Not all stories about lawyers are jokes anymore. The tried and true reflex of telling quips at the expense of legal set in the face of the seemingly endless profits has been complicated by the reshaping of the field during the Great Recession. With pervasive law school debt and a shrinking legal work force, it's no longer valid to contend that anyone armed with a JD degree in America can simply object their way from rags to riches.
Perhaps there's no more illustrative story of the new lay of the legal land than one reported by msnbc.com. As part of an ongoing series on America's economic malaise, the news site has solicited participation from readers about in challenging experiences in trying to make ends meet. One woman who recently wrote in was named "Carla." Carla is a lawyer, with nearly a decade of legal experience under belt. But Carla no longer wishes to give her contact information and real name to her newest clients.
Having yet to even pay off all her law school debt, Carla was laid off in 2009.
"Did I ever think I'd be taking my top off for rent money? No. I was in my mid-30s and had never danced before," Carla told msnbc.com, who asked the website to use her stage name and withhold her identity. "As a little girl, I never thought to myself, 'I just want to grow up and be a stripper,' or, 'All I ever wanted to do in life is climb in the lap of sweaty stranger and take my top off.'"
Finding herself shut out of the job market two years ago, she initially took whatever she could get.
"At first, I worked as a waitress, and a cashier in gas station," she said. It became clear that stripping was a faster and easier, and yet still legal, way to make the money. She's able to set her own schedule to balance her studies for a master's degree, the subject of which she didn't share, and earns on average $20 an hour. On weekends that rate can jump to $50. (It's not clear whether her newest studies means she was fully leaving the legal field.)
It's hard to draw sweeping conclusions from Carla's story because she understandably is withholding so much. But the fact that anyone working in the legal industry for nearly a full decade in California has been reduced to stripping is telling enough.
Carla didn't share where she studied law, but legal observers have noted the difference between going to a top tier school and not in the new legal world can be the difference between the corner office, and the strip club. In a widely noted article in the New York Times published on Jan. 8, David Segal noted, "since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study."
Nevertheless the allure of big law money has kept drawing in new students, who turn to the famous U.S. News rankings in search of evidence they are making the right choice. Indeed, Michael Wallerstein's decision in 2006 to attend the Thomas Jefferson School of Law in San Diego didn't seem impractical even though the school was in the fourth and lowest tier of the rankings; the most recent survey says 92 percent of Thomas Jefferson grads were employed nine months after they earned their degrees, notes Segal. But what the reporter went on to note was the extent to which law schools massage and manipulate that data to ensure a high percentage of graduates working after nine months out of school. They may even secure them very short term temp jobs. As Segal also notes, "employment" can include any number of service jobs for which no one needs three years of legal study.
The pain has not been spread equally and students at top schools are still faring well. Lower down, many are not. At the time the Times article was published, Wallerstein, of Jefferson, was $250,000 in debt, and could only secure legal temp jobs.
Even though entering law school is still a voluntary choice, blogs like Third Tier Reality have sprung up on the Internet. On it, the experience of attending a lower tier law school is discussed as folly.
But perhaps the most famous display of anger over the post-graduate employment stats has been the class-action lawsuits filed against New York and Cooley Law Schools. The group of plaintiffs are seeking $250 million from Cooley and $200 million from New York in tuition refunds, as well as other damages. They also want employment statistic reporting practices to be reformed, according to the Wall Street Journal.
Focusing on the nine-month stat, "the lawsuits argue that the law schools have distorted their post-graduate employment information by advertising the percentage of those who secure any kind of job within nine months of graduation, even ones that don't have anything to do with the legal industry," according to the Journal. The latest word, according to a Fortune report, is that the plaintiffs still plan to take the schools to court over the alleged fraud.
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