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!

1 comment:

  1. Nice summation of the dilemma. When people are in "law school mode," there is little you can do to dissuade them from their BRILLIANT decision. If you try to apply logic, reasoning, or numbers at them, you end up alienating them.

    They take that as an affront, i.e. "You think I'm too damn dumb to make it in the field? Get lost."

    Those of us who have been flushed down the law school commode simply recognize that those without: (a) money or family wealth; or (b) STRONG family, business and political connections; are taking on one hell of a gamble. We are trying to let them see the overall picture. In the lemmings' eyes, we are bitter.

    In the end, if these people insist on taking out $130K in non-dischargeable student debt - to get a law degree from the 181st ranked law school in the country - does not add one dime to my student loans.

    When I applied to law school, I did not receive any blunt advice about the job market. I made the mistake of talking to older attorneys. They all told me they loved their jobs, and that I should go for it.

    Seeing that people are being burdened with life-altering debt, and facing anemic job prospects, we have a moral obligation to be frank and honest when a prospective law student asks us about law school - or the job market for attorneys.