Photo: Courtesy of Claire Bula
With law firms cutting back, thousands of law school graduates are still unemployed while stuck with six-figure student loan debt.Some students have filed class-action law suits against more than a dozen schools alleging that officials misled them about their job prospects after graduation.
“The system of legal education is completely broken now,” former Chicago-Kent College of Law student Richard Komaiko told us. “Almost everyone I know from law school is unemployed or seeking alternative employment.”
We wanted to hear the truth behind the crisis, so we interviewed several recent graduates, including those who have gone into entirely different fields, and one who is living just above the poverty line.
While in law school at the University of Colorado and the University of Houston, Gilmer developed a passion for health law and policy, but pursuing that passion has made it exceedingly hard to pay her bills.
Since her 2008 graduation, Gilmer has completed a variety of health policy-related fellowships and other advocacy work, but all have been time-and-funding limited. Since this fall, she has been on her own, attempting to build a practice, Gilmer Health Law, in the areas of patient advocacy and health care technology.
'I have, literally never made it above about 200 per cent of the federal poverty limit. It's just stressful, really stressful,' she says. 'But it gives me a new angle to when I'm helping people. I can understand exactly what they've been through. I know how hard it is to apply for food stamps. I know how hard it is to apply for medical assistance.'
Some ask her why she has stuck with her current career path, says Gilmer, who says she just doesn't see herself working at a typical law firm job. 'Working in that kind of corporate culture isn't where I want to be,' she says.
Still, at times she has her doubts. She remains on food stamps so her social life suffers. She can't afford a car, so she has to rely on the bus to get around Austin, Texas, where she lives. And currently unable to pay back her growing pile of law school debt, Gilmer says she wonders if she will ever be able to pay it back.
'That has been really hard for me,' she says. 'I have absolutely no credit anymore. I haven't been able to pay loans. It's scary, and it's a hard thing to think you're a lawyer but you're impoverished. People don't understand that most lawyers actually aren't making the big money.'
Jordan Harbinger was laid off from his Wall Street law firm job and launched a business advising men on dating skills
Harbinger had applied to law school on a whim, and ended up attending University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, one of the nation's top law schools.
'I didn't know that there were law school rankings,' he says. 'Everyone is obsessed with these things. I found these after I got into Michigan. I had no idea. I figured Harvard law was top dog or something, but I thought who cares, what's the big deal?'
After graduating in 2006, Harbinger landed a job at a Wall Street law firm, specializing in mortgage-backed securities. 'At that time, you could kind of walk into a job on Wall Street if you graduated from a decent law school,' he says.
When he was laid off less than a year later ('they laid off their whole first year class,' he says), he had little desire to look for another 'boring' law job, instead deciding to focus on something he'd been doing since law school -- advising other men on how to pick up women.
During law school, Harbinger and a fellow Michigan graduate student had started an Internet podcast on the topic, called 'The Art of Charm.' It had become increasingly popular with thousands of regular listeners so after he was laid off, they decided to turn it into a business, which they advertised through their radio show.
Today, The Art of Charm offers a range of seminars and classes for men looking to increase their social skills, whether for dating or networking. Thousands of people from across the United States and the world have attended the school's programs, according to Harbinger.
While Harbinger says he doesn't regret his time in law school, he doubts he will ever practice law.
'I really thought i was going to be the worst employee in the world. It worried me to no end in college and law school and even when I was on Wall Street,' he says. 'Becoming an entrepreneur where your brain is always firing on all cylinders; now I'm finally like, 'Oh this is what I'm supposed to do.'
A 2006 graduate of Villanova University School of Law, Fandetti was a victim of the recession.
Laid off from his big law firm job in early 2009, Fandetti went to work as an attorney at a major insurance company. While miserable at his previous corporate law firm job, Fandetti began studying for the GMAT on a whim. After he aced the test, Kaplan invited him to apply as a GMAT tutor.
So for the past two years, Fandetti has been a lawyer by day and GMAT teacher on the side. 'It's been nice because I've been able to put money away for eventually a house or whatever my next big step is.'
Still, while gainfully employed, Fandetti still harbors some bitterness towards the the accuracy of law school's employment statistics.
'You're misled. They don't have reliable statistics when they present how much money you will make when you get out,' he says. 'You're not told that the top 10 or 20 per cent plus maybe a handful of other people who have connections will get these big firm jobs and everyone else is just thrown the wolves.'
Fandetti says he feels that he is many ways at a career crossroads. He was recently accepted to a MBA program at Carnegie Mellon University, but says he was 'literally scared to death' to accept because it would mean taking on another mountain of student loan debt.
'Because of my experience with law school I'm really scared to commit. I don't want to make the same mistake, even though it's a fantastic opportunity,' he says. 'I got burned once. Do I want that to happen again?'
In 2008 Chaffat, a then-senior finance major at the University of Florida, decided to turn down the job offers from several Big 4 accounting firms and attend law school at Boston University, driven by an interest in forensic accounting.
'I was really intrigued by the legal part of that so I decided to turn down those offers and go to law school, thinking that once I came out I would have my choice of what I wanted to do with my business background and doing a business focus at law school,' she says.
Once in law school, Chaffatt quickly realised that finding a job might not be so easy after all. After the economy crashed, the coveted well-paid summer associate jobs at major law firms became scarce. She and her classmates found themselves fighting for any summer law job, many of which were unpaid.
'I thought about not completing law school, but at that point, that was my plan and I didn't know what else to do with myself,' she says. 'I had already turned down these positions in the finance market so I had nothing to go back to so I stayed.'
After graduating in 2011, Chaffatt took the Maryland bar exam and moved to Washington D.C. in hopes of landing a job working in financial regulation. So far, she has been unsuccessful in her search and is relying on document review jobs (where firms pay contract lawyers to help prepare for the discovery process) to pay the bills.
'I'm in this limbo where no one wants me. It's really difficult and thank god for doc review. That's how I support myself,' she says. 'As for starting a career, at this point I have no idea when I'll start my career and what I'll be doing once I do.'
Legrand started prepping to start a solo practice about halfway into his second year of law school. The 2011 graduate of Loyola University New Orleans College of Law says he saw the writing on the wall about the dismal state of the legal job market and figured it would be best to take his career into his own hands.
'I started researching starting a law firm, reading blogs, getting books from the library,' he says. 'I had a lot of friends who were desperately handing out resumes. I was prepared for it.'
He opened the practice, Andrew Legrand Law, LLC, in October after being admitted to the Louisiana bar, specializing in small business law, a niche that he hopes will help him build expertise and a solid client base.
'Needless to say, I'm not making the type of cash that I thought I would be making when I signed up for law school,' he says. 'But I'm learning how to market and attract clients, a huge skill in the overpopulated lawyer market.'
In hindsight, Legrand says he values his legal education, but that at $40,000 a year for tuition alone, even with scholarship help the cost was simply too high.
'Law school is not the problem. I think its the cost of law school that's the problem,' he says. 'Would I spend the same amount of money again? Probably not. Would I go to law school again for a much less amount, probably so.'
Larry Hardcastle discovered that even graduating from a highly-ranked law school didn't guarantee a spot at a major firm
Before the recession, it was a well-known fact in the law school world that a summer associate job at a law firm was a golden ticket to a job offer.
'The only way you didn't get an offer was if you did something stupid,' says Hardcastle, a 2010 graduate of The George Washington University Law School. 'That paradigm certainly shifted (the summer after my second year).'
Hardcastle secured a summer associate job at a large Philadelphia law firm, but all of the associates were told upfront that hiring decisions would be much more difficult that year. Of 22 summer associates, nine received offers.
'I was told in November that I wouldn't be extended an offer,' he says. 'So basically at that point, it's a strange thing to be told that the path that was trodden by so many before you isn't the one you will be taking. Particularly, going to a good school, getting fairly good grades. That was tough, and you trod along.'
A year later in November 2010, having passed the New Jersey bar and Pennsylvania bar exams, Hardcastle was preparing for the job hunt, when he heard of an opportunity with a single practitioner in Somervile, New Jersey who was looking to expand his practice into the growing legal bankruptcy field. Hardcastle got the job, and has since worked to gain clients and expertise.
'I spent a week down in the Trenton law library reading about bankruptcy as I hadn't taken any bankruptcy classes in law school,' he says. 'I thought it was something I could do, something I was relatively interested in.'
While he isn't where he expected to be after law school, Hardcastle says he does not regret his career choice. Still, he advises against law school for those not set on the legal profession.
'I don't know if this bears repeating, but things have changed and they have changed substantially, and I would anticipate that they are going to continue to change,' he says. 'So don't go to law school as an alternative to starting your life because you don't know what else you want to do. It's not worth it unless you have someone footing the bill entirely. Like any other profession, there are going to be winners and there are going to be losers.'
Komaiko had no intention of starting his own business when he enrolled in law school.
'I definitely did not go to law school with the intention of doing anything like this,' he says. 'I was a Hill staffer. There is a big glass ceiling in D.C. if you don't have a law degree.'
But once in law school at Chicago-Kent College of Law, Komaiko and several friends came up with the idea for a reverse-auction style web site for legal services aimed at matching people seeking legal representation with lawyers in their area.
'It failed miserably, and we were all too stubborn to quit and move on with our past lives,' he says. 'Before we knew it, we were less lawyers and more like web product people. It was kind of a gradual evolution, and somewhere along the way I graduated from law school and was immersed in this.'
So they tried again, this time zeroing in on the cost of legal services. Launched last fall, Attorneyfee.com is a site that's aimed at making legal costs more transparent for consumers. The site has already compiled legal fees for more than 25,000 consumer firms across the nation, according to Komaiko.
'We were economic majors in undergrad,' he says. 'To an economics person, you look at a market that is failing so miserably like this, the first issue is clearly there is very poor information in this market.'
Watching many of his fellow law students struggle to find employment, Komaiko says he has no desire to work in a legal job.
'At this point, I have actually no interest in practicing law,' he says. 'I definitely feel like I use my law degree everyday, but i have no interest in using it as a hired gun.'
In her first full-time job, Bula realised that law in the real world was far different from what is taught in the idealistic halls of law school.
After graduating from Villanova University School of Law in 2006, she took a job at the Delaware State Attorney General's office. As an intern she had loved the office's fast-paced nature and goal of protecting people, but once she began working full-time, she says she quickly realised she needed a change.
'I personally felt a little bit unfulfilled and disillusioned with the system and just could not see myself doing this for another 30 years,' she says. 'What they teach you about in law school, how procedure is carried out, it's not really how things went in real life.'
So Bula reached out to her alma mater and landed a job in Villanova University's fundraising department in 2008, shortly before the economy crashed. In the following months, she watched many of her law friends lose their jobs and struggle to find new ones.
From there, she went on to work as the Manager of Corporate Relations at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where she headed up the museum's corporate giving campaign.
'I've continued to stay outside of the legal practice, both as a personal choice and because it would be nearly impossible to get a new position as an attorney,' she says. 'There just aren't really the jobs to be had.'
While she wasn't using her law background traditionally, she says she thinks her employers saw her law degree as a plus. 'I think they saw my law degree as an asset, in terms of being able to relate to the business community, understanding contracts and giving contracts,' she says.
While in that position, Bula was recruited to become the marketing manager of Electronic Ink, an international design consultancy. While she had little marketing experience, she says the company's CEO commented on her ability to think outside of the box.
Given the new state of the legal economy, Bula says potential law students should think carefully about the choice.
'My bottom line advice would be if you want that kind of education or you really want to be a lawyer, go to law school,' she says. 'If you're not sure what you want to do and you feel like you need three more years to figure it out, you're probably going to be disappointed at the end.'
Yaron Deskalo went to law school with no intention of ever becoming a lawyer and now he works at ESPN
A 2007 graduate of Albany Law School, Deskalo started as an associate producer at ESPN 10 days after taking the New York and Connecticut bar exams.
Nearly five years later, Deskalo is still working at the same ESPN show -- E:60, which features long form sports journalism -- and he says he has no plans of looking for a traditional law job.
'It's just been a really incredible run that's involved winning a couple of Emmy awards,' he says. 'It really hasn't made me think once about, 'Hm, should I go back and try to find a job in the law somewhere?' I'm having way too much fun.'
Still, Deskalo says he is glad he went to law school, which he says taught him how to think differently about situations and also helped him hone his skills as a journalist.
While Deskalo says he would never trade his degree for being free of student loan debt, he acknowledged that the high cost of law school is a growing problem.
'I think that it is a huge issue with so many people because they can't really follow their passion and they can't really take a job that would help their future career because they have to make those payments,' he says. 'I've never struggled to pay them, but it's obnoxious to know that you are consistently paying something that you finished years ago.
'I think its a huge issue that has to be addressed sometime in the future. If schools continue to be this expensive, it's going to hamstring (law students) for the rest of their lives.'
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