Advocates for Starving Advocates

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

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.