.  The ones who burn out, after trading their lives for a living.  The ones who put their own interests ahead of their clients.  The ones who screw their clients with crap representation, or worse.

We cannot repeat it enough: they are not wanted here.  There is no demand for them.  The job market is basically screaming this basic truth in their ears.

One would think they’d have gotten the message.

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5 Comments

  1. shg, November 15, 2010:

    Glad you’ve decide to join the club. With so many coddling the children of entitlement, it’s good to have another bold voice standing up for law as a profession.

  2. redfoot, November 18, 2010:

    This is a great post, and hits squarely upon one of the issues I’ve tried to explain to my fellow 3Ls. This is not a job. I was an actuary before coming to law school. That was a job. A person should go into law because they have a strong desire to be of service. The money will come later.

    Perhaps because I’m in the midst of law school, I can see the very reason that the students are so angry. Yes, school is, to some extent expensive, if one does not have a scholarship. However, the spending of my fellow law students, at least from my perspective, is astounding. They are not living the life of a student. Choosing to live in ritzy apartments, choosing to lease a BMW, choosing to drink fine scotch etc. are some of the reasons that the student loan debts are so high.

    I found your blog through reddit a few days ago, and it is definitely bookmarked.

  3. Kevin, November 18, 2010:

    What you and nearly all lawyers who espouse similar sentiments fail to take into account are a couple of different factors:

    1.) The inherent dishonesty in the ranking and evaluation system of American law schools, and the ability of the law schools to fudge important numbers like employment statistics. How are potential 1Ls supposed to make an informed decision when all the data is corrupt?

    2.) “Working hard” and getting to the top of your class even at schools which were previously regional powerhouses is no longer enough to get into a firm. Sure the old familial-type conenctions still work, but there are plenty of unemployed law review to 10% types out there. Don’t kid yourself.

    This blog post reeks of the self-congratulatory crap that permeates this profession. You’re not a well paid lawyer because you’re any better at what you do than 100 fresh bar passers out there on the streets with no job. You’re well paid because you were in the right place (a law school grad) at the right time (any time before 2008). Congratulations, I guess.

  4. james, November 18, 2010:

    Yeah, I agree with Kevin, the author has this all wrong, and comes off like a jerk.

  5. Nathan, November 18, 2010:

    Kevin,

    1) A potential 1L who relies on marketing materials from a school to decide whether he should enter the profession of law is exhibiting a remarkable lack of judgment and diligence, and so is not likely to be a good candidate for the law in the first place. It’s nobody’s fault but their own if they wind up not making the grade.

    A potential 1L might instead, you know, figure out what being a lawyer actually entails — ask actual lawyers and judges about what they do, how much they can expect to make, etc. Check out online resources such as those offered by the ABA offers or countless articles in reliable blogs (like the WSJ Law Blog) on the state of the profession. And then, having done some basic research, if the potential 1L decides that this is the life for them, and they think they can succeed here, then by all means they should march off to law school.

    Hell, that’s so much easier to do now than it was even a few years ago. The number of useful resources about the legal profession, and the ease of finding them, is several orders of magnitude beyond what it was when I was getting started (which, by the way, was during another slump period. Today’s students are by no means in a unique situation. Those with diligence and perspective probably already know this. The rest don’t really belong here.)

    2) Take off the blinkers. Class standing is not the be-all-and-end-all. Young lawyers don’t get hired solely based on grades. They have to be applying to jobs that (a) exist, and (b) they’re qualified to perform. If you got great grades at a regional school, but you want to work in a tier of corporate firms that just completed a round of layoffs and belt-tightening, then you’re not likely to get that job.

    And it really does matter what school you went to. It’s an indicator of how good you are, and how likely you are to do well. Plenty of great lawyers didn’t go to the best school, but that’s not the point. It’s a buyer’s market out there, as far too many people are coming out of law schools for too few jobs at the moment. So a hiring partner faced with a choice between a Yale grad and a Wayne State grad is going to take the one with better credentials. It says something that you were good enough to get into Yale.

    I have a hard time believing that there are “plenty” of law review or top 10% students from top schools who cannot find a position. Maybe not their dream job, which may no longer exist, but there’s always room for good lawyers.

    And see these stats: http://abovethelaw.com/2010/11/career-center-first-year-associate-survey-results/

    Your third, unnumbered point is remarkable for its combination of self-pity, sour grapes, and snideness. What on earth makes you think that a freshly-minted JD is just as good at the practice of law as someone who has been busting their ass for years, building real-life experience and skills? What an idiotic thing to say! You’re going to get paid what others think your services are worth, not what you think you ought to be worth.

    Most lawyers are not well paid, and never have been. It can be a comfortable living, but it’s not a path to riches. When I was a student at Georgetown in the 90s, I remember a professor telling us that a good lawyer makes about as much as a good plumber.

    And for the last time, money is not the point. If you think it is, please go find some other occupation. When I graduated in ’97, I was in the top of my class from a top school, was an editor of a prestigious law review, had already represented real-life clients in my clinical program, and had worked during my summers with some of the finest lawyers in the country. If I recall correctly, the starting salary at a big firm then was in the low 90s (this was before the dot-com salary wars in the seller’s market that soon followed). Believe me when I say I had my pick of employers. And who did I go with? The Manhattan DA’s office. Making 34k. I would be living paycheck-to-paycheck for the next ten years. Why? Because I wanted to be the best courtroom lawyer I could be, and the best way to do that was not to research memos for some big firm in the dim hopes that I might get to assist at a deposition five years along. The best way to do that was to join an office that would throw me to the wolves and give me a ton of courtroom experience. I chose the best office like that, at the time. And I busted my ass for several years to become the best lawyer I could be. And when I felt I was ready, I went out on my own. And now I do charge a heck of a lot of money for my services. But my clients seem to think it’s worth it. They don’t even bat an eye — I’m probably leaving a lot of money on the table, now that I think of it. But again, that is not the point.

    So actually, I am a well-paid lawyer precisely because I am better at what I do than “100 fresh bar passers out there on the street with no job.” Not because I was in the right place at the right time, but because I earned it. I’m not entitled to it; I earn it. And if I stop being good at what I do, you’d better believe my clients will stop paying me to do it.

    “Entitled to it” vs. “earning it.” Please learn the difference. A lot of your fellow law students have done so, and they’re the ones out there taking the jobs you desire.

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