Monday, December 27, 2010

Law School as a Rite of Passage, not as an Actual Education

Non-trads, before we go much further, one point needs to be made perfectly clear, right now:

Law school does not prepare you for the practice of law.

Well, what academic program does, right? “Shocker!”, I hear you say. Do engineers run factories straight out of college? Do finance majors run banks straight out of college? Do professors become chancellors of universities straight out of college?

No, no, and no, of course (unless you are the heir apparent of the President/CEO, but that is another discussion).

However, other professions of this sort do have a sort of “natural career trajectory”. Part of being hired is the recognition that you will grow into the role and accept more and more responsibility as you are able. When you can handle the small things, you are ready for larger things. When you can snatch the pebbles from the master’s hand, it is time for you to leave. Medical school is predicated on this model – that is why it is an eight year commitment.

In contrast, as an attorney, you will be expected to run everything, the day after bar passage, immediately. Perfectly. Because you are representing a client. And it is your fault if you have no clients.

Sadly, the Rule in Shelley’s case, the concept of the covenant of “seisen”, and the Rule Against Perpetuities will do little to assist you here. Your M&A class will be so generic as to not assist you in the particulars, assuming you follow all the material. You will likely get through a Wills, Trusts, and Estates class without even drafting a Will, Trust, or Estate. It is also possible to get through Law School without any clinical or practicum experience, period, due to limited capacity – and it is debatable how much said clinics prepare you for practice in any event.

Again, if you have connections, this question of preparation is taken care of for you. One of the straight-throughs in my class was going to work for Daddy’s firm. He partied, got his 2.0, and moved on to greener pastures. Or if you are fortunate, the firm that hired you purely on your Manga Cum Laude credentials are more than happy to shepherd you along because they value the long-term investment.

Otherwise, that E&O policy could get a big workout early on if you want to go solo. After opening your own law office. With few to no connections and no practical experience. With other, experienced members of the bar courting available clients. With no book of business to woo another firm.

My point is that Non-trads take a large risk because they are (by definition) transitioning careers, may have family obligations, and potentially less access to family support to boot for a program that does not prepare them for the actual profession nor ease the transition into the profession. It’s not that you are unwilling to “pay your dues” – it may be that you literally can’t afford to…again…after three years of taking out loans for burgeoning tuition.

The answers that are given to this dilemma are “network” and “sink or swim”. That’s fine if you’re 25. It’s a little different at, say, 45.

Again, if you are a balls-to-the-wall entrepreneur who doesn’t take “no” for an answer, don’t let me get in the way. Just realize that your prior successes won’t necessarily be an asset for what is coming ahead. It is indeed a jungle out there.

Monday, December 20, 2010

Failure is very, very likely an option

OK, I’m a fan of “Bob the Angry Flower”, a genius (in my opinion) comic strip by Stephen Notley. While not about law school in any form or fashion, this particular comic sets the stage for not only the Law School Graduation realization of “Holy Crap, I’m effed!”, but even the post-graduation career temptation to rewrite history.

Once you realize that you’ve burned a bridge by going back to school, the rewrite begins. You begin to relinquish your initial idealistic (1L) goals of “fighting for justice” or “being your own boss”, to (2L) “Hey, I really wanted to do Entertainment Law but Personal Injury work can be interesting too,” to (3L) “Dear God in Heaven, can I at least get a remotely-legal job north of $40k?”

Why does this happen? It happens largely, I would argue, due to the fact that you can’t get reliable information about the legal field from most anybody during the period when you are supposed to be doing your much-ballyhooed “research” and “due diligence” into the legal field. You certainly won’t get it from the law schools, bar associations, or “legal publications” due to their inherent conflict of interest. Fair enough, caveat emptor. However, you likely won’t get real feedback from the practitioners themselves.

“Whoa, dupednontraditional, you’re bitter! Stop blaming other people for your problems! If you were tough like me then you would be rolling in a bed made of $100 bills. How dare you talk bad about your fellow members of the bar!”

Well, first of all, if by “tough” you mean “well-connected” then you’ve got me there. My point, however, is that my fellow attorneys are not actively engaging in any sort of fraud or malice – I would say that the whole experience, from tender young graduate to seasoned veteran, forces people to look back and say that it “wasn’t so bad” when confronted by a newbie about to take the plunge. When for most, I would argue, they wish they could be someplace else in their life.

True, some attorneys are highly “successful” – they honestly love what they do, they make a lot of money, and they are well-respected. What I would call the trifecta of the American Dream™.

However, you only have to look at the depression, alcoholism, and suicide rates for attorneys to realize there is more to the story, at least for a high number of practitioners.

When I made my decision to go to law school, only one attorney I knew “leveled” with me, and even then it was in a joking manner – the whole “hey, why would you do that to yourself, leave your career, take on a lot of tedious work, ha ha hee hee ho ho” sort of way. The indication being it’s a lot of hard work, but you can persevere and make it through to a satisfying career.

It was only when I was in law school that I began to hear the “truth” – attorneys claiming to tell people they know not to go, wishing they had gone in a different direction, feeling like they have been doing it for so long that they have few other options. Saying how difficult it is to break in, let alone move laterally or even progress in the field. How many look back at law school and say that they hated the entire experience. How the whole process took away their dreams and forced them to settle for something that made them feel inhuman at times so as to pay the student loans and put food on the table.

But I believe it is human to want to wish people well. Few hate all people all the time with capricious venom. So, when confronted with a bright energetic student (or excited non-trad) it’s natural to not want to crush those aspirations, and your own recollections become modified in the process. However, for people who are “committed”, it’s easier to tell the truth – misery loves company, as they say.

Be warned, non-trads. It is difficult to get a clear picture of what the law school experience can be, or how far-reaching the effects could go, especially if you are leaving an established career or are being forced into a new career.. If you are set on law school, press, press, press people for the downside, be it loans, the job search, or the nature of the job itself. I should have pressed more – and I thought I had talked with several attorneys about the prospects, consulted the literature, etc.

If you’ve got things tailor-made, perhaps this does not apply to you. I would argue, however, that the likely possibility for “failure” applies to most if not all law students, whether they realize it or not. And let’s be honest - $100k or more is a lot to pay for “failure”.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to drink this!

Friday, December 10, 2010

So, why would a non-traditional student want to go to law school, anyway?

I can only speak for myself, of course, but in retrospect I see my decision as a reaction to the combination of (1) the pressures of the educational arms race coupled with (2) lack of career mobility and (3) the general devaluation and outsourcing of American labor. I started my original career in the mid-90s with hard science degrees, working in government contracting. While my work was not in direct danger of being shipped overseas due to the nature of my “customer”, I saw over the course of several years that the education that allowed me to get into the company in the first place was less and less valued. Wages, overall, were stagnating in the broader economy. Housing prices, along with many other large-purchase goods, were skyrocketing as the bubble was nowhere near popping at the time.

In order to stay competitive, both inside the organization and out, it was becoming apparent that “MOAR EDJUCAYSHUN!” was key. However, the Catch-22 was that PhDs were already suffering in the academic world due to overpopulation, and they are typically the first on the corporate chopping block as well when RIFs come down. My pursuit of other valuable, career-specific professional designations and credentials were met with a collective yawn by upper management - so that didn’t appear to be the answer, either. Yet the people who “got ahead” had diverse academic credentials for the most part. They demonstrated technical smarts and business smarts, or so that was the allegation. Take a look at the C.V.s of big name attorneys, CEOs, consultants, and the like – they are replete with all kinds of degrees, credentials, publications, etc. etc. etc.

My experience in the corporate world was also that most conflicts were ultimately legal conflicts. Sure, there were technical issues that needed to be solved with the production of a widget or gizmo, but those paled in comparison to contract negotiations, labor issues, FAR regulations and, ultimately, who’s-fault-was-what when a contract went bad. I saw that upper management contained a lot of MBAs, but that seemed saturated, also – why would there be support for yet another MBA? What was needed, or so I thought, was someone with an understanding of “the law” who could keep things out of hot water before they became a problem, rather than after. All too often, conflicts turn into protracted legal battles because people intentionally breached a contract, failed to mitigate damages, and the like, because they feel that they were justified in doing so. Sometimes, it can be justified. However, more often than not ignorance of the law is no excuse, as they say.

However, that idea was not supported, either. Why would an understanding of the law help you manufacture a widget at lower cost? One could easily say the same thing about someone with an MBA, of course, but my concerns were “bigger picture” than that (as would be an MBA’s concerns). And, as time went on, I decided I was not a good fit for the culture of my work place – but that is a separate issue, I suppose.

At that point, I had a decision to make – stay the course, or pull out some of that die-hard, rugged American entrepreneurial spirit and try to move in a new direction. I had been where I was long enough to stay, but not too long to not try something new. I understood that “a law degree opens doors” and that “you can do anything with a law degree.” So, after doing my due diligence, I took a leap of faith and the law-school-industrial-complex met me with open arms.

Hindsight is a cruel mistress, especially when you become an indentured servant in the process.