Thursday, January 16, 2014

One Crushing Tale and My Letter to a 0L


File this one under “there but for the grace of God go I.”  Here’s a profile of Andrew Carmichael, a “whiz kid” who racked up law school debt totaling $215,000.  Yep, that’s not a typo.  Two hundred fifteen large.  Just to put that in perspective – most people in this country could own a house outright for two hundred fifteen thousand dollars.  Meaning, Andrew took on law school debt that could have financed a home.  Meaning, he’s now looking at a student loan payment the size of a mortgage (to the tune of $2,756 per month).  Thank goodness mortgages are totally easy to pay off and have never gotten anyone into trouble.  

Spoiler alert: Andrew did get a great job after taking on all that law school debt, so it wasn’t a total waste.  He is now employed…as a computer programmer.  Yep, that’s also not a typo.  He is now a computer programmer.  I'm no expert, but last time I checked, a lot of computer programmers were scraping by without JD's.


Not for nothing, I am officially revoking Andrew of his “whiz kid” moniker.  He won’t be needing it for a while.  

At this point, I’m basically beating a dead horse, but take this as a lesson, all you 0L’s: most of you will face financial ruin if you make the mistake of financing a law degree.  And even if you do manage to find work and make your gargantuan loan payments, you will not be doing that while working as a lawyer.  How many more law schools does Nando have to skewer before you people wake up?  How many more stories of law school debt hell do you need to read before you realize what you are in for?  What exactly would it take for the synapses in your brain to fire when reading these cautionary tales? 

It’s partly my fault.  You see, I'm too nice in real life.  In real life, when prospective law students ask me what I think of their aspirations, I try to be diplomatic.  I reference the “tough legal market” and the dangers of taking on so much debt in such an uncertain economic climate.  I also tell them my own story of being unhappy practicing law, but finding it difficult to get out since I had a high student loan balance.  I guess I haven’t been forthright.  Well, that’s going to change now.  Here is an email I will be sending to an acquaintance of mine who just finished her first semester at a second-tier school that’s currently advertising about a 30% employment rate while charging $50K per year in tuition (names have been changed to protect the insolvent):

Dear Harriet:

I am so sorry for the delay in replying to your email.  I’ve been thinking about you a lot these past few months and I have been wracked with guilt for failing to intervene earlier.  This past summer, when you asked me for advice on whether you should go to law school (you were having doubts about whether you want to practice law), I advised you to take a year off and think about it before taking on so much debt.  I should have known better than to advise a 0L to think. 
 
Don’t get me wrong, Harriet – that’s not an insult.  I was once a 0L, pathologically averse to wisdom and logic, just like you were this past summer.  No one could reason with me – certainly not any of the dozens of attorneys I spoke with who begged me to do anything else but go to law school (one beleaguered fellow – he was forty years old but didn’t look a day over ninety – advised me that stripping would be more honorable, and certainly more lucrative.  But what the hell did he know?  He’d only been practicing law for fifteen years).  

Before I continue, Harriet, I’m going to pour myself a wee nip of some“truth serum,” if you know what I mean.  I know I ougtta keep my mouth shut more often than I do, but since I’m opening the floodgates, I’m gonna need a little liquid courage. 

Aahhhh…I know I go on and on about how flaky California is, but I’ll be damned if you can find a superior Pinot anywhere else.  Anyway, where was I?  Oh yeah, wisdom. 

See, I was different, Harriet.  Special even.  Destined for great things, like smart pant suits and file folders crammed with important papers.  Those tired, bitter lawyers were unhappy because they weren’t as bright as me, or as tough.  Maybe they should have gone into teaching, or social work, or even quiet little retail management positions.   I wasn’t like them.  They didn’t understand who they were talking to – I mean, I got A’s in history, Harriet.  I wasn’t some poor schmuck who majored in Spanish, or business.  Or even something equally useless like computer science. 

I apologize for the sarcasm.  Perhaps I’m still a bit sour about having picked the wrong major.  All the job ads I saw after college graduation seemed to want people with business degrees who were bilingual and dabbled in web development.  As it turned out, my senior thesis on the Franco-Prussian War didn’t pack quite the punch on my resume that I thought it would.  I wasn’t too discouraged, though.  I knew most people had to slum it for a bit after college and pay their dues, which is why I interviewed for a few entry-level positions.  I got a pretty decent offer from a non-profit I’d volunteered for as an undergrad.  Ah, but why would I limit myself to helping sexual assault victims (a passion of mine back then) when a law degree would open so many more doors, Harriet?  Besides, I could always help crime victims one way or another.  Maybe I’d be a prosecutor or something.  Give back to the community a little - after making my first million in Big Law, of course.   

By the way, you mentioned getting a job offer as a coach this past summer, didn’t you?  I recall you were so excited because you’d get to work with young people and teach them the sport you’d grown to cherish over the years.  I know you agonized about whether to turn it down because of law school.  Don’t worry, though.   I’m sure you won’t regret it.  I certainly don't.  Will you excuse me for a moment while I top off my glass?  I won't be a moment. 
 
Anyway, I digress.  The point is, I knew I wasn’t some average Joe who’d do just fine with a BA and a nice little office job, Harriet.  I wasn’t going to hide my light under a bushel, oh no.  I was going to let it shine, just like Jill Hennessy or Angie Harmon on Law & Order.  

I had personal reasons for wanting to go to law school, too.  I was the first kid in my family to go to college, and certainly I’d be the first one to enter into one of the professions.  I guess looking back on it, I felt I had something to prove…

My God, I’ve already had two glasses and I’ve entirely lost my place.  That's it, only a few more sips for me.  It's good for the arteries, I know, but not so great for storytelling.  Now what was I going on about?  Personal motives, right. 

You can probably relate.  Your parents are immigrants, just like my mom was, if I recall correctly?  Doesn’t your mom work for the post office?  Mine worked as a hotel maid.  I swear, Harriet, when your mom comes home with stories about cleaning up other people’s cum and shit and vomit, you turn into a very generous tipper.  (Speaking of tips, I’ve got an interesting story for you about how I paid off my student loans.  Let’s stick a pin in that for now, though.)  The point is, Harriet, I know your mom probably came home with similar, albeit less graphic, tales of indignity when you were a kid.  Serving the general public can certainly challenge one’s faith in man’s inherently benevolent nature.  It's no wonder she wanted better for you.
 
Anyway, my parents were always yammering on about college and having a career and making the family proud.  Nonetheless, I got the distinct impression that most people expected me to get knocked up and go on welfare as soon as I began ovulating, all because of my mom’s accent.  (I bet a lot of them were even disappointed when that didn’t happen.)  It was going to be nice, shoving my shiny JD in their pruney little faces.  I’d ask them how their kids, Johnny and Janie, were enjoying their careers selling lawn furniture at Target.  Maybe I’d even “accidentally” drop one of my business cards on the ground, right next to my shiny Louboutins.  Believe me, Harriet, I know you want to gloat, and I don’t blame you.  But please know that there are less destructive ways to do that than committing financial suicide.  

I have to pause here because I need to be upfront about something.  If I’m going to spill my guts about all the reasons why I belonged in law school, I guess I have to admit to a few doubts as well, in order to paint the full picture.  But first, I’m gonna need to top myself off again.  Shit, Harriet, coming clean sure feels dirty sometimes, doesn’t it?

Ok, fine, I didn’t entirely know what I wanted in a career.  But that’s what was so perfect about picking the law.  It was specific enough to provide me with an identity, and vague enough that I couldn’t understand the full implications of what a legal career actually involved until I was trapped.  Would you believe me if I told you that the thought of being trapped actually appealed – appealed – to me, Harriet?  Aw, hell, I'm spilling all over myself now.  No worries; a little club soda'll probably get that right out.  Anyway. I know it makes no sense at all, but bear with me.  I mean, if I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, maybe it’d just be easier if someone said to me, “here, go over there and do that.”  That thought actually crossed my mind on more than one occasion.  Maybe crushing debt would ground me somehow.  Keep me in place long enough to plant some roots and commit to a path.
   
You’ve probably had some doubts, too, Harriet.  It’s ok, I won’t tell anyone.  It’s just us girls talking right now.  Here, let me pour you a glass.  You probably think that going to law school will relieve you of the burden of having to figure out who you really are.  I know, I know.  Drink up, it'll put some hair on your chest.  Good.  Now listen close, Harriet, when I tell you that I am truly sorry, but there simply are not any loopholes when it comes to that.  Believe me, if there were, I’d have found one by now.  I'm just as sick about it as you are, sincerely.

Incidentally, there also aren’t many loopholes when it comes to student loan debt.  I know some might think I’m over-imbibing at this point, but I really do need another heavy pour if we’re gonna talk about this, Harriet.  There, last one, I promise.  I'm gonna top you off as well.  Trust me, you'll need it.

One thing you might want to do, Harriet, if you decide to continue with law school (read: dig your own grave) is check out the United States Bankruptcy Code.  Pay close attention to 11 U.S.C. §523(a)(8)(A) and (B).  I know there’s a lot of legal mumbo jumbo in there, and you probably haven’t learned a lot about statutory interpretation just yet – those law professors certainly like to flap their gums about case law, don’t they?  I know it’s not because cases are easier to read than statutes (not a lot of cross-referencing and such).  But why didn’t my genius professors prefer the dynamic nature of statutes?  I’ll never understand it.  I mean, have you ever looked at your state’s insurance code, Harriet?  I mean really looked at it?  It’s enough to drive you mad, with all the back and forth between different volumes.  But there I go again.  I’m sorry for all these tangents, Harriet, really I am.  Anyway, the crux of 11 U.S.C. § 523(a)(8)(A) and (B) is that you can’t discharge student loan debt in bankruptcy “unless excepting such debt from discharge…would impose an undue hardship” on you or your dependents.  

Now I know what you’re going to do after reading that.  You’re going to flip through page after page in search of the meaning of “undue hardship.”  Thing is, Harriet, there is no clear cut definition, which means the debtor is at the mercy of the court on that one.  And by “the court,” I mean one judge (most likely a white male) who probably graduated at or near the top of his class at a tier 1 school many years ago, when legal jobs were still plentiful.  Can you believe that?  I know it seems daunting to think that a person’s entire future could rest in the hands of one man, Harriet, but I want you to fully contemplate that reality.   

Let’s pretend we’re working on this case together.  Our client is a nice young woman who enrolled in a second-tier law school right after graduating college, and is now $200K in the hole with no job prospects whatsoever.  

Now, first we have to ignore the fact that this woman cannot actually pay us for our work.  Which means we’re gonna have to skip a few lattes this month in order for our little firm to eat the cost, but that’s all right.  We have plenty of other clients who are more than happy to pay us, right?  Just yesterday, I got a call from a PC (that’s lingo for “prospective client,” Harriet) who’s also thinking of filing for bankruptcy.  He’s probably got plenty o’ dough to throw at us to make all his problems go away. 

Anyway, I’m sure it’ll be easy for us to convince a success story like that judge of our client’s plight.  I mean, he could just as easily have found himself in the same position as our insolvent student loan debtor, had he graduated in a different market.   Rich and powerful people generally understand that a lot of their wealth and influence were born of luck among other things, right, Harriet?  You ask me, discharging that student loan debt’ll be a piece o’ cake.  We’ll all have to go out for a nice tall one after that adversary proceeding hearing.  Maybe the lawyer for Sallie Mae’ll even join us and pick up the tab, in exchange for a little “inside baseball” on just how we managed to persuade a federal judge to set a precedent that permits able-bodied law school debtors to walk away from six-figure debts the minute they hit a few speed bumps on the road to that white shoe firm we’re all destined for.  (You and I both know it really wasn’t that hard, Harriet, given that there aren’t any sweeping economic implications of such a holding.  We’ll let him pay anyway, wink wink.)  Yep. 
  
But what if it’s not?  Think about it, Harriet.  What happens if you – I mean, this hypothetical client of ours – finds herself $200K in the hole, and obligated to pay back $2,500 per month in student loans alone, but she can’t discharge that debt in bankruptcy?  I know it’s rare, Harriet, but these things happen.  And as lawyers, isn’t it our job to consider the worst possible outcomes?  I mean, we wouldn't exactly be earning our fee if we didn't explore all the hiccups our client might encounter in the process of trying to get her financial life back.  Oh that's right, we're not actually getting paid for this.  But we took an oath, right?  Zealous, competent representation and all that, remember, Harriet?  So I'm afraid we're gonna have to ask the tough questions.  What if our client doesn’t have the money to repay her loans, nor the ability to avail herself of bankruptcy relief?  

There are programs, right?  I’ll bet that’s what you’re thinking.  Deferrals, tax breaks, things like that.  I like the way your mind works, Harriet.  You're already thinking like a lawyer - always looking for an angle.  Well, you’re partially correct.  If you take out federal student loans, you might qualify for a hardship deferral.  But our client took out private loans (just like you, right?).  And private lenders aren’t obligated to cut borrowers a break, unless such a contingency is included in the loan agreement.

Well so what? You might be thinking.  You can’t squeeze blood from a turnip!  You’re right, you can’t.  But if you’re the federal government, you don’t have to waste your time fondling turnips, Harriet.  You can seize bank accounts and garnish wages, all without due process.  I mean, these are the Feds we're talking about!  And if you’re a private lender, you can still sue and garnish and generally make a debtor's life a living hell until she coughs up the dough.  
 
And in the meantime, Harriet, our client can’t buy a house because of her high debt-to-income ratio.  Again, I know this is a fluke scenario that almost never happens, but what should our client do in the meantime?  Continue renting?  How does she swing a rent payment and a $2,500 student loan payment?  Even if she can get a deferral, that means she’s not going to pay off the loan anytime soon, which means she won’t be buying a house anytime soon, either.  

And then there’s the tiny matter of her job prospects, Harriet.  As you know, she unfortunately had to take a retail position at a perfume counter, given the lack of legal jobs and the fact that no one wanted to hire her because of her law degree.  I guess a lot of the places she applied to labored under the delusion that she’d be gone just as quickly as she came, once she decided which six-figure job she was going to settle on (helping abused prisoners escape Guantanamo or assisting the bigwigs at Apple and Google with their latest acquisitions.  Decisions, decisions, right, Harriet?). 

Now I know this is going to sound harsh, Harriet, and maybe it’s just the wine talking, but you know what it sounds like to me?  Here, I’m gonna lean in a little closer so no one else hears.  You know what it sounds like to me?  It sounds to me like our client bought herself a house, only she didn’t get the keys, know what I mean?  I don’t mean to suggest any nefarious motives on the part of her law school or her student loan servicer – matter of fact, I won't even hear it, Harriet! - 'course  they do both get paid no matter what happens to our client, don’t they?  

See, there I go again.  This is why I left the law.  It’s troubling scenarios like these that circled round and round in my head all day and night, back when I was practicing, that drove me up the wall.  It’s human nature, I suppose.  You know what my criminal law professor once told us?  He told us that people often cite decreasing crime statistics as a testament to how well progressive economic and social policies have helped alleviate crime.  But the minute your car gets broken into, it doesn’t matter how low the crime rate is in your neighborhood; as far as you’re concerned, it’s now at one hundred percent.  That’s what it’s like practicing law, Harriet.  The legal system might work most of the time in this country, but when it doesn’t and it’s your client who gets the shit end of the stick, it certainly seems like one big monolith of graft and shaft.  And to tell you the truth, that’s exactly how I feel thinking about this client of ours who’s now stuck with decades of nondischargeable debt and a dead-end job.  It feels like the “graft and shaft” rate just went up to one hundred percent. 

Oh, but listen to me prattle on and on.  Like I said, it's just the Pinot talking, Harriet.  It really brings out the conspiracy buff in me.  You asked me about law school!  And what do injustice, financial ruin, and crippling regret have to do with that?

Very truly yours,
Recovering Lawyer

I'll probably edit it a bit before I send it out, but I hope Harriet gets the message.

By the way, if you enjoy my blog, please leave a comment below (even if it's just a quick "read it" so I'll know I'm not just talking to myself or to the spambots).  It'll be helpful in knowing whether I should continue to post.  Thanks for reading!


19 comments:

  1. I read your blog and look forward to your posts, but since I graduated law school this May it feels too late for me. I still appreciate knowing I'm not alone though.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading! It's never too late, you know. If you've got six-figure debt from law school, it'll be hard to get rid of, but not impossible (well, for the $200K + crowd, it might be next to impossible...). The hardest part is finding a non-legal job with a JD on your resume. If you can find a way to leave it off, leave it off!! I hope this entry didn't depress you. It was just meant to be a warning to 0L's.

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    2. Well done! I've been banging the "don't go to law school" drum for about the past 7 years (I'm 16 years out). I'm actually doing reasonably well in my post Biglaw professional life after starting a very small corporate litigation shop. But it took nearly a decade in Biglaw (from which I was cut loose in the depths of the Great Recession) to gain the cred I would need to do it. For those just embarking on this path, I urge them not to . . . !!! Get a degree in something you enjoy with a reasonable ROI! Anyway, congratulations on being law school debt-free, and keep up the good fight.

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    1. Thank you for reading, and for your comment!

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  3. You're a really good writer, keep posting!

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    1. Thank you so much!! I can't tell you how much it means to read positive comments about my writing. I'll definitely keep posting. :)

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  4. Recovering Lawyer, you didn't go to law school so you could help people like me, people who cannot afford a $300/hour lawyer. You did it so you could wave your "shiny JD" in my "pruney little face." You said so yourself. Since your object was to lord it over me with wealth, status, and the privileges of being an officer of the court, I'm as short on sympathy as you are short of money.

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    1. Thank you so much for reading, and for your comment! I have to say, unless you're a racist or a xenophobe, then no, I did not want to wave my JD in your face. :) That wasn't the only reason I wanted to go to law school, but I had to discuss it with "Harriet," since a lot of law students might feel like they have something to prove if people had low expectations of them growing up.

      I take it you haven't read my blog (no worries, I understand if it's not your cup of tea) - we actually aren't short on money. Not anymore, anyway. We have been debt-free for almost a year and are now on baby step 4 of the Dave Ramsey plan. Getting out of debt was humbling, and it's made me even more passionate about helping people avoid student loans, especially law students who often take on six-figure debts even though the legal market is terrible.

      I'm sorry to hear you can't afford a lawyer. If you need one, have you contacted the state bar where you live? They often have a list of lawyers who are willing to assist people on a sliding scale. Law schools have similar programs, where second and third years can help you under the supervision of a licensed attorney for little or no cost.

      Again, thanks for reading!

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  5. This is a great post, although most prospective law students wouldn't be able to wade through your detailed letter.

    Seriously, when I was a 0L (which was almost 20 years ago, jeez), I did have some "informational" interviews with attorneys before applying to law school. It was like the Charlie Brown TV show-- "Wah wah wah, wah wah wah wah." I simply could not understand what they were saying.

    Hey, prospective law students-- No jobs, too much debt, no ability to discharge loans if law isn't for you. Write that down 100 times on the black board.

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  6. Wow - keep posting. I have similar stories in my experience in the legal business, thank you.

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  7. Yikes!!! Stories like this make my glad that I graduated law school 20 years ago, when having a law degree still meant something. And yes, my student loan is also paid off.

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  8. Article on either yahoo or NYT yesterday on the LDS.

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  9. I just now stumbled across your Legally Obligated blog. Thanks for sharing your experiences with such authenticity. I graduated from law school in 2011 and after two years of practicing litigation, I finally succumbed to the realization it was not for me. I couldn't stand being enslaved to the billable hour, the business travel, the "business development" a.k.a. schmoozing, and so much more. It was taking a toll on my physical health, marriage and overall sanity.

    It was both very difficult and very easy for me to decide to walk away from my job. Since quitting, I've been working as a paralegal to keep an income but give myself the time and space to reevaluate my skills, interests and career aspirations.

    Keep writing. It is good to know we're not alone.

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  10. I love your blog and I hope you update it soon! You've got some great things to say!

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  11. This is a great blog. I'm looking to leave the law behind as well, so I can completely relate.

    In Andrew's defense, at least he managed to get a job. Granted, it wasn't in the law, but the law school debt is a sunk cost at this point. Besides, computer programmers probably (and by probably, I mean almost certainly) have better long-term career prospects than lawyers.

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  12. When are you going to make a new podcast and post again? I'm a lawyer with a low-paying job, $180k+ in debt, and I enjoy reading about other law grads trying to move on in life and improve their conditions. I hope you read this comment and it encourages you to start writing again.

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  13. Did someone try to expose your identity or invade your privacy? The individuals and institutions who profit off legal education seem to have a penchant for destroying anyone who dares to criticize their endeavor. Is this why you don't post anymore? Don't succumb to their bullying!!

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