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The Problem with the Legal Profession


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The Problem with the Legal Profession
Topic: Politics and Law 3:55 am EST, Feb  9, 2007

As much as I think engineering is a dysfunctional profession, I am often shocked at how other professions seem to work. As all of you know I've been interested in the law for a long time. So I took the LSAT. I got a good grade. So I applied to some schools. I got into a good school. And now, right now, I have to make a decision that will determine the rest of my life. I don't know if I can go through with this, inspite of how much I love the subject matter or what kind of difference I feel that I can make.

Its all about fear. Law firms pray on fear. Some of that fear is real. A lot of it is imaginary, and it is the imaginary fears that have created a system that appears to take really bright people and chew them up.

When I look at all the C&Ds that end up on Chilling Effects, I see fear. A lawyer has convinced a corporation that if they don't vigorously defend their trademarks by threatening every blogger who mentions them in passing they won't be successful at defending that trademark when they do have a real competitive threat. This fear isn't real. There is a substantive difference between a competitive threat and a blogger, and any lawyer worth his salt ought to be able to articulate that difference in a court room. But its in the interest of the firm to stoke that fear. That fear turns into billable hours. By telling corporate managers with a straight face they have to generate these C&Ds or toss their trademark away, the firm generates revenue.

Fear is the reason that a handful of lawschools have dominated the market. All the professors, all the judges, and most of the top lawyers all come from a handful of schools. Those schools are expensive. Astronomically expensive. Because they can be. Because every school in the country wants professors who went to the top schools, and every corporate manager is afraid that if he isn't getting defended by a student from a top school he is going to loose his shirt.

You don't see that in engineering. No one cares what school professors attended. They care whether or not they are engaging communicators and whether or not they are doing useful research. This is because engineering is about results. Law is not about results. Its about perceptions.

Law students have to assume hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt to attend one of these top notch schools, and in fact many of the not so top notch schools are similarly expensive and offer the added benefit that its really difficult to get a job when you graduate because everyone is afraid to have you defending them. That debt becomes an indenture. You have to pay it off. The only way to pay it off is the get a job at a big firm. The big firms have to pay you $150,000, because a third of it is going to pay off your loans, and the rest of it is the minimum you'd really expect someone with that level of responsibility to be paid.

The firm can only afford to hire so many people at such a rate, and furthermore, they have an interest in constraining their lawyer pool because they only want the best pedigrees to show their clients. So they hire these top notch students, and they hand them busy work their clients often don't really need, and they make them do it. These people are often required to bill over 2300 hours a year. Thats 45 hours a week with no vacation, and that doesn't include administrative or non-billable time. So these people, the best and brightest, are doing busy work for 70 hours a week and spending most of the free money they are making paying back the loans they took to get there.

All because of fear. All because people are completely incapable of making objective evaluations of the legal counsel they are getting. The only evaluation they know how to perform is "where did ya go to law school" and if the answer isn't something they've heard of before, they're afraid.

I'm not sure I can do it. I'm not sure that I'm interested in choosing between doing public policy work for a fraction of my present salary or entering the billable hours grind. I'm not sure I want to be chained to an office for years because of massive amounts of debt. I just don't know if its worth it. Maybe I should just drop this and remain an engineer, even though I think I'd make a far better lawyer, because life is too sort to spend 2300 hours a year working on someone else's idea of what the right problems are.

What bothers me even more, frankly, is the fact that some of these fears are real... Sometimes, people win in court not because they are right, but because their counsel is more persuasive for bad reasons... nice suit, good degree, better spoken, etc.... These totally useless measures are what may determine who goes free and who goes to prison. That is a fundamental problem with our entire system.

The linked post discusses this some more...

The Problem with the Legal Profession

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