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In the long run

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A reader suggested I take a look at Hamilton Nolan’s ongoing Gawker series of unemployment stories. They make for harrowing reading, and a lot of them are from attorneys. Here’s one from somebody still in free fall from a spot near the top of the profession:

Two years ago I was on top of the world – at least from exterior appearances. Barely past 30, my salary was approximately a quarter million dollars per year, I was living in a luxury high rise with a view of Central Park from my balcony, and it seemed I was on the fast track to a successful career. Now 18 months after losing my job at the end of 2010, I’ve learned a lot of valuable life lessons but find myself wondering, constantly every day, is there any hope left? The Manhattan apartment is long-gone and replaced with a room at my father’s house in the exurbs of Atlanta, a house I helped him buy five years ago. I’ve applied for over 750 jobs in the last year, but still I wait. This is my story.

We hear a lot of talk about the employment crisis these days, from both sides of our so-called political spectrum. No one has much in the way of solutions, and the options for the unemployed seem to be Republicans that tell me what I need is to have my unemployment cut off – then surely I’ll be motivated to find a job. Democrats at least don’t think starvation will improve my job hunt, but beyond affording me my luxurious life on unemployment, I hear scant dedication to anything that might actually improve the employment outlook. I remain a voracious consumer of news and from what I see and hear portrayed in the media, the unemployed in this country are generally older, often former factory workers. We hear much discussion of how to address these workers in a nation that may no longer offer employment they have experience in. I feel for these workers and don’t mean to diminish their situations – but I was supposed to be exempt from that. In fact, based on what the media says, I don’t exist. I attended an Ivy League college and a top 5 law school (at least according to US News’ rankings). My first real job, which started shortly after my 25th birthday, paid a salary of $125,000. That salary had doubled within 5 years. I was lucky enough to have the chance to go to some of the top schools in America, and it seemed I was enjoying the rewards of obtaining such a pedigree. Then it ended…

The question I find myself grappling with these days is “is this the best we can do?” I’ve spent months focusing on not being jealous or angry, and I’ve largely succeeded. I really am happy for my friends that are having children, and going on vacations, and otherwise moving forward and living their lives. But is this a country where one false move (in my case, working at the wrong law firm) can essentially end your chance at a productive life? I admit I had an arrogance prior to my layoff – I never imagined this could happen to me. I was no conservative, and I sympathized with and believed we could and should do more to help the unfortunate in this country – but I never believed I would be in that situation myself. I was told from childhood on that a good education was the path to a better life – and that if you were willing and able to work hard and had something to contribute, you’d have opportunities in this country. Where are those opportunities?

The most striking thing to me during the coverage of the Occupy Movement last fall was the “counter-protestors” (read: miserable assholes) yelling things like “Get a job!” I would love one! As I mentioned previously, I’ve applied for over 750 jobs in the last 18 months and continue to apply for 30-100 jobs each month. I’ve applied for jobs at law firms, scores of jobs with the government, jobs at corporations, jobs at non-profits, jobs for lawyers, jobs for non-lawyers, jobs as a paralegal, jobs as a writer, jobs, jobs, jobs. I’ve applied for jobs from Seattle to Miami, from San Diego to Boston, and I’ve applied to jobs overseas. Have work? Will travel. Of course, while employment is improving marginally overall, it hasn’t improved in the legal sector. Total legal employment is lower now than it was in 2008, despite the abundance of law schools in this country pumping out nearly 50,000 new lawyers each year. I admit that I have not yet applied to work in fast food or retail as I maintain the hope that somehow, some way, I’ll eventually find a position which could eventually lead me back to a semblance of my old life. That said, I don’t see an abundance of “Help Wanted” signs at McDonald’s or Best Buy. The notion that people can just “Get a Job!” in this market is laughable. The government’s own numbers pretend that over 8 million Americans have dropped out of the workforce in recent years; while you may know of someone that struck oil in their backyard and actually retired in their 30s or 40s, I’m confident most of these people are simply unable to find employment. I wonder how they afford food – I fear for my own future when unemployment is cut off.

I continue to have some hope – I keep trying to tell myself that I have great experience and a great background, and eventually that will mean something to someone somewhere. I know I’m hard working – I billed well over 2000 hours as my mother died of cancer in 2009 because the firm expected nothing less. (For the non-lawyers reading, that translates to working 60+ hours most weeks.) I also wonder and worry about the larger country – if finding work is so hard and seemingly hopeless for someone with my background, someone barely into their 30s, what is it like for older workers with fewer credentials?

As another day starts in the exurbs, I sigh. It’s another day of nothing. I’ll look at the usual job boards. I’ll read the 10+ emails I receive each morning with updated job listings. I’ll head to the gym. But in general, another day will come and go and nothing will change. Maybe I’ll receive a rejection letter or two. Maybe I’ll find a new posting for a job that would be perfect – if only they decide to interview me. But really, I just wait. I watch the clock spin in circles. I watch my life pass me by. I wonder how much longer this can last. And I wait.

A few comments:

(1) The most glaring gap in the relevant data for people trying to figure out what the long-term value of law degrees actually is these days is that we have so little information on long-term career outcomes. We have huge amounts of data — much of it of dubious reliability, but still — on immediate post-grad outcomes, which, as everyone outside the impenetrable special snowflake bubble now knows, look pretty awful.

But what about nine years after graduation as opposed to nine months? One commenter at ITLSS has posted dozens of comments about how law is a demographic pyramid, with fewer and fewer jobs available for middle-aged lawyers, and with rampant age discrimination simply being a standard feature of big firm and perhaps also in-house hiring and firing practices. As far as I can tell this perspective is anecdotal, which certainly doesn’t discredit it, but we clearly need a lot of longitudinal work done on the subject. (Things such as this study of the UVA class of 1990 are a start, but obviously a snapshot of one 23-year-old elite law school’s graduating class 17 years after graduation in 2007 throws a very limited light on the present overall situation).

(2) In particular, given that BigLaw is the only initial career option that makes any economic sense for anybody paying anything remotely close to sticker at about 75% of all law schools, we need more information on current as opposed to past exit options for BigLaw associates. Of course only about 15% of current graduates will ever work in BigLaw, but the importance of this demographic for law schools can hardly be overstated. Legal academics who complain about Kids Today thinking that a law degree should be a guarantee of a high-paying job need to answer this question: Why exactly does it make sense for anybody to incur hundreds of thousands of dollars in direct and opportunity costs by going to your law school, unless doing so guarantees at least a reasonably good shot at acquiring at least a temporarily high-paying job for at least a reasonable amount of time?

Anyway, the “realistic” career path for students at the (12? 7? 4?) law schools that can still produce something resembling an actual answer to that question is:

(a) Top Law School

(b) Associate at V-whatever firm for X years, which will be dedicated to paying down debt and preparing for life post V-whatever firm.

(c) ???

How attractive (c) does or does not end up being for people currently in or considering law school is critical to the viability of what elite law schools are selling going forward, which in turn is for psychological/ideological reasons critical to the viability of what non-elite schools are selling, even though only a tiny minority of non-elite law school graduates will ever be on this particular career path.

(3) A particularly critical benefit of their jobs that tenured legal academics tend to undervalue when they burble on about how they turned down lucrative careers for the vows of scholarly poverty is that their salaries don’t have to be — or haven’t had to be until now — discounted by any risk of falling to zero and staying there. It’s hard to put a number on just how valuable that benefit is, not merely in terms of extrapolating income into the future, but in terms of the psychic benefit of not having the shadow of possible economic disaster constantly falling on whatever career success a lawyer is currently enjoying. This is just another way in which, as a practical matter, legal academics aren’t really part of the legal profession at all.

Today, thinking like a lawyer means thinking a lot about what will happen if and when you lose your current job. To the very limited extent that some legal academics may actually be starting to think about that, they are, in a sense, coming slightly closer to rejoining the profession they were so eager to escape.

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