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Stop complaining about the legal job market

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The Above the Law blog is filled with complaints about the legal job market. It's too hard to find a high-paying job; the high-paying jobs require a lot of unpleasant unenjoyable time-consuming work. I may have had some sympathy for this a few years ago. Today, I just don't want to hear it.

I started the Center for Class Action Fairness in 2009 on a whim, with the vague goal of racking up some court experience that might let me establish a law-school clinic and sneak onto a tenure track at an advanced age, and maybe do some good in the process. Then I discovered how much I like litigation when I have autonomy and don't have to make arguments I don't believe in, and discarded the idea of writing law-review articles no one would read. Today I have two attorneys working for me, a fascinating docket, and get to argue more appellate cases every six months than I did in my entire ten-year BigLaw career. Every month, I'm presented with class action settlements where class members have legitimate objections and want to object, but my attorneys don't have the time because of other opportunities or commitments. Every month, I'm presented with still other class action settlements where class members would have legitimate objections, but no class member ever approaches me. If I were more gregarious and extroverted and proselytized for my cause better (and if I wasn't burdened with a right-wing resume that has the consumer blogs skeptical of my motives and refusing to write about me), I'd be even more utterly overwhelmed with these opportunities. I don't have a monopoly on class action objections or helping consumers and shareholders. At the risk of creating competition that cannibalizes my donors, go do what I do, maybe you'll do it better. You'll certainly make more money than me and my attorneys do if you don't handcuff yourself with a non-profit structure; this year alone, we've sacrificed hundreds of thousands of dollars of legitimate attorney-fee requests because we would have exceeded IRS limits if we asked for everything we were legally entitled to.

Ivy League schools have been discriminating against Asian-Americans for years; affirmative action programs produce illegal racial discrimination and entitlement to attorneys' fees in places other than New Haven; the Obama administration is engaging in any number of lawless counterproductive activities that could be stopped by litigation; there's a potential opportunity to profitably advocate on behalf of mass-tort clients victimized by their attorneys. Mad at your law school? Find a friendly tenured law professor and bring an antitrust class action against the AALS. Sue telemarketers that violate the TCPA: be the one who takes down those bastards at Card Services. Go, find clients, toil in obscurity and poverty for a few years, come out millionaires.

And these are just some of the things I would do if I didn't have to sleep or if there were 144 hours in the day or I could clone myself five or six times. And it drives me nuts because nobody's doing them!

Even if all you're looking for is money, the plaintiffs' mass-tort bar charges their clients 35-40% of recovery and flies around in Gulfstream jets. Be the one to charge clients 20-30% and settle for flying in first class.

On the defense side, does BigLaw really add enough value to justify $2M PPP partners—who make that money after the overhead of expensive offices in the middle of the city? Perhaps in mass-tort cases mobilizing hundreds of attorneys, but there's lots of other low-hanging litigation fruit for the picking. You don't need to be physically near the courthouse; everything's electronically filed these days. Get together with three of your law school friends, find a loft on the cheap side of town, bill lower rates for fewer hours, and make more money, or at least "enough" money to enjoy your newfound leisure and autonomy.

Your career ideas don't have to be my ideas. You went to law school for a reason; find a cause you love, and advocate for it, and, to the extent it's not entirely crazy, the money will follow; even if it doesn't, you'll be happier. Tikkun olam, even if your goals aren't mine. (From July 1, 2011, to June 30, 2012, class action settlement objectors won a grand total of seven federal appeals. I won four of those cases. If you're a regular reader of mine, you know more about this area of the law than I did when I started. How many other areas of the law are there that have gotten corrupted and could be meaningfully moved in the right direction with a little effort? Go find them.)

Want to know a secret that will help you even if you stick around in (or decide to go into) BigLaw? The law is big. Really big. Too big for anyone to learn completely. There are millionaire lawyers who barely understand civil procedure, but they hire someone who sort of does or fake their way through it. Pick an area of the law and learn it thoroughly, thinking hard and skeptically about it. There's no barrier to entry to reading cases and law review articles. Just by doing that, you'll become one of the top fifty attorneys in that area, and the other 49 are earning good livings. If it's a minor area of the law (like, say, class action settlement objections), and you put a couple of thousand hours into learning it and thinking about ways to make it better, you'll become one of the top five attorneys in that area before you know it.

But stop whining. The minute you become a member of the bar, you're a member of a cartel that permits extraordinary rents. And with 21st-century technology, you don't need a lot of help to make it out on your own.

14 Comments

What you've just described is a $100 bill on the sidewalk. Everyone who comes across it would be happy to pick it up. The fact that so many lawyers struggle to develop a practice implies either (1) that the $100 bill doesn't exist, or (2) that it's much harder to find than you think.

**Go, find clients, toil in obscurity and poverty for a few years, come out millionaires.**

Just be careful HOW you find them.

Your recommendation is that new law graduates take on complex, expensive litigation against "Ivy League schools," "the Obama administration," successful mast-tort attorneys, "law schools," and fly by night telemarketers?

Why do you think the existing class action and mass torts bar isn't taking these cases? Because they have no interest in "becoming a millionaire"? Or because these cases are difficult, expensive, and very risky?

Take antitrust for example. The Supreme Court is expected to use Behrend v. Comcast as an opportunity to further limit antitrust cases, making it even harder just to get a class certified. The case was filed in 2003; how much time do you think the plaintiffs' lawyers have spent on it, and what do you think their expenses have been? Do you think it's just been a couple hundred hours and a couple thousand dollars?

Do you think there's a prayer of a new lawyer, or even a group of new lawyers, being able to shoulder that? Or do you admit that such an endeavor would likely bankrupt the lawyers, cause them to withdraw or otherwise compromise the case, and thereafter suffer professional consequences?

In terms of mass torts, in all seriousness you should read Grisham's "The Litigators." Apart from the Cinderella ending, it fairly represents what can happen when general practitioners try to dabble in mass torts.

You, sir, are a moron.

The fundamental problem (and I say this as somebody who has worked hard at a big firm and been lucky he didn't pick one that went under) is that there is a structural oversupply of lawyers to clients and causes. No class action tort victim is going to shop around on cost - they go with somebody they've been referred to or seen advertised, generally, and when the payouts are all contingent the client is not going to feel the pinch up front - he is only going to wish he went with somebody who charged 20% instead of 30% once the lawyer good enough to charge 30% won the case for him and made it seem easy.

The low-hanging fruit you have found is that institutions on the right are willing to pay money to disrupt the mass tort bar's big settlements. I have no idea if that's good public policy or not, but if you really want to give people the career advice that made a difference for you, it's to go get free-flowing right-wing grant money to pursue your cause.

"[T]his year alone, we've sacrificed hundreds of thousands of dollars of legitimate attorney-fee requests because we would have exceeded IRS limits if we asked for everything we were legally entitled to."

Well, I have a solution to that. You can hire me and use some of that attorney-fee money to pay me. That way, you can take more class-action settlement-objection cases and employ another lawyer. What do you think of this proposal, Mr. Frank?

1. John D.: Yes. There are $100 bills on the sidewalk in the legal arena. The lawyers in the lawyer cartel are unwilling to challenge one another; most feel that the rents they can receive by playing to go along exceed the risks of not having access to the clubby back-scratching. This creates opportunities for the creative lawyer with nothing to lose by challenging the cartel and willing to innovate disruptively.

2. Turk is correct.

3. Kennerly: A new lawyer just successfully took on Facebook, came up with a creative legal theory, talked a firm into joining with him in the suit, and now has a $10 million attorney-fee request pending. So, yes, there are opportunities. I'm not proposing that anyone dabble; indeed, had you read my post, you'd see that I propose exactly the opposite. Specialize, specialize, specialize. I cost myself lots of money and dabble too much by spending so much time thinking about and writing about non-class-action issues. Wealth-maximizing Ted would quit the Manhattan Institute and blogging and a couple of hobbies and turn down fewer $750/hour consulting opportunities. In response to your blog post, we do offer to refer out cases we don't take, including to Public Citizen; on one occasion, we even found a BigLaw firm willing to act as pro bono counsel for a client who we couldn't represent.

4. Unemployed: I am a moron, and pass up numerous lucrative money-making opportunities, yet I put food on the table and a roof over my head and have enough left over to freely spend on my hobbies and friends. Imagine how well I could do if I weren't a moron!

5. Drew: There are "institutions," plural, on the right willing to pay me for this? Please, email me, and tell me who they are. I've found exactly one charitable foundation who hasn't turned down my grant proposals. If I could find a second one half as generous as the first, I can hire a fourth lawyer. And, like I said, the fruit would have been even lower hanging if I had bypassed the institutions, done this as a for-profit entity, and traded slightly fewer appellate victories for a lot more money.

6. Grant R.: What you propose sounds like it wouldn't be consistent with IRS regulations, but pass along a resume and a proposal that is consistent with IRS regulations, and we might have something for you. But I'm already skeptical, given that you misread my post (how does your proposal fix the problem that our constraint on attorney fees is what the IRS permits us to ask for rather than what we can ask for from the courts?) and then sought to contact me through a comments section rather than sending me an email.

Like so many other bloggers exhorting unemployed, or under-employed, attorneys to hang out a shingle, your post fails to mention professional liability insurance. Malpractice insurance is not something I myself have to deal with, but it bugs me when the topic is blithely ignored.

The annual premiums for a newly minted solo practitioner, or very small firm, with no track record & who are eyeing a litigation practice -- even in an area that the carriers do not consider "high risk" -- is not pocket change for those who are already in difficult financial straits.

There are free-very inexpensive alternatives to some components (e.g., Westlaw and Lexis) of a lawyer's overhead. There is none for professional liability insurance.

I completely agree that it is perfectly possible for someone with excellent academic credentials, years of biglaw experience, and no family to weigh them down, to waltz right into a brand new practice area and build a prosperous practice after several years of hard work.

I know this because I did it myself! And it is great to be in demand and have autonomy, though the initial and drastic income drop was no fun at all.

I don't like whining either, but the reality if the situation is only about 1/3 of law graduates will be practicing law at all within a few years of graduation, and maybe 40-50% won't ever. I was cynical when I was 22, and gunned as needed for the LSAT and grades, and wary about debt. But most 22 year olds are still naive, and law schools are brutalizing such kids with 200,000 and more of debt and no job prospects.

It is also the case that biglaw hiring is down by about half, but the number of law schools, and all of their tuition, just keeps rising.

You are a bit like a guy prospering making oil drilling equipment saying manufacturing is a world of great opportunities, not collapsing wages and total employment and little job security.

If "[t]here are $100 bills on the sidewalk in the legal arena," why are you not hiring as many people as you can at $20/hr to go collect all of them?

Wow, what an inspirational editorial. You couldn't be more pretentious, and logically inducive in your analysis of the situation. "It happened easily to me, so it should happen easily for everyone." Hey bud, that doesn't logically follow. The problem is you 30-40 somethings who were in business for years, went back to law school simply to get your license and overcome the ethical limitation against fee sharing with non-attorneys. All I see out there for opportunity are new and highly risky structurings of new wave 'virtual' law firms. These people are dispicable to the profession because they portray an image of a large, full service firm but have solo practicioners renting space and chasing clients for the corporation.

You unemployed, C-average, alcoholic law grads better stop living in your moms basement and start applying for jobs. There are thousands of jobs out there -- you just have to start applying. There are so many opportunities out there, but instead, you all moan and complain about how youre not making 160k.

Make yourself known, network, join legal groups, work pro-bono, study the law, know the law, and truly understand the law.

And please, please stop complaining about the lack of opportunities. Frankly, it makes you look even worse. So get off your butt, and start making something of yourself.

In respect of our country's failing, underemployed attorney profession, you are correct that there is individual responsibility to be had, and few would argue. However, the failing is also accompanied by a macroeconomic component - and it is around that component which most of the "law school scam" discussion revolves.

Are some law grads and attorneys whining? Maybe. But maybe they shouldn't stop because there could be some value to the whining if it communicates information to persons without information. A vacuum of information was the situation for decades before the law school scam really exploded over the internet. In review, I think some loud protest may be in order.

Are you kidding me Joel? You clearly have no idea what the legal job market is like right now. Or maybe you just do not have direct experience having door after door slammed in your face. I must ask, when is the last time you were on an interview? I bet not recently.

Your comment is insulting, and frankly, insensitive to us recent law grads who have exhausted most, if not all, the approachable job seeking channels.

I'm tired of being told that I am lazy. I've spent too much time entertaining mindless and judgmental thoughts like yours, but I had to get my point across and address your insensitivity. If you want to judge and label me as an "unemployed, C-average, alcoholic law grad," why don't you take a look at my resume and transcript. If you did, they would indicate that I graduated with honors, earned a place on the Dean's list every semester, was a member of both Moot Court and Trial Advocacy honor societies. While you're at it, look through the HUNDREDS of applications that I have submitted. Also, listen to how I have interned in the legal field for over two years UNPAID and represented indigent clients pro bono.

Then tell me that I am lazy.

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Manhattan Institute
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