Here is the headline:
“Graduate Of Elite Law School Forced To Live Off Welfare Due To Terrible State Of Job Market”
The law school is my alma mater, Georgetown Law Center; the student is a 2010 grad who subsequently passed the bar, Danielle Owens. The author of the overwrought article in Above the Law is Staci Zaretsky. Her tone made my mind flash back to “Queen for a Day.”
I don’t particularly want to poke the Lawscam hornet’s nest again, because I don’t especially enjoy having giant photos of my head placed on-line accompanied by obscenities, and I know a lot of bitter out of work lawyers with shaky interpersonal skills, huge debts, a computer and time on their hands have nothing better to do but to blame me and anyone else they can find for their plight (and yes, if I see a couple of them posting a photo like this on Facebook with the caption, “Hello, Ethics Alarms!” I am calling the police.). Nonetheless, I can’t let this pass without noting that the headline is dishonest, and Zaretsky’s commentary on Owens’ problems is exaggerated to the point of hysteria.
No doubt about it, Ms. Owens has had a tough time. She has a law degree from a prestigious institution, and nonetheless has had few legal jobs, and those she has had didn’t work out. We have no idea to what extent her skills and performance contributed to this record. We do know, from the interview with her, that she made some decisions that led to her dilemma and can’t in any way be attributed to Georgetown Law Center. For example, she says,
“I got a full scholarship to Emory, so I have zero undergraduate debt. Despite getting a full-tuition scholarship to Georgetown and living in a slightly sketchy apartment complex close to campus, I took out $65,108 for living expenses. My MPH program gives limited financial aid, so I took out the full cost of attendance, $66,662….All totaled, I owe $204,789.02 in federal loans. I also owe approximately $12,000 for a private bar loan. That loan is in collections because I have not been able to make a payment since February 2014.”
That’s right: she paid no tuition to her college or law school, yet managed to get in debt to the tune of over $200,000 dollars to cover a Masters in Public Health in addition to her law degree. Ambitious. Also risky. Ambition comes with risk; always has, always will.
Meanwhile, she had other problems:
“As I was pursuing my degrees, life also happened. By way of brief explanation, I was raised an only child by my mother (the only surviving child) and maternal grandmother, with my father also taking on an active role. My mother passed away in Spring 2006, during my senior year of college and just prior to my law school matriculation. As I was pursuing my degrees, my maternal grandmother was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, my father passed away, and I dealt with a few bouts of depression, resulting in me taking out an additional $16,025 to finish up my MPH coursework and capstone project.”
Life does happen, and there is nothing a law school can do to insulate a graduate from it.
The “terrible state of the job market” didn’t “force” Danielle Owens onto public assistance. A combination of factors put her life in a ditch, but assigning blame to the legal market doesn’t flow from the facts as she states them. Then, unfortunately, we have the whining…
“It’s really demoralizing and disheartening. You follow all the advice that you were given and still it seems that you are doomed to failure. I worked hard in undergrad, got a good LSAT score, and went to the best school that offered me a full scholarship. I worked hard there, graduated, and passed the Maryland and Georgia bar exams. Still, I cannot find a stable job with benefits.”
Yes, it appears you followed bad advice, multiple times, Danielle. This theme—one of the lawcam blogs even has something like it as its title—“I did everything I was supposed to, and shouldn’t be in this situation!”—shows a fundamental misunderstanding of human existence. There are no guarantees. There have never been any guarantees. Law school, in particular, guarantees nothing, and anyone who thinks it does is a fool.
But Zaretsky is determined to employ the logical fallacy of extrapolating to a universal conclusion from a single unique anecdote, and interprets this admittedly sad tale thusly:
“This is the world that we now live in — a world where a graduate of a world-class institution applies to hundreds of jobs, but receives only 16 interviews over the course of four years. It’s easy to see why so many downtrodden law school graduates have tried to dissuade others from following in their footsteps.”
This has always been the world: bet too much debt on hitting a jackpot in a career that requires more talent and special qualities than you have, and you’ll be in trouble. The message of the article, however, is that the footsteps top avoid lead to a law degree. A law degree represents knowledge and a credential that are objectively useful. They guarantee nothing, and never have.
And acquiring them has never forced anyone onto public assistance.
To Zaretsky’s credit, she ends the article with an appeal to readers to be on the lookout for opportunities for Denise, and exhorts her to keep striving, because there is always hope. Of course there is, especially if one doesn’t view oneself as the victim of circumstances beyond one’s control, and expend energy, dignity and time bemoaning the fact that you did everything you were supposed to, and still have problems.
Graphic: Above the Law