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A painful case

[ 234 ] February 12, 2014 |

Although Clarence Thomas is still only 65 — i.e., practically a youngster by the late Politburo-style demographics of the contemporary Supreme Court — he seems to be moving into the Abe Simpson period of what is likely to be (check out these SSA demographic tables) a 40-plus year tenure on the SCOTUS.

Yesterday he regaled an audience at a college in Florida with these sociological observations:

“My sadness is that we are probably today more race and difference-conscious than I was in the 1960s when I went to school. To my knowledge, I was the first black kid in Savannah, Georgia, to go to a white school. Rarely did the issue of race come up,” Thomas said during a chapel service hosted by the nondenominational Christian university. “Now, name a day it doesn’t come up. Differences in race, differences in sex, somebody doesn’t look at you right, somebody says something. Everybody is sensitive. If I had been as sensitive as that in the 1960s, I’d still be in Savannah. Every person in this room has endured a slight. Every person. Somebody has said something that has hurt their feelings or did something to them — left them out.

“That’s a part of the deal,” he added.

Apparently it wasn’t until Thomas left his old Savannah home that he encountered real racism, at the hands of Northern liberal elites:

“The worst I have been treated was by northern liberal elites. The absolute worst I have ever been treated,” Thomas said. “The worst things that have been done to me, the worst things that have been said about me, by northern liberal elites, not by the people of Savannah, Georgia.”

This is just sad. As Jon Chait points out:

Maybe the reason race came up so rarely was not that the racial situation was better in 1960s Georgia. Maybe the reason race came up rarely is that the racial situation in 1960s Georgia was extremely terrible.

For instance, for the first 14 years of Thomas’s life, Georgia had zero African-Americans in its state legislature. Majority-black Terrell had a total of five registered black voters — possibly because African-Americans were so satisfied with their treatment that they didn’t see any reason to vote, or possibly because civil-rights activists in Georgia tended to get assassinated.

I wish I could say it’s incomprehensible to me that an African American man who grew up in deep south in the 1950s and 1960s (Thomas was 16 when the Civil Rights Act was enacted) could talk about racism in this country as if it were primarily a matter of “slights” and “hurt feelings.” But unfortunately it’s all too comprehensible, in a world in which old men become parodies of the young men they once were, and in which we are taught from the earliest age to lick the hand that feeds us.

Note too the bottomless anti-intellectualism of this sort of social analysis by autobiographical anecdote. Let’s assume that Thomas actually did encounter more racism at Yale Law School, at the EEOC, before the Senate Judiciary Committee etc., than he did in Jim Crow Georgia. What relevance would this purported fact have to a discussion of the changing role of race in American life? Clarence Thomas has reached a point where he is making Ronald Reagan sound like Malcolm X. This sounds like hyperbole, but compare:

When I was your age, believe it or not, none of us knew that we even had a racial problem. When I graduated from college and became a radio sport announcer, broadcasting major league baseball, I didn’t have a Hank Aaron or a Willie Mays to talk about. The Spaulding Guide said baseball was a game for Caucasian gentlemen. Some of us then began editorializing and campaigning against this. Gradually we campaigned against all those other areas where the constitutional rights of a large segment of our citizenry were being denied. We have not finished the job. We still have a long way to go, but we have made more progress in a few years than we have made in more than a century.

Ronald Reagan, speech to the first Conservative Political Action Conference, January 25, 1974.

Now I can’t get My Awesome Mix Tape #6 out of my head

[ 21 ] February 10, 2014 |

Thanks a lot Scott.

I have a piece in Salon about the affluenza defense, class stratification, and unequal justice under the law.

Various law school developments

[ 76 ] February 10, 2014 |

(1) A very significant thing happened at the ABA Section of Legal Education Standards Review Committee meeting (I can already see readers’ eyes glazing over) on Friday, which hasn’t yet been noted by the legal academic blogosphere. Per the ABA Journal:

At its meeting Friday, the committee also:

• Voted to recommend eliminating the current prohibition on granting academic credit to a student who participates in a field placement program for which the student receives compensation.

This little nugget seems to have gotten lost amid the clamor regarding two proposals to require either six or 15 credit hours of “experiential learning” of every ABA law school graduate, but is obviously related to it in a potentially crucial way.

Coupled with the Section’s decision last August to allow a full semester’s worth of academic work to be done by “distance learning,” you don’t need a weatherman to see the way the wind is blowing, which is to eventually outsource the entire third year of law school to employers, thus essentially eliminating it as an academic matter, while at the same time still retaining the third year of law school tuition.

You also don’t need to be Mancur Olson to see why the forces pushing toward this outcome are going to be almost irresistable:

*For students, this will mean spending the “third year of law school” working instead of going to class and — mirabile dictu — even getting paid for it! I haven’t done a scientific survey, but I imagine a poll of upper level law students regarding the desirability of such an option would resemble a North Korean presidential election.

*For law schools, such an arrangement allows one third of the curriculum to be offloaded, with no loss of revenue.

*Employers will enjoy the advantages of quasi-indentured labor (if you quit your job you’re going to be dropping out of school, so you can’t quit — a circumstance that will no doubt be reflected in the compensation levels and working conditions associated with these jobs).

. . . These developments will have a negative effect on one group: People who have already graduated from law school, especially recent graduates, who will see a good number of traditional entry level positions destroyed by the entrance of cheap temporary labor, in the form of third year “students” doing “externships” for both credit and (now) money. As always, these sorts of putative curricular reforms do not create more jobs, which remains the central problem for the entire model.

It says something about the state of legal education that this set of developments is probably an improvement on the status quo.

(2) A few interesting statistics from the new 509 disclosures:

*33.7% of Florida State’s 2L and 3L classes are transfer students. FSU took 90 transfers last summer and 89 the year before (there are a total of 530 2Ls and 3Ls at the school this year). LSAT and GPA scores of transfer students aren’t reported to the ABA, and therefore don’t affect law school rankings. Speaking of which:

*25th LSAT percentile for George Washington’s 2010 part-time class: 162 (86th percentile overall). For the 2013 class: 154 (59th percentile).

*Median LSAT for Valparaiso’s entering class: 143 (20th percentile).

(3) The latest LSAC volume summary continues to indicate that applications this year will be down more than 40% since 2010, and approximately 50% off their 2004 high. This extrapolates to a likely first year class of around 35,100 (down from 52,500 in 2010). I would be somewhat surprised if by this time next year no ABA law school has announced it’s shutting down.

(4) This is very, very wrong, and anyone who laughs at it should feel terrible (I know I do):

Woody Allen responds

[ 343 ] February 8, 2014 |

Updated below

Here.

When I originally linked to Dylan Farrow’s NYT letter I did a little digging, and was surprised to discover that in all the back and forth regarding this matter there seemed to be no discussion of the potential significance of Dory Previn’s song “With My Daddy in the Attic.” The lyrics, written sometime between 1968, when Andre Previn’s and Mia Farrow’s affair broke up the Previns’ marriage, and 1970, when Dory Previn released an album featuring the song (along with the better-known “Beware of Young Girls,” which is about the Farrow-Previn affair), describe an incest fantasy. The protagonists are a young girl and her father — who, like Woody Allen, plays the clarinet. The scene of the trysts is an attic.

In his response, Allen addresses this issue:

Even the venue where the fabricated molestation was supposed to have taken place was poorly chosen but interesting. Mia chose the attic of her country house, a place she should have realized I’d never go to because it is a tiny, cramped, enclosed spot where one can hardly stand up and I’m a major claustrophobe. The one or two times she asked me to come in there to look at something, I did, but quickly had to run out. Undoubtedly the attic idea came to her from the Dory Previn song, “With My Daddy in the Attic.” It was on the same record as the song Dory Previn had written about Mia’s betraying their friendship by insidiously stealing her husband, André, “Beware of Young Girls.” One must ask, did Dylan even write the letter or was it at least guided by her mother? Does the letter really benefit Dylan or does it simply advance her mother’s shabby agenda? That is to hurt me with a smear. There is even a lame attempt to do professional damage by trying to involve movie stars, which smells a lot more like Mia than Dylan.

Now of course the song is not a completely unambiguous piece of evidence for the proposition that Mia Farrow coached her daughter to confabulate a false accusation against Allen. A zealous prosecutor could, one supposes, argue that Allen got the idea for his purported crime from the song. But it’s easy enough to see why no charges were brought against Allen.

What seems clear is that a terrible crime was committed against Dylan Farrow when she was seven years old. What will remain unclear is what that crime actually was.

Update: Dylan Farrow’s response to Allen’s op-ed is reproduced here.

Also, all this reminds me of what Newt Gingrich, family man, had to say at the time regarding a family tragedy:

“I call this the Woody Allen plank,“ said Gingrich, a fierce Republican conservative, of the Democratic Party platform. “Watch the Woody Allen case and measure:

“Woody Allen is not having incest with his non-daughter for whom he has been a non-father because they have a non-family,“ Gingrich said. “It`s a weird situation and it fits the Democrat Party platform perfectly.“

Reusable template for standard moral panic journalism, DEA ceritified edition

[ 92 ] February 4, 2014 |

needle and a spoon

This could come in handy whenever the apogee of a deadline meets the perigee of a hangover. Quotes and statistics can easily fill this out to 750 words.

The [death, hospitalization, arrest, other misfortune] of [celebrity] is fueling renewed concern about a recent upsurge of [bad things], brought on by a new wave of [drug of the moment] users.

[Prominent drug warrior] warns that if [extremely expensive pet initiative featuring no data on potential effectiveness] is not adopted, “we could lose a whole generation” to [drug of the moment] addiction.

Indeed [various authority figures] are sounding the alarm that [drug of the moment], whose use many Americans believe is confined to [socially marginal deviants] is suddenly appearing/making a comeback among upper middle class white kids suburban youth, who are drawn to glamorous portrayals of [drug of the moment] addicts in films, music, and on the Internet.

[Credentialed expert] argues that new strains of [drug of the moment] are far more potent and dangerous than the versions of the drug which were previously available, when [readers of this story] were engaging in youthful experimentation with [drug of the moment], and that rapidly falling prices are making [drug of the moment] a tempting alternative to alcohol, prescription drugs, and even marijuana [ed. note: last three words of previous sentence not suitable for stories about marijuana].

Dylan Farrow and Woody Allen

[ 481 ] February 3, 2014 |

Updated below

Last week, Woody Allen was nominated for his latest Oscar. But this time, I refuse to fall apart. For so long, Woody Allen’s acceptance silenced me. It felt like a personal rebuke, like the awards and accolades were a way to tell me to shut up and go away. But the survivors of sexual abuse who have reached out to me – to support me and to share their fears of coming forward, of being called a liar, of being told their memories aren’t their memories – have given me a reason to not be silent, if only so others know that they don’t have to be silent either.

Today, I consider myself lucky. I am happily married. I have the support of my amazing brothers and sisters. I have a mother who found within herself a well of fortitude that saved us from the chaos a predator brought into our home.

But others are still scared, vulnerable, and struggling for the courage to tell the truth. The message that Hollywood sends matters for them.

What if it had been your child, Cate Blanchett? Louis CK? Alec Baldwin? What if it had been you, Emma Stone? Or you, Scarlett Johansson? You knew me when I was a little girl, Diane Keaton. Have you forgotten me?

Woody Allen is a living testament to the way our society fails the survivors of sexual assault and abuse.

So imagine your seven-year-old daughter being led into an attic by Woody Allen. Imagine she spends a lifetime stricken with nausea at the mention of his name. Imagine a world that celebrates her tormenter.

Are you imagining that? Now, what’s your favorite Woody Allen movie?

Read the whole thing.

One note: Nicolas Kristof prefaces Farrow’s account by reminding readers that “it’s important to note that Woody Allen was never prosecuted in this case and has consistently denied wrongdoing; he deserves the presumption of innocence.”

I think this is a misapplication of a principle of criminal law to a very different context. Woody Allen deserves the presumption of innocence if the state is using its power to try to punish him for allegedly raping his child. What he deserves outside of a courtroom is another question.

Update: This may be nothing but a creepy coincidence in a matter full of such things, but as I’m not finding any discussion of it on the internet I’m going to note it here. In 1968, Farrow had an affair with the conductor and composer Andre Previn. Previn’s wife, the songwriter Dory Previn, discovered the affair when Farrow became pregnant with Andre Previn’s child. Dory divorced Andre, and shortly afterwards Farrow married him. At this time Dory Previn released an album of songs that included “With My Daddy in The Attic,” which appears to be an incest fantasy about a girl and her father having trysts in an attic. Lyrics of particular interest to the subject here:

And no
Husbands in the future
To intrude
Upon our attic
Past the stair
Where we’ll live on
Peanut butter
Spread across assorted crackers
And he’ll play
His clarinet
When I despair
With my
Daddy in the attic
With my
Daddy in the attic
With my
Daddy in the attic
Passed the stair
Where we’ll live on
Peanut butter
Spread across assorted crackers
And he’ll play
His clarinet
When I despair

(Allen is well-known for playing the clarinet in jazz bands).

Entertainment

[ 63 ] February 3, 2014 |

One of the most interesting passages in Fever Pitch, Nick Hornby’s memoir of being a fanatical Arsenal “supporter” as they say over there, involves the manager of an opposing team deriding the idea that his job is to provide football fans with an entertaining experience:

This game against Stoke was very much in the mould—a goalless first half, and then, amid rising discontent, two late goals (ironically, given the towering height of Stoke’s several centre-halves, headed in by the two smallest players on the pitch, Sansom and Rollins). Nobody, not even someone like me, would have been able to remember the game had it not been for the post-match press conference, when Alan Durban became angered by the hostility of the journalists towards his team and his tactics. “If you want entertainment,” he snarled, “go and watch clowns.”

It became one of the most famous football quotes of the decade. The quality papers in particular loved it for its effortless summary of modern football culture: here was conclusive proof that the game had gone to the dogs, that nobody cared about anything other than results any more, that the Corinthian spirit was dead, that hats were no longer thrown in the air. One could see their point. Why should football be different from every other branch of the leisure industry? You won’t find too many Hollywood producers and West End theatre impresarios sneering at the public’s desire to be diverted, so why should football managers get away with it?

Fever Pitch is among other things an illustration of how what hard core fans like Hornby are seeking isn’t really entertainment: it’s more a form of catharsis. But even catharsis isn’t the right word, since the whole point of the mimesis is that what is being witnessed is an imitation of life rather than life itself, while for the hard core fan the game is life itself.

All of which is by way of saying that last night’s game drove home to me the difference between two types of fan experience, which I will call the fevered or obsessive, and the casual or consumerist. The former seeks transcendence,the latter a bit of fun. I root for the Broncos largely because my wife is a fan, and she is a fan because she grew up watching the games on TV every Sunday with her family. That tradition has continued, and we had gatherings every week this season, during the course of which I saw just about every snap of the Broncos’ games, including their preaseason contests.

This level of involvement, at least for me, creates an almost inadvertent level of expertise regarding a team, which itself is a typical hallmark of a hard core (fevered/obsessive) fan. But I’ve never been that kind of fan in regard to Denver, although I have developed a certain affection for them, and would like them to win, and would especially (of course) have liked them to win yesterday. I’m not certain why this is, but I believe it has something to do with being unable to develop a genuine emotional attachment to a team that I didn’t root for when I was a child. In fact I’m sure I would have been much more emotionally invested if the Lions had been in the Super Bowl, even though I hardly ever see them play, and I doubt I can name more than six players on their current roster, so I can hardly say I’m a real Lions fan any more either.

So in regard to the Broncos I’m a casual consumer: I enjoy their games, I want them to win, but basically it’s just entertainment. In other words, by my own standards, I’m not a real fan: a status that I’ve only managed to maintain in regard to the University of Michigan football team. Being a casual consumer of sports entertainment definitely has its advantages. When Michigan lost to Ohio State in the 1970s I would literally be depressed about it for days, while I had more or less forgotten about last night’s game thirty minutes after it ended. But it also means a transcendent emotional experience (positive or negative) is not something Peyton Manning and his successors are ever going to deliver to me.

Albany Law School to fire tenured faculty based on merit evaluations?

[ 87 ] January 31, 2014 |

Updated Below

That seems to be at least a strong possibility, from a reading of the documents made available here, by the Albany Law School chapter of the AAUP (this chapter came into existence two months ago).

In his message [Chair of the Board of Trustees Daniel] Nolan stated that “relevant financial circumstances facing the School require a headcount reduction, including faculty.” Enclosed with his message were criteria — under the headings “teaching,” “scholarship,” and “service” — that Mr. Nolan said the administration had proposed to use “in considering faculty reductions.” . . . Faculty sources have further reported that [Dean Penny Andrews has] stated both privately and publicly that terminations of faculty appointments would be effected without regard to whether the appointments were non-tenure track, probationary for tenure, or tenured.

The chapter claims both that the school has not demonstrated that it is facing a bona fide financial emergency (“exigency” in the jargon of higher ed force reductions), or that any tenured faculty should be dismissed for incompetence.

This isn’t an area that I know much about, but I’m unclear what legal relevance, if any, these arguments have. As far as I’m aware Albany isn’t under any obligation to follow AAUP standards in these matters (The AAUP takes the position that tenure-track faculty and other permanent faculty should only be fired upon the showing of a genuine financial emergency that can’t be dealt with by other means, and that, in the case of such an emergency, untenured faculty should always be let go before any tenured faculty, who should only lose their jobs either for “incompetence,” or, in the case of a financial emergency, if firing all the untenured faculty isn’t enough.)

In this case the AAUP standards seem to be merely precatory, as lawyers say, which means that the only cost Albany incurs by ignoring them is reputational, assuming of course that the school follows whatever procedures it’s contractually obligated to follow when firing employees. (Update: A three year old version of the school’s faculty handbook says tenured faculty can be fired only for cause or financial exigency. See Appendix B at 14).

But that reputational cost could be quite considerable, if the school were to go so far as to fire tenure-track and especially tenured faculty because it’s in such severe financial straits (Ex post facto rationalizations that such people were fired as a result of “merit” evaluations are likely to ring hollow).

A school is likely to go to great lengths to avoid the bad publicity such a move would produce, by firing lower-level staff, offering buyouts to senior faculty, cutting faculty salaries, and taking every step short of the most radical possible interventions, which are, in ascending order of radicalism, firing tenure track faculty, opening a Holiday Inn Express where the library used to be, and not giving top administrators greater than COL raises this year.

So just how bad are things at Albany? Here’s a quick look at the school’s financial picture.

In FY2010 the school had an operating surplus of $3.3 million on total revenues of just under $35 million. (Salary and benefits for all employees made up 52.6% of operating expenses, which is actually on the low side for a law school — this figure is typically in the 60% to 70% range).

In FY2011 the school’s operating surplus increased to nearly $4.9 million, as revenues went up by 3% while employee compensation remained flat.

In FY2012, employee compensation actually declined by more than $600,000, and revenues exceeded expenses by $3.45 million.

As of July 2012, the school reported that it had $90.46 million in assets and $24.1 million in liabilities.

This does not look like much of a financial emergency, subject to a couple of caveats:

(1) July 2012 was 19 months ago, and things have been going very badly for law schools since then.

(2) Tuition revenue declined between FY2009 and FY2012, from $30.1 million to $28.8 million, and will probably be a million or two lower than that in FY2014. This is a function of declining enrollment. After a massive run up over the previous eight years, during which time it nearly doubled, tuition increased fairly modestly from $39,050 to $43,248 over this four-year stretch. More problematically, applications to the school fell in half over the last two years.

Year Applications Matriculants

2009: 2215, 255

2010: 2572, 236

2011: 2153, 235

2012: 1771, 196

2013: 1193, 187

The school has reduced the median LSAT of the entering class from 155 in 2009 (63.9 percentile) to 152 (52.2). It has not, apparently, increased its tuition discounting practices, as slightly less than two-thirds of each class continues to pay sticker price, while around one third of the class continues to get an average of 50% off sticker tuition.

Perhaps there’s more here than meets the eye, but I’ve looked at a lot of law school budgetary situations in the last few months, and Albany’s appears to be, if anything, healthier (relatively speaking of course) than average. So why is the school apparently on the verge of firing a bunch of faculty, including, perhaps, tenured faculty? Perhaps someone inside the school can shed more light on the situation (any communications will be treated in strict confidence).

Update: A comment from ichininosan has inspired me to to look more critically at Albany’s financials. It turns out the OP’s back of the envelope calculation understates the school’s current financial problems. Thanks in large part to Kent Syverud’s efforts, the ABA Section on Legal Education now provides much more transparent data on a number of matters, including law school enrollments. Looking at this data, it’s possible to calculate quite precisely how much nominal tuition (pre discounts) Albany is getting in FY2014 from full-time JD students, part-time students, and non-JD students. The answer is $25,148,712. But we must take into account that the school is likely to have around 50 fewer students this fall, as the “normal” sized entering class of 2011 is replaced with another small class (the fact that Albany’s dean and board are acting so aggressively indicates that applications are continuing their steep recent decline). Assuming the school raises tuition by $1,000 (the average over the past five years), Albany will be down another $1.6 million in gross tuition revenue. Thus tuition revenue (pre discounts) will have fallen from just under $29 million in FY2012 to around $23.5 million in FY2015. Indeed, in constant dollars tuition revenue will have fallen by 30% between FY2009 and FY2015 — and tuition revenue represents about 85% of the school’s operating revenue. That would seem, given its current overall budget, to put the school a couple of million dollars in the red, which is obviously a problem for a free-standing institution that doesn’t have a central administration to bail it out. And of course there’s no way of knowing if the decline in demand for law school admissions has hit bottom yet.

What if?

[ 18 ] January 31, 2014 |

What if Mad Men had been a 1980s sitcom?

What if Neil Young was a Mexican American woman born in East LA?

Need a third thing here but can’t think of one.

Deadbeat elementary school kids launch first phase of Kristallnacht 2.0 by trying to steal lunch from hedge fund managers

[ 220 ] January 30, 2014 |

rand

The corndog is the gefilte fish of liberal fascism:

Up to 40 kids at Uintah Elementary in Salt Lake City picked up their lunches Tuesday, then watched as the meals were taken and thrown away because of outstanding balances on their accounts — a move that shocked and angered parents.

“It was pretty traumatic and humiliating,” said Erica Lukes, whose 11-year-old daughter had her cafeteria lunch taken from her as she stood in line Tuesday at Uintah Elementary School, 1571 E. 1300 South . . .

Jason Olsen, a Salt Lake City District spokesman, said the district’s child-nutrition department became aware that Uintah had a large number of students who owed money for lunches.

As a result, the child-nutrition manager visited the school and decided to withhold lunches to deal with the issue, he said.

But cafeteria workers weren’t able to see which children owed money until they had already received lunches, Olsen explained.

The workers then took those lunches from the students and threw them away, he said, because once food is served to one student it can’t be served to another.

Children whose lunches were taken were given milk and fruit instead.

Olsen said school officials told the district that their staffers typically tell students about any balances as they go through the lunch line and send home notifications to parents each week.

The district attempted to contact parents with balances via phone Monday and Tuesday, Olsen said, but weren’t able to reach them all before the child-nutrition manager decided to take away the students’ lunches.

RIP Pete Seeger

[ 187 ] January 28, 2014 |

Pete Seeger has died. He was 94.

I have only a very fragmentary sense of how the revival of American folk music in the 1950s and 1960s played a role in the politics of the time, but apparently it did (Has there ever been a good right-wing protest song?). I do remember singing “We Shall Overcome” and “Turn Turn Turn” as a little kid in music class in the Ann Arbor public schools in the late 1960s, which I suppose proves just how invidious these forms of propaganda can be.

Also, this is a pretty good story, and none the worse for being confabulated:

Along with many elders of the protest-song movement, Mr. Seeger felt betrayed when Bob Dylan appeared at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival with a loud electric blues band. Reports emerged that Mr. Seeger had tried to cut the power cable with an ax, but witnesses including the producer George Wein and the festival’s production manager, Joe Boyd (later a leading folk-rock record producer), said he did not go that far. (An ax was available, however. A group of prisoners had used it while singing a logging song.)

Across 110th Street

[ 249 ] January 27, 2014 |

Today’s edition of First World Problems:

Anyone who wonders why law school applications are plunging and there’s widespread malaise in many big law firms might consider the case of Gregory M. Owens.

The silver-haired, distinguished-looking Mr. Owens would seem the embodiment of a successful Wall Street lawyer. A graduate of Denison University and Vanderbilt Law School, Mr. Owens moved to New York City and was named a partner at the then old-line law firm of Dewey, Ballantine, Bushby, Palmer & Wood, and after a merger, at Dewey & LeBoeuf.

Today, Mr. Owens, 55, is a partner at an even more eminent global law firm, White & Case. A partnership there or any of the major firms collectively known as “Big Law” was long regarded as the brass ring of the profession, a virtual guarantee of lifelong prosperity and job security.

But on New Year’s Eve, Mr. Owens filed for personal bankruptcy.

According to his petition, he had $400 in his checking account and $400 in savings. He lives in a rental apartment at 151st Street and Broadway. He owns clothing he estimated was worth $900 and his only jewelry is a Concord watch, which he described as “broken.” . . .

Mr. Owens has been well paid by most standards, but not compared with top partners at major firms, who make in the millions. . . When Mr. Owens first became a partner at Dewey, Ballantine, he made about $250,000, in line with other new partners. At Dewey & LeBoeuf, his income peaked at over $500,000 during the flush years before the financial crisis. In 2012, he made $351,000, and last year, while at White & Case, he made $356,500. He listed his current monthly income as $31,500, or $375,000 a year. And he has just over $1 million in retirement accounts that are protected from creditors in bankruptcy.

How far does $375,000 a year go in New York City? Strip out estimated income taxes ($7,500 a month), domestic support ($10,517), insurance ($2,311), a mandatory contribution to his retirement plan ($5,900), and routine expenses for rent ($2,460 a month) transportation ($550) and food ($650) and Mr. Owens estimated that he was running a small monthly deficit of $52, according to his bankruptcy petition. He has gone back to court to get some relief from his divorce settlement, so far without any success.

As the story explains, Owens isn’t really a partner at all any more, but rather a “service partner,” which in the Orwellian argot of big law firms means he’s been “de-equitized,” i.e., he’s salaried employee of the firm, just like the associates and paralegals and secretaries and the guy selling coke in the mail room.

Now if I had a dollar for every story I’ve read in recent years about how mid-six figures doesn’t go very far in Manhattan (or, apparently, Harlem) any more, I wouldn’t have to be making the big bucks by blogging for LGM. Still, this tale of woe is nice example of how economic distress, above the level of brute starvation, is always positional: Owens’ annual salary, stupendous as it might seem in the eyes of the madding crowd, is just two weeks worth of pay for Morton Pierce, his protector at both Dewey and White & Case, and the man who at present is probably standing between Owens and flat-out unemployment. (“White shoe” — meaning old-money WASP — firms like White & Case do not like to see themselves featured in this sort of reportage).

A few other points:

*Citing this kind of thing for why law school applications are down is equivalent of dissuading dreams of athletic greatness by citing the case of a marginal NBA player who got cut and is now having to get by on a $300,000 salary playing for Bologna in the Italian league. Despite his recent status degradation, Owens is still very near the top of the law graduate pyramid.

*This story also reflects the extent to which private legal practice is, even at the most stratospheric levels, now more than ever a glorified sales job. Pierce makes rain, so he and a tiny handful of peers gets paid millions. The most skilled technician, by contrast, is exponentially less valuable to a firm, especially since the value a technically skilled lawyer adds can disappear overnight in the wake of a change in the economic or regulatory environment.

*Owens’ current salary is higher than that of 99.8% of non-instutitionalized adult Americans (or 99.65% of such people who are working or currently seeking work).

Update: Anyone interested in the gritty financial details can read Owens’ petition here.

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