Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Advice To A 1L On Dropping Out: Don't Forget Your iPhone Charger

Above the Law continues to take on the heady topic of whether someone who went to law school expecting a big fat check upon graduation should consider the economics of it all and drop out.

Thus far we know that 66% of ATL's readers thought a 2L should stay in school, while 34% are just happy to be able to use profanity anonymously in the comment section while eating many Doritos on mom's couch.

Now ATL has switched it up - thrown in a curve - "changed the game" as game changers and asked: what if the student is a 1L?

The question is not based on the student reconsidering whether to become a trial lawyer, or whether to seek a career representing the poor, or setting up a nice general practice - the question is about money.

What if the student is just in his first semester of 1L year and can get out before incurring even another semester’s worth of debt?

The post's author goes further into framing this choice as one where money is the sole consideration, referring to the decision as a challenging value proposition.

So the 1L is thinking about dropping out.

Here's the summary of his thought process:

$150k of Debt + Fewer Jobs + More Attorneys = Law school is probably going to end up being a bad investment.

He says he's willing to put myself through it if there’s a good chance it will pay off in the end, but that there's been a dramatic change on the return on investment calculation.

He's willing to stay if he's only going to be in debt $50k, but now that he's invested $21k, he can't see investing another $21k for a second semester.

He's rightly concerned about getting a job, noting the truth that all law students angrily deny - that more students than ever have been applying to law school over the last few years to avoid the bad economy.

He's also not that interested in the life of a lawyer, as he sees that life: from what I understand, private practice is an exercise in the permanent sacrifice of work-life balance. Late nights at the office every week or two is very different from working 12 hours every day. It’s very unlikely I’ll be able to make good money in private practice and have a healthy work-life balance. I don’t want to work 60-70 hours a week until I’m 40.

I love the last sentence of that paragraph. Somehow flip-flops and a backpack come to mind.

In one of the most prolific quotes I've seen from a person who should have never applied to law school, he says: I researched law school a lot more than I researched being an attorney.

When I write over and over again that part of the problem in law school today, and with lawyers, is that many of those who entered this profession, did so for the wrong reasons - they did it for the cash, I hear the screams of law students and young lawyers yelling "that's not true!". When it got too expensive, and the payback was not guaranteed, it became less attractive. There are dozens of law students in every law school who see the education as a ticket to a six figure salary. These students couldn't care less if they were selling toilet paper or driving taxi cabs - whatever makes money, that's where they want to be.

But that's not what the law profession is about. It's about clients (sorry Dan). It's about ethics. It's about being an officer of the court, and it's about advocating. It's not about paying off debt. It's not about a return on an investment.

I read this post and all I could think was that this law student sounds much more like a stockbroker. His entire analysis is whether it's worth it to spend the money for an education that may not find him the darling of the Bar in terms of high fees and a life of luxury. There's nothing about the profession, except a bunch of whining about working hard.

So pack it up, make sure you have that favorite Starbucks travel mug, and don't forget your iPhone charger - it's probably the best investment you've made.

Located in Miami, Florida, Brian Tannebaum practices Bar Admission and Discipline and Criminal Defense. He is the author of I Got A Bar Complaint.Share/Save/Bookmark


Dan Hull said...

What about clients? can and should be everyone's issue and message. Not just our firm's or blog's. It's the only thing we won't joke about. Everything else deserves the utmost in irreverence.

Great article, Brian. Thanks for the mention, sir.

Careared said...

The truth is that most people go to law school primarily for their own financial benefit, not on account of their calling to be a client advocate. The law is not as glamorous a profession as its made out to be, and it tends to be one that sucks the life out of people. I wish I would have dropped out of law school during my first year when I realized law was absolutely the wrong profession for me. Instead, I trudged on reluctantly and spent six years digging myself out of the debt hole. And then I quit my job to reclaim my life. It would have been much easier if I had taken action nine years ago. I write about these issues at http://careared.com/.

Dan Hull said...

"The truth is that most people go to law school primarily for their own financial benefit, not on account of their calling to be a client advocate."

I hear you. I didn't go to law school to become a client advocate either and am certainly not the helper/care-giver type. But you need to "get that way" to be both happy and good at it. And get that way fast. Otherwise, as my friend The Greaseman used to say, you'll be hatin' Life.

Making great money working for great clients does happen in all manner of practices. And why not have money, advocacy and a slew of other things in your equation? Travel, exercise (lots of both), great friends, great family life, a dash of politics, old books, new ideas, new people, and working with clients in different businesses and lawyers in other practices areas. Getting and staying very good at one or two things--but learning more things?

In short, growing. You need not spend your life as a robot or a mechanic doing repeat and cookie-cutter work. If are in that pattern, you either like it that way (which is okay) or won't do anything to change a mind-numbing reverie.

Lawyering--especially learning how to do it--is incredibly hard. If it sucks the life from people, those folks were ill-advised to go to law school. I feel bad for them. Stress? Ninety-five percent of the time, stress should be a driving fuel--not a life-drainer--for anyone good at ANY profession or job.

The law is incredibly glamorous if you mix it up a little. I think you more easily find the "great mix", frankly, in the larger and mainly coastal U.S. cities and few cities in Asia and Europe.

But you have to work at it all. After 20-plus years of practice, I still think it's hard. Real hard. Sure, maybe I was just lucky to see the excitement of it all very early. But it's still a challenge every day. That's fun, too.

Law? Like someone once said, for a lot of people it's "the new priesthood--a backstage pass to the world." Lawyers are into everything. It's the best gig I can imagine.

Anonymous said...

"It's not about paying off debt."

Tell that to the law schools.

"It's not about a return on an investment."

Yes because the only reason big law partners went into the law was to make the world a better place.

Chris Spizzirri said...

Your assessment is overly harsh and unreasonable.

"There are dozens of law students in every law school who see the education as a ticket to a six figure salary."

I think dozens is an underestimate, but so what? Most people do consider job prospects, income, security, nature of the work, and lifestyle while choosing a career. There's nothing wrong with that. Rare is the person who only goes to law school for the love of advocacy and the law but with total disregard for the costs and benefits of that choice. Your suggestion that love of advocacy is the only criterion on which someone should base the decision to go to law school seems myopic and faulty, to put it mildly.

"These students couldn't care less if they were selling toilet paper or driving taxi cabs - whatever makes money, that's where they want to be."

I think that is patently untrue. If it was only about money, why not do something with lesser investments of time and money? I choose law school and lawyering over other professions, because I thought I could make a good money doing something I enjoyed. I would never apologize for considering all factors before making that decision, and neither should anyone else.

My Law License said...

"overly harsh and unreasonable?" Well, that's the nicest thing anyone has said to me all day. Thanks for the comment.

Anonymous said...

I think you are looking at this from the perspective of someone who has a successful established career rather than someone who is worried about defaulting on 100K+ school loans and being unemployed. At a certain point money must have been a concern for you as well. If your only focus was on the client, and never on making a better salary, then maybe you would have continued to work at the public defender’s office.

I agree with you to the extent that no one should go into this profession if the only reason they want to do be an attorney is to make money. The people who go to law school for those reasons are always the most miserable.

On the other hand, there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money as well. Money is a necessary evil in our society. We don’t live on the barter system anymore. I guess the best advice is: do what you love, the money will follow.

Alan Truesdale said...

I practiced law for about 5 years in a large firm in CT, then joined a firm that was a client. That particular path is not the only way, but the point is that that I moved from private practice to the business world and found that law training and experience is invaluable, every day. Consider that. Some who chose law school and dropped ouit, and does not want the busniess world either, probably is walking away from 1-2 career paths that fit his intellect, his interest, his temperament. If not the law or business for this gentlemen, then what?

Anonymous said...

I'm a young attorney fortunate enough to have a big firm salary, and I can't blame the 1L for worrying about the cost. I put every other paycheck against my loans, and I don't expect to see those loans reach what I consider a reasonable level of debt until I'm a 4th or 5th year associate. That makes for 7-8 years of grinding (law school + practice) in an often soul-crushing environment, just to get your head above water. Granted, the earning potential is much higher once I break past even. But until that point, I can't focus primarily on the advocacy of a client - I focus on the keeping of my job and doing whatever is put on my desk with a smile.

If this 23-yr old has had the insight to realize that cost of ~8 years where you don't feel like you have control of your life is not worth it, then more power to the kid.

Anonymous said...

Your analysis is the exact problem with law education - you deride the cost-benefit analysis that is so often overlooked by today's law school applicants. As much as practicing law is about ethics, being an officer of the court, representing clients, etc., it's also about making a living. One should be financially responsible with their life. If that means reconsidering a legal education based upon debt, job prospects and the like, then so be it. They shouldn't have to suffer the nonsensical and unrealistic ideal that law is some higher calling.

Anonymous said...

Yes, drop out now. I have a useless JD and LLM
combo that has enslaved me to years of student loan
debt repayment. I never got a legal job despite being licensed in two states and having good recommendations.
I wish I had gotten a CPA license and I'd be working now.
I was not a greedy individual seeking riches, I merely wanted to find a government job or smaller firm opportunity making a living wage that would allow me to
repay debt (70-80k). I didn't think that was unrealistic at the time, but the market has evaporated and I've been
struggling to remain afloat financially without any career path ahead. Drop out now and avoid this scenario.

Unknown said...

It's interesting that even in this economy, the "what-it-means-to-be-a-lawyer" debate still traces the ethics and clients vs. prestige and riches continuum.

I graduated and was admitted to the bar in 2007. Right now, I can barely pay the loans, despite working 6-7 days a week.

The size of my debt, combined with the crashed salaries and client fees (I have started my own firm a year ago) ensure that it'll take at least 10 years for me to pay it down to a magnitude where I can still afford a decent living - that would be sixteen years since I entered law school.

So, I think that these days, the law student's conundrum must be phrased NOT as "will I drive a Bentley," but as "will I afford to eat, once I take out these loans."

Anonymous said...

I'm with the anonymous poster who wrote: "I think you are looking at this from the perspective of someone who has a successful established career rather than someone who is worried about defaulting on 100K+ school loans and being unemployed." As a former unhappy 1L and a current underemployed law school graduate with 100K in school debt, I can tell you that, as much as I went to law school to become a great advocate, my life right now is all about the money - or lack thereof. As far as I can tell, most people go to law school to make money and those who don't, like me, end up broke and unemployed, now or in the future, without retirement funds and other "luxuries" of modern life (cars, appliances, jobs) to help us make ends meet. I went in with all the right intentions and goals, and I'm just as broke as that supposedly money-focused 1L will be if he doesn't drop out now. I have good friends who graduated in 2007 and are still working part-time jobs and retail jobs to make ends meet. I haven't had a job interview in almost a year. I'm a brilliant, talented person with over 20 years' experience in the workforce, in addition to my MA and JD, and I can't find a professional job to save my life. It's easy, once you've had it made, to question and belittle the choices of others, but unless you're living in the same circumstances, with the same pressures and concerns, you're unlikely to understand the person's true motivations. I only wish someone had been able to get me to see far enough past my idealism (which, being in my 40s I can't even blame on youth) to see that I was incurring a huge debt in the years when I should have been (and still should be) shoring up my retirement funds and monies to pay my present and future health care costs and the increasing costs of living in this corporate-driven culture. The great advocacy jobs that I wanted and dreamt of have all dried up in the economic collapse, and I find myself in over my head with a huge debt that I cannot repay in a career field that is still shrinking. This young man is trying to make a responsible choice about his future and about how much money and time he's willing to spend on it, and I admire him for his honest work at self-assessment. Maybe you have a job where you can afford to be a great client advocate, but many of us law school grads don't have anything close to that, let alone enough money (a real concern) to pay for us to do what we love, or even what we hate, to pay our bills. I'd be thrilled to have a full-time job with benefits and be able to pay back my school loans. I'd be even more thrilled not to have taken on all this debt in order to go into a profession that seems mostly to consist of billable hours anymore that are nearly wholly unrelated to anything involving compassion or education or empowerment or anything else that could benefit a client, and everything to do with making money for someone - be it the attorney or their firm or someone else's (the "winning" side's) attorney or firm or corporation. The young man whose motives you deride is choosing to avoid the years of work and debt and bitterness that the rest of us have reaped in the last few years, and which you luckily avoided by joining the profession when it had more jobs - and more money - to afford its successful members.

Adrian M. Baron said...

You took the words right out of my mouth. excellent post Brian.

the Blawg 100 nod was well deserved


aka Nutmeg Lawyer

Anonymous said...

BT- any response to Dec.3 at 144pm????

Anonymous said...

Even experienced lawyers aren't there for "justice" or "client service". You either pay massive fees up front or they don't work for you. This is regardless of whether you are innocent or not.

One advantage of the lawyer glut is that it should make legal fees actually affordable for people who need legal services.