If you’re someone who’s remotely familiar with the practice of law, but doesn’t actually know any lawyers, then you’re probably under the impression that lawyers make lots of money. You’ve probably seen some attorney in your home town driving a Benz or another hosting top-shelf scrambles at the country club. Or if you’re completely naïve, you’ve watched Franklin & Bash and believed it as true.
The funny thing is that, in a very limited instance (and I stress limited), it is true. Minus all the jackassery in the courtroom that Zack Morris and the skater from Clueless portray as real. Some lawyers do indeed make lots of money. Now, most of those that do are probably those that have honed their skill over years and years, built an obscenely large client base, and likely cornered some kind of legal market to where he or she is the go-to attorney for that service. Hence why law is a “practice.”
And a few do make a lot of money right off the bat, straight out of law school, at ages 25-28, before they’ve even gotten around to reselling their bar prep books. These are the people in the top 10% of the top 25% of law schools, or in the top 25% of the top 10% of schools. Students who were on that tedious, pedantic journal written and published on behalf of law students who “really give a fuck.” These students go into the venerable firms such as Cravath, Swaine & Moore or Skadden Arps in New York upon graduation with salaries at the “market” rate of $160,000.
Sounds like a lot of money, doesn’t it? It is, no doubt about it. King crab, Brie from France rather than Wisconsin or Vermont, Cakebread Chardonnay at happy hour, 3rd row seats at Madison Square Garden. Actual, pure cocaine that doesn’t make you frappe your pants from laxative cutter overload (happens). It’s very limited, growing moreso every year after the Great Deleverage, but it happens.
Now these bastards WORK, don’t get me wrong. They’re in the office 70-80 hours a week billing out over 2000 billable hours a year to pull this money down, working on the biggest legal issues facing our nation’s Top 100 companies, one misread semi-colon away from royally fucking up months and months of work. It’s not all gravy, but at least they’re paid well. That Audi payment? That flat on Soho? That $1200 dollar a month student loan payment? It’s completely manageable. You may get burned out before you fade away, but at the very least you’re getting paid.*
So what about those who aren’t among this hallowed brethren? Those other 90 percent that, for whatever reason, couldn’t quite find their way onto Billy Zane’s level of the Titanic? Sheer numbers tell you that’s there’s a lot of these people. It’s not hard to understand that for every one that makes it, there’s a helluva lot that won’t have that kind of income to support their life after they take off the mortarboard.
At some point in time you’ve probably heard this joke:
Q: What do you call someone who graduated last in their law class?
A: A Lawyer.
That’s what this about: Those people, your author being among them, who graduated at or near the bottom of their class. Bottom meaning the bottom 90%, because you don’t have to venture far from the very top for the struggle to begin.
Not much is said about those of us at the bottom. In fact, there’s so little consideration given to us that there’s not even a term for us. U.S. News even dissolved the tiers we used to refer to our schools by.
And as for our law school? Shit, they could not care less if we worked at Arby’s, just as long as we’re working somewhere so they can still count us as “employed” when it comes to post-graduation employment percentages reported to prospective students, but that’s another story.
The question is what do those at the bottom do when they graduate?
Assuming they passed the bar (which I did), and want to actively practice law (which I did), their choices are extremely limited. Most of those middle-tiered firms and small boutique firms will hire on their clerks after having scrambled to find them among the “respectable” ranks at the top prestige heap. The kids who were simply going to take over their parent’s practice all along will have phoned it in longed ago and taken root under the family practice tree.
And to make matters worse, what if you, like your author, were at the bottom of your class in a third tier mid-western law school? The bottom of the class at Harvard is still from Harvard, and name recognition will get them something. The rest of us, with our newly minted licenses in hand are pretty much left with one option:
That part of the Miranda warning you hear on COPS? Where they say “If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed to you?” That’s us. Pretty much, as you’d expect, the opposite end of the spectrum from the 10% who can make their monthly loan payments. My first year salary as a public defender in Podunkville, Missouri?
$36,000 per year.
No, seriously, stop rubbing your eyes and blinking, you read that right: $36,000 per year. Less than the average starting salary of a lot of recent graduates with bachelor’s degrees and 3 less years of student loans. Now, I’ve moved along since then, and I’ll give you all a caveat to this manifesto in the next section…
But, what’s that job like, you ask? How do other lawyers view you? What’s it like in court? How are the clients? How do you balance paying for loans, living and everything else in between? What exactly is life (as it were) at $36,000? At $692 a week?
Part 2 to come.
* In the mid-west where I live, the salary is more around $110,000 or $120,000 at firms like Shook, Hardy & Bacon or Stinson, Morrison & Hecker, but the cost of living isn’t as high as New York at all. In fact, if anything, these attorneys have MORE discretionary capital due to cost of living being so much lower. A couple of my friends from my class are among them, and they live obscenely well…when they’re not working, anyway. ^