A lawyer sits in a restaurant, serene and resigned to the financial disaster that has become his life. Parts of his story are familiar: big dreams of success dashed by bleak career prospects and mountainous debt. But his story is also foreign and frustrating: a tale of an individual who took out massive loans to fuel a decision based on an enjoyable locale and an assumption that “pots of gold” would materialize at the end of the law school rainbow. This lawyer, Michael Wallerstein, is the focus of David Segal’s eye-opening (for those not already in the legal industry) article Is Law School a Losing Game. Wallerstein’s laid-back outlook would be fitting if he was, in fact, a surfer-dude. But he’s not. He’s an unemployed lawyer with $250k in loans who left the job he had at a Queens law firm because of a difficult boss and now loafs about with no motivation to repay his loans because hey, no one can put him in jail for it.
His cavalier, immature attitude is an unfortunate backdrop for Segal’s commentary, which exposes problems with law-school statistics and ranking-reporting standards. Segal’s piece highlights number manipulation and law-school overcrowding, tactics bringing the green to law schools but dumping students in a much different life than they had planned. And while Segal’s is a voice that law students and unemployed attorneys have been waiting for, it’s muffled by an irresponsible twenty-something whose carelessness makes it difficult to relate to him.
And that’s a shame because Segal’s piece is a well-written look at a depressing world populated by many responsible, hard-working individuals who did their homework before going to law school, chose schools based on academics and career prospects, are eagerly searching for employment, and remain in legal-unemployment hell with no prospects in sight. From my experience, this group constitutes the majority of law students and lawyers.
These people are scared and angry, and they should be. Law school isn’t just school - it’s intense, it’s cutthroat, it breaks you down, it sucks your energy, and it’s a serious three-year commitment. Going through law school is akin to mental boot camp – imagine enduring all of that abuse and training and emerging with nothing but your scars. And like Segal points out, “law school is a pie-eating contest where the first prize is more pie.” Being an attorney is not just a job – it is your life, a life of catering to clients 24/7 and making the tough decisions on these clients’ most important matters. Pursuing a legal career means sacrificing your time and oftentimes your plans and loved ones. I’ve been there – it’s a rocky road. I would be angry too if I had committed years of my life stumbling down that road only to hit a dead end with no paths for escape.
And I’d be even more upset if I was drowning in debt just to flounder in a dead end.
So I think the anger is justified, even if it is unclear exactly where to place it. As I noted in an earlier post, law schools should bear some of the blame, but I don’t think it’s fair to pin it all on them. It’s a bigger story of a down economy and a reporting and disclosure system (with many players) that distorts the truth of the legal job market. Segal’s message is an important one, even if his messenger isn’t a prime representative, because it brings this distortion forward and challenges these players to step up and work toward a solution.
Do you think the article will spark a change in the ranking and disclosure practices? Who do you think should be held most responsible, and what should they do to build a solution?
Related: Law School Isn't a Game - It's a Serious Investment
Related: Law Schools Entice Naive Law Students Onto Campus With Rosy, Misleading Data
Related: On Exploring Alternative Legal Career Opportunities
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