On The Bright Side: My Law School “Misadventure” Viewed Through the Law School Transparency Lens
Ken K. Gourdin
This isn’t a blog, nor is this a blog post, dedicated to bitc—Er, I mean, to whining and moaning—about how worthless a law degree is. In what I will admit was an episode of foolish, he-peacock fan-spreading pride (though it was really inexplicable pride, given the myriad difficulties I’ve had securing employment of any kind, let alone the difficulties I’ve had securing law-related employment, since graduation), I paid an outrageous sum (which was all the more outrageous, given the fact that it was borrowed money) for the most ostentatious frame imaginable for my degree. (The degree, along with the inexplicably-ostentatious frame in which it is housed, now sits in the nondescript corner of a nondescript closet of my nondescript room, gathering dust.)
I admit, I have since given serious thought to listing my degree on e-Bay, if for no other reason than to satisfy my curiosity over what the going rate is on e-Bay for gently-used law degrees from second-tier law schools these days. That said, I don’t care if I’m never licensed; I don’t care if I never work a day of law-related employment in my life; I don’t care if my address ends up being, “Down the alley, third cardboard box on the left”; this blog will never devolve into a mere place in cyberspace to bit—Er, I mean, to whine and moan—about the uselessness of my law degree (even though I would have to post to it from the public library if I ever took up residence in that alley). (Now, there’s an untapped market in the blogosphere if I’ve ever thought of one: the search terms “useless JD” and “useless law degree” combined to return a mere 30,000 hits in Google. No doubt, other perhaps-more-emphatic descriptors would return similar results, probably in similar (if not higher) numbers.)
Given everything that has happened (and not happened) in the interim, it’s easy for me to conclude that getting a law degree wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve ever made: far harder is coming to any definitive conclusion about what I should have done instead. While I won’t say that the kind of jobs I was able to get before I went to law school – not to mention getting a similar job after I enrolled, lost my nerve, and withdrew without receiving any credit before I swallowed my pride and went back – was the pivotal factor in my decision to go to law school, nor was it irrelevant. It will come as a shock to no one who knows me well that – after a short time as an on-call, non-benefited emergency dispatcher; six months as a telephone solicitor for a family film company; nearly 2 ½ years in telephone customer service for UPS; and short stints answering phones for American Express and JC Penney (the last-named post being the position I took during my leave of absence from law school – I decided that I didn’t want to answer phones for the rest of my life. (I have excellent telephone etiquette and a kind, empathetic “phone-side manner”: I don’t mind if it is part of my job description, but I’d rather it not be my job description in its entirety.)
Just as there is no shortage of people who complain about the uselessness of law degrees, the subset of those who lodge such complaints who would, nonetheless, turn their noses up at the pay offered for law-related (or other) employment for which attorney licensure is not required – employment as, e.g., a legal support professional – is not small. Notwithstanding the size of that group, I’m not one of those people. Given the chance, I would welcome the opportunity to disregard the fact that my law degree makes me “overqualified” for such a position, and the number of such positions for which I have applied (especially counting the time after I got my bachelor’s degree but before I got my law degree – that is, before I became “overqualified”) is not small. Given the glut of people with J.D.s (many of whom have academic – not to mention professional – credentials I can only dream of), the automatic disqualification of this segment by hiring authorities from the applicant pool of those in this group is, frankly, mystifying. While I don’t regret my law degree, I often do wonder if I should regret it.
Briefly speaking, the U.S.’s overabundance (putting it mildly!) of attorneys is traceable partly to the fact that the American Bar Association (ABA) – the body responsible for accrediting law schools, and without whose accreditation law degrees would have limited utility since one who receives a law degree from a school not accredited by the ABA is limited to practicing in the state where that law school is located – refuses to cap the number of accredited law schools because such action reportedly would stifle competition and, thus, would violate antitrust law. Arguably, ABA accreditation itself needlessly makes legal education more expensive. There is a certain school of thought that (according to the law of diminishing returns) the more “bells and whistles” the ABA requires a school to have in order to achieve accreditation, the lesser the benefit conferred by any given bell or whistle is. Institutions that attempt to rein in the runaway cost of legal education by bucking the ABA’s various mandates have not met with great success.
Having said all of this, I still don’t understand the point of hanging out in cyberspace in places where the uselessness of law degrees is trumpeted and where the un- and underemployment of those with such degrees is lamented. While I don’t have any solutions (and while, even if I found a solution to my own employment woes, I would be reluctant to offer it as any kind of a panacea for the general problem), no problem is so bad that complaining about it won’t make it worse. As I recently said on another forum (and reposted elsewhere on this blog):
I write a blog and publish occasional Op-Eds that nobody reads. (It’s funny; whenever my friends see those Op-Eds and then see me afterward, they say, “Hey, Ken. That was a great Op-Ed,” and I just want to say, “Thanks, but the idea was for somebody who DOESN’T know me to take note of it, yet it seems like the only people who do notice them are those who DO know me.” (I bite my tongue … after the “Thanks,” at least!) Yes. OK. Things definitely could be worse. I don’t want to b****. There are no shortage of people out there who have entire blogs dedicated to the single pursuit of bemoaning the particular degree that I (perhaps was unfortunate that I) got. Many of them have better academic and professional credentials than I do.
There is a certain school of thought which says that if the degree I worked so hard (and paid [am paying] so dearly) to get isn’t going to pay off for me, if push comes to shove and worse comes to worst, since student loans cannot be discharged even in bankruptcy, just default. Just stop paying. But, see, here’s the thing: nearly everyone who suggests that course of action is, at least from the standpoint of earning power, in a better position than I am. If nothing else, they can at least get a job doing manual labor, if necessary. Meanwhile, I live at poverty level and yet (while, admittedly, I couldn’t do this without a good deal of family support), I have paid every single cent due on my student loans the last ten years. Just for fun, I went to a site that purports to calculate what my payment would be under the income-sensitive repayment plan my lender offers. It asked for my Adjusted Gross Income. I don’t know what that is, so I simply took my monthly SSDI payment, multiplied it by 12 (Thanks . . . , Uncle Barry! [President Obama is akin to the rich uncle I don’t have, since he paid – albeit indirectly – for me to go to law school]), and entered that figure. Do you know what it says my payment would be under an income-sensitive plan? Zip. Zilch. Nada! Yet I’ve paid every cent due in the last ten years. Heck, they’re in deferment now because I’m taking a class, and I’m still making payments! [I have since completed the class; I got an “A,” but sometimes I think that I’d trade every such mark I’ve ever gotten for a halfway decent (or even simply bearable) job.]1
Few and far between though they may be, there are, however, corners of cyberspace that are dedicated to something more than whining about the uselessness of law degrees or about the plight of the glut of unemployed would-be lawyers. I recently ran across one such corner after being directed to it by “Above The Law” (“ATL”), a site which, while it has a good share of whining and moaning about these things, is at least worthwhile for its satire (among other things). The site is lawschooltransparency.com.
The Law School Transparency (LST) site lists S.J. Quinney College of Law at the University of Utah’s debt at repayment (DAR) for residents, which I was (and am), at $179,435. The DAR figures for other schools to which I was accepted and whose offers I briefly considered accepting are even more eye-popping. San Diego’s Thomas Jefferson School of Law and California Western School of Law have DARs of $250,028 and $249,598, respectively.2 Conversely, I graduated with just over $60,000 in debt, and that figure includes the cost of classes (not to mention an entire semester or two) that I did not complete, a program in which I enrolled but did not complete (the Master of Public Administration), and various other fits, starts, and missteps.
I’m not sure what methodology is employed to arrive at these figures. I’m sure tuition has gone up, probably considerably, since I graduated in 2005. (What else is new? The sun rises, taxes come due, the Chicago Cubs instill hope in their fans annually only to dash it as the postseason approaches, and law school tuition goes up.) I don’t think, however, that a rise in tuition exhausts the possibilities for the vast difference in LST’s DAR figures and the total of my final bill for law school. Housing is one possibility. The nicest (not to mention probably most expensive) apartment I lived in during my legal education was in Graduate and Honors Housing at Fort Douglas on the University of Utah Campus during the 2003-04 academic year. The other apartments I lived in were, respectively, a relatively nice one (although I had problems with noisy neighbors) and (to be blunt but frank) a craphole basement apartment in what, ironically, is reputed to be one of Salt Lake City’s nicer neighborhoods (in the Avenues). It’s possible, even quite likely, that I saved considerable money on housing over what I would have spent if I had opted for tonier digs.
My visit to Law School Transparency verifies one conclusion I long have held about my law school experience. As bad as my current debt load is, I’m grateful it isn’t worse. In an effort to put my law school experience in perspective, I recently posted the following at another venue (again reposting it elsewhere on this blog, as well):
There are a lot of less-than-ideal circumstances in my life. I stuck it out in school to earn a post-bachelor’s, professional degree even though I pretty regularly felt like quitting. (The thing was, I didn’t know what I would do instead: mostly, what I’d done up to that point in my working life is to answer phones for somewhere between $7-10 an hour. I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life doing that, but it seemed like the only alternative to continuing my schooling: in fact, when I first enrolled, I lost my nerve and I dropped out before getting any credit … and ended up taking a job answering phones for $9 an hour—again!)
So I went back. I still felt like quitting in the middle of every semester until, perhaps, my final year: everybody there was smarter than I was, they “got it” more easily than I did, they could compete in the dog-eat-dog competition for jobs when I had no idea how I was going to do that, and so on. I felt like I knew what [Latter-day Saint pioneer] Francis Webster was talking about when he spoke of crossing the plains with a handcart, picking a spot in the distance, and telling himself he could go only that far and no further, only to reach the spot and look behind him, wondering who was pushing his handcart, but seeing no one: as I said, my “spot in the distance” usually was the end of the semester. But somehow, I always found a “second wind.”
I graduated, then I was denied licensure in my “would-be chosen profession” because of a psychiatric history and (at the risk of oversimplifying) problems stemming therefrom. That’s not “an easy bell to unring.” In this particular field, once someone has been tarred with that brush, it’s hard for one to rehabilitate his image. Now, I can either list my degree on my resume with no accompanying license, and people won’t hire me for one of two reasons: (1) they wonder why I’m not licensed; or (2) they wonder why I want to work there when I have the degree I listed; or, I can forego listing my degree and not have to worry about confessing my lack of licensure, but that simply leads people to wonder what I was doing with those (in my case) five years of my life.
But could things be worse? Absolutely, they could! I could’ve gone to a different school, out of state, and paid three or four times what I ended up paying for my degree. There are people with far better credentials than mine who can’t find a job in the field. Yes, with respect to my own income, I live at poverty level. But (although, admittedly, I wouldn’t be able to do this without a good deal of help from family), I’ve still been able to pay down (and in one case, to pay off) – albeit modestly – my loans. Try as I might, I don’t regret getting this particular degree (although candidly, I do often wonder if I should regret it). In the end, even though this field, as yet, has been nothing more than an expensive hobby of mine, not very many people can say they successfully met the kind of challenges I faced in getting the degree.3
The bottom line is this: As much as I love the San Diego area (an affection I developed after having had the chance to do two years’ worth of volunteer work there in the late ’80s and early ’90s), I have long thanked my lucky stars (not to mention The Good Lord Above) that I did not incur more than four times the debt I wound up with by going to law school there. Even as it was, I wasn’t very frugal about going to law school on borrowed money. Still, while, as I said, I’m unsure what accounts for the difference between LST’s DAR figures for my alma mater and my final debt, I’m certainly glad I didn’t incur even more debt when I went there.
- Ken K. Gourdin (September 4, 2014), “Mormons and the ‘Prosperity Gospel’” (Blog post), http://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2014/09/04/2890/, last accessed November 4, 2014.
- These Debt At Repayment (DAR) figures come from Law School Transparency’s Web site, last accessed at the following address, on November 4, 2014: http://www.lawschooltransparency.com/reform/projects/Non-Discounted-Cost/
- Ken K. Gourdin (June 9, 2014), “As Good As It Gets?” (Blog post), http://greatgourdini.wordpress.com/2014/06/09/as-good-as-it-gets/, last accessed November 4, 2014.