Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Special Comment - Scamblogs

This post required a large amount of painful research. One could ignore it, or take it with a grain of salt. One could also take it seriously and induce a nervous breakdown. It depends on whether one sees themselves in their posts.

I am talking about scamblogs, of course. These are blogs that focus on law school. One wishes there were more blogs like Flying Houses that can help you with 10 different case briefs written in a creative way. However, most blogs about law school focus on the detriment it is causing to individuals. These blogs are united in a common cause for law schools to be more transparent in the information they present to prospective students. They focus intensely on the employment rate of the class 9 months after graduation. They suggest that it does not show what percentage of that number (which is almost always between 90-99%) is employed outside the legal profession. They suggest that it is a voluntary survey that does not take into account the students that don't respond. They suggest that there are too many law schools and too many law school students and not enough legal positions to go around. And also that law school is too expensive and not worth going into debt over unless maybe you are going to one of the top 15 schools in the nation. Sometimes debt goes from $100,000 - $200,000. Mine is $60,000, plus whatever interest accrues by then. This is assuming my parents are able to support me for the next two years (and time to study for the Bar, and $3,000 for the Barbri course, and however long it takes me to find a job in NYC, plus rent). What happens when I go broke and I need to start paying off my loans? The only positive thing I have heard about loans is that you can defer their payment because of "hardship" (i.e. lack of employment). No matter what, I do not want to go into any greater debt than $60,000--that scares me enough as it is. And here I may not qualify for my merit scholarship renewal (grades are released in a week...perhaps grades will be released before this post is actually posted) and I could lose all of my funding, or at least a significant amount. If my grades aren't that great, and if I'm not at a top 15 school (or not even a top 50 school), and it's getting expensive for everyone involved, is it really worth it to go on? Will I ever get a job? Who knows. Impossible to know until you are faced with the situation. But it appears the odds are against us.

If I were to write a letter seeking advice from someone writing or posting on one of these sites, it is clear they would tell me to drop out. Who knows if I will get the same response from a person affiliated with my institution--a career counselor, a faculty member--if I reveal the same facts. My guess is that they will say, "Do what you really want to do--if your heart is set on being an attorney, then don't give up because eventually things will work out." I know that if I try to bring it up to my Dad, he will say, "There are so many other jobs you can get with your degree if you finish it out." Or if I tell him I want to quit he says, "What are you going to do then--work at a restaurant for the rest of your life?" And I say, "I don't know, I'll figure something out."

It appears to me this post might be most powerful if written entirely as a hypothetical dialogue--one of the few skills I have developed as a creative writer, the ability to present two sides to an issue--but no, this is a statement about scamblogs, and as such, it must go into an analysis of several websites, and attempt to answer the question, "How bad is it out there, really?"

We begin with the most popular of all sites, previously mentioned here in a couple posts, but most prominently back in my first post since Flying Houses went on "academic hiatus"--here is a link:

This website is of course ABOVE THE (hereinafter "ATL"). It is worth noting that I read this blog somewhat frequently--every couple of days, whenever I become sufficiently bored, or run out of other interesting websites/blogs/news to read. I will admit that this blog is sometimes entertaining. It has made me laugh on more than one occasion. Its information is presented in a very reader-friendly way. The articles are never absurdly long (though I will argue that the longer the article, the closer it gets to truth) and are often about sex, or drugs, or lawyers behaving badly, or judges "benchslapping" them, or celebrities' legal affairs, or gossip about all of the nearly 200 law schools accredited by the ABA. It seems written by people who went to Harvard or Yale and are basically elitist, and proud of it (or at least exhibiting shades of ironic shame for blogging about law rather than practicing it). I will admit: this site has tons of ads, and is probably a very successful blog in the monetary sense, which seems like an oxymoron. It has many readers--but many of the readers are repeat visitors who leave stupid comments after every article. Still, it can be exciting to know your school has been written about--that everyone in the country/world who goes to this site (because I do think it is the most popular website for people seeking legal gossip) will know that yes, your school invites clothing companies to hold photo shoots of people in their underwear simulating sex in the cellar portion of the library (my "office," as it were, that I perhaps adopted in the hopes of living out such fantasies). Fortunately, we did not report our public service grant situation, as had been suggested at a couple meetings of students fighting it--that was one of my proudest moments as a member of this student body this year. I told people to fight the administration, and they all said no, it's hopeless, nothing will change, and guess what, it did change. Of course, next summer it will not be the same, and one wonders whether we will fight again. But I digress. ATL loves to make fun of our school because it is ranked #67. ATL loves to make fun of law school in general though, and it is leading the charge of the scamblogs, since it is the most visible online presence of this movement. Note the recent article on the lawsuit undertaken against Thomas Jefferson School of Law. Yeah, I wish there were a way for me to sue my school for punitive damages. I'm sure that's going to work out for them.

Scamblogs basically aver that students will not get jobs when they graduate, and who knows when this pattern will end. I know that people graduating right now (Class of 2011) have told me they have basically been ignored. I do not know many graduating 3Ls, but I did not know any who were "living the dream" of a law student--that is, working as a summer associate after 2L, being offered a position to start in the August or September after graduating, with a stipend for June and July to study for the Bar, and all BarBri tuition paid for--perhaps that is the norm at the higher-ranked schools, but that is not the norm where I go, and you need to be at the top of your class. So if you do well--maybe the 1 in 4 students who will graduate in the top 25%--it really doesn't seem so bad. Yet if you do that well, and can't find work, it's certainly frustrating. People in this position have the greatest cause for complaint. And our class is over 400 students. So 300 people in our class will not be in such an ideal position. We have to get creative.

Scamblogs do not talk about this issue very much. They focus on the "average" student at whatever school they are mentioning. ATL is the "super-scamblog" because it has adopted the philosophy that law school is basically a bad idea. There was a recent article about how prospective students will not be swayed by scamblogs, and this is also an intelligent observation. Am I the only one who, in the years (yes, from 2008 - 2010 I studied for the LSAT and took it twice, and could not get the 170+ necessary to become an "elite" future member of the legal profession) leading up to application, acceptance, and enrollment heard the all-too frequent rallying cry, "Don't go to law school?" I remember sitting in on a class at Loyola Law School, with a professor whose greatness was impressed upon me in those 90 minutes (Laurie Levenson), who called on the five or six of us who were visiting to ask about various points of Criminal Procedure, and then at one point said, "Well class, do you think they should do it?" And they all said aloud, in unison, "Don't go to law school!" Those five words have become such a buzz phrase. It was a remarkable experience that I could not take to heart, because I had spent all this money applying, and flying down to L.A. and renting a convertible, and this was my plan. One cannot shelf their plan before they have even started, particularly when they spent so much time getting ready for it. Prospective students think the hiring patterns will turn around by the time they finish, and they also think they will do well enough that they will not have to worry.

One could write much more about ATL, but there are more egregious websites for comment. One of the problems with scamblogs is that they are tasteless. They use foul language, and whatever intelligence they display is marred by the slip-shod nature of their writing, which leads to the direct inference that, if they are hosting a scamblog, they went to law school, and did not get a job, and want to take it out on the world. The inference is that they may not have been one of the best students--they may have been exactly the type of sucker they write about--doesn't know what they want to do with their lives, not necessarily sure they want to be an attorney from birth on, see that a J.D. is a relatively quick degree to get that doesn't require mathematical/scientific/technical college major background, think that law school is a ticket on the gravy train. They're not crazy--really, they're not--there are too many unemployed law students out there for them to be crazy--but their quest for transparency is, shall we say, compromised by their presentation.

But there is one blog that ATL frequently links to, and it is generally of a higher literary quality than the others that will be mentioned later. It is called THE PEOPLE'S THERAPIST (hereinafter "TPT") and it is written by a guy who went to a top law school, then worked at a large private law firm for several years then went to med school to become a psychiatrist because he hated the legal profession so much. This is a very personal blog--and in a certain sense I appreciate the brute force honesty and personal history that is offered by its author--but man does it hit you over the head! Many people will frequently mention that many attorneys have drinking and drug problems, and that it is a miserable profession. TPT is specifically dedicated to spreading this idea. Most of the posts that ATL links to are about why students should drop out. TPT's author seems to think that his ideas hold true for everyone. In a sense, this is how great writers become successful. They forge a connection with their readers by showing that they share the same feelings and have felt the same way when faced with a particular situation. But there is a difference between persuasive, enjoyable writing, and the rhetoric of brainwashing. This author may be happy now, but he is not a great writer. He is a better writer than most bloggers out there, but he does not affect me. He does not say every potential lawyer should become a psychiatrist (and there are obvious similarities between these two "counseling" professions) but he does say that law school can be a huge waste of time and money and that you should be focusing on doing what you love. (I will reserve my personal comment on this issue until the end of this post.) Basically, if you want to be a lawyer then you should not read this blog because he will try to convince you that you are making a big mistake because he didn't like working in the atmosphere that most law students dream about (where you are worked to death and make enough money to subsidize a fairly lavish lifestyle). Most law students don't have a reasonable shot at this kind of work, and this blog seems to stand for the idea that, if they did have a 3.9, journal, and top 15 school, and they could work at Skadden, etc., they would hate it anyways, so they should just quit. If you don't want this kind of work the blog is basically inapplicable and does not comment on the poverty aspect that other scamblogs are so effective at presenting. Reading all of these blogs makes me hate my life, but reading this one in particular upsets me because the author needs to point out how great his credentials are in order to appear persuasive. I do not advertise my academic credentials on Flying Houses (but you can probably figure out my history if you read the posts). My hope is that my writing speaks for itself.

But now unfortunately, we must move into darker territory. Our first stop on this tour of Hell is "Temporary Attorney." I first became aware of this site when trying to figure out who our President was, and what she did, and why there was so much antipathy for her. This is what I found:
I think some of my fellow students used this information when we fought for the public service grant. This is a really upsetting story in no small part because of the picture. Why not use a real picture? The writing is flanked with urban dictionary prose, and may justifiably be deemed "alarmist," but is not totally devoid of persuasive qualities. Yeah, I totally agree she should take a paycut--but many of these sites just point to a salary and never say what should be a reasonable one. Of course, any compensation over $500k is too much, but people in this world dream of "big money" and for some 500k is not enough. Once you are used to making it, a pay cut is painful. I used to make $36,000/year + bonuses. That was straight out of college. Now six years later I am making $12/hour through a public service grant, and I hope that I can get more than that once I pass the Bar. There is no way for me to support myself (in NYC) on these wages. One can support oneself on $500,000/year, but if one has expensive mortgages, and all of the other accoutrements to a high-class lifestyle (if you go out for every meal, and they all cost $300-$1,000), it is difficult to go back to that previous life. But this does not mean I am sympathetic. Our President's salary is unconscionable, and should be scaled back by at least 50%. If she makes more than the President of the U.S., it does not seem fair. Our school is not as complicated a venture as our country.

Mainly, Temporary Attorney focuses on the jobs available for unemployed/underemployed J.D.'s, i.e. Robert Half, which was responsible for supporting and killing my L.A. dream. I am scared that I will have to resort to their services five years after my last position worked through them, but I digress. Temporary Attorney also focuses on people like our President, who make too much money, and who lead to the further inference that law school is indeed a scam where professors and administrators get paid very well to delude students into thinking they are making a brilliant life decision, when in fact they are basically killing themselves in a much less fun way than going on a Chris Farley-esque bender (which has always been my personal plan). It is not the most offensive of scamblogs. But it has been useful as a link for me to find the more egregious ones.

There are too many scamblogs out there to try and review so I will focus on the links that have been updated most recently. One of the blogs, "The Jobless Juris Doctor," has stopped writing about the issue after 18 months. I agree that is long enough to run one of these blogs. You can only repeat variations on the same theme so many times. "Esquire Painting" is an affecting blog written by a person who was 300K in student debt. It is a very creative blog, one of which I would usually approve. But as personal as Flying Houses gets, I do not venture into such sheer autobiography--that is reserved for literature--and am not sure what I can get out of reading such a blog as that. "First Tier Toilet!" boasts a well-placed exclamation point, but seems to want to post many pictures of roaches and other bugs. There was one post decrying ATL, which was nice, and in general this site sometimes puts together an intelligent argument. It is not unpleasant to look at, except for the bugs. "Legal Nihilist"'s last post talks about how scamblogging and surfing these different blogs is unhealthy and a waste of time and how it is time to get over the injustice of what was done to them. This is perhaps the most uplifting thing I have read on the topic. "Tales of a Fourth-Tier Nothing" gets my vote for best blog name and is not all that offensive. There are many others that are in this category--fairly well-written, not offensive to the senses--but in general, reading these blogs will make you depressed.

There are two more I want to focus on: the first is the worst--"Third Tier Reality." This is an extremely offensive blog because it posts a picture of fecal matter with each new article. It is noteworthy for its narrow focus--it only profiles schools, and individuals, who are supposedly contributing to this scam. I must admit, I am impressed by the number of posts--but I am not impressed by the writing quality. Of special note is the profile on our school:

This post will make you sick if you go here. The entering class profile is right on the money. We have too many students. They should cut it down to about 200. But I don't think they can without majorly re-organizing the infrastructure of the school. It is designed to be this big. I have mentioned before the claustrophobia at this school, the feeling that sometimes you cannot breathe because you are surrounded by too many other students in the halls. But I am not here to criticize, I am here to point out the unoriginality. The Jessica Alba line under "intangibles" is similarly repeated in other school profiles. Our tuition is ridiculous, but this blog will point to any school's tuition, even if it is $10,000 less (like DePaul's is), and say it is too high. The blog also does not take scholarships into account. Neither do most scamblogs. The semi-recent article in the NY TIMES about this issue points out this is other "scam-like" behavior, but in general, when your load is $28,000 less, it at least appears that the school is not out to get you and actually doesn't want their school to put you into a lifetime of debt servitude. This fact is frequently glossed over. The comments on this site (like many others I presume) are where the real zingers fly. Over and over again it is just terribly depressing. At least one person in the comments says they are an intern and it can't be so hard to get a job as everyone says it is--nervous energy and overanalysis.

"Shilling Me Softly" also has an impressive number of posts but appears to be similar to a few other blogs in that they are basically a Jr. version of ATL (the same goes for "But I Did Everything Right!"). The last one I want to mention is "S*** Law Jobs" which posts ads from craigslist from across the country that pay terrible wages. This site is mainly good for a perverse version of comic relief. But I really can't write anymore about this. I envisioned this post as something great, but I see now it is futile to take these actual bloggers to task about specific things they have written, and it is more important to present my personal feelings on the matter as a person who has just finished their first year at a much-maligned institution:

My feelings change on a day-to-day basis. There is no consistency to my internal sense of happiness. To work with an impending sense of doom is nearly impossible, but I have done it all year long. People tell me I worry too much. Maybe I am just too gullible a person. Maybe I would be better off if I had never discovered any of this information. As a person who has complained about their life all along, and who has joked about suicide for approximately 18 years, and who has already gone broke once, I still have never been in debt until now, and the feeling is a bit overwhelming, even when it is only 20K at this point and I would be able to pay off at least a little bit of it pretty soon. But I would go back to that life I had before, where my market value was $13/hour. Cynical scambloggers will say, "$13 is better than the $10 you'll be making in s*** law!" Plus there's no extra debt. However, most will make more than $10. Actually, it seems not totally unlikely that I would be qualified with this degree to receive a salary in the 50-60K range. And I know it is hard to find a job now, but I want to ask everyone--have you ever tried to be published?

Which is worse--the legal industry or the publishing industry? You tell me. I'd love to be a literary agent. I won't stop writing. I came into this school knowing that. Some people say that work as an attorney is too time-consuming and you will never find the time to write. Whatever. All the jobs I could find were boring, and legal work may be boring at times, but at least it deals with semi-interesting subject matter and real issues that figure imporantly in other people's lives. It is a profession where you can "make a difference." The difficult thing to do is balance the terrible financial situation it may end in with the possible benefits of personal fulfillment and more lucrative job opportunities. If I said I hated it, I hated it because of all of this bad news flying around. It was yet another time in my life when I made a decision that seemed like my destiny but I was slapped into the reality that I am indeed a superfluous human being.

I don't give up on writing because it is a form of therapy. Law school is not a form of therapy. But I do think it is harder to make it as a "writer" than it is to make it as a "lawyer" and that is pretty much the last reason I have for not feeling totally demoralized. So thanks for all the great information. I have really appreciated becoming depressed. At least I am not wearing horse-blinders (unless the information has actually been blown out of proportion, in which case I was brainwashed--but I felt uneasy enough about my personal finances 10 months ago to know otherwise). Mission accomplished, law schools know they need to be more transparent and maybe they will actually be regulated more closely. I come to no thesis in this post. I cannot ascertain veracity until I am in the situation myself. Apparently, it is a hopeless one.