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Ivy League problems

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“First world problems” is a well-known internet meme. I’d like to suggest a subcategory of the genre, Ivy League problems, which, rather than reflecting American upper middle class angst in general, chronicles the struggles of people very close to the tippy top of the SES pyramid.

A nice example is this Atlantic piece on the sorrows of law school graduates, which focuses exclusively on the problems encountered by young lawyers at big law firms:

Through formalized on-campus recruiting (particularly at top schools), the path to the law firm is so well-paved that students can navigate it on auto-pilot. “My law school made it so easy to get a job at a firm that I barely had to do any work at all to generate several associate position offers,” says one of my former University of Pennsylvania Law School classmates. The appeal of the law firm is only enhanced by the reality of student loans. “Big law was really the only path I considered. With the level of debt I incurred by going to law school, taking the highest paying job felt like the only real, responsible choice,” says another Ivy League grad.

The parenthetical about top schools is the only acknowledgement in this piece — which is otherwise interesting on its own terms — that the problems it’s discussing are relevant to a small minority of law school graduates. At the vast majority of law schools, less than 10% (indeed often more like 1% or 2%) of graduates get jobs with big law firms. Thus this article is analogous to a piece on the problems encountered by former graduate students that focuses exclusively on people with tenure track jobs at research universities.

It’s too bad, because the problems the article talks about are real enough, and ought to be taken into account by prospective law students (somebody has described big law as a pie-eating contest in which the first prize is more pie). But failing to acknowledge that those problems represent the experience of a small subset of especially fortunate and privileged law school graduates inadvertently replicates the myth that going to law school means getting to be a lawyer, which in turn means getting a high-paying, high-status job. That’s not even true for a significant percentage of the graduates of the nation’s dozen or so elite law schools, let alone for those of the other 189.

Unemployed Northeastern sums the situation up nicely in the comments to the article:

Of course, much like the headhunters that specialize in finding lawyers new jobs inside the legal profession, this boutique industry of career advisers who assist attorneys in leaving the profession cater to an incredibly miniscule fraction of the profession: graduates of “top” law schools with BigLaw experience on their resumes. Frankly, they are the group that needs the least assistance.

Meanwhile, nearly 50% of all law school graduates are unemployed or underemployed nine months after graduation, and a plurality of those with *actual* lawyer jobs are so woefully underpaid that they also seek to leave the profession. Soon after the nine month mark, another class of law school graduates enters the workforce, and the labor supply becomes that much worse – and we are now in year seven of this phenomenon. These headhunters will not touch this group with a ten-foot pole.

Sadly, the author does not see fit to even mention the plight of these non-BigLaw attorneys and their Sisyphean efforts to leave the profession in her lengthy article. Mind you, Biglaw hiring at its peak in the Oughties never amounted to more than about 12% of all law school graduates, overwhelmingly concentrated at the schools at the top of the US News Rankings (like the author’s UPenn).

– One of America’s tens of thousands of un/underemployed attorneys

(I have a long piece in next month’s Atlantic on for-profit law schools, and how similar predatory behavior is found well beyond the formal for-profit realm, both in regard to law schools and to higher education in America generally).

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