Depressing stuff

William Brewer Jr.

Take it from those of us on the frontline of economic distress in America. This could very well be the next debt bomb for the U.S. economy.

William E. Brewer Jr., president of the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, commenting on a new national survey of 860 bankruptcy lawyers. Surveyed lawyers expressed concern about the state of student debt in America, reporting that they are already seeing “what feels too much like what they saw before the foreclosure crisis crashed onto the national scene.”

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, more and more law school graduates are trying to seek bankruptcy protection from their mountains of student loan debt. Bankruptcy? Really?

Now, we know that reading comprehension is tested on the LSAT, but apparently, once students complete the law school entrance exam, that skill goes right out the window. How do we know? Because law school graduates, who freely signed up for student loans as law students, are now trying to shirk their repayment responsibilities. They are the 99% (of people who sign on the dotted line and think nothing of it until it’s time to face the consequences).

All the documents these law school graduates signed and claimed to have read and understood prior to accepting their student loans — well, they had some words to say about bankruptcy. Important words. Here are some of them, pulled from my very own master promissory note:

We will discharge (forgive) your loan if: [y]our loan is discharged in bankruptcy. However, federal student loans are not automatically discharged if you file for bankruptcy. In order to have your loan discharged in bankruptcy, you must prove to the bankruptcy court that repaying the loan would cause undue hardship.

Aww, you think you’ve got an undue hardship, precious little snowflake? Well, think again….

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I’ve never been a fan of U.S. News obsessing over how much money law schools spend on their facilities. I feel it artificially inflates the cost of going to law school in a digital age where so much of what you need can be found online.

But there are some things that you can’t do online. Not yet at least. Like going to the bathroom. Perhaps if Steve Jobs were still alive, the iPoop and the Waterless iPoop would be just around the corner. But we were robbed of that great man.

Maybe all you need to know about the difference between top law schools and not-so-hot law schools really does come down to toilets. At Harvard, they name them after rich alumni. At North Dakota Law School, they barely have them….

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Insert face of law school student above.

Instead of hiring a new professor to teach Cross-Cultural Comparison of Masturbatory Prohibitions, I want law schools to start paying six-figure salaries to the people they hire to work in their career services offices. I want U.S. News to include the number of CSO professionals and money spent on CSOs as data points in their law school rankings. I want deans to start asking rich alumni if they would like to donate to help fight mental disability and extreme laziness in career services offices.

Because honestly, the lack of effort put in by career services professionals at the nation’s law schools really seems to be out of hand. Maybe they’ve just been collectively beaten down by the years of terrible job prospects and the throngs of students in need of help. Maybe they believe that there really is nothing they can do, and they are significantly more worried about protecting their own jobs than finding jobs for eager law students. Maybe the lack of institutional support and respect for their efforts makes them feel like second-class citizens whenever the Professor of Impractical Studies That Serve No Clients walks into the room.

I don’t know why we’re here, but when you can’t even trust your CSO to effectively cull Symplicity to remove stupid and insulting job prospects like the ones below, it’s time to change the entire approach to law school career services….

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Not shown: the empty bottle of Jack in this guy's carrel.

Last week, I derisively noted that legal blogs were pushing a silly story in U.S. News about great careers that you can pursue with a law degree. No matter how bad legal hiring gets, law schools like pushing the “you can do anything with a law degree” angle, based on the anecdotal evidence of those who were lucky enough to parlay their J.D. degrees into something non-legal.

Obviously, I’ve got some anecdotes of my own.

But here’s a job, a real live job, that’s actually being offered to law students as we speak (or type). If you really want to know “what you can do with a law degree,” take a freaking look….

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Meet the new Biglaw. Same as the old Biglaw.

As we mentioned in Morning Docket, the Wall Street Journal has a good article about how various recession-era cutbacks have become entrenched in Biglaw. If you have been paying attention or are a current law student, you know the issues: smaller entry-level classes, stagnant salaries, and a partnership track long enough to make a first-year Ph.D. student laugh.

Basically, if you were already a Biglaw partner when the recession hit, you are likely to say, “What recession?” Your profits per partner have probably gone up, despite the general economy’s woes. Other industries use economic downturns to retool their business models and develop new ways to compete. Not Biglaw. It appears that Biglaw has used the recession to fire a bunch of people, exclude new partners, and keep associate salaries and bonuses at recessionary levels. They haven’t developed a new business model; they’ve just found a way to reduce the costs of the old business model.

Biglaw partner: It’s great work if you can get it. The WSJ even found one partner who was so busy loving himself and his life that he appears to be totally oblivious to the struggles of everybody else…

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Despite the media echo chamber saying that the economy is improving, it’s obviously still tough to find work. Especially for lawyers. Everyone says you’re supposed to have a can-do attitude, but we sometimes prefer to think about all the things that you can’t do as an attorney.

Included in that list is getting a paying job at the U.S. Department of Justice. The DOJ has had a hiring freeze in place for a year now. We’ve heard reports of some thawing — i.e., selected parts of the DOJ receiving authorization to fill a handful of priority positions — but, for the most part, there are hardly any paying lawyer jobs to be had in that division of government.

Instead, U.S. Attorney’s Offices around the country have been posting unpaid Special Assistant United States Attorney positions for some time now. We covered them last May. My colleague (and former assistant U.S. attorney) David Lat defended the SAUSA gigs somewhat, arguing that the nonpaying jobs might not be as bad as they seem. It’s fun, exciting work, and it provides valuable experience and serious professional credibility.

There is a crucial, ominous difference between then and now, though. Previous SAUSA jobs were generally aimed at entry-level or fairly junior attorneys. Now we’ve got a recent opening that’s asking for more.…

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There’s a really funny post up on Constitutional Daily, in which the protagonist — who holds a J.D. from NYU Law and was laid off from Biglaw during the recession — recounts his inability to secure a job at Target. It got me thinking of that other great lie that law schools tell incoming law students: “Yada yada, you can do anything with a law degree… also, I’d like to interest you in partial ownership of the Brooklyn Bridge.”

But many J.D. holders have found out the hard way that holding a law degree only opens doors to “law” jobs. They aren’t degrees of general utility.

If anything, they close more doors than they open….

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Kyle McEntee (left) and Patrick Lynch (right), co-founders of Law School Transparency (LST).

Late last year, plaintiffs’ lawyer David Anziska pledged to make 2012 “the year of law school litigation.” Anziska, who’s currently spearheading efforts to sue law schools over allegedly misleading employment statistics, told my colleague Staci Zaretsky that he and his team members “want to sue as many law schools as we can to bring them into the fray.”

That’s all well and good — for plaintiffs’ lawyers, and for news outlets like ours seeking juicy stories to cover. But there are other ways to achieve reform. So here’s another thought: Could 2012 instead be the year of law school transparency? Transparency achieved voluntarily, by law schools coming forward on their own to share comprehensive data about how their graduates are faring in the job market?

In the weeks since we wrote about the University of Chicago Law School providing very detailed employment data about its recent graduating classes, based on our interview with Dean Michael Schill, we’ve heard from deans, professors, alumni and students of other law schools, all with similar messages. They believe that their schools, like Chicago, are also transparent about graduate employment outcomes — and they want to be recognized for it.

This chorus of “me too!” messages raises a promising possibility: Is law school transparency becoming, for lack of a better word, “cool”? Will honesty about employment data become the hot new trend for U.S. legal education?

Perhaps. But there’s still a long way to go, as shown by a report issued this week by Law School Transparency….

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Don’t shoot me, I’m just the messenger. I bring tidings of woe not because I’m trying to rob you of your right to pursue a legal education; I’m trying to help you. Call me Elie Stormcrow.

Actually, today The Atlantic is the messenger reminding you of the serious financial peril involved in starting a legal career. The recession might be over but the recovery hasn’t happened for all. And we’re not just talking about the Occupy Wall Street people. No, no, things remain pretty bad for lawyers and bankers. Here’s the money quote from the Atlantic: “In 2011, finance, insurance, and law were the three primarily white-collar professions that managed to shed workers, even as the rest of the economy trudged forward through a slow recovery.”

Yeah folks, even in 2011, the legal economy was still shedding jobs. But it’s not like law schools were spitting out fewer graduates, so… you do the math.

Here, the Atlantic has put things in a fancy chart. Pictures people, it’ll be like an LSAT game: how many people made a terrible investment in higher education?

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