Wednesday, June 26, 2013

All of the Above - Survivor Bias, Hard Work, Luck, and Cost

According to these guys, I'm practically guaranteed to get into "BigAdventure"!  All I need to do is "work hard" at burgling.  Now, if I could just figure out this promissory note...

We've all seen them - the expose of "successful" law graduates on every law school's website and premotional materials. For sake of argument, I'll use everybody's favorite punching bag, Cooley:

Well, there you go. The scambloggers should just stop whining - out of 17,000 graduates, with more on the way, here are 20 shining examples of what a JD can do for you - private practioners, judges, JAG, senior corporate counsel, directors of non-profits...the list goes on and on, so shut up already. Clearly, some say, there is a one-to-one correspondence between the latter and the former, and anyone who says otherwise just isn't willing to work hard enough. End of discussion.

The question few want to talk about is what about the other 16,980? The 99.9% left over, how are they doing? And how can anyone tell, more importantly? The law schools hide behind the false-positive of "no bad news is good news," while the scamblogs point to graduation data and economic data, along with personal anecdotes of themselves or others close to them, to paint the opposite narrative of how backing, connections, pedigree, and location location location (i.e. "luck") matters just as much or more than anything else.

But what does it mean to "work hard"? What does it mean to be "lucky"?

"Here's how this works: big-bucks Author Z says, here are the 10 steps you need to take to become as successful as me. The list always mentions perseverance, being nice to your readers, writing 1,000 words a day and so on.

The 99.9% of writers/authors who make less than $10,000 a year from their writing (and the 99% who make less than $1,000) take this list as a script or program that if followed, will yield great success. But the 99% follow the script and do the 10 things and discover they are still unknown and not making any money.

The point is that nobody asks the 99% who fail to make it big what they did, or try to analyze what they did that prevented their success.
The conclusion is that luck is the ultimate factor in these signal-noise levels of success,
and being in the right place at the right time with the right product/idea can't be replicated by following a script or list of tips."
(emphasis in original)

Clearly, there is more to the picture than just "working hard." It is a necessary, but not sufficient, prerequisite. Being in the right place (via connections) at the right time (good economics, few competitors) certainly matters. At the same time:

"It might seem disheartening, the fact that successful people probably owe more to luck than anything else, but only if you see luck as some sort of magic...[a]ccording to psychologist Richard Wiseman, luck – bad or good – is just what you call the results of a human beings consciously interacting with chance, and some people are better at interacting with chance than others...

Wiseman speculated that what we call luck is actually a pattern of behaviors that coincide with a style of understanding and interacting with the events and people you encounter throughout life. Unlucky people are narrowly focused, he observed. They crave security and tend to be more anxious, and instead of wading into the sea of random chance open to what may come, they remain fixated on controlling the situation, on seeking a specific goal. As a result, they miss out on the thousands of opportunities that may float by. Lucky people tend to constantly change routines and seek out new experiences. Wiseman saw that the people who considered themselves lucky, and who then did actually demonstrate luck was on their side over the course of a decade, tended to place themselves into situations where anything could happen more often and thus exposed themselves to more random chance than did unlucky people. The lucky try more things, and fail more often, but when they fail they shrug it off and try something else. Occasionally, things work out."
(emphasis added)

Interesting points. So, what are we to take from all this? People who want to go to law school should be willing to (1) "work hard", (2) be open to a wide variety of experience and be willing to fail, economically, and (3) be able to ride out the storm (for a decade or so) until things actually take off. The battery has to juice the system until the engine can turn over, you know.

Step one, check. Step two, check...wait, be willing to fail? With no backing?  Step three...wait, what? Ride out the storm for a decade? Maybe more? When sticker price for law school is $150k or so? Occasionally, things work out? 

Here is the fundamental problem with law school, and why it is currently a scam in 2013 if not in the 2000s or the 1990s. Yes, you need to work hard. Yes, you need to try a lot of different things until something catches, as opposed to the often-vetted strawman of sitting in your mom's basement eating cheesy poofs, waiting for a job to magically appear. But why do people actually "fail," exactly...? I submit that it's because the large majority can't service 21st century student loan payments for long enough in this economy, while they are trying to do twelve different things for years on end, in order to get their legal career to become viable and sustainable.

If law school, adjusted for 1970s tuition rates was $30k today for that bright, sparkly JD, then (1) it would be much easier (though not simple) to service this debt on a relative basis, and (2) one could be more open to trying a variety of things because they would not immediately need BigLaw compensation structures to service their debt, day one, right now. But the degree is not that inexpensive, adjusted for inflation. It is more like $40k per year. Funny, it now costs you the price of four dusty 40-year-old JD degrees to get that same dusty 40-year-old JD degree today. Talk about progress. Wait, didn't the law school employment stats claim a median salary of $135k per year, and a 98% legal job placement rate...?

Oh, but IBR and PAYE, I hear some ScamDeans and law school apologists say.  With these programs, your student loan debts will be managable, so you have no excuse.  First of all, the very fact that IBR and similar programs exist indicates the system is broken.  These programs have grown from an incidental gap-measure for a few to a planned strategy to be utilized on purpose for many.  Second of all, these programs can end any day, and the tax implications of the "forgiven" debt is not clear.  Third of all, IBR does not help those with private student loans, and may not help people with federal loans, depending on the math and individual circumstances.  Fourth of all, what about the American Taxpayer(tm)?  Many who screech about "free bailouts for L00z3rs" can't surely endorse wide-spread use of programs like IBR at the same time for fun and law school profit...or can they?  Self-interest and personal bias trumps cognative dissonance every time.

Friends, this is what no law school will tell you. There are thousands and thousands who fall by the wayside for whatever reason, and there are no studies on them. Some of it is due to good old-fashioned numbers and competition based upon JD-overproduction. Some of it is due to lack of proper monetary capitalization. Some of it is due to life-circumstance - health issues, familial obligations, and the like. Perhaps some of the failures are indeed actually "deserved", as adjudicated by those who sit on Mount Olympus and hand out judgments based on moral character.

But no one honestly picks apart what happened and why, because you often can't get at the real data - the actual outcomes, over time, of thousands upon thousands of graduates. As such, the complaints of many get white-washed with "not working hard" and "entitlement" and "cheesy poofs." Law schools, at best, are silent on the issue, and instead trot out a handful of success stories that likely have little to do with the actual institution itself, along with "ten easy steps" that have people waste time and energy on survival bias. At worst, the law schools let shame do their dirty work for them. Scamblogs, with what scraps of information they can come up with, get further dismissed as the fevered rantings of entitled losers.

Misapprending and misusing survivor bias, and accusing thousands of laziness at the same time, is an appealing explanation to the plight of the law graduate. It's easier. It's tidy. It requires no "hard work" on the part of the accusor. And it's as equally-wrong a mindset as saying all complainers are in mom's basement watching TV.

The likely closer-to-reality phenomenon is that "you make your own luck," per Wiseman. The difficulty with that model is that with the economic barriers to entry that exist today, few can actually afford to hang in there long enough to be "lucky".

Regardless of where you fall on this issue, law school should be less expensive, period. Also, fewer students, rather than more students, should be admitted - preferably, the ones who are "more open to possibility" per Wiseman. If one is concerned about social-justice "access" to law school (as if it requires more than a pulse these days, given declining enrollment), then put your money where your mouth is and award real scholarships, not bait-and-switch scholarships designed to lure students in yet be taken away later due to section-stacking and statistical analysis of grading curves (who said lawyers were bad at math?).  It's more fun to spend that money on buildings instead of scholarships, anyway, so as to attract more lemmings into the fold.

Based on current LSAC data, the students appear to be getting the message much sooner than the law schools themselves - thus the rumble to the exits at the chagrin of ScamDeans everywhere. A student should not be relegated to failure because they don't have $150k plus interest in their pockets, or non-dischargable loans, to tide them over the next decade while they try to make their own luck.

Be warned, 0Ls. 20 success stories do not compensate for thousands of swept-under-the-rug, angrily-dismissed-by-the-establishment, also-rans. Remember, LawProf subsidized mortgages for expensive brownstones, with forgiven interest, just don't grow on trees. It's gotta come from somewhere. And that "somewhere" is your pocketbook and your future.


  1. Okay my $0.02 again. I was a Geography major in college and was told Consulting firms look for those majors. I believed it. Turns out the accounting course was the only thing that saved me and got me an okay middle management job [after a few years as photocopy clerk]. Pre-law are not the only ones lied to.

  2. True, law school is just a small part of the cesspool our country has become. When wallstreet and the banks can scam the public into a depression and not one of them was indicted, its pretty much a steep downward slope for the late great united states.

    1. You should thank Bill "Prosperity" Clinton instead.

      Get dem people into HOMES. Worry about paying for it later.

    2. Why are you blaming Wall Street and banks?

      The guilty were politicians who forced . . . yes, forced . . . banks to lend to ever-more-marginal people who couldn't or wouldn't repay their loans.

      Then the politicians forced the quasi-public institutions (Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) to accept the crap debt.

      Then the smart folks on Wall Street figured out how to make even more money at it with CDOs (collateralized debt obigations).

      And the morons and the Fed sat on their butts.

      Who's really at fault here? Stop blaming Wall Street.

  3. these edu-scammers need to pay for their crimes.

  4. This is a very articulate and reasoned discussion of why telling broke, unemployed JD's to just "hang out a single" isn't the answer, at least not for most of them. What about the ones who do not have wealthy parents, or a high-earning spouse, to support them while they struggle for years as a solo? They have student loan payments and other bills to pay and need income NOW.

    What bank is going to make a business loan to a 25 year old who is 150K in debt and has never worked at a real job in his/her life?

    1. Hang a shingle... more like hang yourself.

  5. The other problem is that you can spend decades building up a practice such as personal injury and you can just be starting to build a reputation and get good files, then there is a change of political leadership and all the laws are rewritten or the judges move the lines and you are back to square one. There is no such thing as a safe investment in the law.

  6. Great essay.

    I imagine that, while some law school enrollees are risk takers, others may actually be following what is perceived as a set path to success, and therefore are NOT deliberately putting themselves "where anything could happen".

    All the misleading law school statistics of high median salaries, job placement rates, success stories, etc. are aimed at telling prospective students, "follow our methods, our path, and you will wind up somewhere you want to be." It's not interacting with chance, it's following a script. The problem is that the path doesn't go where they are claiming, for too many people.

    Maybe being a successful lawyer requires a risk-taking personality, but it seems to me that the schools are deliberately marketing to the safe-harbor seekers.

    And, after law school or other big-debt degrees, the students can't place themselves where "anything can happen" quite as well, given that they are constrained by giant debt and that non-law employers are less likely to take a chance on someone with a JD. By Weisman's definition, most law grads are going to be less lucky than average, since they will be forced to play it safer because they are already in massive debt. "Go to law school, decrease your luck for the rest of your life" might be a good slogan.

    I am guessing that some of these "luck-seeking" skills take a while to develop, and a lot of new college grads aren't there yet. They probably will never get there if they have $150k debt by 25.

    1. You know, having that massive debt may mean you can take more risks because you have nothing to lose. There is a sense of freedom by being at rock bottom. I think though you are going to have to have a cash basis business for a while to ensure that Sallie doesn't get its grubby hands on your revenue. Just make sure you accurately report your income to the IRS.

  7. Great post.

    In Con Law, there is an entire section written on this topic. In particular, the book explains why it's so important not to listen to the success stories in law (because they are so rare), and why one should seek out those who went to law school and who no longer work as lawyers, or who never even got a foot in the door in the first place - it is the masses who are at the bottom of the pyramid who are able to explain what things are really like, not the handful of lucky ones who make it to the very top of the pyramid.

    That's one of the big problems with the current range of law school preparation materials - they lure in readers by offering the secrets to reaching the pinnacle of the profession, yet there isn't room at the top anymore (not that there ever was). The likely outcome of a law degree is a low- to average-paid job, career instability, and a net loss from the entire venture, yet this message is just not getting spread widely enough.

    But nobody wants to read a book about the misery and hardships of the overwhelming majority of law graduates who end up with what amounts to a worthless investment, or worse. They want to read about how if they work hard, they'll end up at the tippy top of the profession - which is of course a lie, but it sells books and perpetuates this system based on misinformation, deception, and fraud!

    Which reminds me: we're still only at six reviews on Amazon. If you received a copy of the book after saying you'd happily review it, please do. Reviews and comments are needed to give the book a little more momentum. I imagine that Thane sent out at least ten times more free copies than we've received in reviews, so please try to spend the few minutes it will take to return the favor with a short review. And if you have an Amazon account, you don't even need to buy the book to write a comment - we'd greatly appreciate you visiting Amazon to let people know that this book is an important addition to the pre-law reading list.


    1. I have not received a copy of the book, but I have read enough chunks of it to nod my head along with its authenticity. So now you have at least 7 reviews. All the best.

  8. Great post.

    There is another reason why law grads can't ride out the storm, as lucky people do. This is a profession that absolutely hates resume gaps--and to lawyers, a resume gap means any noticeable chunk of time spent away from the practice of law, not just unemployment.

    So a grad can't say: "Well, I didn't practice law for a couple years after graduating because the job market was beyond awful. But I have been doing lots of intellectually demanding, creative, and remunerative nonlaw things, waiting for this opportunity to float by."

    1. ^^^ Super agreed ^^^

      A gap in a legal resume is death to a legal career. Even a few months spells death for a lawyer.

      To some extent anyway. If you have a gap in your history, but you're currently employed as a lawyer, you can move to other jobs relatively problem free. But if you're unemployed and looking for a law job, you're toast.

      Law firms only want to hire employed lawyers. End of story.

    2. Fill in that gap by saying you worked for yourself. Maybe even create a website holding yourself out as a practicing attorney. Use the address of an executive suite where you can lease space by the hour to meet clients. That might show initiative you will be able to sell to an employer. Nobody has to know that you never had an actual client. Sell yourself.

  9. 'Up or Out ... with no possibility of Up.' What a great quote. It should be the tag line of this movement.

  10. "First of all, the very fact that IBR and similar programs exist indicates the system is broken." An excellent statement illustrating the misalignment of the cost of education and earning ability.

    1. At some point in the course of my education I was taught that whenever you have a redistribution of wealth the people who do the redistributing will get rich.

  11. In "Outliers," Malcolm Gladwell points out that luck plays a big role in any success story. Also, it helps to have strong family, political or family connections. Coming from wealth is a BIG plus.

    So, I guess we should have chosen to have been born to rich parents, right?!?! Of course, the pigs and bastards like to falsely claim that this is a meritocracy. I suppose that helps the cockroaches sleep at night.

  12. The bait and switch scholarship issue should be posted about in more detail because it seems pretty tragic.

    I remember a fellow student from a top College that lost her scholarship after her 1L year at my lower tier law school, and she disappeare, and it was rumored that she had had a "nervous breakdown"

    I wonder what ever became of her.

    1. ^ If YOU ever have a "nervous breakdown," you'll probably move out of your parents' house and start working for a living.

      Aren't you GLAD you didn't join the military when you were still young enough to serve?

      Meanwhile, hell would become a frozen tundra.

  13. I wonder how old Cooley is doing now anyhow? Their market niche seems to be as a law school as last resort. They're the bottom of the barrel, and most everyone knows it, but if you can't get into a better school they are there. But what happens when there are less applicants than there are law school places, and everyone can get into a better school if they want...

  14. Fill in that gap by saying you worked for yourself. Maybe even create a website holding yourself out as a practicing attorney. Use the address of an executive suite where you can lease space by the hour to meet clients. That might show initiative you will be able to sell to an employer. Nobody has to know that you never had an actual client. Sell yourself.


    This method could prove harmful in an interview in many cases. If you put this on your resume, chances are the interviewer is going to be asking you what your actual experience was in terms of clients or cases you handled. At that point you would either have to:

    - Tell the truth and admit that your solo practice was non-existent which could harm you more than if you didn't put it down in the first place due to trying to create a false impression.

    - Basically lie and make up clients or cases you never handled

    If you claim or imply experience you really don't have but that a hiring attorney might value you're going to be call on it. And at the point if you literally never had an actual client and it was just BS that you put on your resume, let's just say that won't help you and might even hurt your credibility.

  15. wow. this probably adds nothing to the conversation but i was actually on that You Are Not So Smart website today. I was filtering my future reading list and decided to google the author and started reading that website. it is a total coincidence. (no sarcasm. the tax season has died down and i was trying to look busy at work)