Advocates for Starving Advocates

DIARY OF A MAD LAWYER, EPISODE II: The Upside Down Soul Crisis

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THE STORY OF A RESPONSIBLE, PRACTICAL PLUNGE INTO CRIPPLING DEBT

This was supposed to be a responsible, grown-up maneuver. As my 20s petered out, I gazed forward into life and determined that smart adults do not chase inconsistently fulfilling careers in unstable industries. I further reasoned that life as a newsman made little financial or practical sense and whatever joys I was able to mine from the newspaper business could be replaced by freelance work supplemental to a stable occupation. Besides, good money — by which I mean the kind that allows you to read by electric light and feed your offspring — is no certainty if you’re the type of person who wants to do news well. Given that I’d been sitting on a solid, three-digit LSAT score for a few years, I concluded that the legal profession would be a wise, reasonable move. Something that Bill Cosby would have advised his children to do on The Cosby Show. Right?

At this juncture of my life, I had but one shimmering, invaluable possession: My soul. It was a good soul. Though crushed on a few occasions and dented on many more, it always bounced back. It was strong and uncorrupted by greed or avarice. At times, I feel I maintained my soul’s value at the expense of my career. For example, I often observed fellow sports reporters taking logical shortcuts to produce bombastic fictions that delighted unsuspecting readers. Or, I saw them sidestep all acceptable reporting standards to publish libelous, admittedly false stories and then get promoted. In the fall of 2008, I saw Boston media fixture Michael Felger badger Randy Moss with leading questions, refusing to let a semi-diplomatic Moss get an answer out of his mouth until Moss eventually just relented and said, that, yes Bernard Pollard’s hit on Tom Brady was “dirty,” thereby manufacturing a mini-controversy which Felger could report as “news.” This was the kind of line-crossing behavior that some of my colleagues traded in every day to get ahead, and I wasn’t up for it. So, yes, I had built considerable equity in my soul, and nothing else. If I was going to part with it, it couldn’t be in the course of making journalism. You can’t really be a sellout and an honest journalist at the same time, but I think we can all agree that one can be both a sellout and an honest lawyer at the same time. Therefore, I decided to flip my soul for a career in law.

At this point in the story, it’s important to clarify that although I do not currently own my soul, I have not quite been able to sell it. I mortgaged it to the federal government. As most Hungry Hungry Readers are aware, the legal profession has significant entry barriers, none more time-consuming and costly than the juris doctorate. To finance my JD, I needed bundles of cash, and I borrowed that through federal loans that are now coming due. It will be quite difficult to repay my debt without committing myself to a sellout legal career, so there is little chance that I will retake ownership of that soul any time in the foreseeable future. I don’t see defaulting as a viable alternative, given that Obama has drones.

Like many of my colleagues from The Class of 2012, I had the unfortunate experience of listing my soul in a buyer’s market. It turns out that the Economic Meltdown of 2008, in which millions of bad mortgages tore a hole through the American economy, rippled its way through the legal industry, exposing the poor business management of lawyers who cashed in their souls ages ago. Sensing danger, the reptillian brain of the legal industry sought to save its scaly hide by  dramatically decreasing the hiring of new associates, resulting in the devaluation of many mortgaged souls, such as mine.

Here’s the short of it: I now owe more on my soul than it’s actually worth. In mortgage parlance, my soul is upside down.

To be clear, I do not tell you this in a plea for sympathy, but rather to relate an interesting quandary that is now a common tale among thousands of newly minted lawyers. We sought to better our lives through education and did so at a considerable expense that has not yet paid off and by all appearances will not likely pay off for some time. Like many people who put equity into their homes hoping with good intentions to flip them for a piece of the American Dream, we find ourselves in many cases worse off, at least financially. There is a strong feeling among many of us that we did the thing we were supposed to do and as a result of someone else’s screwup, we’ve been played for suckers while the screw-ups still draw paychecks.

That said, I also don’t feel like those screw-ups owe me anything. The first semester of law school is almost entirely about fault and loss allocation. Based on what I learned there, I would say that no one who failed me owed me a duty, at least not an actionable legal duty. Perhaps some colleagues in my situation might see that differently, but I didn’t need law school to know that I was taking a risk when I signed up for oodles of government loans. Any endeavor that requires a signature is a game of chance, at least to some degree.

Based on my research of underwater mortgages, there are three ways out of this situation. The first is short selling. Taking less than fair value for my soul. For example, I could work in a document mill or hustle SSA applicants, but in those scenarios, I don’t believe I would be developing the skills necessary to capture the full potential of my sellout move in the long run. The fact is, I spent a lot of time building equity in that soul, and I want full value for it. Bart Simpson once sold his soul for $5 and wound up rudderless and empty. Then again, his father sold one for a donut and maybe that didn’t turn out so bad.

Nonetheless, I am left with two options to deal with my underwater soul: Bail or bail. In other words, I can free my soul from debt by bailing one figurative bucket of water at a time or I could abandon ship. How the latter option works in my case, I have no idea, but vacant homes across the nation demonstrate that abandonment is one way out of an upside down mortgage. In this scenario, I imagine that many new attorneys could slip off the grid and roam the countryside pursuing their own brand of justice while staying one step ahead of the government’s loan-collection attack drones. Not me, though. I believe in buckets. One client at at time. One paycheck at a time. Until everything is right side up. It’s a chore, but chores build character, and character builds soul equity.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP, a firm of Boston Business Lawyers. He’s enjoyed his share of forbidden donuts.

Northeastern Law > Harvard Law? Validating an ATL Poll

ABOVE THE LAW POLL SHOWS NUSL TO BE ‘THE MOST WICKED AWESOME’ LAW SCHOOL IN BOSTON

Above the Law posted results yesterday of its tragically named student poll, “Which is the Most Wicked Awesome Law School in Boston?” 1 As Northeastern Law grads, the people behind Hungry Hungry Lawyers felt this poll was worthy of some examination. Don’t get me wrong, we have strong, positive feelings for NUSL, but if it’s better than Harvard, then we’d like our Supreme Court appointments now, please.

How is it that Northeastern dominated these rankings? Well, ATL used a student-satisfaction methodology, asking students how they felt about various aspects of the student experience. On the one hand, this doesn’t offer the top-down, third-party analysis based on objective factors that you get from something like U.S. News & World Report, but it might measure one of the most important factors students consider in choosing a school: How happy are current students with the product? And Northeastern students are typically happy with the product, as this poll reflects. Then again, it seems to us based on the results the poll is skewed by the unique perspectives of the different kinds of students answering the survey questions. Let’s consider:

Quality of Faculty and Academic Instruction (ratings are on a scale of 1 (lowest) to 4):

1. Northeastern (3.67)
2. Boston University Law (3.64)
3. Harvard (3.60)
4. Boston College Law (3.56)
5. Suffolk University Law (3.18)

So, yes Northeastern students tend to think their teachers are more up to snuff. This makes sense, because classes at Northeastern tend to be geared toward public-interest topics that NUSL students greatly value (except for the visiting prof. “Environment/Global Justice” debacle from the summer of 2011). That doesn’t necessarily mean the teachers are “better quality” than professors at other schools (for the record, some are great, others are good and then some less so), but they are typically excellent at serving their audience.

Also, let’s consider that Boston University students are — unequivocally and without exception — smug, self-satisfied and disappointed they didn’t get into BC. Therefore these respondents are more inclined to save face and overrate the institution that begrudgingly welcomed them after its first picks chose to attend BC. Even if every BU Law class were taught by Karl Childers, BU Law students would rate the faculty at nothing less than a 3.64.

The Terriers go so far as to rank their professors above those at Harvard, which can’t possibly be true. Of course, the perspective of Harvard students is skewed by the fact that they are smart enough to know when their professors are full of shit. It probably doesn’t happen often, but every teacher at one time or another is totally making it up as they go along, and the Crimson students are on top of that and therefore more reluctant to give their faculty perfect scores.

Finally, it doesn’t seem fair to Suffolk professors that they must be rated by Suffolk students. Many Suffolk students suffer from a Napoleonic complex, which is the natural result of attending law school in this market. As a result of this complex, they tend to perceive their professors as substandard — and, to some degree, the only thing holding them back from world domination. Therefore, their poor faculty took a beating in this poll.

Practical and Clinical Training:

1. Northeastern (3.92)
2. Suffolk University Law (3.24)
3. Harvard (3.20)
4. Boston University Law (3.12)
5. Boston College Law (2.93)

Northeastern and Suffolk are the only schools on this list really invested in practical and clinical training, and their students won’t shut up about it, so this result is no surprise. Harvard gets a pass here for being Harvard, but the fact that BC and BU students rank their programs so low in practical ed (which is vastly more important than traditional legal schooling), shows how vastly the law schools rankings overrate these programs.

Career Counseling and Job Search Help:

1. Harvard (3.34)
2. Northeastern (3.17)
3. Boston University Law (2.92)
4. Boston College Law (2.48)
5. Suffolk University Law (2.47)

Shockingly, Harvard students are satisfied with their job prospects. Career services counselors aren’t magicians, they’re only as good number of jobs available and the quality of the applicants chasing them. That BC, BU and Suffolk all rate their career services below a 3.0 would indicate to me that students in those schools are suffering in a weak market.

Social Life:

1. Boston College Law (3.62)
2. Northeastern (3.58)
3. Harvard (3.22)
4. Suffolk University Law (3.13)
5. Boston University Law (3.04)

At first, I thought this was total nonsense there’s no way BC students like their lives more than my colleagues at Northeastern. But then I remembered that NUSL’s Student Bar Association just books events at Conor Larkin’s every week. And that’s just about the worst bar in Boston, which is saying a lot. No whiskey, bad food, no space to move and abundant roaches. The woefully misinformed undergrads think its cool. It’s a train wreck, and not in a good way like Punter’s Pub, appropriately located across from Museum of Fine Arts. Now I’m wondering why the Huskies even ranked themselves this high.

No idea how it’s possible that Suffolk students are having more fun than the kids at BU, an institution you think would benefit from the abundant social opportunity in that neighborhood. Then again, Suffolk is right next to the Beantown Pub, home of the Paul Revere, which is a delicious sandwich. Delicious sandwich wins.

Overall Rating:

1. Northeastern (3.45)
2. Harvard (3.27)
3. Boston University Law (3.17)
4. Boston College Law (3.07)
5. Suffolk University Law (2.88)

There you have it, Northeastern wins law school. Huskies, let’s break out the Knob Creek, and get one of those old-fashioned NUSL-style parties brewin’. Or let’s just all go over to Conor’s. That’s fine. The whiskey is on me!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a Boston Business Lawyer and co-founder of Boston MicroLaw, LLP. He’s so glad now that he didn’t get into Harvard.

Notes:

  1. Ten percent of Boston readers chuckled at that title, and the rest of us groaned in unison and then politely acknowledged that, yes, some people here frequently use the expression, “wicked awesome,” typically to describe something that is the opposite of a “wicked pissah.” Then we pahked, got out of the cah, and apparently enjoyed them apples just like Matt Damon in that movie while baking beans and pretending that Dustin Pedroia isn’t a total douche who we’d all hate viscerally if he didn’t play for the Sawx. Ha ha, Boston!

DIARY OF A MAD LAWYER, EPISODE I: Epilogue of a Mad Journalist

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THE LEGAL INDUSTRY IS CRUMBLING, DON’T PANIC, I’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE

In a previous life, I watched the newspaper industry implode from the inside. Those of you familiar with demolition will note that this is the most dangerous vantage point from which to observe an implosion. It’s also the most advantageous, if your goal is to learn about implosions.

As the rubble of so much news print came tumbling around my shoulders in the decade between 1998 and 2008, I observed quite a bit. Particularly about what happens when people stop paying for the things they used to. Examples: Advertising; Newspaper Subscriptions. In response to the gradual (and then sudden) depletion of money, the newspaper industry stopped paying for news. Why not? Everyone else was doing it. By this, I mean that newspapers significantly scaled back their investment in their own industry. They stopped hiring new people. They gave the old people more to do. They started paying the old people less. As a result, the quality of the product suffered and no one really reads newspapers anymore. Yes, many newspapers have web sites. Some of them are now exclusively web sites. But with a few exceptions, the online product is hardly the informational juggernaut and profit machine that newspapers were at their peak. Before the Internet came along and complicated everything with its simplicity, newspapers were an insane bargain, in many cases delivering more than 100 pages of relevant information every day for no more than 50 cents. That product doesn’t exist any more.

I know this, because I chased an ambitious dream for most of my 20s. The idea was to write about professional sports for newspapers and get money for that. I followed that idea to the Super Bowl, the World Series and many other exciting and dangerous places. I went to Indianapolis more times than any New Englander is supposed to enjoy that city (which is either two or three, Indy is nice but it gets old quick). For reasons that still remain unclear to me, I lived in the mountains of North Carolina for two years. But I got to cover Panthers games and they give you free Krispy Kreme at those, so it all worked out. Nonetheless, I came to the conclusion that this chase would almost certainly kill me (either mentally or physically) in a span of 10 years or less. At the time I weighed circa 280 pounds, ate take-out food every day and almost never slept. A coworker and friend of mine died in his 40s just a few months before my last day. So, I did the objectively responsible thing and went to law school.

That was not supposed to be a punchline, but it totally is. I recently explained to a partner in a big Boston law firm that I had left journalism for law school. He laughed. “You sold out, and there are no jobs,” he said.

“That’s about right,” I replied.

“Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha,” he continued. Also, he didn’t know of anyone who was hiring, but gosh, my background in journalism would sure increase my theoretical value to a firm engaged in content review if anyone were paying for that anymore.

And this is where the second act of my life starts to feel like an uninspired re-hash of the first. It seems the more skills I acquire, the less valuable those skills become. The state of the legal industry and that of the newspaper industry have forced me to spend considerable time examining each of these disasters. In both cases I’ve concluded the people in charge of these industries have proven themselves woefully inadequate at perceiving and solving the problems that threaten their businesses. People will always want information, so information-gathering skills are actually useful. People will always have legal problems, so legal services will always have value. How is it then that the people at the top of these industries have allowed the value of their products to wither and nearly die?

In short, the newspaper industry collapsed because no one got the right people in a room to figure out how to deal with the Internet. If I tell you that I can remove your two biggest material costs — paper and ink — you should figure out how to make that into good news, not a crippling catastrophe. I will argue that no one had more incentive and resources to develop social media platforms with the force and presence of Facebook and Twitter than the newspaper industry. But where established media should have driven social media, the opposite is now true.

As far as the legal industry goes, this is an implosion I’ve lived through before. People stopped paying for things. In particular, the economic meltdown of 2008 forced corporate clients to review their spending practices and they realized, oh yes, we’re not going to pay big firms to train junior associates any more. No problem, if clients weren’t going to pay to build new lawyers, then why should the firms? Also, many of the people who had been climbing the ladder to partner watched the ladder crumble beneath them. How did BigLaw respond? It stopped investing in itself. Mark my words, as I have been to this rodeo before: When your answer to decreased revenue is to stop investing in the quality of your product, you have chosen the wrong answer.

As a member of the Northeastern University School of Law Class of 2012, I am part of what will be known as a Lost Generation in the legal industry. The Big Firms significantly scaled back their investment in their own industry. They stopped hiring us and they stopped training us. When they need us, we won’t be there. And then they’ll be in a pickle. With so many of my colleagues toiling in part-time, temp and contract work, I determined that the best course of action for a person in my shoes is to respond to destructive forces with constructive energy. If the legal industry does not value me, I will value myself. So, I found a partner and we formed a new law firm. We’ll locate the market that Big Firms are ignoring. We’ll improve the delivery of legal services. We’ll do it cheaper, but we won’t deplete the quality of the product — or deprive ourselves of a generation of attorneys to do it.

As a veteran and inside observer of industrial demolition, I can tell you, the building is coming down. I’m not going to watch this one from the inside. I’m not going to watch it at all. Speaking from experience, I feel confident in this assertion: When the building starts to bend and sway, it’s time to construct another building. While BigLaw crumbles, I’ll be building something else.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a Boston Business Lawyer, and a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP. He’s tired of dodging debris from falling industries.

Law Schools’ Struggle With Counting Continues

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WATCHDOG SAYS SCHOOLS FAIL TO MEET ABA REQUIREMENTS ON REPORTING JOB DATA

The long-term battle between legal educators and counting remains unresolved according to the watchdogs at Law School Transparency. Counting, the action of finding the number of elements in a finite set of objects, has long plagued law schools, particularly when it comes to finding the number graduates from each school who have found jobs in the legal field. This task once befuddled law schools to such a degree that they would count, say, a waiter at Applebee’s as pretty much a lawyer almost. Recognizing that counting can be quite difficult, the American Bar Association issued specific guidelines in 2012 to ensure that no Applebee’s waiter would ever again be asked to deliver a motion for discovery with that riblet basket.

As simple and specific as the ABA guidelines may be, schools are apparently still struggling to get it right based on a comprehensive review of data posted on the web sites of 199 ABA schools provided by the non-profit counting aces at Law School Transparency. The report is quite good, and we recommend you follow that link in the previous sentence to check it out. LST was founded in 2009 by then-Vanderbilt law students, which begs the question: Is reviewing law-job data a law job? (Seriously, someone in Vanderbilt’s career services department would love to know, so they check the right box on that now-mandated ABA form).

Anyway, LST reviewed the data from the Class of 2011 (the first to fall under ABA guidelines), and its report throws up red flags when schools fall short in reporting their methodology, fail to post required data to their web site or report incomplete information. In summarizing its findings, LST said exactly what we were thinking: “There has been much ado about the improved accreditation standards, but the improvements are meaningless without compliance and enforcement.”

Thankfully, someone has the time and inclination to review this data, which is difficult, because as former law students, the proprietors of Law School Transparency were almost certainly smothered in riblet sauce after pulling many double shifts at the ‘Bees.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dave Brown is a founding partner of Boston MicroLaw, LLP, and recently started blogging about Small Business Formation in Boston. His Applebee’s application was dismissed with prejudice.