Thursday, August 15, 2013

"I'm Ten Times Richer Than My Big Brother Bob"

Ever since I quit my law job three years ago, I have noticed a disturbing trend.  People seem to have more respect for unemployed JD’s who are looking for attorney gigs than for gainfully employed JD’s who work in non-legal positions.  I’m not sure why.  Growing up, I got the impression that becoming a “productive member of society” included bringing home a paycheck and paying taxes.   

These days, though, people are preoccupied with labels and appearances.  A few weeks ago, I was at a birthday dinner for an older lawyer.  He got a little tipsy and asked me, “Do you ever wonder what a brilliant attorney you might be today if you just stuck with it?”  I didn’t have the heart to tell him that the more appropriate question was how much happier I’d be today had I quit sooner, or never went to law school to begin with.  The point is, this man didn’t care what I was doing with my life; he was only concerned with what I wasn’t doing – practicing law.  He couldn’t get over the fact that I gave up the "prestigious" title of Attorney.  In his mind, the title should be worth it, no matter how much I hated practicing law with every fiber of my being.  (His line of thinking betrays a deeper insecurity of many attorneys: Why don’t you want to be like me?)

But what really gets me is that some new graduates look down on me for my choices.  Even though I am debt free (no more law school loans for me!) and I make better money today than I did as a lawyer, they still believe in the big pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, just waiting for them once they land that cushy associate position at a (now mythical) white shoe firm.  They probably think rubbing elbows with me might bring bad luck.  

Take this past week, for example.  I was having coffee with a friend of mine, “Sue,” who’s a lawyer.  She’s been practicing for over ten years now as a solo, and she knows how tough it is out there in the current legal market.  She understands perfectly why I got out when I did, and why I’m staying out.  That day, though, she introduced me to a newly-minted graduate, “Kate,” who recently passed the bar and hasn’t been having any luck finding a job.  Kate reminded me so much of myself a few years ago.  Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, full of moxie, desperation, and non-dischargeable debt.  She looked to be about twenty-eight, with just a few fine lines around her eyes that would surely develop into full-blown wrinkles after a few more months of a futile job search.  I complimented her on her soft, wavy blonde hair, which she informed me had recently grown back in after she passed the bar on her second try.

We all exchanged pleasantries and blew on our coffee while avoiding painful truths, like the fact that Kate is gonna have to hang out her own shingle at some point, just like Sue did.  I’m no dream crusher, so I simply congratulated her on passing the bar, and listened to her lament the lack of jobs.  So far, only one offer.

“It’s for an assistant position,” she said, wrinkling her nose.  “I’m way overqualified for that, though.”

I laughed knowingly and sipped my overpriced coffee.  

“So, what line of work are you in?”  She asked eagerly.  

“Actually, I used to practice law, and then I worked as an assistant for a while.”

“Ah…” she replied, embarrassed that she’d just turned up her nose at my line of work.  “What made you do that?”

“Um…I think the law wasn’t really for me and I’m kind of focused on other things right now.”  It would have been rude to be totally frank with her about the soul-crushing realities of law firm life, so I talked with her about my current work role, and about the writing I’ve been doing in my spare time.

Sue interjected and explained that the lawyer market in California is a bit competitive.  “There are a lot of us here, especially in this area.” 

“Yeah, you can’t swing a dead cat around this place without hitting ten lawyers,” I laughed.  Sue giggled along with me. 

Kate bristled.  “Wow, that’s really graphic,” she replied, frowning.  

“Sorry, it’s just an expression.  Nothing against cats; I’ve got two.  And a dog,” I explained apologetically.  

“The point is, you’ve got to hustle in this market,” Sue said, leaning across the table conspiratorially.  “I graduated right after the dot com bust. No jobs anywhere.  Spent my days in the basement of the law library, trying to hit up solos for contract work.” 

I nodded my head in agreement.  “Oh, I know.  My God, a friend of mine moved in with his parents for a year after graduation and ended up at a bankruptcy mill.  When I was with my firm, a guy walked in off the street.  He’d been practicing for over twenty years and offered to do my job for half my salary.  I couldn’t sleep for a week, thinking my boss was gonna take him up on it.”  I felt guilty for commiserating with Sue a little too enthusiastically, so I turned back to Kate.  “Have you gotten any leads for attorney positions?”  I asked, trying to sound as upbeat as possible.

“Yeah, there was one for a doc review position, but I don’t know, I’ve heard those can be brutal...”  Her voice trailed off in apprehension.  

Sue and I exchanged a quick, knowing glance.  “Go for it,” she advised.  “It might lead to something.”

That expression has become a euphemism in the new economy.  “It might lead to something” is a polite way of saying “everyone’s gotta eat.”  

After more encouragement on the part of me and Sue, it was decided that Kate would pursue the doc review position, but keep looking for “something more permanent.”  (Another euphemism of the new economy: “something more permanent” means “a job where I don’t have to clock out to use the john.”) 
Once Sue and I were left to our own devices, we decided to browse the gift shop next door.

“Do you think we were being too negative back there?”  Sue asked casually, studying a rack of kitschy birthday cards.  

“What, you mean that stuff about the shitty job market?  No way.  These newbies have to learn, we’re all on the breadline.  None of us are beautiful, unique snowflakes,” I argued, sniffing a bottle of pound cake-scented hand lotion, and recoiling.  “Besides, I thought we sounded pretty sanguine about the whole thing.  All that stuff about pounding the pavement and staying positive.”  

“I guess.”  She furrowed her brow and held up a card for my inspection.  “What do you think?  For my little brother?”

“I think it…has elves on it,” I replied, cocking my head to the side and wondering what the punch line was.  She laughed and continued perusing the rack.  “Plus,” I continued, “that doc review thing will be a good start.  She’ll be fine,” I insisted.  

Deep down, I knew I was lying.  The doc review job would provide a nice band-aid in the meantime, but soon Kate would have to start repaying her student loans.  She didn’t tell us exactly how much she owed, but given that she went to a private school, she probably has a balance of at least $100K.  Repaying that kind of debt requires a steady paycheck and a healthy number of working years to come, two essentials currently lacking in the legal market.  It’s going to be a long time before Kate can breathe again, financially speaking.  

I felt bad for her, but also frustrated and resigned.  Trying to warn people against law school is like playing a game of whack-a-mole.  There’s a momentary victory when you dissuade one 0L, until you realize three more lemmings have shuffled on, undeterred.  Consequently, meeting unemployed graduates is old hat to me now, so it’s hard to get worked up over every single one.  I’ve met a dozen or so Kate’s in the last year, and I know I’m going to meet a dozen more.  I’ve tried to warn the ones who haven’t written their first tuition checks yet, and I’ve tried to give pep talks to the ones who are now stuck with decades of non-dischargeable debt.  I do what I can, but what really bothers me is that people like Kate don’t quite get it yet.  She looked down on the non-legal job offer, failing to realize that getting offered one of those positions was a gift, considering the huge scarlet letter that’s now on her resume.  Maybe a few months of jumping from one temporary doc review gig to another will give her a healthy dose of reality.  Even better, maybe she’ll land something besides doc review, “something more permanent.”  

In the meantime, I have a few words of advice for all of the unemployed JD’s out there who look down on the non-legal job market.  I know I’m just some loser who earns a regular paycheck, but I think George Thorogood was onto something: get a haircut, and get a real job.


  1. The information is out there. I occasionally have a lemming tell me that he won't read one of my blog entries because it is "too long." Every entry is usually no more than 2 pages of 12 font type. If these morons cannot be bothered to read a 2 page warning, then how in the hell are they going to perform well in law school?

    At this point, I continue to warn lemmings - because I cannot stand the scamming pig "law professors" and administrators. Otherwise, if people are too damn dumb to take the signals - form blogs and mainstream news sources, including CNN and CBS Evening News - then they deserve their fate.

    1. Oh man, if you don't enjoy reading anything longer than one page, and you can't see yourself reading for reasons other than pleasure, law school is a terrible idea. I still warn the lemmings, too, but many times it feels hopeless. I am encouraged by the dwindling number of applications, though. Just think, Nando, your JD might actually be worth something someday if lawyers become in demand again because of blogs like yours. :)

    2. I have seen a lot of this over and over as I have practiced for the last 10 years. I am out in two weeks and am so excited to have finally found my exit. Anyway, these young lawyers thought they new everything after their first 1L class and it will take at least a year of absolute struggle before many realize they are screwed debt slaves who were fed a line of non-stop garbage from their dirt bag law professions and "career services" people. Thank you both, for your wonderful blogs and please keep it up. You have both helped me in making the transition to a better life.

  2. She was CRAZY not to take the assistant job.

    1. I agree. And it's not like she'd have to stay in that position forever. She could work her way up the ladder like so many others do. I'll be keeping tabs on her to find out what she ends up doing. Thanks for reading!

  3. It's all about fear. People look down on JDs in non-lawyer jobs because they do not want to think about the fact that a non-legal job may be their own future. Clearly, in their minds, something is wrong with you for taking a job outside the legal profession - you're not smart enough, didn't try hard enough, etc.

    The reality is that the legal market stinks like yesterday's garbage and sometimes you realize that you made a mistake pursuing a law degree and you move on to something else. That thought is so frightening to about-to-be JDs that they can only make themselves feel better by looking down on you.

    It's the same thing many people do to those who are unemployed. Well, clearly you're not trying hard enough and clearly you should work at McDonald's (despite the fact that the local McD's has 1000 applications for 2 positions) and so on and so on. No one wants to think that they too could be fired or laid off and be in the same position. There must be something wrong with YOU otherwise they'd have to face the fear that it's a jungle out there and they may be eaten by the lion too.

    It's all born of fear in my opinion.

  4. The most successful people I know were MBA/JDs who did not go to work at law firms. Of course, they went to Harvard, but the point is that they took a riskier path, starting out in business and not law. They made it, on their own.

    Given the glut of lawyers, and the serious risk of job loss even for those who make partner in big law, a non-legal job is very much worth considering and if it is in a legal enterprise that teaches you something, take it.

    1. Concur. Successful people I know are MBA/JDs who had other skills. One or two years somewhere else (finance, high tech, etc) and they were "that" -- meaning they were seen as finance, tech guru, ops guys, etc.

    2. "The most successful people I know were MBA/JDs who did not go to work at law firms. Of course, they went to Harvard, but the point is that they took a riskier path, starting out in business and not law. They made it, on their own."

      The whole point is that these days, law is the riskier option.

    3. Adding on: "Of course, they went to Harvard..."

      Ellie Mystal (sp?) of Above the Law, made a comment 'if you want to be a lawyer, and you go to HLS, you'll be fine. In fact, if you do not want to be a lawyer, and you go to HLS, you'll still be fine.'

  5. Thing is, now that I'm corporate officer of a tech company and no longer doing law (my license is just an "interesting" fact when we play "get to know the executive leadership team" on retreats), I find that I feel bad for lawyers who are gainfully employed (feel bad to power of ten for unemployed JDs). I hate getting pitched to -- esp friends from LS who email me, "hey, if there's anything I can ever do for you..." Becoming a productive member of society, I'm learning, sometimes means proving your value (check your preconceived notions and lawyer-family-friends at the door)...

  6. Great post. I came across your blog for the first time months ago, when I was at my lowest point: hating every second of practicing, desperate for employment, feeling like there was no way out...
    I'm happy to report that I recently landed a job writing & editing that I LOVE, I make just slightly more than my practicing attorney husband, and life is amazing.
    Thanks for writing this to let me know I wasn't alone, it helped give me the strength not to give up.

    1. Thank you so much for reading! I'm so glad you could relate. There really is light at the end of the tunnel, as you're finding out. I recall some of my darkest days, and how trapped I felt, and I am so glad I am past that now. Funny how paralyzing fear can be. I wasted so much time worrying about what life would be like without my shiny title. Silly, isn't it? I hope your attorney husband isn't too irritated that you now make more than him. :)

  7. I usually do not make comments on these types of posting, but that tipsy lawyer's comment about how great you can be if you just stick it out compelled me to say something.

    It's really bizarre how some lawyers think that you should never give up on your legal career, even though they themselves are not doing so well or they hate their jobs. It may be a case of "misery loves company."

    Btw, if you haven't done this already, I'd like to see a list of condescending and unhelpful remarks and advices people throw in your face.

    "You know what you need to do - network..." well, no shit Sherlock. But try networking with no business cards and telling people "I do document review"

    "Document review for litigation? Oh that's great. You're getting experience!" To be fair, they do have document review associates now.

    "It's like dating, don't you know? you just gotta put yourself out there and keep trying. You can't just sit there and be passive." Yeah, thanks for that... I thought I would just sit here and do nothing and see what happens.. geez I was wrong.

    1. Thanks for reading and for your comment! I find it funny when "happy" lawyers post about how you just need to hang in there, since most people find my blog by googling "hate being a lawyer." Why are so many successful, hopeful attorneys googling things like that? Just to troll? I doubt it. If they're so in love with the law, they'd be too busy living the glamorous life to bother reading my blog.

      Oh yeah, network! Why didn't I think of that? I recall my 3L year when career services visited one of my classes and advised us to network, since most jobs are found through someone you know. Funny they didn't mention that to everyone during orientation. Hmmm....

  8. Any plans to make a new post or podcast? I really enjoy your perspective. I think the drumbeat of law school criticism is really having an impact. First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they attack you, then you win. I think we're finally reaching the "attack" phase and it's only through people like you, who have publicly shared your law school experience, that the truth about the law school robber barons is beginning to seep into the American consciousness.

  9. Hi,

    This is so long that I'll have to break this up into multiple parts. WTF does Google have the 4,096 character limit anyway?! Here's Part I...

    I found your blog from the scam blogs I occasionally read. I contemplated attending law school, but I never did. Though I have always have a deep fascination with the legal world, I just didn't see sufficient opportunity there to do the law school thing.

    Having said that, I did complete my BS in STEM mainly so I could have the option of attending law school; after all, you need to have your undergrad done before you can attend LS. Though I'm not sure I should have gotten my BS (I left a job at a well known Fortune 500 company to finish it), at least I did one, smart thing before attending law school: I researched it and the legal business thoroughly before I did anything.

    One, I read a lot of blogs websites about the legal business. Two, I talked with my Business Law professor, who was a FORMER attorney-note the emphasis on former! Anyway, he told me that as I was getting ready to graduate, in NJ that 3,000 new attorneys took the oath every six months; that's a lot of new competition! Thirdly, I spent about $20, and I purchased Robert H. Miller's outstanding book, Law School Confidential. LSC is basically a 'how-to' manual on the entire law school experience; from application to bar exam and everything in between, Mr. Miller lays everything out there for the prospective law student. It was the BEST $20 I ever spent! That book, in large part, helped me prevent making one of the biggest mistakes of my life...

    One very helpful feature in LSC is the mentors. In the beginning of the book, he features former classmates and friends who also attended law school, and these mentors relate their experiences to the reader. The one who impacted me the most was a woman by the name of Bess Franzosa; her experience was especially sobering.

    Miss Franzosa was a former journalist who was sick of being a spectator of horrific crimes she'd have to write about. So, to take a more active role, she attended law school to become a prosecutor. However, her loan payment was so large ($1,100 a month, which was more than my old mortgage) and prosecutor salaries too small for her to actually BECOME a prosecutor. She ended up doing labor & employment law at a big firm. To make a long story short, Miss Franzosa said that there was NO WAY she would do law school again; the costs, both professionally and personally, were just too big.

    Another thing I noticed about the mentors was that ALL of them had either been on law review, or they'd been on the school's big legal journals-all of them! When I talked to my own attorney and researched things on my own, I found that only 10%-15% of law students ever make law review. Though more may be able to write for a good legal journal at the school, only a minority of students can do this. Though I'm not the wisest man in the world, I have learned a few things: one of those is that not everyone can be the top dog; even if the law students had been top dogs in undergrad, it's unrealistic to be sure of being top dog at law school too. After all, EVERYONE at a top law school (talking Top 14 here) was top dog at their alma mater. It's no different how, once a football player is in college, all his team mates were stars at their respective high schools. Anyway, one cannot count on making law review, which is essential to even getting a sniff in this job market.

  10. Here's Part II of my comment...

    One has to keep in mind that this was 2003, BEFORE the legal profession hit the crapper! Even 10-15 years ago, competition was tough. Though it's nothing like it is now, it was still tough. If you didn't do the following: 1) graduate from a First Tier school; 2) didn't do law review or legal journal; 3) work in a LEGAL job during your 1L and 2L summers; then you didn't have much of a chance of breaking into the legal profession.

    I could go on, because LSC has lots of good insight about the whole law school experience, but I won't. Suffice it to say that reading and taking what Mr. Miller said to heart saved me from making a big mistake. I couldn't see taking enough debt to buy a house, while having a far from certain payoff. IOW, law school simply wasn't worth the gamble, so I didn't take it.

    Another good insight to overcrowding and the difficulty of breaking into the legal profession came from reading John Grisham's The Rainmaker. I'm a John Grisham fan; I always have been. Anyway, the main character in The Rainmaker, Rudy Baylor, had difficulty breaking in to the legal profession in Memphis. There are two poignant things I remember from that book.

    One was how the administration at Memphis State would flunk out a third of the 1L class. They told the 1Ls that the legal profession was overcrowded, not just in Memphis, but everywhere; that these students would struggle to finish school; then, they'd have uncertain employment prospects. As a favor, they said that they'd flunk out a third of the class.

    The second was how Rudy had to take a job with sleazy lawyer, and how his salary was, in effect, a loan that he'd pay back when he had a big month. After working for Bruiser Stone, Rudy and Deck form their own little firm. He fights a big insurance company, wins, but because the company went bankrupt, didn't get paid. In the end, he left the legal profession. I'll come back to that in a bit...

    The third thing I noticed was how Rudy Baylor initially looked down on his friend from undergrad who became a history teacher. As Rudy took the hard knocks in the underbelly of Memphis' legal profession, he ended up envying his friend. Why? Because he was doing what he really wanted to do, and it was fulfilling (working with young people).

    I noticed that, in the majority of John Grisham's books, the main character becomes disillusioned with the legal profession. The main character, for a variety of reasons, ends up leaving the legal profession. That always stood out to me as well. Turns out that, like the blog mistress here, that this happens in real life too. When you see something happening repeatedly, odds are that there's a good REASON for it.

    Anyway, I think that sufficient information is out there for those who really want to look-especially now with all the scam blogs like Nando's. When I finished my BS back in 2003, scam blogs didn't exist. Though the scam blogs didn't exist, other good resources did. Law School Confidential was INVALUABLE for me! I think any prospective law student should read it first. Secondly, John Grisham's books, especially The Rainmaker, show the pitfalls in the legal profession. Those are my thoughts.

    BTW, congrats in escaping the law and becoming debt free! Have a good day now...


  11. The myth of what lawyers do and earn is so powerful, that anyone not employed as a lawyer, and even a lot of lawyers, believe it.

    For that reason, an unemployed lawyer is still seen as somebody who will enter the glorious realm of wealth without working, while a lawyer who has switched to another career abandoned that, in the eyes of the unknowing, and even some of the knowing.