TaxProf Blog

Editor: Paul L. Caron, Dean
Pepperdine University School of Law

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Law’s Long Bitter Descent and its Tragic Human Toll

PhotoFollowing up on yesterday's post, NY Times:  A Lawyer and Partner, and Also Bankrupt:, The Death Of A Profession? Law’s Long Bitter Descent And Its Tragic Human Toll:

Whether on blogs, in books, in numerous movies and among friends, there have been no shortage of conversations about unhappy lawyers. This New York Times article by James B. Stewart, however, is in its own league. Stewart brutally details the multitude of horrible problems that have metastasized throughout the industry by telling the story of a lawyer tossed from the pinnacle of his profession into the dark abyss of personal bankruptcy. It is a cautionary tale well worth taking to heart.

After I finished reading the depressing (and frighteningly too common) saga depicted in the Times, I felt compelled to jot down my own thoughts on the modern legal profession -- drawn both from my experiences and those of my friends. ...

First, the legal world’s traditional business model is done. Decimated. Dead. It is NOT coming back. ...

Second, law schools tend to do a good job of getting prospective lawyers licensed to practice law. Some may even be adept at finding jobs for their graduates. Nevertheless, I’d contend that no law school today prepares lawyers for the business of law. While glorified as a “profession” (something bold enough to place the word “doctorate” into its title), the truth is that REAL LAW, first, last and always, is a business. But, importantly, it’s a highly individualized business in ways that approximate few others. Every lawyer is the CEO of his or her own name and brand. Therefore, long-term financial security is about generating “personal equity.” Ignore that equity and you ignore your future. You even ignore your present. If you aren’t good at the business side -- and that includes marketing and sales -- your long-term prospects are bleak, no matter how technically excellent you might be. No professor mentions such things during “Civil Procedure” or “Contracts.”

Third, as a lawyer, you only get to make one mistake. ...

Fourth, the legal industry’s nasty little secret is that actual legal work can be mind-numbing and soul-crushing. Then add in the adversarial tone, a near-fascist attention to detail, increasing financial pressures on one’s firm, endless rumors about who’s “up” and who’s “down,” ballooning student loan debt and pressing (yet unattended) family needs. . . . It’s not a pleasant picture. As one progresses through any legal career, options dwindle and commitments mount. You find yourself cooking up the perfect recipe for depression, breakdown, and divorce (if you’ve found the time to become ”involved,” that is…) -- And in the bleakest instances, even suicide.These are only a handful of potential consequences that the ABA quite openly addresses on its website. And, frankly, I commend them for doing so.

None of this is to suggest that law school is always a waste or that practicing law cannot still be rewarding. I treasure my law degree. The training and experience have been invaluable in ways seen and unseen. Even my brief days spent practicing law taught me valuable lessons. However, I didn’t stay at it for long and quickly cut my own path toward other endeavors and ways of earning a living. My primary point is that – without massive industry-wide changes – practicing law won’t be rewarding for MOST of the people jumping into the fray. Law is an exceedingly expensive club to join and one in which continued membership requires enormous sacrifice – personal, professional and financial. Indeed, for some, it becomes the proverbial ultimate sacrifice.


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I'm sympathetic, but after writing a book about the Holocaust, I find it a little hard to treat a downsizing legal profession as a tragedy. A little perspective, perhaps?

Posted by: michael livingston | Jan 28, 2014 5:07:03 AM

Michael, if your job, livelihood, or financial future were on the line because of a downsizing legal profession, you might cut down on the false equivalencies (and Godwin's!) a bit.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | Jan 28, 2014 9:13:28 AM

I told my student loan provider that the Holocaust was a big deal, therefore my default means nothing in the grand scheme of things.Surprisingly, they agreed and waived my entire balance. How is that for perspective?

Posted by: Say What? | Jan 28, 2014 10:59:39 AM

Hah, Michael. Nice. 8 Million People killed, is a tragedy, but a couple thousand dead lawyers is just a statistic.

Posted by: Joe Blow | Jan 28, 2014 12:07:06 PM

I second your comment about law schools not preparing lawyers for actual practice.

When we lamented to our professors that we weren't learning much about actually doing law they snootily replied, "This isn't a trade school."

In some fields of law, I think an apprenticeship with people who actually know what they are doing is essential.

Posted by: Rick | Jan 28, 2014 12:11:55 PM

A law degree is a waste for all but a handful of devotees. Better do something useful with ones life. Plumbing, perhaps.

Posted by: Skip | Jan 28, 2014 12:14:42 PM

When my 1L Real Property professor in 1975 told me he had no idea how to prepare a deed, but could elaborate on fee tails and fee simple determinable, I knew the legal education system was totally screwed up.

Posted by: MarkInFlorida | Jan 28, 2014 1:39:50 PM

"When we lamented to our professors that we weren't learning much about actually doing law they snootily replied, 'This isn't a trade school.'"

Did they tell you that: "if you like your insurance plan you can keep it"?

"The check is in the mail"

"Of course, I love you"


Posted by: Walter Sobchak | Jan 28, 2014 5:11:51 PM