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Welfare reform for white people

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Yesterday at lunch time an unknown but apparently quite large number of graduates of George Washington’s 2012 class got this email:

From: Dean Paul Schiff Berman Subject: Adjustments to P2P Program
Date: June 19, 2012 9:14:12 AM PDT

Dear P2P Fellows,

I know that most of you are deeply immersed in Bar prep right now, but I wanted to reach out to you to discuss your job search as well as some necessary adjustments to the Pathways to Practice (P2P) Program in which you are currently enrolled.

As you know, the purpose of the Program is to provide some financial support in those first crucial months out in the job market when you are still waiting to be admitted to a Bar and may need volunteer opportunities in order to build your networks and get your first paid law work. To that end, I note that the support is only available to those who are actively working in P2P placements and who are regularly in contact with our Career Office to take the steps necessary to find paid work. Such regular contact must, at a minimum, include a monthly meeting (by phone or in person) beginning in August. You should know that I have recently hired a new head of our Career Office, Abe Pollack, and he is dynamic, energized, and laser-focused on getting each and every one of you some paying law job between now and December. He and our career counselors are 100 percent committed to working with you, and if you encounter any difficulties in your work with your counselor, please contact Abe as soon as possible so we can make sure you remain on track.

Also, I have now heard several anecdotal reports of graduates turning down paying work so that they can remain in the Pathways Program and hopefully find more desirable work later. This is not how the Program is intended to be used. You should jump at any paying legal work opportunity, and if it’s not your ideal position, then use it as a launchpad for your next search. In order to make sure both that the incentives are properly aligned and that we can continue to fund the Program for the many students who have enrolled, we will be adjusting the payments from $15 per hour to $10 per hour beginning December 1. The new funding amount will remain in place from December 1 until you have been in the Program for a full year, at which time your enrollment in the Program will end. However, it is my sincere hope that all of you will have found employment by then (or, preferably, far earlier). My advice is the same as always: follow every lead, get out in the world and meet as many people as you can at Bar events, trade association meetings, and so on, use any network you can find to make contacts, and follow up on any contacts you make. And do twice as much as expected of you in your P2P placement so people will notice you and want to hire you permanently or recommend you to others. I know it is an historically difficult job market, but we are here to help you navigate through this transition period.

My very best to each of you.

Paul Schiff Berman
Dean and Robert Kramer Research Professor of Law
The George Washington University Law School

Observations:

(1) This letter was written by someone who believes, or purports to believe, that GW grads aren’t getting law jobs in significant part because they’re not trying hard enough. This person also believes that cutting the pay of otherwise unemployed GW grads from $15 to $10 an hour as they labor in the non-profit sector “jobs” they had to acquire in order to enroll in the Pathways to Practice program will cause those people to try harder to get real law jobs, which in turn will yield enough success stories to justify a 33% pay cut.

It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his $400,000 per year salary depends on his not understanding it. Nevertheless one can try.

GW students are not getting jobs — 15% of the 2011 class was enrolled in a similar program in February 2012, and therefore were counted by NALP and the ABA as “employed full-time in a position requiring bar admission” — because there aren’t enough jobs.

In America, it is difficult to get a man to understand that sometimes people do everything they are supposed to do to get jobs, but do not get jobs, because there are more people doing everything they’re supposed to do to get jobs than there are jobs for these people to get. Traditionally, it has been particularly difficult to understand this when these people were poor and/or black, but now it is becoming difficult to understand even when they are professional class white people.

Now, even professional class white people are suspected of not working because they do not want to work. Surely, if “those people” really wanted jobs they could get them. Because if this were not true it might mean that all those years of study and preparation, and all that networking with a laser-like focus, and all those massive tuition payments, had turned out to be a waste of time and money (except of course for the inherent value of legal education itself, which is literally priceless). And that simply cannot be true, because if it were true then that would be very disturbing.

New law graduates are not getting jobs because there aren’t nearly enough entry-level jobs for new graduates, and in addition many entry-level jobs are going to increasingly desperate lawyers with several years of practice experience. Memo to America’s law school deans: Hiring a new head of OCS does not create any more jobs for your school’s graduates. Perhaps Abe Pollock is a paragon of industriousness and laser-like focus (as opposed to somebody’s brother’s second cousin by marriage), and as a result two or three or five more GW graduates will get law jobs than would have otherwise. But this means that two or three or five fewer Georgetown and American and George Mason and Maryland graduates will get jobs than would have otherwise. You can fire your OCS directors faster than Stalin used to execute his generals, but the math stays the same.

(2) “Several anecdotal reports of graduates turning down paying work” is not evidence. It’s at best junior high school level gossip masquerading as data. Here’s some data: 17% of GW’s 2011 class couldn’t get any job at all, or had to take a law-school funded job. How many of them were lazy idlers on the dole? Anyway, how plausible is it that, in the six weeks since graduation, a bunch of GW grads have turned down real legal jobs of any description in order to make $15 per hour working in dead end positions?

What seems to be in play here is some characteristic fantasy of the comfortably entitled that law graduates are rejecting real legal jobs that are beneath them while holding out for glamorous positions that they believe will soon materialize. In any case I have heard variations on this idiotic claim several times in recent months — that the problem with Kids Today is that they don’t understand that not everybody’s first job is with Skadden or the DOJ, and that’s why they’re unemployed, instead of working for a small family law firm in Rockville or as an assistant DA somewhere on the Great Plains.

(3) This email is evidence that GW is feeling some genuine financial strain. Surely as he composed it a voice somewhere in Dean’s Berman’s head was whispering that this little adjustment in employment terms (by the way, it would not surprise me if what GW was proposing here was a straightforward breach of contract, although one would have to see the letter participants signed to evaluate this) had the potential to generate a flotilla of bad publicity. A back of the envelope calculation suggests this move was going to save the school perhaps $300,000 to $400,000 — this at an institution that has an $80 million annual operating budget.

In addition GW is currently admitting people off its wait list and offering them 60% off list tuition, which must thrill the people with better credentials who were admitted six months ago and will be paying sticker.

Anyway, this story has an edifying if not altogether happy ending, which is that three and a half hours after the original email the recipients got another one:

> From: Dean Paul Schiff Berman > Date: June 19, 2012 3:52:54 PM PDT
>
> Subject: More on Pathways to Practice

Dear Pathway to Practice (P2P) participants:

I have heard from many of you in the past 24 hours. You have expressed disappointment about adjustments made to the P2P program by lowering P2P pay to $10 per hour beginning on December 1. In hindsight, I apologize for not doing a better job of explaining my rationale for this decision. It was not made lightly, nor in a vacuum.

I designed this program to be the most generous it could possibly be, and indeed it is among the most, if not the most, generous program of its kind in the country. And contrary to what some believe, this program does not impact GW’s ABA placement statistics since those statistics specifically separate out positions funded by the University. [In regard to this claim, see this]. The purpose of the program is as I have always stated it to be: to do everything we possibly can to help every GW Law graduate get long-term paying legal work. GW Law and the new Career Office are committed to working with you to make sure that you are supported in finding permanent positions and maximizing your experience in the P2P Program. I am determined to personally support everyone concerned in this effort.

You will understand that supporting a program as generous as this one for a full year takes extraordinary financial resources, and I am trying to support the Program as best I can. With limited resources, our priority has been to accommodate all graduates who would like to participate, and we calculated that this change would make it possible.

Nevertheless, I am concerned that so many of you have already relied on the earlier funding level in making life choices. Accordingly, I will redouble my efforts to make the funds available for the Program, and I hereby rescind my earlier e-mail and will return the funding to its previously announced level of $15 per hour.

Please contact the Career Office as soon as practicable to ensure that we are supporting you to the maximum extent possible. Again, I regret the anxiety caused by my earlier efforts to adjust the Program.

All the best,

Paul Schiff Berman

In the interim, Above the Law had published some thoughts on the issue, which it’s fair to speculate may have had a role in this sudden reversal of fortune.

So progress is happening. Legal academia is still dominated by magical thinking about how properly crafted resumes and relentless networking will create jobs for lawyers, and the cultural imperative to blame the victims of structural economic forces for their plight remains as strong as ever, but the natives are getting increasingly restless.

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