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January 20, 2008

Is Kirsten Wolf the Law Grad Norm?

I'm posting the recent WSJ interview with Kirsten Wolf , graduate of Boston University School of Law, because I would like to ask the simple question:  Is Kirsten Wolf the law grad norm in 2008? 

I was like a B+ student, right there in the middle with most people. So it was the fall of second year when everyone was applying for summer associate positions and I realized I wasn't going to be one of the chosen few who was going to get those jobs. I had a moment of realization that once that golden ring was taken away I realized I didn't want to be a lawyer for the sake of being a lawyer and I reconsidered everything I was doing and realized I probably was in the wrong place, but I was about $45,000 in the hole at that point and if I walked away I'd have nothing and still have debt. So I finished law school so I could at least have the degree and maybe a miracle would happen and I'd get a job.

Did you get one?

I passed the Massachusetts bar and there was no job. This was 2002 when the dot-com bust was hitting white-collar trades. It was a bad time. The dean of our law school apologized to us in our graduation speech. So I continued to work for the engineering company I had worked at through law school and spent the year trying to figure out what I wanted to do. And I realized the directions I had gone in up until this point were wrong and I needed to rethink everything. I was 27 years old and I had been trying to do the right thing and all that had gotten me was upwards of $100,000 in the hole.

You can read more here.

The only opinion I have on this piece is many people do look at law school as a low threshold entry to getting a graduate degree when they don't have more than a passing interest in being a lawyer, just an educational stepping stone.  It's a place to hide out from the real world for three years with the pretense of moving forward.

We are a society who has beaten our children over the head into believing you will be higher up in the food chain with a graduate degree.  And law school is the default for many because it requires no specific undergraduate degree as a prerequisite.  She would not have regretted going to law school but for the lack of promised jobs or the debt.  That's just infantile.

This is not the story of a person passionate about law who pounded the pavement to get meaningful work or did whatever she needed to do to practice her passion.   This is the story of someone who thought it might be nice to get a legal degree and regrets the debt she has to pay and the time she sacrificed for the privilege of figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up.  And because a job  wasn't handed to her on a silver platter once she graduated, she's upset.  That doesn't make you a missionary.  It makes you pissed off.

There are many Kirsten Wolfs in law school.  But for the Kirsten Wolfs how would law schools make money. But there are also future Presidents, brilliant public defenders, supreme court justices, civil liberties defenders, legislatures, environmental lawyers and more.

In contrast I offer you the musings of a fellow Boston University School of Law Grad:

Whatever I do for a living, however, will require keeping an eye on the long view: making a difference. For the foreseeable future I'm glad to work for the sake of working, to continue to learn this trade and to make enough money to make the loans go away. But if there were to come a day when I looked back on my career and saw that I had done nothing to influence sensible policy, then no matter how brilliantly I'd litigated or how much money I'd earned along the way, I'd consider my career a failure. It's this fear that's partly behind the motivation to write, as no matter what I do during my day job I'll still have an avenue for making my voice heard.

(The Great Change:  Turning Cathy Into A Lawyer)

There is only one moral to Kirsten Wolf's story: understand what it is you are trying to accomplish by going to law school and the short and long term financial and psychological costs associated with the undertaking.  There are no excuses for being Alice in Wonderland anymore.  There is too much information circulating today about the trials and tribulations of law school, the debt, and employment opportunities for you to remain ignorant and whiny. 

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Listed below are links to weblogs that reference Is Kirsten Wolf the Law Grad Norm?:

» Too Many Lawyers, So We Blame The Victim from Simple Justice
Susan Cartier Leibel, at Build a Solo Practice, asks whether Kirsten Wolf is the norm. [Read More]

» BU law bloggers from Statements of Interest
In recent weeks Kirsten Wolf, an alum of my legal alma mater, Boston University School of Law, kicked up some dust by complaining how law school was totally not worth it. She raises valid points; it clearly doesn't seem to... [Read More]

Comments

Victor Medina

You know, I have no idea whether or not this woman is the norm. However, in hiring younger folks, I've found a certain sense of entitlement that is there whether the job is as associate or office manager. There are those that expect the leather chair and to be CEO within the first 6 months and are disappointed and resentful when it doesn't happen. To contrast, notwithstanding my solo/small firm practice, I was one of the "chosen few" - I didn't go to a name school, but I did very well there, got a "brass ring" summer clerkship, a federal judicial clerkship after graduation, and returned to the firm after that. But, I never went into it thinking that something was promised to me. And by the time I arrived, the dot-com bust had happened, making all kinds of jobs tight. But, (and I realize now that I'm well into rambling), if you're passionate about what you do, if you can bring value to the table and provide solutions to client's needs, you will be employed. Finally, on an entirely selfish note, as long as there are lawyers being graduated who don't love being a lawyer, I will always beat out at least one competitor for the gig. Don't let them onto our little secret....VJM

SHG

Many of the ills and disenchantment of the professions are exercerbated by the fact that access to law schools is so readily available and we are graduating far more attorneys than America can absorb.

The law is still promoted as a panacea for students who want to be professionals of some amorphouse sort, but lack any real desire or skills. So how do we blame them for walking through the door that we hold open for them?

But as the number of lawyers floods the nation, we still mint far more than are needed year after year. As long as this happens, it will depress the earnings of the profession, encourage the frivolous litigation that brings disrepute on lawyers and will produce miserable lawyers.

And I am unaware of any law school announcing that it's closing its doors because there are just too damn many lawyers.

Kirsten Wolf is a symptom of the problem. She's not the disease.

CMC

"There is only one moral to Kirsten Wolf's story: understand what it is you are trying to accomplish by going to law school and the short and long term financial and psychological costs associated with the undertaking. There are no excuses for being Alice in Wonderland anymore."

A valid moral point, but incomplete. There can be no Alice in Wonderland without both an Alice AND a Wonderland. The latter is what, to an extent, education in America has become. Numerous critics across a wide range of fields -John Taylor Gatto, Camille Paglia, Gary North and a slew of economists have issued criticism of our system. Comparisons have been made to other modern countries, regions, even city-states like Singapore.

After all, who loaned her the money --which of course nearly instantly went into the hands of the law school adminstrators (not to mention the college loans)? If it was a federal loan, I did, and so did you.

Passion? Give me a break. The numbers don't lie. You don't put a 5'2" 5th grade little leaguer on the varsity college team. He could be the most passionate 9-year-old on the planet, but if the level of competition is beyond him, it's over. Now if you're telling me he's got the requisite general athletic ability and you've got an 8 year training program you can put him into to turn-out a 17-year-old competent technician, ok, sure.

To extend the metaphor, college and law school now has elements of a scam: too many accredited schools; too many admissions; poor training.

Law school is to white boys and girls what basketball is to black city kids: too many kids playing too much thinking they'll hit the big time instead of focusing on more productive things. The lessons learned in these activities might not be totally useless, might in fact be very valuable, but we don't live forever and we must make better use of our time.

You think this is unrelated to how the Euro has nearly doubled against the dollar over the last 8-9 years? Why China has trillions in reserves? Why some tribal-run oil kingdom where they were living in tents two generations ago just brought the maximum allowable amount of one of our largest banks?....

Ok, now I'm ranting....

But the bottom line is this, you want to lay this whole thing off on some 25-year-old woman, fine, take your pass and move on. Me I think we owe the next generation just a smidgen of thought in how we set things up.

Susan Cartier Liebel

CMC, we think more alike than you know. Especially your rant about the changes globally.

My point is one of responsibility. I'm not exonerating the law schools and their corporate mentality. I am saying we still have personal responsibility. And with the proliferation of information the ultimate decision to go to law school remains yours. She is not my choice of martyr to dissuade others from going to law school. And I've commented extensively on Simple Justice as Scott Greenfield and I are hitting each other with wet noodles over this. Check it out.

http://blog.simplejustice.us/2008/01/21/too-many-lawyers-so-we-blame-the-victim.aspx#comment-778425

CMC

Thanks for letting me rant and excusing my straw-manning your position a bit.

Like kids are going to listen to us? : )

"For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required...."

What is interesting to me is that the default response to this overall situation in America is to gloss it as a personal warning. It's one of our virtues. Liberty.

Meanwhile, and here I exaggerate for effect, if this happened in Japan, four million 50-year-old mothers would storm parliament on behalf of their sons....

The point about the above being that, even our virtue of liberty can be extended to an abstract, nonsensical range. There are --or should be-- other working institutions out there in reality besides the individual: family, town, guidance counselors, religious, regional, state, national. I venture that we'll either have to swing the pendulum back to some structural changes in our educational system, voluntarily, or we'll have those changes more or less forced upon us.

Rochelle

Is she the norm? Yes and No. I think that to say that many, perhaps most, people go to law school primarily because of the promise of financial reward, societal respect and status, etc. with relatively little barrier to entry (meaning, any bachelor's degree will do and a modest LSAT score will get you in somewhere) is so obvious that it really does not warrant a statement. To suggest that it is the white kids version of playing pro ball is a bit racist and a bit sexist, but it suggests that this illusion and promise is held up on a class basis. I could just as easily, and perhaps more strongly suggest that law school is the middle class kid's version of becoming a rapper or a rock star--the only problem is that there is no American Idol to better the odds. But, that's not really my point.

What makes her NOT the norm is the fact that she went to law school while working in an engineering firm. Now, if she is an engineer, than she is suffering from a lack of imagination, creativity, and mentorship more than opportunity. Even if she isn't an engineer, she has been exposed to a great business and if combined with additional education, she can likely have a career that offers her what she was REALLY seeking---good income, respect and status, etc.

It amazes me that people do not realize opportunity when it is right there in front of them. I believe this is because "successful" attorneys via the old school traditional model really don't know all that much except how to succeed in that model--and tell the rest of those holding membership in the profession who don't do what they do that they are "unsuccessful" or "untalented" or otherwise generally "lesser."

But, I would assert that nontraditional attorneys who had some value in the marketplace prior to attending law school (translation: if you could get a job like hers before going, you can probably position the law degree as an ADDITIONAL asset that COMPLEMENTS one's credentials, as opposed to trying to make something out of nothing) are positioned to advance their status as virtually every business or enterprise in this country exists within a framework of regulation or involves legal relationships between parties.

The real tragedy here is that we tend to think in terms of two options: practice law in the traditional way OR "use" a law degree, which implies taking a path that is lesser and not legal and certainly not as lucrative or prestigious. THIS is ridiculous.

Let me provide examples. I doubt if any of the Court TV stars would be what they are but for also being attorneys. For that matter, Susan Liebel could not be a successful consultant to attorneys were she not one. These people are not merely "using" a law degree as they sell life insurance. These people have catapulted their careers as attorneys into other more information-providing avenues. In short, for some, a law license is a tool in their box, not the only tool.

There are always "traditional" practitioners in a profession. There are also always people in business and industry who reap the rewards of having the ability to provide information, skill, and YES, TALENT, that is outside the norm for those so "traditionally" engaged in that business. This woman is likely in that position--if only someone could open her eyes to that fact.

By analogy, I can't help but think of Oprah. Oprah was rather unsuccessful as a journalist and was so, arguably, because she was so "nontraditional" in the terms of those days and that profession. However, I doubt if any garden variety anchor man on your local news....or even, for that matter, an anchor on a top 20 MSA station, would call Oprah unsuccessful. For Oprah, being "demoted" to talk show host...well, in those days was like being demoted to contract or staff attorney in a law firm. It's amazing what the nontraditional actor can do, once she embraces the idea that what makes her "nontraditional" is, in fact, what makes her uniquely qualified to literally change the paradigm.

Kirsten Wolf

Hi. I actually am the Kirsten Wolf you mention above, and the point of this and other interviews I did on this subject is just what you said: I want other people to think before I did what I did. I'm not a whiner, actually - I take full responsibility for the choices I made. The reason I've said anything at all is to help other people who listen to the advice that says "a law degree is always useful" without considering the consequences of it, and without having a real passion. I made a mistake, and I regret it, and I want others to not make the same mistakes I did.

Further, I resent the assumption that this makes that I'm somehow either an idiot or I'm lazy. When faced with a moment in time when I was trying to make smart choices about my future, without having any real direction (for god's sake, I was 24 years old!) I made a decision based on what I thought was "the right thing to do" without really having a clue what I really wanted to do with my life. I think there's not anything wrong with speaking out and encouraging people to make decisions based on other criteria.

And believe me -- as someone who worked full time to put herself through undergrad and also worked solidly all through law school, there was no "hiding out from the real world" for me. I have worked harder in my life than most people I know, and the fact that I have managed to rebuild my life in an entirely new profession with a pretty solid measure of success speaks to the fact that I am not a failure who simply didn't work hard enough to realize my goals.

Susan Cartier Liebel

Kristen, Thank you for taking the time to comment on my blog. I've been away for a while or I would have responded sooner.

When I titled the piece "Is Kristen Wolf the Norm" the emphasis is based upon my experience as a teacher and consultant. Your situation is not uncommon. Law school seems like a good idea for many people. It doesn't mean the individual is lazy, but it also means a lot of students aren't really sure why they are there and once they are through the tunnel known as law school and are back into daylight and the real world they are upset with the debt, the job prospects yet never once questioning if they had any responsibility in the end result. This is my gripe...some will blame the law schools (they do have a certain amount of culpability as you can tell from my previous blog posts) but 24 or not, there is no reason why prospective students cannot tak responsbility for their choices. You are.

Yet your platform is 'if you don't have the passion' don't go. Passion or not doesn't change the realities upon graduation. Passion doesn't make the debt easier or the job prospects brighter. Passion is an overused word.

It is however, about being informed and making calculated decisions. And today there is no excuse, not even age, for being uninformed. A competent soon-to-be lawyer understands the value of research even before they enter law school.

So, your overarching message doesn't resonate with me because there is a sense of 'victim' and there is no other mentality which riles me more than that.

If I'm wrong about you as an individual I'll accept that. However, the student I describe is very common.

Does it mean this law student will not do well in the legal profession or any profession they choose to pursue? No. But it does color their experience and this can have long term effects.

Kirsten Wolf

I will be the first to admit that I made a mistake, and this was the point of my previous response. Again, it is not about my blaming the world for what I did (no matter what five hundred word pieces that attempt to sum up my life choices seem to indicate), but about trying to stop others from making the mistake. You may not like the fact that potential students make the wrong decisions based on specious grounds, but the simple fact of the matter is that they do, and an attempt to be a voice of reason in their thinking is not to me a problematic one.

And I think passion definitely has a place is this discussion, overused or no. Many professions take perseverance and patience to find success, and without the real love of the thing to get you through the hard years, success becomes either a lot less likely or a lot more painful. I certainly have not, in my post-law school life, chosen an easy path -- but the struggles involved in doing so are worth it to me because I have the, yes, passion for it.

jdwustl

One of the problems I see here is that many potential law students think they're making an informed decision. If you look at the US News rankings, you will see that many of the law schools have prodigious employment figures. I graduated Washington University in 2004. More than half my class was unemployed at graduation. Yet, Wash U stated that it had an 80-90 percent employment figure at graduation. Didn’t happen. I also remember back to those glossy prospectuses where WashU puts thoughts of the middle class in my head. That didn’t happen either. Personal responsibility is important: No doubt there. However, I think the spurious law school dream is still buttressed by the law school's false employment figures. Thus, when you talk about personal responsibility, don’t do the same “blame the students first.” That’s just juvenile.

Susan Cartier Liebel

If you read my blog...you know I do anything BUT blame the student. I take issue with the law school agenda, ranking systems...have a deep and abiding dislike of U.S. News and World Report. I also don't blame Kristen. But I also do not see her as a poster child for the cause. I repeat: there is too much information out there today to go to law school uninformed about the realities of what you are getting into financially, psychologically and professionally. Her story is not compelling to me nor an example of the travailles of the law school experience. It remains my opinion.

 Law School Drop Out

I completed one semester of law school and then dropped. I must admit that Ms. Wolf's story inspired me in some way. Honestly, I went to law school because I wanted to be a lawyer. I was a paralegal before law school, although I was not a certified one. Nonetheless, I found that I really enjoyed the law. However, just like Ms. Wolf, I didn't really think about what the economic realities of the debt meant for my life. I, too, bought into the myth that I would be able to get a good job. When I started to worry about the debt, I asked school administrators about the realities of the legal market. Most of them lied to me. In fact one professor announced in class that we would all be making $160,000 post graduation. Another professor told me that I could just go into big law for a few years to pay it off. These professors seemed clueless. Many of them graduated from top ten schools, long ago, in a very different legal market. Trust me, there are lots of law students who still think that law is a ticket to great wealth. I would say about 60% of my class sees thier degree as a ticket to a comfy middle class life style. IT's NOT. The law schools obviously spin this myth because people would not borrow the money if they thought otherwise. Was I passionate about law at one time? Yes. But one day I woke up and just said to myself.. I think I will find some other way to spend the 400,000 I would have ended up spending on my law school experience. I don't really want to be loaned money from a federal government that can't support its middle class. Something is really wrong when you meet people with 7 years of education and no health benefits. Would being a lawyer have been great? Sure. But its just not realistic to be 150K in debt and making 40K a year. Sometimes I get this weird Orwellian feeling that the law schools and SALLIE MAE are working hand and hand, almost as if they want us to be indentured servants. If this is what being a lawyer really is..I guess I will have to say - NO THANKS. Good for Ms. Wolf for speaking up. I am glad I saved myself after one semester.

Susan Cartier Liebel

LSDO,

Thanks for the comment. Yours was a courageous move in that you didn't say, "I'm here, might as well stay." Whenever you do a cost/benefit analysis it's time enough to cut your losses. I wouldn't call you a Law School Drop Out. That name smacks of failure. I consider you much more informed and decisive and you didn't buy into the propaganda or hype. Good for you.

Maria

I also worked 20 hours a week throughout undergrad, too, and 20 hours a week during 1L year and 2L year. All I can say is this: people from the upper middle class WILL NEVER understand what it is like to go to law school when your parents are not even college grads. NEVER. You will never have to figure out who will co-sign your loans (because your parents will always get approved) and you will never know what it means to send money home to help when you are ages 20-25. You also have no idea what it's like to study full-time and work part-time and how that affects your performance.

Everything else is just a lot of wording and re-wording some politically correct language. The reality is: if you are not from an upper middle-class family, just don't go to law school. There is just no room for you in that part of American society. That's why law schools are so much less diverse than business schools, medical schools or other graduate schools.

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