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Law school is not a losing game

A lengthy article in today’s New York Times asks “Is Law School a Losing Game?”  That story chronicles the problems new law school graduates are having finding entry level positions that will pay them enough to service the debt they incurred attending law school.  Meanwhile, rarely does a week go by without the American Bar Association’s weekly journal recounting some tale of a recent law school graduate engaging in some foolish, desperate stunt to erase the consequences–and debt–incurred in becoming a lawyer.  This week’s story is “Law Grad in ‘Severe Financial Distress’ Seeks $200K for Law Degree on eBay.”  The subtext of these tales-of-woe is that there are too many new lawyers and that law school is a game that only suckers play.  Given that the young lawyers these stories tend to profile come off as whiney rather than as earnest, this subtext isn’t even subtle or hidden.

And from my observations of both the supply side and the demand side of lawyer services, I say “bullshit.”  Law school is not a losing game and stories that say otherwise anger me.  There is plenty of demand for the type of services that new lawyers can provide and new lawyers who are interested in practicing law can establish a legal career and develop a satisfying and remunerative legal practice.

I start with the assumption that bright young college graduates attend law school with three goals: 1) to help people achieve justice; 2) to make a comfortable living; and 3) to do work that is creative, intellectually stimulating and culturally respected.  Each law student places different weight on the importance of these goals but I’ve met few law students, or lawyers, who didn’t place some value on each of these areas (the folks who graduate near the top of their class from first tier law schools and then go into low–paying public interest work should have everyone’s utmost respect).

I realize many folks talk cynically about the legal profession but when these same folks get into legal trouble they appreciate the ability to obtain an attorney to guide them and advocate for them.  I’ve practiced almost twenty years and while the legal skills of my colleagues varies greatly, I have met few attorneys who do not work diligently and thoughtfully to help the people they represent.  I am not all at cynical about my profession.

Given my view of my colleagues and my view of why folks become lawyers, I would contend that there are actually too few lawyers.  Take the example of my geographic and practice area: family law near Charleston, South Carolina.  From a demand perspective, there are too few lawyers.  The number and percentage of pro se litigants in family court increases every year.  I could have ten times as many clients if I did not charge most new clients my current hourly rate.  One way I keep myself from working 300 hour weeks is turning away work from people who cannot afford my services.  Not every one of these pro se litigants and folks I turn away because they cannot afford me would retain an attorney who could do the work for a lower cost than I am willing to work for–but many would.  There is a huge demand for family law work in the Charleston area that is not being met.

Meanwhile I am informally mentoring a few recent law school graduates, T. Ryan Phillips and Jenny R. Moser.  Both graduated law school and opened their own practices in Charleston within the past year and both are focused on family law.  There are probably similar attorneys of whom I am not aware.  While Mr. Phillips and Ms. Moser could certainly use more work, neither appear to be starving and both appear to be more productive and getting more experience than the unemployed whiners that the ABA and the New York Times profile.  There is clearly a supply of new attorneys able to provide legal services to a public that might not be able to afford the services of more experienced attorneys.

These news stories miss two important points.  First, there is an entrepreneurial, business-generating, component to the legal profession–and to every profession–that few professional schools teach–or even note.  Thus newly-minted lawyers exit law school with the expectation that they need an associate position to begin their career.  If, instead, they understood that what they really need is training to begin their career and enough compensation to remain fed and housed, and that an associate position is not the only way to meet these needs, they would be more hopeful.

Second, there are plenty of folks who could pay attorneys $50.00 to $100.00 per hour–but not $250.00 per hour–and could use the services of new attorneys hungry to establish a practice and develop a client base (frankly, I could do a better job matching the callers who cannot afford me with these newly-licensed attorneys).  A newly-licensed attorney who kept his or her overhead low and charged and collected for 20 hours of work at $50.00 per hour would still be better off than an attorney the New York Times’ story profiles, who was doing document review and earning $10.00 per hour.

I feel sad that some newly-licensed attorneys regret attending law school because they haven’t landed a $160,000 per year associate position that will consume their waking hours with stultifying work.  While I doubt Ms. Moser or Mr. Phillips are making $160,000 per year, I know they aren’t starving and know they are enjoying their career choice.  And I would advise anyone seeking professional education whose sole goal is to exit making $160,000 per year to attend B-school instead.

  • Good post, Greg. This certainly resonates with me.

    When I read these “law school is a waste of time” articles, I can’t help but shake my head. Like you mention, a lot of people go into law school with their only goal being to land a seemingly cushy associate job at a corporate firm like Akin Gump, Skadden Arps, Jones Day, etc. I think a lot of the cynicism is actually fostered by law graduates themselves — people whose sole definition of success is to join a “name-brand” firm, quite possibly for merely egotistical reasons.

    Would it be nice if I didn’t also have to be — in addition to the lawyer in my cases — the bookkeeper, paralegal, marketer, and administrative head of my business? Sure. Would I rather be a glorified research jockey who works soul-crushing hours merely to crank out research memoranda and internal opinions of summary judgment motions? Hell no. I get exponentially more court time, decisionmaking authority, and real-world legal experience than most graduates with my level of experience.

    I have nothing against “BigLaw,” but there is a huge misconception that if you don’t work for a 1,000+ lawyer firm, then you’re second-rate. I went to law school with the goal of advocating and frequently appearing in court on my clients’ behalves, and that’s what I do. Confronting an entrepreneurial challenge and going somewhat against the grain has allowed me to establish a practice that is all my own — and I don’t regret one minute of it.

    To say law school is a “losing game” is laughable at best.

  • So many parallels between this and medicine. Hardly any physician today would consider coming out of med school and starting their own practice. Joining a group or hospital is the only thing considered. And you’re right, the problem is that there is no real training program on how to start and run a business. And in medicine, keeping the overhead low is pretty difficult given the consistently high cost of malpractice insurance. In some fields it’s basically impossible to start practice without having a hospital subsidizing your startup.

    I like your idea of having young lawyers work for less pay for the first few years, picking up some of the work that can’t afford more experienced lawyers. This also parallels medicine, where young physicians work in residencies for 3-8 years gaining their skills, and typically taking care of the less advantaged people of the world.

    It would work even better in law, given that there is cultural acceptance that legal services cost money and clients should have to pay. In medicine, some consider it an affront that a poor patient might have to seek services of a residency program, and thus be ‘learned upon’ by a resident physician in training. There is no construct that would allow a physician with 20 years of experience to charge more money than a physician right out of training. Everyone is paid more or less the same in line with contractual agreements with insurance. Law, on the other hand, would be more amenable to a system where young grads charged on $50-$75 an hour for a year, providing services for those who cannot afford more experienced counsel. Like residents, these young lawyers would do their absolute best for their clients for a reduced rate, and the clients would get better service than they would have gotten otherwise. A system could exist for supervision as well, as residents have in their attending physicians. You, for example, could provide a few hours a week of case review to Drs Moser and Philips, and rightfully ask them to pay you a reduced hourly rate for this (or perhaps even get paid by the court for this time.)

  • This article was forwarded to me last night by another colleague with the preface, “don’t enjoy.” I, for one, have been forwarded such articles and blogs since the very first day I stepped onto my law school campus. While I agree with the article that there is a population of law school hopefuls/students who truly believe the very act of graduating with a J.D. means a six-figure income, I’m not ready to say that is the “fault” of the law school marketing machine.

    My law school class was comprised mostly of the “traditional” law student who was in his/her early 20’s having just graduated from college. However, I was lucky to be sitting in orientation with a large sub-class of “non-traditional” folks who worked in the “real world” for a few years (some a couple of decades) before making the decision to pursue a legal education. I would be lying if I said none of us hoped to have a more financially secure future, but I don’t know any of us who honestly thought that “making it” in the legal world would be easy or immediately “pay off” with high-paying jobs.

    I was also lucky enough to attend a law school that offered such classes as Law Practice Management and I walked away with binders worth of templates and go-bys for setting up shop if the job offers didn’t flood my mailbox and solo practice was the only option left for a semi-steady paycheck. I understand that some law students/graduates aren’t so lucky, but the internet is a beautiful thing and so are more experienced lawyers within your chosen field.

    I’m sure Ryan will agree with me when I say that neither of us holds the “secrets” to making the transition from law school to solo practice easy or instantly profitable, but I do know that each of us has done our research; put in the hours to market our practices; networked with experienced attorneys we admire and trust; and work our business every day. I think if there is a “secret” to our success, it is merely the fact that when an opportunity to work in the legal was not immediately OFFERED to us, we MADE an opportunity.

    As you point out, Greg, the demand for legal services is never-ending. Even though my rates are not quite at low as those you quote in your blog, I have people call my office every week who cannot afford even my lower fees. If the lawyers are out there, but working in non-law related jobs, the population of pro-se litigants will continue to grow. Seems like such a waste.

  • ML Ramsdale

    However, costs do come with setting up your own practice. Malpractice insurance (maybe not a need if you have no assets), letterhead (or just paper), basic other supplies, bar dues – even if you are running a bare bones practice from your home- and with no income at first how do you afford an apartment even, especially if there is no family member to help you out? Sure, there are ways to get by (bartend at night), and I am all for that. However, I think that these lower tier law schools needs to be honest about their students’ career opportunities. Several hundred thousand dollars in debt sure isn’t going to get paid off any time soon when making $50 to $100/hour. Responding to the comment above, I think there should be a fourth year of law school where you intern similarly to a doctor’s internship – low pay but experience. That would add some cache when you hang your shingle a year later.

    • ML-

      Admittedly I was an attorney for two years before I opened my practice, but I had never handled any legal work (other than one non-binding arbitration) on my own when I opened my practice. I started with a $1,500 fee another attorney had paid me to draft a memorandum of law and a $1,500 loan from Nicholas Clekis to purchase a computer. I had no savings whatsoever.

      Malpractice insurance was $700 and I only needed $150 down (I had to pay 13% interest on the remainder and always paid in-full each year thereafter). Nick agreed to refer me work and only charged me half rent for six months. The first year was hard but the bills got paid (student loans were deferred). By year two, I was making as much as I had made as an associate. By year three I was making as much as I would have made as a third-year associate. By year four I was making 240% of what I had made as an associate and never looked back. My student loans were paid off three years early.

      Admittedly, I had two years as an attorney before I opened my practice, but I also had a child to support (most new attorneys don’t). For many attorneys a few years as an associate is ideal before opening a practice. But for attorneys who don’t have that luxury–such as the attorneys profiled by The New York Times or the ABA journal–opening a practice once one is licensed sure beats unemployment (and whining).

  • Greg,
    I found your article by way of Ryan’s post on SoloSez. What a nice surprise to find a fellow Temple Law alum! (I’m class of ’05.)

    I recently launched my own firm (with another Temple Law alum), after both of us spent a few years in BigLaw, and only wish I had done it sooner. I think that your point regarding lower rates to attract those who can’t afford higher rates is a great one. Though I practice in PA, I am admitted in NH, and up there, the bar association has a reduced-fee referral service, for attorneys willing to charge no more than $80/hour. I often wonder why more bar associations don’t do this. Generally, I think that the unwillingness of many in the legal profession to think creatively about their careers, and their fee structures, hampers their success.

  • lawis4losers

    You can’t be serious? Are you telling me you’re proud of yourself for charging $150+ an hour to cut n’ paste nonsense divorce pleadings together?

    Why shouldn’t the students demand 160 K starting salaries when the deans, admins and profs ALL earn far more than that to do nothing but waste their time?

    If I wanted to start a business, I’d run a hot dog cart or Gyro stand and make 10 X more than most pathetic solo lawyers, and it would all be CASH which equals NO TAXES! You guys really are hilarious! Now get back to cutting n’ pasting those trailer-park divorce files together- let’s see, the husband gets the meth lab, the wife gets the ’79 Pinto station wagon…..

  • California observer

    I also joined an intellectually stimulating profession (science), which unfortunately The Market doesn’t support with either career stability or more than median-household salary. (And I just married someone equally insightful, well-credentialed, and under-utilized).

    I haven’t read the original article, but I’ve seen enough Silicon Valley cheerleading to recognize you using a flawed argument: examples of successful attorneys (or physicians, or scientists, or entreprenuers) do NOT prove “anyone can do it,” but only “some people have done it.” Of COURSE the lottery winner has a system, and of COURSE the successful businessman chalks everything up to hard work and risk-taking…but that’s all post-hoc explanation.

    Worse, the examples are by definition self-selecting–successes are better-known than failures–so there still could be a large cadre of desperate, indebted new attorneys who despite the best possible efforts STILL can’t make money. Just like schoolteachers, dancers, poets…

    If there are in fact lots of under-employed attorneys, it’s an important issue for the profession and society at large.

    • California Observer:

      I understand the self-selection problems inherent in this blog but was more focused on the market failure that leads young attorneys to believe they need an associate position to practice law. As the comments from recently-licensed attorneys show, there is a market failure within the legal profession so that working/middle class clients who could afford $50 to $100 per hour for competent but not exceptional counsel cannot find the inexperienced attorneys who might profit from such work. Because of this, some new attorneys believe their only options are unemployment or Big Law and many litigants go pro se.

  • lawis4losers

    “As the comments from recently-licensed attorneys show, there is a market failure within the legal profession so that working/middle class clients who could afford $50 to $100 per hour for competent but not exceptional counsel cannot find the inexperienced attorneys who might profit from such work. Because of this, some new attorneys believe their only options are unemployment or Big Law and many litigants go pro se.”

    Are you serious Greg? Why should someone who sacrificed 3 years for an expensive post-grad degree & passed the bar work for white trash for $50 an hour to do divorces (which define the term “nightmare”?

    After student loans, office rent, malpractice insurance, bar dues, CLE classes, ads/marketing, paying one’s own health insurance, etc, that $50 an hour is gonna translate to $15-$20 an hour- about what one can earn with a high-school diploma.

    Plumbers, electricians, and auto mechanics charge $90-$110 an hour and only have to go to 2 year technical school (or can apprentice and train “on the job” for free for several years before taking licensing tests, an option not available to lawyers thanks to the ABA lawschool scam cartel.

    Besides that, lowering fees just starts a “race to the bottom”- why encourage people to give away their services for a pathetic hourly rate like 50 bucks? Clients who are this cheap will never pay their bills anyway (ask me how I know). My small office spends 80% of our time begging clients for money and getting out of cases where retainers have been used up.

    Calling law a “profession” is a joke- the standards are so absurdly low and the amount of diploma mills so high that the legal industry is a farce.

    • See the comment from Dr. Nicholas Fogelson. In medicine newly licensed doctors do work for low wages on a mostly indigent population under the loose supervision of more experienced doctors (it’s called residency). Something similar for attorneys is better than Big Law or unemployment.

      I did Big Law for a year, learned little and hated most of my time practicing law. I then opened my own practice and worked for low hourly rates for a mostly working class population. It wasn’t my ideal but it provided training and gradually I worked my up to a client base that could afford higher hourly rates and bigger retainers (and developed the experience to justify these hourly rates and bigger retainers).

      Almost every attorney I know who had a career path similar to mine is quite satisfied practicing law (not to say that the practice lacks frustrations but every job does).

  • Greg and others:

    Just a quick follow-up you all may find interesting. Apparently, the race is on for schools to begin full disclosure to incoming law students about the true nature of employment expectations, both during and after law school. Take a look at what Washington & Lee are providing their prospective 1Ls this year: Washington & Lee Law School Makes Lengthy Employment Disclosure to Prospective Students

  • just me

    Graduating from a top 20 school with 6-figure employment waiting for me, and I still say law school is a joke and a waste of time. The return on the education paid for is not there. I haven’t seen or heard one thing that’s so extraordinary and new that it hasn’t already been published in a book, web-video, or some other tangible or intangible medium. The whole process is very redundant and extremely inefficient, which leads to unnecessary costs. If anything, the focus should be on efficient methods of researching and writing. We only had mandatory writing and researching our first year. That doesn’t even make sense when the whole practice is basically built on writing and researching.

    Furthermore, the grading and testing process is extremely suspect. Some are on Adderall, illegally or legally, but not really need it. Others share information about testing behind closed doors. Some falsify doctor information to obtain lenient test taking measures. Others write their exams in advance of permitted open book exams. Some professors reward ass kissing. None of this stuff matters to me, but it affects people who are lead by grades. That is what I cannot stand.

    I guess, it’s part funny and sad to me because my classmates are still killing themselves in and out of class studying, and they still don’t have jobs. I see they’re stressed out and worried. I feel for them because administration and professors continue to mislead them to thinking that if you have the highest grade, you are therefore the best and smartest; and that good grades are the only way to succeed. At no point do they really do coaching on fallbacks and how to spin a law degree to something that may not be on point with a legal career but may be just as fulfilling. The career advice is really bad – maybe that’s where schools should focus on and stop holding “prestigious” law firms and SCOTUS clerkships out as the only option.

    We have an extensive alumni network, and nothing is coming in from those people, and I don’t believe the fall out is with alumni at all. JAG, however, is apparently always hiring. That’s the only job offers I see come through the e-mail system. Thanks career services. (Like i said, I’m employed. I just don’t like to see other people take advantage of other people who don’t know better – and many of these kids are straight from undergrad, and they don’t know better.)

    Unfortunately, I know as soon as I graduate, I will probably devalue the hell out of my JD by exposing the crap factory law schools produce – at least what my law school produces, I shouldn’t generalize. That paperwork doesn’t mean anything to me now – I’ll admit, before I started school, I thought it would. Persona non grata – I welcome it. Why is that? Because I control my own career, which is something the school should jam down other students throats and stop indirectly and directly guiding students to be dependent on a faulty system.

    • “Just Me”

      Since your email came from Vanderbilt, I assume that’s where you attend (by the way, I visited Nashville last April–a lovely city and a lovely campus).

      I am sorry to see you are so cynical on the law (and you haven’t even graduated law school yet). If you ever make it to Charleston, I am happy to introduce you to a number of your peer who are happily practicing family law on their own. This is a very collegial bar that puts much effort into supporting and grooming new attorneys. You might look at the comments to this blog: Family Law CLE on Handling your first…. One of the comments comes from an attorney who grew up in Nashville, graduated law school in May 2010 and has opened his own practice in my suite. He’s loving the practice of family law and already has a busy practice.

      I wouldn’t disagree with you that the second and third years of the law school curriculum need some rethinking.

  • wow

    Wow. Join the real world everyone. I’ve read multiple posts complaining about making “only” 100-200 an hour. That is a lot of money to a lot of people. I work at a law school and I don’t even want to admit to the small amount I get paid. Yet I have to deal with overprivileged, whiny law students who think the world should be handed to them since they(their daddy) through money and time at a law school. Great article, and congrats to Mr. Phillips and Ms. Moser, these are the types of people who understand that you can actually go out and make something for yourself. Daddy doesn’t always have to get you a job at his big firm to be successful as a lawyer.

    • Walter

      Important clarification:

      Charging $100 per hour does not mean making $100 per hour. Depending on overhead costs, it might well mean taking a loss and not earning any profit.

      I understand how people can develop that misconception. I’m trying to cut through the inflammatory nonsense on both sides and point out the facts, that’s all.

  • Walter

    Amazingly, the word “tuition” appears nowhere in the article or in the 15 comments above.

  • Jimmy

    This is an idiotic diatribe, and I find it pathetic that you took the time to write it.

    You musn’t have enough work to do.

    Quit the law.

  • M.G.

    Mr. Forman,

    I am a little disappointed by your post because it makes a common assumption: that most recent law graduates expected and feel entitled to a six-figure income upon graduation from a law school. By making that erroneous assumption, you miss an extremely important fact: lack of jobs and astronomical tuition and bar costs make it very difficult for many of us who want to practice ‘low-income law’ to do so.

    As a recent law grad, I went into the legal field because I was passionate about working in the public interest field. I worked for years before saving enough so that I could keep my law school costs down so that I could afford to work in the public interest field on a low salary. (Ie: $20,000 a year was my hope and expectation after graduation.) Despite this, tuition rose astronomically while I was trying to earn the money to attend law school. Even though I worked for 10 years before attending law school, I still had to take out student loans and I received a 50% honors scholarship to attend law school. I would not have been unable to attend had I not taken out the loans because my salary did not keep up with how fast tuition rose.

    Upon graduation, I was left with an $1100 a month student loan payment and no public interest jobs available. Because of the bad economy, there are freezes on public interest jobs and the very few that are available have THOUSANDS applying. I don’t consider hanging a shingle for four reasons: 1) I know enough to know I do not know enough to responsibly represent my client – there is too much I need to learn and I would probably run afoul of legal malpractice within 2 months of hangin’ a shingle, 2) the market where I live is flooded with solo practitioners – many I know deliver pizzas because they don’t earn near enough to pay for their expenses and they have been practicing for years, 3) I don’t have enough for any type of start up costs (ie: bar license, moving to another jurisdiction, research costs, advertising, etc.) and 4) I have no desire to be a solo practitioner. My dream was to work for a public interest aid organization to help a certain type of population – not get into business for myself. Not everyone was cut out to be or wishes to be an entrepreneur and had I known that that would have been the only option for me, I would have never chose law school.

    Unfortunately, when you and so many others assume that all new grads are angry because they were deluded into thinking they were guaranteed six figures, you don’t do justice to the entire situation: just one year out of law school I have an overwhelming amount of debt. Because I couldn’t even get business hanging up my shingle in the area where I live and can’t afford to move (I currently earn $5 an hour and work a 60 hour workweek, which makes it impossible to save for the $1200 fee to register for the bar), I can’t even afford to continue to pursue being an attorney.

    While I applaud those that choose the entrepreneurial route, the law shouldn’t just be about making an entrepreneur successful: it should also be about helping those that don’t have the funds for legal services because those individuals, too, need to be represented in our system. And when we make law school and bar licensing so expensive, participation in the legal field begins to be determined by one’s pocket book, which in turn determines who gets represented, as cost are passed along to the client.

    I have made the decision to leave the legal field because I just don’t have the funds to pursue a legal career anymore. The costs of law school financially destroyed me. To think that I had to pay so much just because I wanted to help others get fair representation saddens me. For the record, however, I’m not too disappointed for myself, because I know I will still be able to serve the public in another capacity and my desire to help others will be still be fulfilled, although in a different manner than what I expected. However, I am sad for the legal profession, because if there is one thing I agree with that you stated, it’s that this profession needs people to provide legal services to a certain population who can’t afford them. But that won’t happen, because it is just too expensive for law grads to do so. Those individuals that you talk about that represent themselves pro se not only don’t have the money to pay $150 an hour, they don’t have the money to pay $25 an hour, and I don’t know whether a recent grad, with $150,000 of law school debt could afford to work for much less.

    • M.G.,

      I suspect you are confusing my blog with the journalism my blog criticizes. I don’t believe all recent law school graduates are entitled; in fact, the blog profiles two recent graduates I highly respect.

      I do think law school is providing prospective students two false assumptions. First, is the assumption that law students are somehow “owed” or “entitled to” associate positions upon graduation. Unlike medical school, in which medical students are expected to do residencies upon graduation, law school has no formal post-graduation mentoring mechanism. South Carolina’s Supreme Court recently implemented a mandatory mentoring program–in which I am a volunteer mentor–for newly licensed law school graduates. However even this formal mentoring is nowhere near as comprehensive a training as is medical residency. If we wanted to rethink the law school curriculum and turn the third year into a sort of lawyer version of residency (or add a fourth year of law school and make it a residency) this might better suit the purpose(s) of professional training. That the law school curriculum is flawed does not render law school a “losing game.”

      Your better criticism is the ridiculous debt load law students graduate with. I deliberately decided not to transfer to a more prestigious, Ivy League law school after my first year because I wanted to graduate with $40k in debt, not $100+k in debt (1991 dollars). I realized that graduating with $100k in debt would leave me beholden to “big law” and didn’t believe I had the temperament for that type of practice. The recently opened law school in the area in which I practice claims to be devoted to training “public service” lawyers but charges private school tuition rates. Students regularly graduate with well over $100k in student loan debt. This is unconscionable (and, for the law school, hypocritical to its stated aims). However, I would assume that any 22-25 year old taking out $100+k in student loans understands that he or she is taking a big risk that almost mandates a half decade or more of servitude with big law or years of belt tightening in the early years of practice. Even with my “mere” $50k of student loan debt (I had $10k of student loan debt from undergraduate college), I had to defer paying my student loans for two of my first three years of practice. Still, I paid off all my student loan debt within seven years of graduation by living frugally.

      The professions have traditionally been entrepreneurial enterprises. The late-20th century model of lengthy associates periods is a historical aberration. This entrepreneurial mindset has degraded less in the law than it has in other professions. That’s one of my favorite things about the legal profession.

    • megan

      I would like to know more about what M.G. did instead of law? What were you able to do to live and pay off your debt and still help people. I am very interested because I was considering law school but now I’m not so sure.

  • M.G.

    Megan,

    I went into mediation, which, in my jurisdiction, requires a masters degree in social work. (A J.D. where I work is actually looked down upon and I had to fight to convince them that despite having a J.D., I could do just as high quality work as those individuals who had graduated in the field of social work. Fortunately, my undergraduate degree was in the social work field, so that was how I was able to get the job. The J.D. was viewed very negatively, because most individuals outside the law have a view that lawyers are greedy and want to argue all the time – not qualitites you are looking for in a mediator.)

    I LOVE my job. I mediate cases in the family law field: ie: child custody, etc. I use the same skills I use to use in trial (ie: strategy, strong verbal, communication, presentation, and people-reading skills) but in the end, my work gets people working together as opposed to working against each other. I am helping people – not tearing them apart during a cross-examination. It’s very rewarding.

    In the year and a half after graduation from law school, while I looked for a legal job in public interest law which, in retrospect, I was lucky enough not to find, I volunteered extensively for the court and I discovered something that unfortunately I didn’t know before pursuing the J.D.: there are many well-paying jobs in social work, and many involve working in and with the judicial system. In fact, because of the overload of lawyers where I live, it is much easier to be successful as a social worker than a lawyer: their salaries are much higher and jobs are more plentiful and MUCH MORE SATISFYING. (Keep in mind that the market is flooded with lawyers, so most lawyers I know are either unemployed, working in retail, or, if they are working in law- very few do – their salary is usually between $30K-$40K.)

    What I learned from this experience is that: a) you don’t need a J.D. to get into a job helping others. In fact, a J.D. makes it harder to do, because the cost to go to law school is so much, that it prevents you from being able to take lower paid public service positions; b) there are MUCH more jobs right now in social work than the law, so you will have a much better chance getting the job you want or just getting ANY job in that field than a legal job; c) people in another field of work in general are more supportive. The legal field is based on an adversarial model, which means that the moment one enters law school, he or she is taught that his or her fellow practitioners are adversaries. In other fields, this is not the case: I have found that the different fields in which I have worked have been much more supportive than the legal field.

    The reality is, despite how the legal field wants to market itself, it is a field for those who seek to make a fortune. That is why the law schools feel licensed to charge so much: because they are marketing to a group of people who want to make a lot of money and they are hoping that that desire will convince them to take out a large sum to get a degree.

    My biggest regret while attending law school and volunteering in the legal field in the year and a half after law school was that I tried to make the field into something it wasn’t: a place for justice and where the rights of the low-income populations are protected. That is not what this field is about – it’s about becoming an entrepreneur and making money while at it – and when law schools charge $100,000 tuition to attend, it has to be about that. If you wish to work in a field that helps others, represents their rights, etc., Megan, I strongly suggests you get an advanced degree in another field, like social work. There you will meet like minded people who have a passion for helping others, something that is strongly lacking in the legal field, sad to say. And you can prepare for your career without spending an enormous amount of money, which, as I learned, is completely unnecessary.

  • megan

    M.G.,

    I can’t thank you enough for your reply. I was on the track to law school, thinking as you said that I could make something out of it that it just is not. I am graduating in May 2012 with a bachelors and I have been struggling with the idea of law school because I just didn’t know what else I could do to help people.

    I thank you so much for recommending social work. You may very well have changed my life. I am going to seriously look into that. Thank you again for taking the time to respond.

    Megan

    • I would note that my wife obtained an M.S.W. from University of Pennsylvania. She often wishes she’d gone to law school instead.

  • M.G.

    Megan,

    I wish you a wonderful, successful future. We need more people like you! In the year and a half that I volunteered in the field of law, I worked in Juvenile justice, where I saw individuals – almost all with a background in social work – do some amazing things for children and the community. I was extremely impressed with their dedication, commitment and most of all, that they made a successful living doing what they were doing (which is much more than what I can say for my fellow law graduates.)

    If you have an opportunity, see if you can contact and maybe shadow someone who works in one of these fields. (For example, a juvenile probation officer or a child welfare worker.) Or, call and request an informational interview with someone who does a job that you would like to one day do. (I tried this strategy and it opens a lot of doors to meeting people in the field in which you want to work.) Try contacting your local family or juvenile justice center. Observe juvenile court proceedings and the important role that individuals from various social work backgrounds play. Better yet, volunteer. Pick the cause that’s nearest to your heart and see if you can get an internship there to start out. People need the extra help right now.

    I guess the most important thing that I hope you realize is you don’t have to spend a gazillion dollars on a degree to do what you love: help others. And even more important is that you can work in a field that is supportive, where everyone is a team player and the environment is collaborative. In my new position as a mediator, where mostly everyone comes from a social work background, I continue to be a amazed at how supportive everyone is of one another. It’s so different from the legal field, where everyone is viewed as competition.

    GOOD LUCK, Megan. I wish you lots of success, because when you are in the service of others, Megan, your success is OUR success as a community. Thank-you for wanting to help others!

  • megan

    M.G.,

    Again, I can’t thank you enough. I am going to think more about what area I am interested in, social work that is, and do as you suggest, volunteer.

    You are an amazing person and I am happy you found your niche, I’m sorry you had to go through so much but sharing your story will help others. Even by helping one person you are helping so many. Like I said before, your comments really inspired me to take the time to find something that I can truly love to do and at this time, law school is just not it.

    Thanks, Megan

  • Unemployed Document Reviewer

    I’m happy that Mr. Foreman has found happiness and success as an attorney in ‘lil ol Charleston. Unfortunately, for every individual that finds success in law, there are 10 others that are destitute, homeless, unemployed, underemployed, etc. I’ve been out for nearly 10 years. I worked as a mid-level firm doing patent law for 2 years before I was laid off. For the past 6 years, I have been doing document review to get by and pay down my debt. Now, circa 2012, most of the document review jobs are being off-shored to India or low cost areas of the U.S., e.g., Detroit, where coders sit in a large room making a measly $22/hr with no job stability, no health benefits (actually no benefits at all), monotonous work involving staring at a computer screen for 10-12 hours per day with no diversionary breaks. My feeling is Mr. Foreman’s experience is an isolated example and not at all representative of the reality facing many new (or old) law graduates. The legal market is dead in the country. My advice for anyone going to law school is go to a top-15 school. Possibly a top-25 school will cut it assuming you get decent grades. Anything outside of the top 25, I hope you have rich parents footing the bill and they didn’t turn your old room into a recreation room – you’ll need that room again once you graduate without a job. The longer you are without a legal job, the harder it is to get a legal job. That’s just the way the market works. Supply and demand. Why would a biglaw firm want to hire someone who graduated LS in 2009 (and has not been employed in the legal field) when the firm could just as easily hire a newbie fresh out of law school in 2012? Law is a horrible profession. FInd something else to do. Full disclosure, I’m a graduate of a third-tier school, multiple graduate degrees in science. Currently unemployed. I still have over $100,000 in debt. Now that the document review jobs are fading away, I’m not sure how I’m going to continue to make those payments. I’ve been unemployed for 10 months now – and I can’t even get a stupid document review job! Kids, keep in mind before you part with $150K in non-dischargeable debt, there are always exceptions to the rule. Unless you attend a complete dump like Cooley, there will always be someone in your class that lands a good job, whether by merit or family connections, etc. There are always success stories (if you want to call Mr. Foreman a success), but look to the law of averages. Good luck, but seriously consider another profession, medicine, nursing, etc.

    • Sorry this is the experience you are having but it’s not every new attorney’s experience. Read the comments from Ryan Phillips and Jenny Moser, both of whom graduated in 2009 from a law school with then-provisional accreditation (hardly a top 25 law school) and both of whom are very busy in solo practice. Neither had family connections. They are more the rule than the exception. And my heart does go out to the young attorneys who are struggling. It’s the worst legal economy since I began practicing 20 years ago and I worry about new attorneys who never get to develop their skills and eventually fall out of the law. But if you read comments on my web site you will see that I devote substantial time to helping such attorneys out. I don’t see your cynicism as helpful.

      BTW, if you’re gonna get snarky, you might want to spell my name correctly: it’s Forman, not Foreman.

  • M.M.

    Just my two cents: Read Mr. Forman’s biography and do a little exploring around his site – you will find he is very successful. Mr. Forman, you are kind to take such statements, as this blog entry will tend to attract individuals who are VERY frustrated with the legal field right now.

    Having said that, I have to disagree that Mr. Phillips and Ms. Moser are the rule and not the exception. Of the many recent legal graduates with whom I maintain contact, about 50% are working in retail-type jobs for less than $10 an hour, some up to 2 years after graduation. The other 20% are unemployed and volunteer their legal work for free. About 30% are employed as attorneys and/or solo practitioners, but about half of those make $12,000 a year or less (ie: the solo practitioner who delivers pizzas to sustain himself because he doesn’t make more than $10,000 a year from practicing the law.)

    When you add all that up, that means that only about 15% of the individuals I know who have recently graduated earn more than $12,000 a year practicing law and this is 2-3 years after they have graduated. The remaining 85% I know are earning less than $12,000 a year their first few years out of law school, either in retail, non-legal positions or as extremely underpaid attorneys. (I can’t say how they fare after 2 years, because the individuals to whom I am referring haven’t been graduated longer than that.) This isn’t based on TWO recent grads that I know, but numerous individuals in all sorts of geographical regions. When one realizes that most of these individuals spent about $100,000 on their education, not to mention an additional $150,000 in lost salary for 3-4 years (many individuals I know have done several unpaid internships for a year or two after they graduate, just to try to get experience), there is no wonder that there is so much anger. This doesn’t stem from a sense of entitlement. I don’t think one is entitled if he or she gives up a salary for years, pays $100,000 to learn a skill, works for free for another year or two after graduation and is deeply disappointed at learning that despite all that sacrifice, he or she is getting paid less than a high school worker at Wal-Mart.

    I am truly not sure how employers are going to continue to expect skilled employees if, when employees are skilled, they pay them such low wages. If I were to talk to any high schooler, I would tell him or her to forego college altogether. There just is no need to take on any college debt when you most likely will end up making the same salary as a high schooler. Does this bode well for this country’s future? No. Although I realize it is an employer’s market right now, the harm being done by charging astronomical tuition rates and then expecting the same people who pay those astronomical rates to work for minimum wage or for free for years, giving them no way to pay off that debt, will have far-reaching consequences, with the end result a downgrade in the skill level of future employees – those students today who see that a college education is not only not worth it, but detrimental to one’s financial security. By the way, I also include solo practitioners in this analysis, because I know of only one solo practitioner who earned enough (for me, enough = $12,000 a year, a very modest amount) that he could pay his bills without having to resort to a retail job to support himself.

  • JR

    We need lawyers, just not so many of them.

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  • Alan

    Well, if you’re like me and you went to a decent law school (UCLA), but you have $200,000 in debt and the best job you can find only pays $45,000, then yes law school was a losing game. It’s destroyed my life and I will have to live with my parents until they die. I can’t get married, I can’t afford a home, and I can’t afford a car. The only reason I took out loans to go to school was because they advertised 95% (or higher employment) and a median salary of $160,000.

    I will regret my decision to attend law school for the rest of my life. Forget earning a “comfortable” living as you mentioned. I can’t even earn a poverty-level living. I will be in poverty for the rest of my life and it’s entirely due to law school.

    • Alan,

      I feel for you. California is a much harder place to practice law than is South Carolina. I actually grew up near UCLA and left California because I found the pace too fast. Further law school tuition has risen much faster than the rate of inflation since I graduated in 1991. No one should graduate a public law school $200,000 in debt but your experience is common.

      Law schools, especially those outside the top 10-50, are going to need a different business model if they want to attract tuition-paying students. I suspect many will fold in the next decade. That doesn’t help you but I hope you find something in the legal field that provides you satisfaction and enables you to move forward in life financially.

  • M.G.

    I also want to say that I feel for you, too, Alan, and wish you the best. As someone who experienced (and is currently experiencing) something similar, I can honestly say I understand your predicament. My thoughts are with you.

    I hope you find something one day that will allow you to pay off that debt. And don’t hesitate to consider looking at careers outside of the law as well – that may be your only chance. I eventually had to leave the profession because I was in the same predicament you are in and had to eat. While I didn’t want to leave practicing the law because I had worked so hard to get there, I am glad I did. I would not have been able to get a job if I didn’t. The reality is there just weren’t enough legal jobs out there.

    And Mr. Forman, your message was very kind and very supportive.

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