Golden Handcuffs

Golden handcuffs is a word I first heard a few years back as it related to occupations.  It’s a term that refers to either something that’s too good to pass up in a job (outstanding pay) or something that keeps you in a job you hate, but you have to keep working (say, because you have a lot of debt).  And as debt is becoming ever more the popular topic of discussion, I want to talk a bit about how it relates to a lot of people who are coming out of law school.  The reason? Freshly baked lawyers usually have gobs of it.

In our society, we have a deeply ingrained respect for attorneys.  The prestige they command, the perception that they make a lot of money, and the fact that none of us Americans can do anything involving math anymore (chemistry, engineering, accounting, take your pick) so we all end up with worthless liberal arts degrees that we all think we’re going to parlay into that golden meal ticket, the juris doctor.  The appeal of getting a law degree is doubly attractive during the onslaught of an economic collapse, as it gives new, nervous entrants to labor markets basically the equivalent of a time out so they can defer their eventual entry into reality to the tune of about $60,000 a year, all the while thinking that they’re going to be making a six figure salary at law firms like Wachtell or Sidley Austin, et al.  So, there’s a lot of people (counting many of my friends) who suck at math, like nice things, are armed with a liberal arts degree, and settle on becoming a LAWYER!  Success, right?  Unfortunately, no.

The above mentioned firms aren’t hiring in the same numbers that they were a few years ago.  Get this, even legal work is now being offshored to India.  Do you find that reassuring?  I do.*  So those jobs, that were already basically the equivalent of finding the legal Holy Grail, are drying up.  Overall, the number of open legal jobs are declining, but the number of schools that are minting JDs are increasing.  Why?  Law schools are immensely profitable.  People are willing to fork over a lot of money (in the form of debt) to these schools.  And the overhead for law schools is virtually nil.  Just hire some other lawyers to teach in some classrooms, stock a library, and you’re set.  It’s not like a medical school that requires expensive equipment.  Just desks, books and teachers.

So why do people still keep flocking to law school in droves?  Well, the thinking is that they’re going to land a job with a salary that will enable them not only to service said debt, but to live a fun, tasty, exhilarating existence with weekends in Lisbon and New Year’s in Vail.  Which they’re not.  Law schools are purposely falsifying their placement statistics with makework programs and distorting reported placement rates.  The fact of the matter is that given the number of applicants that are coming out of law schools as opposed to the number of well salaried legal positions, it’s statistically unlikely that these new lawyers are going to be able to ever service the debt in the way that they anticipated.

So, what’s the takeaway?  Think, long and hard, before you go to law school.  Do not settle on it as a default because you don’t really know what you want to do.  And for those many, many friends of mine who are attorneys and are successful at it in large firms, you have my undying admiration, respect and envy (both for being employed and the salary you’re making), along with my eternal pity (for the sociopath partners and clients with whom you must coexist on a daily basis and the endless parade of billable hours).

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*I don’t really think this, I’m being coy.  I think the idea of legal work being performed by the cousin of the guy who handles my calls when I call Citibank to be deeply, deeply disturbing, and if I were the General Counsel or CEO of a Fortune 500 company, I would explicitly and immediately forbid it.  But then again, I’m an underemployed ‘freelancer’ in Manhattan, so this is all theoretical.

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