If your Facebook news feed is anything like mine, by now you’ve probably seen the Slate article encouraging people to “Apply to law school now!”, as well as Joe’s biting reply. The beef has gone back and forth. I’m not going to debate the job numbers; that’s been handled more than ably, and those who are willing to make an honest assessment of the job market already have.
Instead I am going to focus on the human cost of losing the law school lottery….
I understand why Jordan Weissmann wrote the initial article encouraging people to go to law school. Contrarian articles that go against the prevailing logic are more likely to generate buzz and traffic. But be clear, he is not a job counselor and no matter how he packages the numbers he cannot tell you it is a good time for YOU to go to law school. And I can’t either. But I can tell you what it’s like if you aren’t one of the chosen ones that winds up with a Biglaw job. Or if you do but wind up a victim of stealth layoffs. Or, and this is what happened to so many of us, you work in Biglaw for a few years and then have to move on and deal with your debt working at a severely reduced salary — like contract work.
Statistically speaking, if you are seriously considering applying to law school, you are probably in your 20s. You’re probably having a great time while trying to figure out exactly how to navigate adulthood. With that new phase of life you have also made your share of mistakes. And there is no shame in that, mistakes are a part of the growing and learning process. But law school is unlike other decisions you’ve made. If you go to law school and then decide it was the wrong choice for you there is no easy way to get out of it. Educational debt is generally not dischargeable through bankruptcy, so whatever loans you have taken out to go to law school will stay with you through every credit check, mortgage application and even an increasing number of job applications. It is easier to disentangle yourself after marrying that cheating, lying two-timing scumbag then it is to be free and clear of your decision to go to law school.
So, you now have a mountain of debt… what do you do? If you can’t get a good law firm job (or even a bad law firm job) you’ll probably start noticing that the available lawyer jobs are all for contract attorneys. Document review is an increasingly essential (and expensive for clients) part of legal practice, but firms don’t have to hire more associates to deal with it, not when they can get temporary attorneys to fill the gap and then cut them as soon as discovery closes. This is the flaw in Weissmann’s argument that firms are biased toward hiring new graduates: firms are biased toward hiring new graduates to work as associates, but market conditions and technology have changed the business and they don’t need nearly as many associates as they once did. The business needs temps.
Now, I’ve written extensively about the lows of being a contract attorney. So, I’m not going to spend much space re-hashing how hard it is for working moms, the near minimum wage jobs, the difficulties taking vacation as a contract attorney, the lies that you are routinely told as part of your job, the terrible treatment you receive, or the horrible boss that is going to make your life miserable. Suffice it to say, just like no one ever says “I wanna be a junkie when I grow up,” no one ever goes to law school and says “I wanna be a contract attorney when I graduate.”
Let’s also be clear about the stability of Biglaw jobs. No matter how big the firm, or how healthy the summer associate class, Biglaw is still a pyramid scheme. It is designed so that no more than a handful stick around to even have the luxury of being rejected from the partnership. Sure, some voluntarily leave but others are unceremoniously told they have a few months to wrap up their existing matters before they have to leave. And even if they’ve been aggressively paying off their student loans for 5 years, there is still debt that they need to pay off. Maybe they can score another law firm job, but I know more than a few former Biglaw firm associates now exclusively doing the document review they once thought beneath them.
Without the stability of a permanent position, planning the other aspects of your life becomes more challenging. I know a woman who beamed so proudly on January 2nd, showing off the ring her fiancé had given her on New Year’s. Then all the planning she’d been doing for months had to be postponed when the “long term” project we were on ended suddenly. Thinking about taking some paternity leave? You can do that as a contract attorney, you just won’t get paid and have no guarantee of work when it’s time to buy baby that new pair of shoes.
At this point you’re asking yourself, why did I go to law school again — is it because you have a burning desire to see the wheels of the legal system turn up close and personal? Is being a lawyer following your bliss and nothing else will fulfill you? Or do you have less than ideal motives? Is it because you weren’t quite sure what else to do after college, and going to law school seemed like a good way to postpone that decision? Or maybe you tried marketing/PR/publishing for a year or two and found it was miserable and attorney seemed like a decent profession for someone who isn’t great at math. Maybe you were drawn to the prestige and have wanted to put an ESQ after your name ever since Alex Winter introduced himself as Bill S. Preston, Esquire.
I understand the complexities that go into a law school decision; my grandmother still beams proudly when she calls me the family lawyer, nevermind that all I do is click through documents all day long. But know the truth and be honest with yourself before you do something that cannot be easily undone.
Alex Rich is a T14 grad and Biglaw refugee who has worked as a contract attorney for the last 7 years… and counting. If you have a story about the underbelly of the legal world known as contract work, email Alex at firstname.lastname@example.org and be sure to follow Alex on Twitter @AlexRichEsq