Charles’ story is a good example of the I Did Everything Right journey that so many of us have traveled.
I asked him some questions, he wrote some thoughtful responses, and I have edited it for length (yes, this is edited). As many of you may remember, Charles provided a glimpse of his story in Con Law: Avoiding…Or Beating…the Scam of the Century. I thought that having a more detailed account of his story would be interesting to readers.
Once Upon A Time
I went to law school on the east coast in the early 2000s after thinking about it for a number of years and graduated in 2004. The school, at the time, was classed as a “tier 2” school, ranked around 70-80, give or take, and would be categorized as “regional”… I think it still is, although I haven’t actually checked the most current rankings – it never moves, regardless of how much money it pumps into self-promotion and expansion.
Coming out of law school, I initially worked in a two-lawyer firm in a semi-rural setting, focusing on residential real estate closings. This was a far cry from what I had envisioned myself doing after law school, which was working in transactional biglaw in a major city (a familiar tale). Despite having all the right credentials other than being young – I was a nontraditional student, albeit only by a few years, including being a hair’s breadth from the top 10% of the class, grading onto law review and ending up on the editorial board, winning a national writing competition, and having the paper published in the practice guide for the relevant national specialty bar association - I ended up at graduation with no job offers. I was left scrounging around for anything I could get my hands on until a couple of weeks before I actually took the bar exam.
After two years of working for $45K with no benefits and few prospects (and $45K with no benefits, once benefits are paid for out of pocket for the wife and kids, leaves precious little, including none for paying student loans which were deferred for that entire time), I was given an extremely lucky break. I had been working on a minor commercial real estate closing for one of our clients. One of the few benefits of working in a small law setting was that I was handling these kinds of transactions solo very early, although my competence was certainly questionable at the time. The closing itself was held at the downtown office of a medium-sized and extremely good law firm, and afterwards one of the partners approached me and asked if I would be interested in coming aboard based upon my handling of the matter we had all been working on. They had been looking for an associate to join the practice group, and I happened to be in the right place at the right time. I jumped at the chance, and this led to a pay raise of about $30K plus real benefits. Life was pretty good at that point, and I thought I was on the right track as a lawyer.
Although I didn’t particularly enjoy the residential real estate closings I had been working on for the prior two years, they did have a certain repetitiveness, predictability, simplicity and lack of conflict that suited me. Moving into a high-end commercial real estate practice as a junior(ish) associate was the other end of the spectrum; everything was always new, unpredictable, complex and full of conflict – even conflict between parties on the same side. It was as if the entire system thrived upon conflict, as more conflict equaled more work and more billable hours.
I hated waking up and realizing that I had to go to the office. I hated being at the office because it was problem after problem. I hated leaving the office because I knew that I would worry about all the calls and emails and problems that would be waiting for me the next morning. And it wasn’t just me. The stress levels of the others in the firm were equally high, and I’m sure my boss wasn’t exactly having it easy. It just seemed that constant stress was something that was accepted by everyone, a kind of nagging stress that just never went away. There were no breaks, and if there ever looked like a time when the stress levels could potentially diminish, someone almost without question stepped in to stir the pot. Associate turnover was high.
…I hated waking up and realizing that I had to go to the office. I hated being at the office because it was problem after problem. I hated leaving the office because I knew that I would worry about all the calls and emails and problems that would be waiting for me the next morning. And it wasn’t just me. The stress levels of the others in the firm were equally high, and I’m sure my boss wasn’t exactly having it easy. It just seemed that constant stress was something that was accepted by everyone, a kind of nagging stress that just never went away. There were no breaks, and if there ever looked like a time when the stress levels could potentially diminish, someone almost without question stepped in to stir the pot. Associate turnover was high.
During the entire five years of my time in those two law firms, I cannot remember one day I actually enjoyed my work. Not one.
After the Recession
I had nothing to fall back on. I thought about trying teaching, but even that was a long shot given the economic conditions at the time where everybody and their brother wanted to seek refuge in the classroom. To cover up the shame that I was now unemployed, and to bide my time, I started my own firm (sound even more familiar?) I found an office to rent in an office-share arrangement, bought a cheap computer and printer, supplies, had cards made up, spent weeks writing announcements, letters, making calls, advertising (paid and unpaid), having files transferred to me from my old firm, arranging meetings with clients and friends, spending money on lunches, etc. After literally pounding the pavement non-stop for months, I gave up – I had not one piece of paying business. It was an absolute money-pit.
So I called up a few doc review recruiters and ended up working in a doc review mill for one of the large firms in town for a few months, making $25 per hour, no benefits, and still trying to get my own firm off the ground at the same time. $25 per hour, no benefits, with seven years of higher education, a professional degree, and five years of decent experience as a lawyer. I was making more than that before I even set foot in college, let alone law school.
It’s worth noting that my two lucky breaks – getting the medium-law job and getting my government job – were exactly that; lucky breaks. I could not have predicted getting them, I cannot give advice on what I did right or wrong, because I just have no idea. There was no planning, no networking, no informational interviews or LinkedIn or Facebook. Plain luck played a far bigger role than any career advisor could ever have predicted.
My debt remains higher than it was when I graduated, thanks to accrued interest and Sallie Mae’s fees for countless loan forbearances during the long lean times.
Did I know the risks? It would be easy to say that no, I didn’t know the risks. But I did. I just thought I knew better, or that I was a special snowflake who would succeed. What’s worse, I did succeed in law school terms and still ended up without a decent job in the end. Lawyers I spoke to warned me off, some jokingly, some seriously, but they were successful and employed. The guide books I read were all universally upbeat and bullish about the prospects for lawyers. The economy was reasonable. It seemed like a fair game to play at the time.
It’s just that all of this advice was dwarfed by the immense law school advertising machine; the statistics, the surveys, the salary data, the carefully-crafted language, all cleverly presented in a way designed to stir the imagination of applicants. How can one ignore average salary statistics – real numbers! – and instead believe a lawyer who tells you do avoid the profession, but who drives a new BMW and has been practicing for two decades? The only thing I really didn’t calculate was the extraordinary, outright misinformation that law schools were publishing about the success of their graduates. When I was applying to law schools (and even when I was first writing about law school afterwards), the idea that law schools would lie was way off anybody’s radar.
A Note for Those Few Readers Who May Remember Charles from Other Websites:
I started Nontradlaw back in 1999 as a means for people like me to discuss the ins and outs of law school, free from the buffoonery, filth, and aggression that pervaded the typical law school discussion boards back then, and which still pervades many of them today. Law applicants – can’t take them anywhere. My role in the site was as the administrator, and although the very early versions of the site have been lost as the site changed formats, I have always taken a very hands-off role and every relevant thread that has ever been posted – except one – is still there.
I think the issue many scambloggers had with some of my posts is that I warned against taking a binary approach to the issues; to me, law school has never been an absolute scam, and it still isn’t. I think that this is now the commonly-held wisdom; even today, dybbuk has written a post in which he acknowledges that the T13 schools all boast over 75% employment, and that the chances of getting a well-paid lawyer job from those schools is very high. That sums up what my position has been all along – not every part of the system is a scam, and painting with a finer brush is necessary to take this debate to the next level.
Just one of the original scambloggers remains – Nando over at Third Tier Reality. The rest (as far as I know) have all but disappeared off the face of the earth, most with no explanation as to why they decided to give up the fight. And I’ll be the first to admit that in some of my posts on my blog, Nando was used as an example of what I thought was wrong (and still do think is wrong) with the original premise of the scamblogs. It’s just too extreme, and it discourages open debate. I did not write particularly favorable things about his approach to the fight, many of which I would, in hindsight, have not written – clearly, he’s a key player in the movement, he’s dedicated, he’s stood the test of time, but hindsight is 20/20. His readership seems large, and while I still don’t agree that his approach is the best way forward, it’s working for some people. So Nando, this is my olive branch. You’ve proven me wrong.
It’s also worth noting that while anyone can start a blog and go on the record as being part of the anti-law school movement in a matter of minutes, writing a (good) book can take years. The work on Con Law started four, almost five years ago, but was largely unseen by the general public. Writing a book tends to take place in private. What appears to be a sudden change of heart is really just the public end result of opinions that were held for many years prior.
Repaying those Loans?
It’ll take me another twenty-eight years, but I’m making the payments on the longest payment plan, so obviously they will be done at some distant point in the future. Anyone who is making their payments regularly under a plan of defined length will pay their loans off eventually – that’s how loans work. But I have been out of law school for almost a decade, and only recently started paying my loans properly. Overall, I will have been under the burden of student loans for close to forty years when all is said and done
Student loans are a trap, and they have been carefully tweaked by lobbyists to be exactly that. Large fees, penalties, mortgage-sized debt, long repayment plans, forbearances and deferrals, odd interest rates. It’s all a means to keep students paying their loans each and every month, year after year after year. Without regular payments from existing borrowers (and a regular supply of new borrowers), the lenders’ business model fails. It’s like Philip Morris – they need new smokers every year to stay in business, and work hard to make their products addictive while masking the dangers.
I was in a nightmare of debt from law school – credit cards racked up, huge student loans, slowly sinking. And it took a mammoth effort to pay the consumer debt (accumulated on top of student debt during law school) to get to the point at which we can now start to think about paying the student debt. With a stable income and with an almost-mindless, robotic approach to making sure that you live within your budget – a budget that includes the minimums on the student loans – it will be paid off.
But yes, for all intents and purposes, my loans will be hanging over me for the rest of my useful life, the same situation many of us are in. And that’s as good as never paying them off from a practical and psychological standpoint. I consider myself average for student debt; making it, but barely. Some have less debt and are making payments on a more aggressive schedule. Some are beyond the point of no return, and it’s those grads who really need to speak up and get the message out that something is wrong.
…on a practical level, the general public really doesn’t like lawyers. I imagine that law graduates are at the bottom of the list for assistance, and our best bet as a movement could well be to take a seat at the wider student loan reform table, along with graduates of all disciplines, rather than trying to carve out our own path to student loan relief.
But I am starting to see changes in the way activists are organizing. Sites like Outside the Law School Scam, for instance, where ten or so writers, all of whom (sorry – there’s no good way of saying this) would have very small, quiet, and insignificant voices if writing alone (or who would probably spend most of their time in-fighting) have come together and are generating some sensible, thoughtful, and widely read pieces on these subjects. Standing together makes us far stronger than our component parts, especially when the tendency in the past has to be towards attacking each other over minor differences rather than attacking the major problems with the system that we all generally agree upon.
I decided to conclude with my favorite excerpt, which exemplifies the wide destructive path of the law school scam. For many of us and our families, we saw law school as the stepping stone where a child of a lower-middle class family could step into an upper-middle class life by working hard and investing a lot of time and effort into “schooling.” Yet, for most of us, law school actually might end up having the reverse intergenerational effect:
…not only do I not come from a wealthy family, my kids won’t either. They are now teenagers, and they probably don’t even remember a time when law school and student debt wasn’t crushing the life out of me and my wife. At this rate, law school and student debt will be the reason my grandkids won’t get the full financial attention they should either.
That’s a wrap!
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Con Law: Avoiding...or Beating...the Scam of the Century (The Real Student's Guide to Law School and the Legal Profession), by Charles Cooper and Thane Messinger