Lest people think the law school scam is something people began writing about in the last few years, I present an excellent essay by Patrick Griffin in the Chicago Reader. From 1992. People like Michael Simkovic and Brian Leiter want you to believe that law school was free of any of its present problems during that time. Not so. The scam goes back much further than the 2008 financial crisis. Even back then, Griffin saw the writing on the wall as the system was pumping out many more grads than jobs. But, the scam angle of Griffin's article is secondary to his masterful writing about the malaise many undergraduates with worthless humanities degrees feel and how this feeling can lead one to law school. Griffin also talks about how that malaise carries on into one's legal career and ultimately pushes many people out of the profession.
Griffin originally went to law school to continue ensconcing himself in the warm embrace of academia and to get an education in a "respectable" field. Armed with a traditional humanities education, complete with thinking about the big issues and being motivated to seek answers to problems that lie deep below society's surface. Law school seemed like a good way to continue shielding himself from the real world. As icing on the cake, Griffin was looked at as an admirable young man getting an education in an important field. I would add that most prospective law students strongly believe in their own exceptionalism. The hubris such an attitude creates is what leads most law students to believe they will defy the odds and get that Biglaw job in a major metropolitan area, even if they are paying over fifty thousand dollars a year to study at Cooley. Witness the inanity and self-delusion on "Law School Lemmings".
The working environment in BigLaw back then was almost as bad as it is today. Griffin relates the experiences of a lapsed lawyer, who still had "waking nightmares" about the experience. To read through the description Griffin gives of the BigLaw life, the reader can feel how boxed in and helpless a lot of the people in BigLaw feel. I did a short stint as a doc reviewer at a BigLaw firm. The atmosphere was toxic. I felt tense the moment I stepped in the building. Everyone I dealt with was either harried or vaguely hostile. The "real" lawyers worked from 6am until 10pm or later every night. There was a condo complex opening across the street from the office later that year, and I heard that many of the junior associates were planning on moving in so they could squeeze in even more hours at the office. As I stated in my earlier article about the working environment for attorneys, this is not a normal way to live.
Some lawyers are not jaded and defeated by the system. One of Griffin's bosses at the firm of "ex-hippies" he worked at fit this description. But, Griffin describes how the procedural roadblocks and the way the law wants to thwart action frustrated this woman to no end. She was a person whose only wish was to do good. When Griffin describes what ultimately happened to her, the shock gives way to abject sadness that a system as cynical as our court system is designed to frustrate the efforts of those who want to use their legal education for good and not just as a way to make a buck.
Griffin felt like an "impostor" in the legal profession. The artifice and pretension fostered by the legal profession caused some dissonance in Griffin's mind, and I suspect that this is how a lot of new lawyers feel. Part of this is attributable to the fact that law school doesn't actually teach you anything of value. But a greater part of it is due to societal expectations. I can relate to this part of Griffin's experience. When I graduated, my parents' friends, who until that point regarded me as a kid, began to ask me questions about the various idiotic messes they had maneuvered themselves into. It was expected that as a lawyer, I had a procedural magic wand that would allow me to use an obscure statute to defeat their enemies. I felt a palpable disappointment in them when I would let them know that their illegal and sometimes unethical conduct could not be washed away by a motion filed with the court.
I urge readers to forward Griffin's article to all prospective and current law students. It is not too late for these misguided souls to save themselves the heartbreak and unhappiness the enormous debt load and lack of any practical knowledge brings. If they still decide to go through with it, at least you can rest easy that you did all you could to help before it was too late.