Friday, December 18, 2009

The Ghosts of a Law School Past: A Christmas Letter

This blog was never intended to be, nor shall it be, a platform for my inane rantings, petty grievances and the half-baked ideas that cross my idle brain. (Go follow some Twitter feeds if you want that. Ugh.) Nor was it designed to be a fame seeking, sensational or disgruntled catharsis for my professional frustrations. Mostly, it's just random projects I undertake and recipes I try out. Sometimes we go on adventures. I steer clear from controversy, partly because there's more than enough of it on the internet and partly because I have shady visions of some future confirmation hearing where some Senator is taking what I said 30 years earlier out of context and comparing me to Hitler. So it's rarely a platform for my opinions, because opinions are like...well we all know everyone's got one.

That said, counting two months of Bar Prep Classes, three months of waiting on the results, and another month waiting for my Bar #, I've now been unemployed for nearly seven months. Or only one month, if you just count the time after I finally got my Bar #, since in this economy I was essentially unemployable before that anyway.

And yeah, it gets me down. I want to get a job. And I want to get out of the house. And I want to make some money. We get by, but it would be nice to save for a rainy day. This time in my life is doing long term damage to my ability to own nice things and it's frustrating at times. And I look at a half dozen job boards and watch the tumbleweeds roll by. And I see posts on craigslist seeking someone with 4+ years experience who's willing to work for $25k, or that firm in Jersey that posted a similar ad and got over 300 applicants, and I sigh. And I get bored talking to the cat all day. She's not much of a conversationalist. On the plus side, at least the house is really, really clean.

But seriously, we're doing ok, things are going to be fine and are getting better, something will work out, and we'll move on with our lives. So to my friends and family: stop worrying, and stop asking. We know that it's only because you care, and we are lucky to have people like that in our lives.

I'm not going to get into statistics or quote articles, you can read the news for that sort of article. Suffice to say that unemployment of recent college graduates is higher than it's ever been, and NALP's own statistics for legal employment of the Class of 2009 are fairly miserable. This year nearly 5,000 lawyers were laid off from the top 'Big Law' firms, as well as about 10,000 assorted support staff. Times are tough out there. But I think the biggest problem (and annoyance) that the job search has shown is a sort of disconnect between the public perception of the legal world and the real world reality. And a bit of a reality check is in order. I am so tired of lawyer = instant automatic riches and success. Solid gold underwear, loose cars and fast women. Yeah that's what I thought too, going into it. But for most of the recent crop of lawyers, it just ain't so. What? You're unemployed? And you'd jump at the chance to make $30k chasing ambulances or reviewing documents 12 hours a day in damp basement? Or as a 3L recently told me, working for a firm right now for free on the off chance that they'll kick him some contract work after he graduates.

Which is sad, because I really wanted that solid gold underwear.

It's probably dry-clean only though.

As an illustration I present this (poorly animated, ugh, retelling of a Christmas Carol by Esq. Never. Despite the computer's inability to pronounce words like 'resume', Part 4 and the Epilogue are really the take home lesson. And I have to chuckle about making $35k in "Insurance Defense Chop Shops". Come on, my attorney friends at the firm I worked for made at least $40k... Haha, haha, sigh... Still, it should be required viewing for all 1Ls and those contemplating a legal career.

What's most interesting about this to me is that it was posted today on the ABA's own newsletter. Yes, the Bar Association spread this around to lawyers and law students, and without any sort of rebuttal or commentary. As always where disgruntled lawyers are concerned, I would advise against reading the comments. It may make your eyebrows curl. It's the Penny Arcade Internet Dickwad Theory in action (Normal Person + Anonymity + Audience = Total Dickwad):

But importantly the whole thing illustrates more than just one disgruntled law grad's opinion: it's endemic to the system and there are tens of thousands of law students and recent grads who agree with Esq. Never. And here's the crux: this is going to be part of our legal culture for years. Many of them will eventually find work, but it probably won't pay well and their loans will remain because you can't bankrupt out of them. I've heard tale of desperate lawyers taking out second mortgages on their homes, paying off their student loans, then bankrupting out of the mortgages, and losing their house, their credit rating and probably their license to practice in the process. That's how drastic it can get. And many of these lawyers are the, perhaps naive, but nevertheless well-meaning people who went to law school for public interest reasons, but due to loans cannot afford to work for Legal Aid, the Public Defender's Office or the State Attorney's. (Not that they're hiring anyway.)

Yes, Income Based Repayment makes it more manageable. But what exactly "Public Service" is is not clearly defined, and the only jobs that are certain, Public Defender, State Atty, etc., aren't hiring. So you could spend 10 years working for a non-profit only to be told, nope, no loan forgiveness, not publicy-servicey enough. And yeah, debt forgiveness after 25 years. Sweet! Except there's currently no income tax credit for that forgiveness, which would then be treated as income, and so after 10 or 25 years of making say $40k, you might suddenly find your income taxed as if you made $300,000 that year. Of course technically you did...and you didn't. But the IRS would still want more than your entire year's paycheck as taxes. Mercifully, at that point you'd at least be able to declare bankruptcy.

Meanwhile I'm going to be soldiering on. If the profession is broken, it's up to us, the new lawyers, the Young Turks, to fix it. Because the next half-century of legal culture will be shaped by thousands and thousands of disgruntled lawyers in debt up to their eyeballs. And hey, if U.S. history shows us anything it's that a group of disgruntled lawyers can get amazing things done!

Despite what has and is happening to the profession I still believe it's an honorable one, that things will improve, and that I can make it. And it's difficult, it's so easy to be a cynic about it. It's looking like I may try doing some pro bono work for the county Bar Association, so at least I can get out and accomplish some good in the meantime.

Which is very welcome, because the cat steadfastly refuses to actually read the book before our little book club meetings. What nerve. She just doesn't seem to care for Hemingway.

So to all of our beloved friends and family, and whatever Chinese spambots randomly crawl this blog in the future, I wish you Happy Holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Eid al-Adha, Kwanzaa, Chinese New Year, Festivus or whatever Secular Non-Denominational Seasonal Celebration you celebrate! (Jesus isn't the only reason for the season, the Earth tilting away from the Sun has a lot to do with it too.) And now I have presents to go shop for.

Hey, turns out that was pretty cathartic.


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