Will Meyerhofer: The Downward Drift

“I never thought I’d end up working as a contract attorney doing doc review in a windowless basement,” my client bemoaned. “But then I read that piece about the lawyer who’s working as a clerk at WalMart. At least I’ve still got it over him in terms of job prestige.”

Will MeyerhoferWell, you know how obsessed lawyers are with job prestige.

There’s a phrase, “The Downward Drift,” that crops up in discussions of serious mental health diagnoses like schizophrenia, and/or chronic substance abuse. The idea is that you are afflicted with serious mental illness, or become addicted to a harmful substance, which in turn leads to a slow, inevitable slide downward in terms of social class. Before long, the wealthy, Upper East Side business executive suffering from schizophrenia and/or severe alcoholism finds himself jobless, friendless and eventually even homeless, sleeping in shelters and begging for change.

Weirdly, the same phenomenon – the Downward Drift – affects people who acquire Juris Doctor degrees. It sort of makes sense, since – at least nowadays, with people like me bellowing jeremiads on every street corner, it would be evidence of utter madness – textbook psychosis, perhaps – for anyone to head in the direction of law school, at least unless that law school is one of the top three in the country and someone else is footing the bill. But try to persuade a kid with a high LSAT score not to apply to law school – it’s nearly as tough as persuading a kid who’s gotten into a “top-500” (or whatever) law school into not attending (especially if he’s “won” one of those risible $20,000 so-called “scholarships” they hand out like pushers showering crack vials on newbie users.) If that task sounds Herculean (or Sisyphean), try talking a kid who’s blown $80,000 on his first year of law school out of “finishing up” the other two (useless) years – even if he’s hated every moment of the experience so far. This is where the parallel with addiction comes in because I guarantee you it’s no easier than convincing a chronic alcoholic that ten martinis is really enough. Even my own much-vaunted powers of persuasion come up short at that juncture. Because it’s impossible. An addict will keep drinking and drugging until he passes out face down in a puddle on the sidewalk. And a law student will blow that additional $160,000 to finish those two more pointless years. It’s a sure thing – just like zombies like eating flesh, the sun likes rising in the morning and Pat Robertson likes blaming bad weather on the homosexual agenda.

So how does the “Downward Drift” work, at least for lawyers?

First, the madness – complete with irrational delusions. You receive a high LSAT score, so you are obligated to go to law school, especially since – hooray! – you got into a pretty good place (one of the top 500 law schools in the nation, with only 500 kids in each graduating class!) And hey – they really want you, too – they offered you a full scholarship for as much as 15% of your tuition, contingent on your remaining in the top 5% of your class. So you have no choice – you have to go!

Of course, you hate first year and no…sorry…it turns out (somewhat mysteriously) that no one in your class manages to place in the top 5% and keep that scholarship. But you’ve already borrowed $80,000 – so now you’re obligated to borrow another $160,000. Otherwise, you’d be wasting the first $80,000. That makes sense!

You finish the final two boring, mindless years of law school – distracting yourself by focussing all your time and attention on your class musical review and the immigration law clinic, where you work your ass off for free…although technically, you’re paying about $200 per hour to work for free, which seems a little odd…

And then – at last! – you graduate, it’s all over and you’re sitting on top of the world! Except…somehow OCR doesn’t go your way. Which is okay, because, somewhat mysteriously, it didn’t seem to go anyone else’s way either – at least, not for 95% of your classmates. Even if, by some miracle, you land a biglaw job – hooray! – the firm proves to be dead slow so there’s nothing to do and then you get laid off after six months with the requisite bad review even though there isn’t really any “work product” to criticize since you never had an opportunity to create anything resembling “work product” during your brief time there.

In any case, things aren’t what you expected, but you’re not going out like that! You’re unstoppable, and you’re going to hit the ground running and hunt for a job. You’re not afraid to burn some shoe leather, send your resume out to everyone you can think of, work connections, call headhunters…

Nothing happens. Apparently, unemployed, inexperienced lawyers fresh out of law school are in a state of over-supply. Funny how no one told you that before.

Eventually, as you contemplate the fact that you haven’t paid your loan minimums – on $240,000 – for a year and your friend from high school is starting to hint that you’re going to need to pay rent to sleep on the couch if this goes on for another month, you decide to bite the bullet and do the unthinkable: Contract attorney work.

But it’s okay! It’s at a really really prestigious firm, and they sort of hint that, if you’re good (and it just so happens that you’re better than good, you’re an eager beaver!) maybe you can get some substantive work.

So you stroll into the offices of Evil & Wicked proudly, in your new suit, and think – heck, this is temporary, and once they see how good you are – and understand that you went to a top 500 law school and were in the upper 70% of your class – they’ll realize their mistake and offer you that associate gig so you can slide back into the partner track where you belong.

Then you find out your office is a cube. In the basement. Without windows. And the head doc review guy – who is such a dickhead! – either insists on keeping the fluorescent lights off, so you get migraines, or turns up the air conditioner until you are forced to wear a cardigan every day in the summer, or insists no one can wear ear phones, even though that’s the only way you can bear the hours of mindlessness involved in this job…that you’re just dying to tell him where he can shove it. But you don’t want to lose this job, since it’s been taking longer than you expected to find a real job. So you shut up. And eventually it sinks in that you actually kind of need this job because after you pay your loan minimums, you can only afford enough rent to keep sleeping on your high school friend’s couch.

Then a year goes by. And then another year goes by. All you have ever done is doc review. It occurs to you that you didn’t go to law school – a top 500 law school! – so that you could do this scut work, which doesn’t even require a knowledge of law. In fact, the paralegals at the firm – and you’ve been told in no uncertain terms that JD’s cannot apply for paralegal jobs – demonstrably comprehend far more law than you (and earn more than you) because they do far more substantive law than you. From time to time, you smile bitterly to yourself, mulling over this apparent injustice, and reflect on whether this is what they meant in law school by “learning to think like a lawyer.”

The associates at the firm treat you like you don’t exist, if you ever lay eyes on them. You might as well be the maid mopping the floor in the men’s room. It doesn’t occur to you that this is because they expect to become you pretty soon, since the firm is imploding. It does occur to you that you hate their guts and fantasize about clubbing them to death with farm implements.

Another year goes by. At this point, you have reduced your loan debt to only $220,000. You’re making about $100,000 by working every available shift, with no benefits and no guarantee the work will last – it could dry up at any time. You’re currently paying about $1500 per month to the loans, sometimes more. You become acutely aware that you will likely be more than fifty years old when – and if – you manage to repay them. Even if you were a real biglaw associate, making a real associate’s salary, it would take about five or six years, minimum, to pay the loans off – and that’s if you paid everything you could – maybe $4,000 per month – which would mean living in a tiny apartment or having roommates and working sixty to eighty hours per week (which you sort of are already doing anyway.) Moreover, you can’t help hearing reports that most biglaw associates – the real ones – only last a couple years before they burn out and either disappear or get a “bad review” and slink off never to be heard from again. You wonder how many of them end up contract attorneys doing doc review just like you’re doing. Then you realize a few of the guys you work with used to be biglaw associates – real ones.

Your romantic partner is also doing doc review, and also has loans. You’ve talked about getting married and buying a place and having a kid, but there’s no money. You ponder the fact that your grandparents, whom you actually care about a great deal, will probably die during the next decade or two, leaving their house in Wisconsin (scene of many treasured memories) to you and your sister. You contemplate the fact that your outstanding school loans would easily swallow the entire value of your share of that house. When your parents die some day, they’ll also leave money to you both. Your share of that, too, would disappear down the drain of your school loans, without making much of a dent. On the other hand, the deaths of your grandparents and parents might enable you to pay the loans off sooner – before you reach your fifties – which is a disturbing thought that keeps entering your head when you wish it wouldn’t. It’s upsetting to contemplate the fact that your share of everything your grandparents and parents have managed to accumulate during their lives wouldn’t be enough to pay for the three years you wasted in law school. Perhaps even more upsetting is the fact that, with both of your parents’ life savings added to your grandparents’ life savings, the loans for law school would only just get paid off – you would be left with nothing, which sounds like heaven, an impossible dream of freedom.

It occurs to you that both you and your romantic partner are heavily in debt, have dull, meaningless jobs that you despise, and cannot afford to eat out at restaurants where you don’t order at a counter to a minimum wage employee dressed in a uniform. There is at least some small comfort in the fact that you are working at one of the most prestigious law firms in the world and can tell that to people who don’t realize you’re not really working there, you’re just a contract attorney.

Then you get laid off. You manage, after a desperate flurry of searching, to locate hourly work here and there at any law firm that’s hiring.

It occurs to you that your high school friend, who remained at the poorly-paid non-legal job you left way back when you decided to go to law school, is now a vice president at a small company and making roughly twice your salary. And he likes his job. And he receives benefits, and doesn’t work nights and weekends. And doesn’t owe nearly a quarter of a million dollars to a bank in non-dischargeable debt. But you don’t really socialize with people like him too much anymore because it’s embarrassing that you can’t afford to eat out or throw dinner parties or just take the time off. Besides which, it’s hard to plan for social occasions when your working hours are different every week, and there might not be any work next week.

It occurs to you that you are, in essence, a blue-collar employee – not even unionized. You do mindless work – assembling a car chassis would be a huge step up in terms of intellectual challenge. Essentially, you toil in a 19th century sweatshop with no labor protections, earn next to nothing and live hopelessly mired in debt, probably for your entire time on Earth. You cannot afford anything more than a tiny studio rental apartment, and that’s in a neighborhood where people get mugged with some regularity and there are drug dealers on the street corners. You haven’t bought clothes since you can’t remember when – and the last thing you bought came from a vintage store. You’ve given up on the plans to get married or have a kid – you’ve put it all off so long it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen.

Oh, and you’re drinking too much. And your partner smokes weed every night after work, lying on your old sofa, watching tv.

That’s what’s so great about going to law school:  The J.D. is an extremely versatile degree, which brings a high salary as well as social status and prestige.

Uh-huh.  There’s just that little problem of The Downward Drift….

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This piece is part of a series of columns presented by The People’s Therapist in cooperation with AboveTheLaw.com. My thanks to ATL for their help with the creation of this series.

My new book is a comic novel about a psychotherapist who falls in love with a blue alien from outer space.  I guarantee pure reading pleasure:  Bad Therapist: A Romance.

Please also check out The People’s Therapist’s legendary best-seller about the sad state of the legal profession:  Way-Worse-Than-Being-Dentist

My first book is an unusual (and useful) introduction to the concepts underlying psychotherapy:  Life is a Brief Opportunity for Joy

(In addition to Amazon.com, my books are also available on bn.com and the Apple iBookstore.)

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