Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Worst Advice Ever

Browsing through some recent law school news articles, I came across this unusual item: an advice column in the Times Union (Albany). Have a read and see what you think.

DEAR JEANNE & LEONARD: A good friend's daughter is applying to law school. I've known "Jess" most of her life, and I'm familiar enough with her academic record to know that she's not going to get into a top-tier school. While of course there's no disgrace in this, the unfortunate truth is that these days, graduates of the kind of law school Jess can hope to attend generally have difficulty finding jobs that pay enough to justify the mountain of debt they've accumulated while in law school. (The market for the services of graduates of second- and third-tier institutions has, in recent years, been drying up. I know because I'm an attorney, and I suspect that Jess and her parents are unaware of the situation.) While I don't want to discourage Jess, I'd hate to see her end up owing $150,000 or more on a student loan that, at the salary she's likely to be offered when she graduates, could take 15 to 20 years to repay. Should I speak up, or not?
Hesitant, San Francisco Bay Area

DEAR HESITANT: Perhaps Jess' parents plan to help with the tuition. Not that borrowing less makes law school a better investment on a dollars-and-cents basis. But it may be worth it to them to see their daughter receive a professional degree, especially if it's in a field that particularly interests her.

In any event, what you should do is wait to see if anyone in Jess' family asks you about law school or the practice of law. If someone does, you can encourage him or her to investigate the job offers that graduates of the schools to which Jess is applying are receiving -- you can and should, in other words, point them toward reality. But it's not up to you to tell them you think that law school is a bad investment for Jess.


Time for a little advice from agony uncle Charles:
DEAR JEANNE & LEONARD: Are you kidding me? You’re seriously recommending that a young college grad spend $150,000 on a worthless JD because her parents might want “to see their daughter receive a professional degree”?  Do you not understand what terrible advice that is? Do you really think that this is all about the parents and how proud they will be when boasting that their daughter has gone to law school?  The poor girl is not only going to spend a fortune on this foolish endeavor, but also she’s about to waste three of the most important years of her life, or probably at least ten, maybe twenty, if she’s borrowing money for law school.  She's about to ruin her life, and you’re encouraging this because it’ll make the parents proud?  Trust me, a law degree is nothing to be proud of these days. A JD from Harvard? Yeah, okay, that’s impressive, but this young lady isn’t going anywhere near schools of that caliber. She’s going to an average school at best.

You mention that it might also be worth the investment – and I use that word very loosely indeed – if law is “a field that particularly interests her.” Look, the work that lawyers do day in, day out, is utterly tedious. Mindnumbing in most cases. It’s busywork, paper-pushing, form-filling. Nobody finds that interesting. Literally nobody.  There are some people who tolerate it, but few lawyers love their work. Those that do, they graduated from top law schools and get the handful of real-life interesting law jobs available, or they are extremely lucky, well-connected exceptions from lower-ranked schools. From an average law school, this girl will end up either unemployed, performing document review, slumming it in a moribund small firm, or hacking away in some insurance defense mill, none of which is stable, well-paid, or intellectually-satisfying. The interesting stuff, like arguing appeals, working as an AUSA, or leading complex international transactions? Not a chance.

From a financial perspective, it’s just about the worst way one can spend $150,000. Her salary post-JD will likely be no more than it was pre-JD. Advancement opportunities (and salary raises) will be non-existent, whereas in many other careers there is at least the chance that once dues are paid, there’s some advancement and financial reward. She will struggle to pay her student loans. The big firms that pay the big bucks won’t touch her.

You know what, associating the word “investment” with law school just needs to stop.

Your advice is pretty much this: If you see someone making the stupidest decision of their life, just shut up about it until you’re asked, because it’s far better to let someone ruin their future than speak up and offer your expertise.  Does this apply to other situations too? If I were to see a toddler playing with a kitchen knife, I guess I shouldn’t tell the parents; just let the kid sever an artery?  Teenager drinks a six-pack and decides to drive to the gas station for some chips?  Guess I should just butt out of that one too – no, not just butt out, but give him $20 and ask him for a packet of gum while he’s there?

Hesitant in San Francisco, you’ve been given some truly bad advice. Don’t let Jeanne and Leonard stop you offering your wisdom to the family.  Here’s what you need to do. Go to the girl, tell her in no uncertain terms that she’s got to do her homework before considering spending any money trying to enter a dying profession. Tell the parents the same – don’t hold back either. There are clearly thousands of kids right now who are not getting the right information about how badly law school will ruin their futures. It’s plain wrong to sit back and let it happen. Point them all in the direction of this site and tell them to take note.

Law will still be waiting for her in a couple of years if she tries something else and fails, or if she really does have an unquenchable thirst for legal work.  There's no rush; the market is still in turmoil, and I can guarantee that in a few years, law school will be cheaper and better than it is today.

I hate to hawk my own wares, but I’d happily send the parents and the girl a copy of Con Law. Next time I’m in San Fran, I’d also happily buy them all lunch and explain in great detail what a terrible mistake they are on the verge of making.

For anyone who encounters applicants or parents who aren’t getting the message, there are now many sections of Con Law available for free – a full ten sample chapters of material.

The rule for law school is the same as the general rule for life: good people don't stand idly by and do or say nothing when they see bad things happening.

Charles Cooper is the author, along with Thane Messinger, of “Con Law: Avoiding...or Beating...the Scam of the Century (The Real Student's Guide to Law School and the Legal Profession)”, in addition to being the moderator at Nontradlaw.net and the author of “Later in L ife Lawyers”.  He can be contacted atcharlescooperauthor@gmail.com


  1. In the course of tracking down over 60 heirs in a probate estate recently, I got a mom on the phone, and heir, and after sorting that out, she mentioned that her daughter was considering law school in Iowa. "Applications are down, the school is really encouraging students to enroll, it is easier to get it…" I was swamped at the moment, so I was noncommittal.

    I called back a week later. "Mom, this is probably a phone call from a lawyer you don't want to hear…" "Go ahead…"

    "Ok, so, will my share of the inheritance cover law school?" [Good question.] "No," I said. I gave her the advice you propose giving above. I don't know what the daughter decided to do.

    This has been my approach since about 1982, and will remain so.

  2. What a coincidence.


    1. Or not.

      It's been a slow season for law school news stories, and the Times Union fluff piece is just about the only thing that's shown up in my regular Gooogle news search under "law school".

  3. You nailed it with your final sentence, Charles. Good people - including relatives - don't stand by idly and do nothing when they see bad things happening. These advice columnists are unmitigated morons. Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Shwarz should be ashamed to offer such nonsense. By their "logic," if you see a little child being beaten by a parent, you should keep your mouth shut unless the child comes to you and tells you about the abuse.


    "Money Manners

    By Jeanne Fleming & Leonard Schwarz

    Cheapskate friend? Freeloading brother-in-law? Spendthrift adult child who needs yet another bailout? Tricky and emotionally charged dilemmas like these — dilemmas that involve money, friends and family — are ubiquitous. In Money Manners, Jeanne Fleming and Leonard Schwarz offer smart, witty, down-to-earth advice on how to deal with them."

    Yes, they offer "award-winning financial advice," huh?!?! Hell, you wonder if they receive cash from the law school swine.

  4. "Jess" should research the matter herself. She's not a toddler or a teenager. The information is out there uncensored and available 24/7. I wish I had that when considering law school.

    1. Remember that (1) she's been reasonably successful in school; she has no clue that That Will Change; (2) the law schools and her own school's career center has been hyping law school; (3) her family is hyping law school; (4) just about all of society is hyping law school.

    2. Correct. Even with better information being "out there", I still think there is still too much clamor to blame 22-year-olds for bad educational choices, rather than the 55-year-old scammers who perpetrate surgary-plum-fairy dreams on our youth in the first instance.

      ScamDeans and LawProfs, I'm looking at you (and your glistening fangs).

    3. "Jess should research the matter herself."

      Agreed. But at the same time, there's no reason this in-the-know family friend should refrain from approaching her with some frank advice.

    4. Duped, your fine comment reminds me of how Lincoln justified deporting the pro-Confederate Ohio Democrat Clement Vallandigham to Canada during the Civil War:

      “Must I shoot a simple-minded soldier boy who deserts, while I must not touch a hair of a wiley agitator who induces him to desert? I think that in such a case, to silence the agitator, and save the boy, is not only constitutional, but, withal, a great mercy.”

  5. Umm:

    "the work that lawyers do day in, day out, is utterly tedious. Mindnumbing in most cases. It’s busywork, paper-pushing, form-filling. Nobody finds that interesting. Literally nobody. There are some people who tolerate it, but few lawyers love their work. "

    Actually, I love my work - I enjoy practicing law - seriously. Now what I do is pretty odd compared to most lawyers - but I know other lawyers that love their work. They are the ones I would tend to recommend.

    You know the line about law is a vocation - (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vocation) - well it is true - you will be miserable if you decide to go to law school for a "professional degree." You need to actually be interested in things that the vast majority of people find a "yawn." You need to find it important to be able to say - why IP licenses include a disclaimer that says the license "makes no warranty of validity or enforceability of the patents." You have to be able to ask the important question (as I did today) of whether "and" makes the subsequent clause dependent/subordinate (a lot of money might ride on that.) You need to be willing to learn about AIDS tests, Belgian licensing law, the TTBE - and so on. If this stuff bores you .... well, don't go to law school.

    I know I sound like a pedantic prick - but as a lawyer you are dealing with people's lives. I remember a CEO blowing up over a law firm that ripped his company off (I was involved in suing them - and yes it is a big firm) - they started in deposition complaining about a suit for $9-11 million in overcharges (the poor partners in mega-firm) - and he hit the ceiling "do you know how many layoffs we had to make to come up with that money, 100 people lost their jobs and they make a lot less than ...." I was a GC - I know what happens when a company has to make up losses.

    This stuff matters - it is boring to those who don't care. It is the wrong job to take for those who find it boring. I increasingly think no one should be allowed to go to law school without a year or two as a paralegal to decide, is this what they can do, find interesting - can they realise that it does matter

    1. MacK, you sound like one of the few who has landed on soft ground. But as you mention, I think you're absolutely right that whether one enjoys a career in law or not depends heavily on whether one is actually interested in the things that lawyers do all day. Sadly, it attracts far too many people who have no interest in real life law.

      I think there's a huge measure of luck involved too. I went to law school utterly fascinated by immigration law (after some undergrad time spent working with immigration law matters - the day-to-day paper shuffling - and I loved it), but ended up working in real estate law. Law grads these days can rarely enjoy the luxury of picking and choosing their practice areas; it's more a case of taking the first proper paying job that comes along and thanking god that they're not still unemployed. The subject matter often dictates whether someone is interested in the work they're performing. I was truly happy working with the immigration system and the clients it attracted, but switch the documentation from visa forms to real estate forms, and switch the clients from immigrants to real estate developers, and suddenly it's a never-ending nightmare.

    2. MacK, I too enjoy it. I only wish that I could find work in the field.

      Old Guy

    3. Charles -

      The ground was decidedly hard when I graduated in 1992 - no job because BigLaw stopped offering in 1990-91 - I did get two offers for satellite offices of two major law firms - both offers evaporated when the offices collapsed - and in income terms it was lean for a few years. Even today, well we have our own firm - and that is pretty tough ground - always looking for business - dealing with clients demands - you try to never turn anything away because you need to keep the pipeline full. Two of us bring in most of the business - and one worried night I added up how many dependents we had, including all the children, supported others, etc. and it was around 20 who depend on us bringing in the business.

      You are right, there is a huge amount of luck - and a massive amount of credentialism in legal practice. I have constantly been amazed at the complete idiots - the incompetents - I run into with Harvard, Todai, Oxbridge, Yale on their resumés. There was a discussion yesterday [with] where the point was made that someone whom went to say Florida International is much more likely to be an ass than someone who went to HYS, Oxbridge, Todai - but that the latter do graduate bigger asses who because of their credentials get into jobs that are behind them. Consider the trope that Ted Cruz is intelligent, based almost entirely it seems on his been a Harvard Law grad - but experienced lawyers know many many clowns with the exact same credential.

      Charles - I do not know if you ever had to deal with "screamers," I have a few times - in my experience a huge proportion of them are those who hate practicing law - who find it tedious and boring, but stuck to the law because - mostly top law school graduates - it paid well.

    4. Why would someone from fit be more likely to be an ass? That makes absolutely no sense to me. It has been my experience that those who see themselves as elite are generally the bigger asses.

    5. ALL professions have a huge degree of tediousness in their day-to-day routine. Starting-off doing document review is not a problem (even if you do it for a few years), provided that eventually you will move-on.

      The problem with the legal profession is the LACK OF JOBS, thus making it impossible to move-up from document review. In other words, document review and other menial work is not something new lawyers start-off doing and eventually move-away from. Rather, it has become something lawyers do for their whole careers and should be grateful for, because even these menial jobs are getting scarce.

      Thus, with law practice today, we have the unfortunate situation where relatively smart people cannot advance. Assuming, of course, that they actually do work, since so many law school graduates never work as lawyers.

      Also, regarding Ted Cruz -- other than a mere meme his opponents throw around, what is it about him that would suggests he is anything but brilliant? Aside form his impressive resume (which includes clerking for the Chief Justice), there is also the testimony of his former Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz. And he's still just 43 !!

  6. Sure, Jess should research the matter herself. She should also be rejected by every law skule to which she is foolish enough to apply. But we know perfectly well that neither of those things is going to happen.

    Jess, whatever her merits may be, is an intellectual mediocrity who a few decades ago probably would not even have considered law school and most likely would not have been admitted anywhere if she had had the hardihood to apply. Nowadays, however, every Jess is scrambling to set herself apart from the great masses of Jesses by getting a degree (and the hackademic touts are only too happy to oblige). If Jess is under thirty, as she almost certainly is, she has been acculturated to believe that she is special, that high station is her birthright, that she shall have wealth and glory irrespective of her abilities and achievements. In such conceits is steeped our Jess of the d'Urbervilles—"only a peasant by position, not by nature", but a peasant all the same.

    The Dear Abby wannabes are actually right about one thing: if Jess's parents are prepared to pay for the whole thing just for the supposed distinction of having a daughter with a "professional" degree, we shouldn't stop them. The degree in that case is not an investment but an article of conspicuous consumption.

    Old Guy

    1. You're being too hard on Jess. A few decades ago, joining the middle class wasn't as difficult as it is today. I hope the family friend speaks up.

    2. Today Jess doesn't have the option of joining the middle class a few decades ago, so I don't see your point.

    3. 8:58 PM here, and the grammar police are out in force! Yes, I should have constructed a better sentence, but I think you do see my point.

  7. You can tell from this column that the national conversation has changed from "Is law school a good idea?" to "How aggressive should one be in saying that law school is a bad idea?"

    The fact that law school (outside the top tier) is a bad idea is seen as a given, and the only question remaining is when and how to say something to an acquaintance. That's a sea change in how law school is spoken of by non-lawyers. Really, this column shows how far we have come in a short time.