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Lawyers’ Bad Reputations Start with Arrogant Law Students

In every industry, there appear to be some people who cling to the old school ways and others who fully embrace innovation. Apparently in publishing, there is animosity between writers whose work is published by the Big Publishing Houses and writers who self-publish.  Allegedly some people who are represented by Big Publishing claim that people who are self-published do not qualify as authors because they didn’t go through the same process to publish their work. In the big picture, it doesn’t matter. All writers have the desire to communicate their work and have to work hard to cultivate a following — let alone put the words on the page.

Gavel | Andrew F. Scott: P6033675

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In the Arizona legal community, one source of animosity is the law school from which one matriculated. Until recently, Arizona had only two law schools: Arizona State University (ASU) and the University of Arizona (UofA). There is an ongoing rivalry between these school based on who is ranked higher. In 2004, a new law school entered the scene: Phoenix School of Law (PSL). This school is accredited by the American Bar Association (ABA); however it is not ranked in the top 100 law schools by the U.S. News. PSL has the reputation of being the school that people go to when they couldn’t get into ASU or UofA and that students hope to perform well enough during their 1L year so they can transfer to a better school.

I was not prepared for the hostility that some people have towards PSL graduates. Earlier this summer, an article was released that stated that 1/3 of 2010 law school graduates have jobs that do not require passing a bar exam. The responses from two of my classmates were appalling.

  • “This is why I hate…… PSL kids….. yes I’m going public with this comment and I don’t G.A.F.  If you want to be a lawyer, go to a real school and stop saturating the saturated market.  Was that too harsh? Whatever, I know everyone is thinking it.”
  • “I agree.  And the ABA could have a huge role to play by making law school accreditation more difficult. The problem is that there is a consent decree with the FTC which means that the ABA can’t refuse accreditation to more law schools or cut off accreditation to make fewer lawyers because it would be “anti-competitive.”  The problem now, of course, is that there’s too much competition and too many bottom-feeding, hungry lawyers.”

These comments were made by two people who had not yet taken the bar when they made these statements. My response: Who are they to judge? We all took the LSAT, got into a law school, passed our classes, and graduated. Everyone who passes a bar exam has the right to be a lawyer if they chose to be (and can find work), regardless of the road they took to get there.

These comments show the immaturity, insecurity, and enormity of their egos. During my 1L orientation, the then-dean of the law school encouraged us not to tell lawyer jokes because it perpetuated the image of the legal profession as being full of soulless, greedy, and unscrupulous ladder climbers. Unfortunately, this reputation is still earned by many lawyers now coming out of the gate.

My friend, Eric Mayer, is a brilliant criminal defense lawyer who says, “Good lawyers are not made by their law schools.” Law school is just the beginning of a legal career. A lawyer’s reputation should not be based on where they went to law school, but rather on their intelligence, competence, and ethics. I surprised an ASU law professor this week when I told her that I did not care about the future reputation of my law school because the body of my work will be more determinative of whether I’m a good lawyer.

If the legal profession wants to change its reputation, it should try to screen out these arrogant people when they apply to law school and continuously foster the idea that there’s a place for all types of people to be lawyers. More realistically, I suppose, schools should integrate elitist conversations into their classrooms and truly take the time to debate students who repeatedly demonstrate this type of arrogance. I hope comments like those enumerated by my classmates are not the norm for my class, my school, or the legal profession, but I have my doubts.

Having a different educational background does not make a person a bad lawyer. It just makes them different, and it’s this diversification that permits the profession to grow and remain relevant. Just as self-published writers may be looked down upon as being less credible, it is those who take a different path that are now spearheading certain areas of the industry. If you have a hang up about a person’s legal education, hire someone else.

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16 Comments

  1. MTP says:

    While I agree that animosity towards other attorneys based on their alma mater is about as mature as hating the fans of a rival sports team, I disagree that the concerns over the proliferation of “easy” law schools are illegitimate or unfounded. Over-saturating an already awful job market with unemployable law grads by lowering admission standards is irresponsible. It’s bad for the profession because it reduces the average salary and employability of JDs. It’s bad for clients because it arguably reduces the average competence and intelligence of attorneys in the profession (I’ll stand by that argument). It’s bad for students at the low-ranked schools, because they are often sold on an expensive degree with little future earning potential. Counter-arguments exist against all of these points, but it’s a legitimate unsettled debate in the legal community. Spewing vitriol at PSL kids isn’t a very effective way of furthering the discussion on this important public policy issue, but resenting the existence of PSL isn’t exactly irrational for an ASU Law grad.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      There may be more competition for jobs at law firms; however I wouldn’t say that law school graduates are unemployable. On the contrary, law graduates have an extensive base of knowledge and research, writing, and speaking skills. I haven’t seen evidence that the average competence and intelligence of lawyers has dropped. The ABA has the same standards for accreditation are the same for the top ranked schools as lower ranked schools, which includes standards for education and minimum bar exam passage rates: http://www.americanbar.org/groups/legal_education/resources/standards.html.

      In defense of PSL, on the February 2011 Arizona Bar Exam, a PSL graduate was among the top 3 scores: http://azcourts.gov/Portals/26/admis/pdf/Docs/2011/Feb2011PressRelease.pdf. No one from ASU and UofA can claim that.

      When people resent PSL, it tells me that they’re probably insecure and afraid of the competition.

  2. Frank says:

    there are too many law grads. too many lawyers. it lowers the bar, no pun intended, for what stands as quality legal representation, and it leads to too many people saddled with too much law school debt when there are simply not enough jobs. i guess maybe dont blame PSL kids, but the comparison to self publishing is not strong. if you write a crappy novel, fine. if you write a crappy will, thats malpractice. big difference.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I agree that there are too many taking on too much debt. Schools have a responsibility to help educate their students about their finances. People considering law school also need to think about the amount of debt they are taking on in advance and to have a plan to pay it off. And this plan needs to be more than having an expectation of being at the top of their class and getting a big firm job.

      While there is an abundance of lawyers, I’m not certain that this necessarily lowers the bar on the quality of work they produce. If you’ve seen evidence of this, please send me a link.

  3. Laura Wilson says:

    I agree with Ruth; I have yet to see any actual evidence that “too many lawyers” somehow lowers the quality of the work they do. When you cut to the chase, the real issue for most lawyers who complain about too many lawyers or law schools with “lower standards” or opposition to law office study clerkships, is that the complaining lawyers fear the competition. The current system means that most people leaving law school are saddled with enormous debt. Anything that represents a competitive threat to them is subject to criticism, but usually on disingenuous grounds.
    For example, I just this summer took the bar exam after four years of “reading for the law” in Vermont. Vermont is one of the handful of remaining jurisdictions where one can become licensed as an attorney without going to law school. You must complete a 4 year “apprenticeship” program with a practicing attorney or judge. Once completed, you undergo Character and Fitness and sit for the exams like everyone else. I have an undergraduate degree from Yale University and later, decided, since I lived in Vermont, to go the apprenticeship route. I didn’t want to incur the enormous debilitating debt.
    I had the good fortune to do my clerkship/apprenticeship in a fantastic criminal defense firm with a great reputation. Over four years, I calculate that I invested between $8,000-$9,000 on my apprenticeship. I have no debt. On the occasions when I have encountered hostility from other lawyers toward the path I’ve chosen, it’s become clear that their criticism isn’t based on any real rational argument about “standards” or rigor. It’s really all about their fear that people like me will have an advantage on them when I start to practice, because I don’t have the crippling debt.
    There’s been a lot of national discussion these days about the value of a law school education and the consequences of debt that fledgling lawyers have. Frankly, I do not understand why more people are not paying attention to the fact that apprenticeship programs are available and successful and that they do not incur debt. Laura Wilson

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks for your input Laura! I think an apprenticeship is a great way to go because it lowers your amount of debt and it gives your more real-life experience with the legal profession so you know what to expect when you get your license. I’m guessing it’s also great from a networking perspective. If you decide part way through the apprenticeship that the law isn’t for you, you can more easily walk away. It’s unfortunate when people get stuck having to take jobs they don’t like because they need it to pay off their debt. Congratulations on taking the right path for you and I hope you pass the bar!

      1. Laura Wilson says:

        Ruth,
        Thanks. The apprenticeship/clerkship route isn’t for everyone, and it has its limitations. For example, you really have to be good at structuring your own study time and study materials, and many people are not. For the most part–but not always–I was good at it, so it worked for me. Also, for what it is worth, you miss the benefit of having a community of other students around you who are going through all the same things–like you’d have in law school proper. That can be kind of lonely. Moreover, once I get licensed, my options are far fewer in that there are only a very few jurisdictions where I can practice–or even take the bar. I’ll be limited to Vermont and those few other jurisdictions. But that’s okay with me because I love Vermont and can’t imagine being anywhere else!

        1. Ruth Carter says:

          It’s too bad that law licenses aren’t more transferable. If you’re good enough to be a lawyer in Vermont, I’d hope you’d be on par with lawyers in other states.

          In terms of preparing for the bar exam, aren’t people who go the apprenticeship route allowed to take BarBri? I’m sure with an apprenticeship you have to do a lot of studying on your own to learn your legal basics, but hardly anyone has experience with every subject area of the bar before starting to study for their bar exam. BarBri fills in the gaps and tells us the exact material that we need to know.

  4. In my opinion setting the standards of law schools a little higher would help solve some issues.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      I’m not sure what you mean but “standards,” but I think if more law schools interviewed their applicants, they could screen out more of the arrogant people.

  5. Anna says:

    I don’t think that you can screen out arrogant people by interviewing them because interviews have always been a game in which people wear masks, play by some rules and above all tell people what they want to hear. The thing with the legal profession, is that recruiters or law school admission officer want people who convey their own beliefs and values. If a certain behavior is not seen as arrogant by the interviewer and is mistaken for self-confidence, well, you’ll have one more future condescending law student.
    The other thing which tends to encourage the proliferation of obnoxious lawyers is this perverted ideas that a good lawyer must be a pitbull. It’s due to the nature of the adversarial system. I for one, don’t think that the scarier you walk around, the most effective you are. Being feared doesn’t mean being respected and a good lawyer is one who is respected by his peers and his clients. So law schools should try teaching some self-respect and respect of other human beings to their students because a person who looks down on another person, has nothing human in it. That person is no different from an animal and I’m doing no reverse psychology BS, it’s plain simple: animals don’t know the concepts of consideration, respect. It’s the prerogative of human beings so seriously, how would you call a person who doesn’t get that?

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks for your thoughts Anna. I agree that interviewing law school candidates won’t screen out all the arrogant students. I hope law schools and continuing education providers will stress the importance of not being a dick as a lawyer. You don’t have to be obnoxious to be a good lawyer.

  6. JenniferHalto says:

    Law students have long tried to push each other out of this over-crowded, competitive field. When I was in law school, people were urging students with lower grades to drop out, and they were slamming students who went to fourth-tier law schools as not being “smart enough”. Even though they themselves were in a third tier school. The common phrase in law school was “you aren’t cut out for this, you should leave”. The legal profession does not attract compassionate, empathetic people. Arrogance and abusive behavior are the norm. Have you ever seen the postings on the law school message boards?

    There are far too many lawyers, and these students are nothing special. Perhaps its this realization that makes them want to throw flames at others. But the fact is, almost any reasonably intelligent person can go to law school.

    Contrary to what most people think, you need an open mind and some compassionate qualities to succeed in a legal career. Most law schools don’t care about these qualities in a prospective student.

    I don’t think most of the general public cares what law school that their attorney graduated from. I deal with other professionals on a daily basis, and I have no idea what schools they went to.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I don’t think the public cares where their lawyer went to school as long as he/she does their job well. I’d rather have an attorney who is knowledgeable and compassionate representing me rather than an ass. I would hope most people want that too.

  7. Andrew B says:

    Hi Ruth,

    Great and informative article. The comments you posted however, were nothing compared to some other comments found on the blogosphere. I’ve read comments that describe certain aspects of law as “Sh!t law” and “third tier toilet” (TTT), which is just appalling. Even though I come from a “tier 1″ school, I don’t wear it around as a badge of honor or pound on my chest deriding law schools or jobs that I think are “beneath me.”

    As far as the debt aspect of law school, a lot of people are very misinformed about it. I do believe some comments on here need to be clarified as well.

    First, a law school student can finance their entire law school education on federal loans, which means they will not have to take out private loans, which are the equivalent of credit card debt without the option of bankruptcy. With federal loans, a student has flexible repayment plans which include Income Based Repayment or Government forgiveness. Let me describe both because it is pertinent that other college and grad school students read this too, not just law school students worried about their debt.

    Income based repayment (IBR) is a plan a law school student can go on when their debt exceeds their income. For example, if a law grad has $170,000 worth of law school debt, but only making $40,000 a year, they are eligible for IBR and will put 10 percent of their salary towards their loan. If a law grad is making $140,000 but has $170,000 worth of debt, they too can qualify for IBR. After 20 or 25 years of repayment, if they still have any loans left (or even a lot of loans left), their balance is forgiven by the government. I say “20 or 25 years” because it depends when they graduated. IBR went into effect in 2009 and a plan called “pay as you earn” went into effect December 2012, which essentially is similar to IBR but lowered payment from 15 percent to 10 percent and lowered the forgiveness time from 25 years to 20 years.

    Government forgiveness was started under Bush in 2007. If a law grad works for the government or non-profit, their loan balance is forgiven after 10 years, which is essentially the same as the average 10 year repayment schedule anyway.

    Also, the whole “too many lawyers” bit is actually a very old, archaic and out-dated argument. In the 1700′s, both Prussia and France outlawed the legal profession because people said there were “too many lawyers” (in a time when white, male protestants could only be attorneys, i.e. the top 0.001 percent. I am sure there were “too many lawyers” then, don’t ya think!) In the 1840′s, people said there were “too many lawyers” in the United States, Germany in the 1910′s and Ireland, UK, U.S.A. in the 1980′s. The whole “too many unaccredited schools” has nothing to do with it. As you say, it is all about insecurity and perceived competition.

    The reality is a good majority of law graduates are not practicing law 5-7 years after law school. Due to a high turnover rate and people pursuing or going into other fields, the profession is still rather selective–and always will be. Due to the recession, young attorneys are having problems finding work, but young people have always had problems finding work, especially for their first job. Too many young lawyers are arrogant and believe they should receive a 160k as their starting salary.

    1. Ruth Carter says:

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts Andrew! I wonder if anyone has done a study on the average length of time it takes a new lawyer to find a legal job, if/how that’s changed over the years, and what factors make the job search longer or shorter.