Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Flawed Law School Model

I have referenced the law school "scam" and the failed/flawed law school model many times, but now I think I should discuss in further detail what exactly I mean when I reference these.  Here are my thoughts (in no pariclar order of importance). 

Law school does not prepare students to be small business owners.

At orientation, there were many speakers who described the rigors of a legal education, the stress that comes with applying to the Bar, the "many doors" that JD's open, all peppered with jokes about the fancy cars that most lawyers drive. What none of these speakers mentioned is that most attorneys, especially in the current job market, are basically on their own. They did not tell me that career services would not help those students who were ranked below the top 33% of their classes, and would instead tell them they would need to hang out their own shingles. (True story: an unfortunate classmate of mine had a 3.0 GPA, and was ranked just in the middle of the class. She was paying out-of-state tuition, and had racked up $160,000 in loans, when she went to career services for help in finding a job. She was told to hang out her own shingle, even though she had no business training and the law school did not offer a course in operating one's own practice.) I was lucky enough to find a decent-paying job upon graduation, but if I had not, I would have been in the same boat as many of my classmates, forced to run a small business with no training and no idea how to even practice law.

If you are considering law school, I implore you to first ask yourself whether you know how to run a business, and if so, do you think you can run that business successfully when you do not even know if you are competent to offer your services?

Which brings me to my next point.

Law school does not prepare students for the actual practice of law.

I completed an internship during the summer after my 2L year at the DA's office. This provided me with courtroom experience, but most of my fellow students were not as fortunate. Most law students take classes that involve listening to lectures, reading case law and statutes, and maybe conducting an exercise or two in oral argument. None of which matter when you are faced with an actual client sitting across your desk.

Even with my valuable experience of representing the State in the courtroom for a few weeks, I still had no idea how to conduct a client meeting, or how to structure a fee agreement. Or even how to go about suing someone in the state in which I practiced. All of that knowledge came later, after I had the opportunity to work with more experienced attorneys who showed me the ropes and who made me calendar deadlines properly.

This is a critical failure of the current law school model. No one knows what they're doing upon graduation. New graduates are in need of mentors, but oftentimes they end up on their own, and they end up failing or quitting or moving back in with their parents because they cannot develop enough business to support themselves.

Here is a valuable law school exercise that I will provide you at no charge: go to the Supreme Court's website and read through some of the opinions. Then go to your state legislature's website, or your city/municipality's website and read a chapter of statutes or ordinances. Pick out a topic that interests you like criminal law, or insurance regulation. Once you have finished reading your cases and statutes/ordinances, ask yourself what you would tell a client who was arrested, or who felt he had been defrauded by his insurance company. How would you tell him to proceed? What would you tell him you could do for him? How much would you charge him? What timeline would you provide for resolving his case? Do you think he will prevail?

If you feel that after reading the materials I assigned you, you could confidently answer these questions, then law school is for you. There are two reasons I say this: you are either a) a genius who will be picked up by one of the big firms and you will not have to worry about figuring things out yourself, or b) so delusional that you probably do not have the mental faculties required to complete a JD, so you will never have to worry about practicing on your own.

The study of law is nothing like actual law practice.

This flows from my previous point that law school does not prepare one for the practice of law. In law school, students partake in the Socratic method. You read a bunch of materials and the professor drills you on them, questions everything you say. You must defend your position on a topic that is almost always interesting and has vast political implications. At the end of the semester, the professor will read your essay exam and provide you with a grade that reflects how well he or she believes you have retained the lessons imparted during the past few months.

In reality, when you practice law, most of the time you will be sitting alone in a room, keeping track of billable hours, and drafting mind-numbing research memos. One after the other. Westlaw and/or Lexis will become your best friends and worst enemies. Your research topics will most likely involve issues that no one cares about, save for the client. Can Janie sue her classmate for spilling soda at prom, which caused her to slip and fall and sprain her ankle? What is Fred's recourse when his insurance company offers him less than he had anticipated for the car that he totaled? Can Pam get a restraining order on her ex-boyfriend even though he has never hit her, but her parents think he is controlling? If Pam gets that restraining order, how will that affect her ex's child support obligations or custody arrangement?

Oh, and did I mention the best part? No one will read these memos. You see, your supervising attorney does not have time to read them because he or she tees off at 3:00 sharp. He or she would simply like to know the answer to the question, in 10 seconds or less, and will then direct you to file the memo away, just in case the client ever questions the bill. That memo will serve as proof that actual work was performed for the client. But no one will grade you on it. No one will tell you how awesome your case law synthesis turned out or want to speak with you further about the greater implications of the answers to these legal questions. No one cares, you see, because no one wants to actually practice law. They just want to make enough money to afford country club dues and to pawn off research assignments on young associates, who will then turn around and do the same in a few years when it's their turn.  And you will not be one of these lucky young associates because the legal job market is steadily shrinking and most small firms will not even consider anyone not in the top half of their class (which leaves a lot of graduates with their cheese out in the wind) and the big firms will only consider the top 10-20%, depending on school ranking. 

If you are considering law school, ask yourself if you could handle working in a field in which no one will ever give you positive feedback, whether it is a supervising attorney or a client. The supervising attorneys will only gripe if there are holes in your research, but will otherwise remain silent, and clients will only complain about your bill. If you manage a favorable outcome for them, it was because their cause was just. If you do not, it is because you were incompetent. Do you want this for yourself? Or, more appropriately, would you ever wish this on anyone?

Unless you have a scholarship or a rich relative paying your tuition, your income will almost never justify the amount spent earning your JD.

Consider that the average law school debt for public school graduates is a little over $68K and over $109K for private schools (for the 2009-2010 school year). Suppose you are able to spread out $68K over 30 years. Your payments, assuming a 6% interest rate, will be $408 per month. $109K spread out over 30 years will be $654 per month. Remember, this assumes 6% interest, and that you can spread the loans out over 30 years. So that's between $4,896 and $7,848 per year spent on student loan payments, not counting undergraduate degree payments. You can only deduct $2,500 per year on your federal income taxes, and only for the first five years after you begin repaying. Considering the average attorney salary has been steadily dropping (to about $63K currently), this means you will be spending somewhere around 10% of your income on student loan payments. Considering that the average salary for a college graduate is $46K, what exactly have you gained from earning a law degree? A few thousand dollars a year? Which will be eaten away by all of the extra hours spent working in a field that will eat away at your soul and make you want to auction off your JD.

Let’s do a little math here and figure out just how well you’ll be living with a JD and an annual salary of $63K.  Would you like to buy a house? Have a car? Health insurance? Contribute to your retirement? Ok, then, let’s go!

Assuming you are single, you will be in the 25% federal tax bracket. And we’ll assume state and local taxes are 5%, give or take. And your health insurance premiums are $300 per month. And that you contribute 2.5% of your salary to your 401(k). Here are your pre-tax deductions:

$5,250 is your gross monthly pay.

After deducting $300 for health insurance premiums and $131.25 for 401(k), you are left with $4,818.75. Now comes Big Bertha, also known as the IRS. Deduct 30% for federal, state, and local taxes, which brings your monthly take-home to $3,373.13.

Now let’s say you purchase a $165,000 home with no money down and a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 5% interest. Your mortgage payment will be $885.76. Assume property taxes to be about 3%, which is $4,950 annually. That’s $412.50 per month. (My husband’s and my property taxes were a lot higher than this, but we are from a ridiculously expensive state). Ok, here’s your monthly budget:


-$885.76 (mortgage)
-$412.50 (property taxes)
-$150.00 (heating, cooling, and electricity, which will vary by state and climate)
-$100 (phone/cell)
-$100 (cable, internet)
-$300 (car payment)
-$100 (car insurance)
-$400 (groceries)
-$200 (gas)
$724.87 (surplus)

Now, how are you going to spend that extra $725 per month that you have lying around? Movies, clothing, furniture, meals out? Oh, wait, I forgot one of the most important deductions. Your student loan! Let’s take away $654, assuming you have $100K in student loan debt at 6% interest amortized over 30 years. That leaves you with $71. You can spend it however you want – credit card bill, clothing, dates (which you probably won’t have many of, since people with six-figure debt do not have much value on the marriage market), anything! Just be sure not to have any emergencies, like a broken down car or a molar in need of a root canal.  And absolutely no vacations or kids!  (If you really want to find some extra cushion in your budget, you can always drive a beater until you are sixty, or take on a second job.)  But remember, it is all worth it because you are a prestigious attorney.

If you are considering law school, think about whether you actually want to practice law, and are willing to mortgage your future in the hopes of successfully building a career in a field in which salaries continue to decrease, as well as demand. Do you think you will be able to later out-earn your current financial stupidity?

Law schools lie about employment statistics.

Another topic not discussed at orientation? Graduate employment statistics. The speakers did not clarify whether the 97% boasted at my school reflected the number of graduates who were actually employed in the legal field, or if that figure included graduates who were forced to find work in other lucrative fields. Nor did anyone discuss the way in which employment statistics are calculated, and whether the statistics are actually plausible.

If you are considering law school, the first thing you should do is write down a list of the schools you would like to attend.  Then pick out your top choice, and get your hands on a list containing the names of its most recent graduates.  (Try attending a graduation and obtaining a program there, or call up the school and say you had a relative who recently graduated and were wondering if you could get a copy of the program.)  Now the real fun will begin.  Wait a few months, then go to the Bar website for the state in which the school is located and start looking up the names of the graduates.  See how many you find that list an actual employer under their contact information, rather than their home address.  For the names that do not appear anywhere, begin looking those up on other Bar websites until you have exhausted all of your resources.  Now count the names of those who you did not find, or who did not list an employer in their contact information.  Take that number and subtract it from the number of total graduates you looked up.  Then divide that number by the total number of graduates you looked up and you will arrive at an accurate employment figure.  But that will all take too long or require too much effort, you say?  I say you’re right, it’s better to just go six figures into debt by relying on a brochure than to conduct any actual research yourself.  I'm sure the guy who wrote the brochure dotted his i's and crossed his t's.  I mean, what's in it for him to fudge the numbers? (I should probably warn you that your hesitation at embarking on such an involved research assignment does not bode well for your future as a practicing attorney.  Just sayin’.) 

The Bottom Line

My point in discussing the flawed law school model is not to piss on anyone's dreams of becoming the next Perry Mason. What I would like to see is transparency in advertising employment statistics, frankness when discussing job prospects with students, course offerings in how to run one's own practice, tuition rates that reflect current market demand and compensation, and more opportunities for students to observe and experience the reality of law practice.

Are you considering law school? And if so, is there anything that could convince you not to go, or do you think you have made up your mind no matter what?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Netflix Corner: Maxed Out

For those of you living with minuscule entertainment budgets due to crushing student loan debt (or any other kind of debt for that matter), leaving you chained to Netflix streaming or youtube on  the weekends, check out Maxed Out, a 2006 documentary that eerily predicts the collapse of the housing market, and the economy as a whole, after far too many years of access to easy credit.  A major portion of the documentary focuses on credit card debt, but it also touches on the real estate bubble, predatory lending tactics employed on college campuses, and interviews with some pond scum, aka "collection agents."  

This is not the sort of movie to watch alone at night, since it is quite dark at times (stories of two students with outrageous credit card bills who eventually committed suicide are included), and because we all know what happened just a couple years after the movie was filmed. 

On the other hand, there are some lighter moments that highlight just how valuable an education is when it comes to succeeding in the marketplace.  Listen closely at about an hour and five minutes in as a real estate broker who doubled her money during the housing bubble describes a "track" home and informs us that the "medium" price of a house is $268,000. 

I wish someone would make a similar documentary based entirely on student loan debt in the U.S.  It is truly frightening that many people carry student loan balances equal to or greater than a typical mortgage.

Any other movie suggestions that will keep people like me motivated to pay off their student loans early and stay out of debt permanently? 

Friday, September 9, 2011

How Many Doors Did Your JD Open?

For anyone who's bitter about high student loan debt and/or the dearth of (paying) legal jobs out there, check out this piece from Nando of Third Tier Reality, which sheds some unflattering light on the higher education scam.  It includes some sobering statistics regarding the glut of student loan debt in the U.S., the lack of available jobs that require advanced degrees, as well as the frighteningly inflated tuition prices some law schools are charging their "customers" these days.  

Also, if you feel like getting involved in protesting or sharing your views on the higher education scam, check out the upcoming protest scheduled to take place October 8th in San Diego, California. 

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The Things You Only Read About

Ask Again Later by Davis, Jill A. [Paperback] (Google Affiliate Ad) 

Ask Again Later is Jill Davis' "chick lit" novel about a woman who suddenly quits her job as an attorney and goes to work for her father's law firm as a receptionist.  There are reasons for her drastic actions, which I won't spoil for you here.  The central themes of the book involve the main character's fear of commitment (to her relationship and to a career), and how unfinished business with our parents can sometimes keep us stuck in limbo.  

The book is entertaining in a fluffy, Cosmo's "Fearless Female of the Year" sort of way.  But I did have a little trouble with the main character's inability to take a simple phone message (it's as if the book would like us to think they only teach that in secretary school or something) and with the writing structure, which tends to be a bit pared down, even for chick lit.  But if you're up for reading about an attorney's brush with life on the other side, check it out. 


This is a terrific article by Phyllis Coletta.  She is a former attorney who quit the law in order to become a cowgirl.  It is truly inspiring and funny.  I would read it occasionally when I was still practicing law.  It gave me great comfort to know that people with her kind of courage and humor had been where I was and had successfully gotten out.  Thanks, Phyllis.  

What are some of the roadblocks keeping you from leaving the law?  What would you be doing if you no longer practiced?   

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

The Trap of Student Loan Debt, Part II: Do You Want to Get Out?

Many unhappy attorneys feel they cannot quit practicing law because of the enormous burden of student loan debt.  If you have been considering leaving the law for another field or to start your own business, paying off your student loans affords more opportunity to take risks (perhaps in the form of a lower-paying but more satisfying position), as well as the feeling of hope that comes from building a future, rather than paying for past mistakes.  

A little over a year ago, I found myself in the position of having left my attorney job for a lower-paying one, but still carrying a large student loan balance of over $100K (between my husband's loans and mine).  Since then, I have gained more control over my finances, and my husband and I have decided to take radical steps in order to pay off both of our student loans once and for all.  Before you begin your own journey out of student loan debt, you first need to ask yourself whether you really want out because getting out involves a great deal of sacrifice.  Let's talk a little bit about some obstacles that might be standing your way.

The Lawyer Lifestyle

When you graduate from law school and land your first attorney gig, one of the first things you will probably do is buy some new clothes.  I know I did.  I believe I spent about $800 in my first month as a new attorney on new suits, shoes, and blouses.  How sharp I must have looked while dying a thousand little deaths every time I logged onto westlaw and looked with dread at the number of cases I would have to read that day. 

Another expense many new attorneys take on is that of a car loan.  If only law schools offered a course like Personal Finance 101.  Perhaps I, along with many other would-be attorneys, would have learned the sheer stupidity of financing a depreciating asset.  Ah well.  I made this mistake, but not until I had practiced for almost three years.  Toward the end of my illustrious career, I financed a big, shiny new car in order to assuage some of my depression.  It worked for a little while, but once the new car smell wore off the leather, I was back to pouring myself glass after glass of alcohol when I arrived home in the evening. 

Some other attorneys from white shoe firms might even go out and join a country club or buy a boat, or some other such nonsense.  All I can say about the many trappings of the lawyer lifestyle is that if you want to leave the law for good, you first need to decide that you are not going to be a miserable workhorse the rest of your life. 

You Don't Understand the Difference Between "Want" and "Need"

Many Americans, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, equate their need for certain  luxury items with their need to breathe oxygen.  To name just a few examples:
  • cable TV (guilty)
  • smart phones (guilty)
  • restaurant lunches
  • gym memberships (guilty)
  • new cars every three years
  • a car for every member of the household over the age of 16
  • Starbucks (guilty)
  • "stuff" from Target (guilty)
  • the latest gadgets for the kids
  • vacations at Disneyland
  • stainless steel appliances
This list is certainly not exhaustive, but you get the idea. 

If you want to get out of student loan debt so you can leave the law, or just to have some peace of mind, you need to evaluate your lifestyle and start labeling things as "wants" and "needs."  In no time, you will see that most of the things in our lives are really just wants.  One way to start evaluating is to focus on what Dave Ramsey calls "the four walls."  This would be food, shelter, utilities, and transportation.  Anything beyond that is not a need.  (Clothing fits in there, too, but most Americans have an abundance of it.) 

One of the first things my husband and I cut out when we decided to get out of debt is cable.  For the time being, we get by on Internet (which he needs for his job), netflix streaming, and hulu.  We used to pay over a hundred dollars per month on cable and now we pay about $40 (which is mainly Internet). 

Another expense we cut was transportation.  We used to have two cars, but when we moved, we cut back to just one.  This may not work for everyone, especially if you do not have reliable public transportation where you live.  But you certainly do not need two car payments, or even one car payment, in order to get to work and back.  What we did was sell my husband's car, which was almost paid off, and we used the proceeds toward our emergency fund (about five months of living expenses in the bank).  When we sold our house, we used those proceeds toward the emergency fund as well.

As for my car, we have been making extra payments on it for the last five months and I am proud to say we just sent in the last payment a few days ago.  It is actually "our" car now, and it is enough for us. 

You Justify Student Loan Debt Because of the Tax Break

While some borrowers are eligible for a tax break on their student loan payments, please do not justify hanging onto these loans simply for the tax break.  A few considerations:
  • There are income limits on who can claim it.  (In 2010, the income limits were $60K for  individuals or $120K for couples before the credit was phased out.)
  • You can only deduct a maximum of $2,500 no matter how much interest you paid on your loans.  (My husband and I paid over $5,000 in interest in 2010, so the tax break didn't help all that much.)
  • Beginning 2013, you will only be able to deduct student loan interest for the first 60 months (5 years) of repayment.  Many people with advanced degrees are on 20-30 year plans (myself included).
  • Student loans are generally not dischargeable in bankruptcy. 

The Bottom Line

If you want to put student loan debt behind you, you need to decide you are not going to keep up with the Joneses, you are going to cut back on luxuries, and you are not going to chase a soon-to-be-obsolete tax deduction.  Ready?  Stay tuned for my next entry on how to start budgeting and make extra cash to put toward those loans. 


Wednesday, August 31, 2011

You Are Not Alone

Whenever I begin to think I'm the only lawyer out there who's happier doing admin work, I am reminded that I am not a beautiful and unique snowflake.  In this edition of Dear Prudence, a woman who once practiced law and now works as a secretary, seeks advice from Prudie on how to respond to the snobby comments she receives from friends who look askance at her.    One thing I love about Prudie is that she is aware of how tough the legal job market is these days and acknowledges that a JD is not something to boast about on a resume.  You tell 'em, Prudie.  Scroll down to the second letter.  Oh, and be sure to read some of the comments below the column, which are often more entertaining than the column itself. 

Monday, August 29, 2011

The Trap of Student Loan Debt, Part I

Many people who would like to quit practicing law have an enormous hurdle to overcome before they can even consider it: all that student loan debt they took out to receive those invaluable JD's (which caused that slew of doors to fly open upon graduation, right?  Or did you miss that?).  

Rather than repeat myself by reminding you that a JD does not make one more marketable, and in fact works against one's marketability, I would like to discuss a more positive topic, that of paying off these soul-sucking debts and getting out of student loan prison forever.

Before I left the law, I assumed that the size of my debt would render me unable to pay off my loans any sooner than the 25-year repayment period I had agreed to just a few months after graduation.  I think the fact that I was practicing law somehow helped me justify a longer repayment period.  After all, if I was actively using my degree on a daily basis, the expense seemed like the cost of doing business.  And since I owed about $80,000, I figured 25 years seemed reasonable.  

Once I left the law, I began thinking more about my financial future and became angry that I had made such stupid financial decisions.  I had basically trapped myself into working full-time in a field I hated for the better part of my adulthood.  Was I going to die a bitter, alcoholic ex-lawyer, still owing thousands to Sallie Mae upon my death?  I couldn't believe my life was becoming an Arthur Miller play.

I should backtrack a little here and fill you in on my professional transitions since my first temporary gig ended.  That gig netted me about $380 per week.  Once that job ended a few short months later, I obtained another job at a call center (my personal low), and then miraculously I was offered a permanent, full-time position at my husband's company working in customer service.  This all happened within one month after leaving my first temp job.  The salary at my customer service position?  $33,000 per year.  Not quite the almost $60k I was making as an attorney, but it would do since it came with benefits and a guaranteed paycheck.  When I accepted that position, however, I did something radical.  I decided not to quit my call center job right away, and instead I cut back to part-time three evenings per week.  So I was working about 55 hours per week, with a combined income (from both jobs) of about $42,000 per year.  Coupled with my husband's income, we would still be doing pretty well, except for our crippling student loan payments. 

My payments totaled about $565 per month, and my husband's were $180.  So basically, we were paying two mortgages, our real mortgage and our student loans.  And the payments were only going to go up because we were both on graduated repayment plans.  Thinking about these numbers is what led me to work two jobs and try to come up with a plan of action.

I didn't have time to think long because about a month after working my two jobs and getting used to my new, hectic schedule, my husband was offered a position with a higher salary about two thousand miles from where we lived.  In a matter of three weeks, we had to put our house on the market, find an apartment in our new city, and pack up.  It was exciting, but scary.  I had no idea what I would do for work, but I was looking forward to the opportunity to start over with a clean slate in a completely different area of the country, where no one would know me as an attorney. 

Fast forward a month after we arrived (which was November of last year).  I am once again an administrative assistant (pretty high level) and I assist professionals on an individual contract basis as needed (a few hours per month).  Everyone I work for knows I used to practice law and no one seems to have a problem with it.  And the real plus side is that I now make 30-40% more than what I used to as an attorney.  This can be attributed in large part to a different job market, but since my husband and I have managed to keep our expenses down, it has made a huge impact on our budget, so much so that I am now hopeful about seeing my student loan balance decrease to zero within the next few years.  

I can't really attribute my new found hope to a simple increase in salary, though.  In reality, I can attribute it to discovering Dave Ramsey's plan for living debt free and building wealth slowly.  It's funny, I disagree with him on so many things - religion, politics - but his books and podcasts have been so inspiring that I don't really care about our differences, as long as I am getting out of debt. 

And I am, more and more each month.  In fact, this month my husband and I are paying off our car (the big shiny one I bought a year and a half ago to try and make me feel better about practicing law), and then we are on to the student loans.  It is not easy, and I am still resentful of the law school scam, the higher education scam, and every other scam I've been taken in by as an adult.  But I figure if I am ever going to have a chance at the life I want (a little cabin somewhere with my dog, my husband, and some good books wouldn't be bad), I am going to need to pay off my "stupid tax" sooner rather than later.

I am going to discuss more of the particulars of my get-out-of-student-loan-debt plan in my next post, but for now I just wanted to put something positive and hopeful out there.  A year ago, I was miserable and depressed, thinking I would forever be in debt and would never be able to have children or even take a vacation.  And now I am getting closer and closer to being debt-free.

Life can be so shitty sometimes, but every once in a while it is simply amazing. 

Are your student loans or other debts holding you back from the life you want?

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Does Quitting Law Lead to Happiness?

One of the questions I get from a lot of people (mostly through anonymous emails) is whether I am happier since quitting my lawyer job. I think the answer is more complicated than whether I am more or less happy. What I do know is that when I was practicing law, most of my days were spent feeling trapped and hopeless. At the same time, however, the outside world provided me with validation in the form of respect (from non-lawyers), interest in what I do (again, from non-lawyers), and approval from my family and friends (mostly non-lawyers).

Since quitting the law, I feel more at peace and hopeful about finding my purpose in life. I do not wake up each day dreading work, although some days I find work a little unchallenging. Since we both now make more money, my husband and I have more control over our finances, and have created a plan for paying off our student loans within the next two to three years.


The outside world does not provide nearly as much, if any, validation anymore. When people find out I used to practice law, they inevitably ask me whether I plan to take the Bar in the state in which I currently reside. When I tell them no, they seem puzzled and I can tell they are probably wondering whether I "burned out" or was disbarred, or had a nervous breakdown. Rather than try to disabuse them of any such notions or explain my choices, I tend to simply change the subject. This is a struggle, since leaving the law was a major decision and it is a part of who I am, but I also think it is healthier at this point in my life to look forward rather than dwell on the past.

All this is to say that when one is weighing the decision of whether to quit law, one must consider how self-assured he or she is. If you are the type of person who must please your family or cannot live without a shiny job title, quitting might not be a good option at this point. Let me be clear that I do not sit in judgment of those who need approval from family or who enjoy working in a seemingly prestigious field. I get it. I used to be like that. I am just cautioning those who need these things to think twice before quitting the law. Try to create a support system that will be in place once you take the plunge.

You may also want to think about what you plan on doing with your free time once you begin working fewer hours per week at a job that most likely will not require your undivided intellectual and/or emotional attention 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.  You need a hobby.  Or a passion of some sort.  Otherwise, you may end up falling back into law because you need to do something that the world recognizes as valuable, rather than what will bring you fulfillment or may actually be useful.

One thing I began doing when I left the law was reading more about personal finance and trying to come up with a financial plan for the future that would hopefully lead to a dignified retirement for me and my husband.  I did not consider this a "hobby" at the time, but these days, when I am not working like a mad woman, I tend to be reading up on finance or listening to podcasts about it, or looking at spreadsheets documenting my journey out of student loan hell.  I believe this now officially qualifies as a hobby.

What are some of the obstacles that have been holding you back from leaving the law?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Finally, an Accurate Depiction of the Average Lawyer

Wilfred is a new show on FX about a suicidally depressed ex-attorney named Ryan.  Ryan is the type of person who balks at the ingredients label on the protein powder he blends into his pill-laden suicide shake.  In the first episode, Ryan attempts to overdose the night before starting a new job in "contract administration," a job his sister managed to snag him at the hospital where she works as an Ob/Gyn.  Ryan's suicide attempt goes mysteriously awry, and he ends up dog-sitting for Wilfred, the titular character whom Ryan sees as a belligerent Australian in a dog costume. 

My favorite scenes in the first episode involve Ryan arguing with his sister about his career plight.  When Ryan suggests that he might not be happy in contract administration, Kristen reminds him that he is "not really a hot commodity right now," so he should basically take what he can get.  There is also a later scene in which Ryan tells his potential boss (Kristen's colleague) about what sort of "work" he would prefer over contract administration.  I won't spoil it for you.  Suffice it to say, I only wish I could have displayed that much honesty when leaving my lawyer job a year ago.  (Alas, I have never been one to burn bridges.  I still get birthday cards from my ex-boyfriend's mom, to put this particular pathology into perspective.)

If you are a disgruntled lawyer or have simply taken a wrong turn career- or life-wise, check out Wilfred.

You may have to create a hulu account in order to view the above video.  If you do not want to bother with that, you can always find episodes on FX's website.   

Friday, July 1, 2011

When Life Bites You in the A**

"Maybe we have to break everything to make something better out of ourselves.”
 –Chuck Palahniuk

In case you have not heard, Bridesmaids is on track to becoming Judd Apatow’s highest-grossing film to date. The movie is about a woman named Annie who happens to be going through a particularly dark period. Her business has gone under, her best friend Lillian gets engaged, and her creepy British roommates are itching to kick her out. To top it off, she has to compete for Lillian’s attention with Helen, an uptight harpy who invariably appears to have just stepped out of a J. Crew ad.

I have seen the movie twice in the theater. It is rare to find a movie in which a woman is shown to be going through a tough time professionally that does not end with her landing that Big Job at Vogue. When I do find such a gem, I appreciate it to no end. (The last film I remember welcoming in this way is Sliding Doors, which came out in 1998.)

Spoiler Alert: The rest of my post may give away some details about the movie you might not want to know if you haven’t seen it yet.

What I enjoyed most about this film is the fact that Annie does not find the perfect career in the end. As yet. But she does learn to open herself up to the possibility of finding happiness again, by becoming a better friend (as Jessica Grose at Slate also observes), daughter, and (possibly) mate. Though she does not land a baking segment on The Today Show, she does bake an “apology cake” for her love interest, which ultimately symbolizes her willingness to once again spread a little joy with her God/universe-given baking talent.

End of Spoiler Alert

Since ending my law career, I, like Annie, have attempted to become a better person and to find interests outside of my career. I send more birthday cards these days. I “like” more of my friends’ baby pictures on facebook. I even try to pay more attention to my dog, from whom I could stand to learn a thing or two, since she seems completely fulfilled by a just few walks a day (and the occasional soupcon of peanut butter). I am also looking for new volunteer opportunities, since I am no longer able to volunteer at the same shelter I used to back in my home town.  I hope to one day discover my natural talent and to share it. 

Bridesmaids reminded me that life is never going to be perfect. Career failures and missteps are inevitable, but as Ani DiFranco put it, if I keep looking down, I’ll “just miss all the good stuff.” Including some really funny movies.

What sorts of things have brought you joy in hard times?

Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Woman Left Lonely

When one makes the decision to quit law, where does she turn for support and advice? What about JD’s who are having trouble finding legal work in an endless sea of newly-minted attorneys? Where do they turn? The question of where to find a support system for such a unique problem is one I still struggle with on a daily basis, even though it has been over a year since I left my law career.

Last year after I quit my job, I did not tell my dad right away. He was going through a health crisis and I didn’t want to upset him. About a week after I put in my notice, the time came for him to have surgery and I went to visit him in the hospital. He asked me how my job was going and I told him I had given notice because I found something better. I hinted that it wasn’t entirely legal related, but that I was happy about my decision and excited about new possibilities. Rather than asking for more details on my new job, he just got this disappointed look on his face and said, “well at least you have your degree.” And that was that. I could tell he felt let down that he could no longer pass my business card along to his friends and brag about his daughter, the attorney. I had never felt more guilty. And then I felt angry that he had the power to make me feel that way.

In the hospital waiting room, my step-brother told me that my husband had mentioned my new job. Was I still an attorney, he asked with a furrowed brow. Well, if he meant was I still barred and licensed to practice law if I wanted, then yes. I don’t think that’s the answer he was looking for.

To put a little perspective on things, I have to tell you that I do not come from a family of overachievers. No one in my immediate family ever attended college, much less any kind of graduate program. I was the one assigned to legitimize everyone by finishing law school and becoming a professional.

My family and I have had our differences. After high school, I was completely estranged from them for about five years. During that time, I moved in with some friends, worked my way through night school at the local community college, and was accepted into a university, which was paid for with grants and loans. By the time I reunited with my family, I was applying to law schools, which thrilled my father to no end. Still, I never felt that close with him or my sisters. It just felt strange to be around them after such a long separation. It is true that you can’t go home again.

Since the two brief conversations I had with my dad and step-brother in the hospital last year, I have not spoken with anyone about my career. My husband and I have since moved across the country and started a new life, so it has been quite simple to not talk about the end of my legal career. My family assumes I am studying for the Bar and will begin practicing once I am admitted. I know I need to have the conversation with them to let them know on no uncertain terms that I am no longer going to practice law professionally. I just haven’t had the courage to initiate the conversation yet since the last time I tried, I felt rejected, guilty, and ashamed.

I know there are many JD’s out there who have been assigned the same role I was, to make the family proud. How have you found support while trying to find legal employment in such a bleak market? Are there any attorneys out there who have chosen not to practice whose families have been supportive? I would love to hear from you, since Thanksgiving is just around the corner…

Monday, June 27, 2011

My Top 6

Below is a list of the most humiliating, ridiculous, and/or evil things I ever witnessed or took part in when practicing law, from least to most egregious.

6.  Perry Mason and the Case of the Felonious Air Freshener.  While interning at a county prosecutor’s office as a 2L, I attended a suppression hearing at which my assigned prosecutor/mentor argued that racial profiling was perfectly Constitutional, so long as the officer had a separate, valid, objective reason for pulling over a defendant.  (Which is unfortunately true by the way.)  In this case, the defendant, a young black man, had an air freshener hanging from his rear-view mirror, which “tended to obstruct” his view of the road, and therefore violated a statute.  The prosecutor won the hearing.  I told him I understood why he won, but I still believed it was unjust that an officer could selectively enforce a statute that millions of drivers violate every day.  He argued that the officer was not necessarily engaging in racial profiling.  I rhetorically asked him how many soccer moms the officer pulled over that week for hanging air fresheners from their rear-view mirrors.  My “mentor” then refused to speak to me for the rest of my summer internship.  I should have known then that I was not cut out to participate in a system that routinely defends absurdities.

5.  One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  During my 2L and half of my 3L year, I clerked for a solo practitioner who was just about the moodiest, most inept attorney I had ever met.  He even warned me during the interview that he was moody.  Each morning I would greet him with a smile and a hello, but never once did he look at me or even grunt in my direction.  We communicated only in writing, though the office comprised only about 300 square feet.  Eventually, my pay checks started bouncing.  Then he asked me to lie to his wife about his whereabouts on a couple of occasions.  She could tell I was lying for him and he apparently caught hell for it.  He basically accused me of purposely lying badly in order to get him in trouble.  Then one day, he asked me to perform a google search for him on his computer, during which I inadvertently saw his search history.  Apparently he was into swingers clubs.  I pretended not to see anything since he was breathing down my neck the entire time. 

Eventually, I was able to put in my notice so I could relocate for the summer to complete a clerkship.  I tried not to think about what a nasty, weird person he was until I was forced to disclose on a job application that I had worked for him.  The prospective employer contacted him for a reference and he told them he would not hire me because—wait for it – I am “not a people person.”  I got the job anyway because I think the firm knew what a crazy kook that guy was.  As for his ineptness, apparently the local bar association caught on because a few months after starting my first job out of law school, he was publicly disciplined for lying to a judge during a sentencing hearing.  To top it all off, years later I received a friend request from him on facebook.  Ignore!

4.  Ebenezer Scrooge or Henry Potter?  My supervising attorney once asked me why everyone thought he “owed them a fuckin’ living.”  Apparently, his secretary had been fishing around for a bonus since she was coming up on her ten-year anniversary with the firm.  I told him perhaps she wanted to feel appreciated for being a loyal secretary.  He complained that she screwed things up a lot and she was not the one bringing in all the money.  He then turned to his computer to retrieve an electronic file and realized he had no idea where to find it because his secretary organized everything for him.  So he shouted for her to come in and find the file, all the while acting completely impatient about it.  After she left, I pointed out that he seems to need her help quite a bit.  He ignored me and asked me to sit in his chair and type an email he dictated because he was lousy at using Outlook.  He seemed to rely on his employees quite a bit, though in his mind he owed them nothing.

3.  Just Following Orders.  I once represented a client who had some developmental disabilities as well as a raging drug and alcohol habit.  His various ailments rendered him unable to recall events that occurred more than five minutes ago.  His neighbor was similarly disabled, and they hated each other. He had various cases pending, and he was really bothered by his neighbor, so my supervising attorney told me to get a restraining order against the neighbor.  I raised my concerns about the client’s memory problems and asked for any advice on how to handle direct examination.  “Wing it,” was the response I received.  I pressed the supervising attorney a little and asked if he had any other advice, and he responded, “I’m your boss.  Just do it.”  So I tried my best to prepare the client, although he could not actually recall any specific disputes with the neighbor.  A few days before the hearing, I became concerned about going through with the hearing since I did not believe I had a good faith basis for trying to get the restraining order.  (You know, pesky ethical rules we attorneys must consider from time to time).  I raised this concern with my supervising attorney and he spat, “I told you before, I’m your boss.  Just do it.”  So I did it.  Is it any wonder the judge declined to issue the order and instead told the two men to just stay away from each other?  My supervising attorney seemed happy with the hours I billed for undertaking this worthless endeavor, though, which is really all that matters.

2.  It Would Be So Much Easier to Catch Criminals If Only They Would Endanger More Lives.  During a drunk-driving negotiation with a prosecutor, I noted that my client’s driving was not that horrendous, in that he was only pulled over for speeding 5-10 miles per hour over the posted limit, a fairly common charge.  Normally, this would put a client in the “non-aggravated” category for drunk driving.  I argued that some drunk drivers actually swerve into the wrong lane or drive the wrong way down a one-way street, which is certainly more dangerous than minor speeding.  The prosecutor’s position: he would rather the client had swerved or driven in the wrong direction, because it’s much easier for the police to spot him as a drunk driver.  Oh-kaaayyyyyy...

1.  It’s a Good Thing He Didn’t Die or We Would’ve Had to Deal with a Damages Cap.  One of my firm’s civil clients was a boy who had been sexually assaulted.  My job was to perform research to determine the average settlement or jury award in similar cases.  One of the similar cases I found involved a teenage girl who was raped on a church camping trip.  My supervising attorney’s reaction?  “That’s just a teenage girl.  We could get a lot more money for this kid.” 

Does anyone else have horror stories they would like to share about the practice of law?

Worst Client Ever?

For those of you who have had the privilege of practicing in such a prestigious field as family law, you may want to check out this video posted by Gregory Forman, an attorney and family court mediator in South Carolina.  I am still laughing...

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Famous Ex-Lawyers: Franz Kafka

This makes me truly happy.  I never knew Franz Kafka used to be an attorney.  According to Wikipedia, anyway.  It does follow a certain logic.  Who else would know what it's like to wake up one day feeling like an insect but an insurance attorney?  When I was practicing law, I experienced this feeling more than a few times. 

At any rate, I love his work and it gives me hope that practicing law does not necessarily extinguish one's creative instincts forever.

From Humility to Humiliation

So where were we? I had just been informed that my temporary admin assignment was going to end after only three short months. My job prospects were pretty slim considering I had just left the legal field and it had taken me months (almost a year?) to find a non-legal job. I felt alienated from everyone – my husband, family (I’ll get to that in another post), friends, former colleagues. Is there any worse feeling than being surrounded by loved ones and feeling totally alone? I even stopped answering my phone because I knew my friends would ask the basic catch-up questions about career, family, and upcoming vacations.

In the meantime, I was still going to work every day, with no real defined expiration date, but I knew I had to act fast. At that point, I simply needed to find a job –any job- that would provide a steady stream of income while I thought about my next move. After all, I still had student loans to pay. So I did something desperate. I applied for a job at a call center. A specific call center. It had always been in the back of my mind as an “in case of emergency” plan. Like the fire escape ladder tucked behind the shoe rack in my closet, I had hoped I would never have to use it.

Did I mention that when I practiced law, I primarily worked as a criminal defense attorney? This little tidbit weighed heavily on me when I decided to apply at “SIP, Inc.,” aka “Suicide is Painless, Incorporated.” You see, the reason I knew the place would probably hire me is because I used to send my clients to them when they needed to find jobs prior to sentencing. No one in their HR department had ever heard the term “background check,” much less performed one. While completing the online application, all I could think about was how I would respond if I ran into a former client. This had happened a couple of times in the past, but I always knew the attorney-client privilege obligated me to ignore them unless they acknowledged me first. I was guessing, however, that if a former client saw me working at the call center, they would probably have a couple questions for me. I decided that if I ever encountered this situation, I would simply lean in, lower my voice, and tell him I had switched to the journalism field and was doing undercover work for an exposé on the various indignities suffered by those who work for minimum wage. I sort of borrowed the concept from Barbara Ehrenreich’s Nickel and Dimed, which I had been required to read in a college sociology course, back when I believed higher education would guarantee me a safe, journalistic detachment from the working poor.

The actual application process did not involve uploading a resume or references. All I had to do was list my former employers and contact numbers for them. Since I knew none of my former work places would be contacted, I did not hide the fact that I worked at a law firm. I just did not fill out the section that asked for position titles. Again, I knew no one would read the application; they basically interviewed and hired everyone because of so much turnover. I also disclosed my JD on the education section, knowing the person who read it probably did not know or care what a JD was. A few days after submitting my application, I was contacted by an HR representative who asked me to come in for an interview. This process consisted of taking basic reading and spelling tests, and being introduced to the call center equipment (a headset). If I could spell “sandwich” (the judges probably also would have accepted “sandwhich”) and wear the headset without asphyxiating myself, I was in. I almost cried when they offered me a position, mainly because of the indignity of it all, but somewhat because I knew I would be able to make my student loan payment and possibly even help with other monthly bills.

I also felt a certain sense of relief at having hit bottom. How could things get any worse?

As a side note, I feel like I should be describing the changes occurring in my marriage at this time, but since so much happened at once, that will most likely be my next post. I have come to realize that the only way to eat an elephant is one bite at a time, so I am going to cover only one major change per post until I catch up to present day…

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Jose Aponte: 0. TTT: 100,000

This just in from the Wall Street Journal: some lawyers make as little as $15 per hour.  Where were you guys back in 2004?  Maybe you were there all along, but I ignored articles like these, convinced I would never be one of "them." 

The truth is, I did not have a very tough time finding a job after law school.  But I never received an offer even close to the median salary of $75k my school advertised in their marketing materials.  And I went to a top-20 school.  Has anyone else heard of American University's Washington College of Law? 

(Oh, and if you don't know what "TTT" means, check out "Third Tier Reality."  You won't be sorry.) 

Things Fall Apart

"I believe that everything happens for a reason. People change so that you can learn to let go, things go wrong so that you appreciate them when they're right, you believe lies so you eventually learn to trust no one but yourself, and sometimes good things fall apart so better things can fall together." 
- Marilyn Monroe

I always wonder if Marilyn was really that insightful or if her publicist wrote that quote for her.  I wish I could say getting laid off from my admin gig after only a few short months brought out my inner Marilyn, but that would be a lie.  In reality, it terrified and angered me.

I began temping at the end of April, beginning of May last year.  At first, I felt exhilerated.  Finally, I could breathe again and I had time to take care of myself.  I was exercising again.  I had lost five pounds and my skin was looking good.  I ate better, I slept better, I read books.  I was even picking up some valuable skills that I was certain would transfer well into my next career move, whatever that might be.  And then, it happened.

In mid July, my boss strolled over to my desk one morning and informed me that corporate was moving our office to a city about 350 miles away.  Only he, the CFO, and the senior admin ("Alex") would be kept on permanently.  Alex would be working from a remote office, while the two head honchos would physically relocate.  He mentioned the possibilty of me working remotely for a while after the move to foster a smooth transition.  I heard none of it, though.  All I could see was a huge "unemployed" sign flashing right before my eyes.

It just so happened that my husband called to ask me out to lunch that day.  He worked right down the street, so he picked me up at noon and asked me how my day was going.  I immediately began crying.  I think he could sense what had happened and when I told him about the move, he simply said, "I guess that's the life of a temp." 

Again, I wish I could have summoned my inner Marilyn in that moment.  Instead, my inner Britney materialized, and I found myself wanting to shave my head and beat my husband senseless with the nearest umbrella.  I did the only sensible thing I could think of and turned my hostility toward him.  How could he have let me quit my permanent job for a temporary one?  How could he be so casual about my career being in the toilet?  Why did I even bother telling him about anything when he never offered any support, only cold, hard facts?  After about half an hour of screaming in the car, we decided to go to lunch after all because the new burger restaurant we planned on going to supposedly had some pretty tasty grub.  I figured sweet potato fries could only improve my mood at that point.  And since I would be unemployed in a few short weeks anyway, who would care if I took a two hour lunch?

When I got back to work that afternoon, the office was empty except for Alex.  She had heard I got the news and informed me of how angry she was that they did not tell me during my interview that the company had been planning the move for a while. 

My anger turned into rage. During the interview, my boss had implied that the temporary position could become permanent in a few months.  I asked Alex why they didn't just hire someone else who was already unemployed and who would have been thankful for a few months of work.  Apparently, all of the other candidates either smelled like cigarette smoke or gave off the impression that they would be calling in sick just about every day.  I was the lucky chosen one. 

For the rest of the day, I sulked.  When I got home, I pouted.  And then I emailed my employment agent about the end of my assignment, who failed to email me back for the next two weeks.  During those two weeks, I convinced myself that she was in on the conspiracy to make me give up my legal career for a three-month pit stop on the way to Unemployed-ville. 

Little did I know that things were going to get just a little worse before they got better...

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Time Flies When You're in Upheaval

Greetings from the other side! I have truly missed writing my blog, but I was in such a deep funk for a while that I had to give myself some time to focus on something besides law school regret. Thank you to everyone who sent me wonderful messages of support! Since it has been a year, I am not going to try and cover everything in one entry. I may not even write about it all in chronological order.

For starters, I will say that my life now is much better than it was a year ago when I left the law. Since then, I have moved, started earning a bigger paycheck, and am now in the midst of paying off all of my law school debt, in addition to my husband's student loans. We are on a three-year plan, after which we hope to start a family.

How did this all happen? I am not quite sure myself, but let's try to start from the beginning, which I believe was right at the end of my law career...