Monday, March 12, 2007

The Catcher In The Hedge Fund

So, I'm reading _The Destruction of Young Lawyers_, by Douglas Litowitz, in-house counsel at a Chicago hedge fund and former Sonnenschein associate. The book has received some great blurbs from some notable nabobs of legal scholarship (Tushnet and Delgado) and a lot of coverage (positive and negative) at Legal Ethics Forum and elsewhere in the blogosphere. There are lots of good links and articles at the LEF post. I especially recommend Jeffery Lipshaw's (draft) review available on SSRN.

I think Litowitz's book has attracted attention for two basic reasons: 1) it is a colorfully written, absolutely uncompromising attack on the legal profession and 2) it purports to offer a "marxist" critique. That word tends to attract people's attention, in case regular N&B readers hadn't noticed. Sad to say, the book's approach is really not marxist at all. I don't have a lot to say about that, other than to observe that even in the world of neomarxist social critique, a handful of unrelated and basically off-hand quotations from Marcuse, Kierkegaard, Engels, Barthes and Ralph Nader don't add up to a critical apparatus.

I do think, though, that the book is something all of us should read--at least the first ten pages of. Not because it's right, and certainly not because it's thoughtful ("furious" would be more like it), but because I think it crystallizes a view that we as law students hear all the time about the profession we're about to enter: that lawyers are miserable, anxious, self-loathing substance-abusers; and that law school and law firms make them that way. Billable hourse, rigid hierarchies, angry senior associates who throw staplers at new lawyers, tedious, humiliating instruction in law school, professors who live for the thrill of getting off sarcastic one-liners at the expense of confused 1-Ls, the whole schtick.

I've heard this a lot since I starting thinking about going to law school, and I feel like I've been hearing it at an increasing pitch as I talk to classmates, friends, and others about getting ready to graduate. Although there are bits of truth caught up in this account, it is largely discordant with my actual experience and observations (admittedly for only a few months) working at a law firm, and completely discordant with my experience (for about two and a half years now) of attending law school. The reason I think the book is valuable is that it presents this dominant view in a sort of unintentional caricature--which offers an opportunity to hold it at a little bit of a distance and think about why people might believe it even if it isn't true. It's a pretty short book; I read the first two chapters last night. I thought I would make just a couple of points about those chapters, and then possibly post more as I read more.

Chapter One: "Unhappy Young Lawyers": It's a kind of angry, impressionistic pastiche of inaccurate factual premises (e.g. that virtually no lawyers are solo practitioners any more, that there's "no money" to be made in consumer-protection litigation), generalizations drawn from the author's dinner-table conversation, and bizarrely-footnoted (and in some cases completely unsupported) statistical claims. It's such a bleak description that on first blush it's pretty alarming, but it's so shrill that it rapidly burns through its own credibility.

Chapter Two: "The Trouble With Law School": Basically recounts the author's own unhappy experience, and asserts that this is how everyone feels. Litowitz writes: "I have never met a person who liked law school. Period." I believe him, but I think this speaks volumes about his methodology and the underlying motivation for his conclusions. He purports to have conducted a systematic study of acculturation into the legal profession, but he never came into contact with a single person who liked law school? Really? I like law school. I've been fortunate here at Boalt to encounter and spend time with many other people who do, too. Not that there aren't frustrations. Not that everything is perfect. And not that some people aren't obviously miserable. But come on! If Litowitz has never met a person who liked law school 1) his study was not nearly as systematic as he says, and 2) his own hatred for the experience has obviously shut him off from contact with people who enjoyed it. What kind of study is this? Second, and perhaps even more telling, is this generalization (and the parenthetical comment that animates it): "Deep down, the central fear of every law student (I felt it myself) is that they will be discovered as a fraud, a phony, someone who dresses the part but who knows nothing, who will be exposed at any moment, like a graduate of medical school who cannot take a pulse." Some measure of doubt is part of life, but I don't think Litowitz is in a position to say (as he basically does say) that everyone who goes to law school is paralyzed by this kind of fear.

My opinion: This is adult narcisism in the technical psychoanalytic sense. This is the distorted perception of a person who was traumatized, and who can only believe 1) that other people are just as unhappy as him deep down, and 2) that the source of their unhappiness is the same as his. Think of King Lear encountering mud-splattered Edgar, asking if Edgar's daughters had betrayed him, too:

"Dids't thou give all to thy two daughters?
And art thou come to this?"

One additional note. I actually agree with some of Litowitz's prescriptions for change. Law school instruction does have a pretty old-fashioned pedagogical model. I think his criticisms of the case method are wildly overblown, but I do think that more project-based, skills-based learning would be a great addition. I actually think legal education has changed somewhat in this regard since Litowitz went to school (Northwestern '88), in that lots of 2Ls and 3Ls do have the chance to do clinical work. His "comprehensive study" notwithstanding, he doesn't seem to notice this trend.

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16 Comments:

Blogger Mad.J.D. said...

Isaac, you're getting awfully prolific here in the twilight of your tenure at Boalt. And a Shakespeare quote? Beautifully done.

I haven't read Litowitz, but it sounds as if his book is the type of rhetoric that lawyers subconsciously like to perpetuate. Though in interviews we are expected to give our classes glowing reviews, once in practice, it is commonplace for attorneys to expound on the misery of school with something like braggadocio. It's as close as most of them will ever get to telling war stories. In spite of the (overstated) consensus on law school being terrible, it really does shatter Litowitz's credibility when he says he's never met someone who liked it. After that, I'd take almost everything with a grain of salt.

I think the commonplace hatred of the occupation of attorney is a different phenomenon. I think it is partially explained by the fact that the profession is highly institutionalized and its members are highly literate, if not literary. What I'm driving at is that a lot of people work long hours and hate it, but for some reason lawyers are FAMOUS for those things when bankers, consultants, et al are probably no less overworked. I think we are familiar with lawyers' misery because it is so well documented while the misery of other jobs is not. E.g., being a garbage collector, sewer inspector, or diesel mechanic might be terrible, but the record on it is much smaller because people in those jobs don't create the kind of paper trail that lawyers do. Of course my perception is probably skewed since I hang out with law students and lawyers and spend time on legal blogs...maybe I'm overstating this. But it seems like it might go some of the way toward explaining the "common knowledge" aspect of lawyers' misery.

In any case, Litowitz sounds jaded beyond hope. You'll remember, even after Edgar answers Lear's question with an uncooperative, nonsensical monologue, Lear remains convinced of his original diagnosis:

"What, have his daughters brought him to this pass? Couldst thou save nothing? Didst thou give them all?"

When you're that sure of something, empirical evidence takes a backseat to your own gut.

3/09/2007 1:09 AM  
Anonymous Caliboy said...

Mad JD you may have something there. I'm always amazed by the number of ex-attorneys who become novelists. And books like Paper Chase, One L, and that recent Kermit Roosevelt novel (can't think of the name off the top of my head) work to record certain tropes about law school and the legal profession.

Yet when was the last time there was a good book about Investment Banking? (Only Michael Lewis' brilliant Liar's Poker comes to mind.)

I spoke with a recent Boalt grad who spent a couple years on Wall Street as an I-Banker and went back to New York to work for a big firm actually says that he enjoys the legal work more, finding it more intellectually engaging. He also felt the hours were actually better compared to his days as an analyst. Not a lot of data points to work with, but clearly the legal profession must not be bad for everyone.

3/09/2007 9:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

bankers do complain about their hours, too. can confirm bankers' hours are generally worse. less complaining, though, b/c they knew they were in it for the money, as opposed to law students, who generally aren't really sure what they're in it for. the more that law firms spin stories about being lifestyle-friendly, and the salary gap b/w biglaw and other work remains so large, the more new lawyer disappointment will obtain. it's all about expectations and perceived possibility - i think bankers expect the misery and know what they want out of their jobs/careers, therefore overall less whining.

3/09/2007 9:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for the recomendation Isaac. I agree, it does seem weird that he hasn't met one person that liked law school. I for one, love it at Boalt.

3/09/2007 4:49 PM  
Blogger Max Power said...

Sorry to post off-topic here, Armen, but I have an MPRE question. I know there are 60 questions (50 of them actually scored) and CA requires a scaled score of 79.

But what does that mean? About how many questions do we need to get right? Does anyone have any idea what the approximate range is?

3/09/2007 4:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

More off-topic: Did anyone else think Chris Simon's shot to Hollweg was kind of cool? I mean, Simon gets a cheap check into the boards by Hollweg, and then calmly gets up and knocks Hollweg's fucking head off. Then looks around non-chalantly. Bad-ass reciprocity.

(The NYT says Hollweg's was a "clean check." But it looked dirty to me. Does the NYT know anything about hockey? Because I sure don't. Violence in sports is fun though.)

3/09/2007 5:05 PM  
Blogger Isaac Zaur said...

If you want to get a flavor for the book, given that I currently have it checked out of the library, Litowitz wrote a brief description/summary of it, which was posted a few weeks ago on Legal Ethics Forum. I also want to repeat that although I think his analysis is wack, several of his proposed remedies make sense. About two careers from now, I'm planning to re-engineer the American law school curriculum. Comments on that subject invited.

3/09/2007 6:52 PM  
Blogger Isaac Zaur said...

"Hollweg" sounds to me like a name you would give to an owl.

3/09/2007 6:55 PM  
Anonymous BigFirmBoaltAlum said...

This guy is a moron. (A marxists at a hedge fund, interesting...) I especially disagree with his critiques of law school; I have found my legal eduction incredibly valuable in practice. "Law schools use the Socratic Method primarily because it is cheap and because it motivates by fear and humiliation, which is easier than motivating by inspiring people." Give me a fucking break. And the bar exam isn't anything to get so up in arms about; it gives lawyers something to bond over and helps keep our fees high. So what? The moral charachter review is "groteseque"? You think maybe he's being a little melodramatic? I think there is some truth to what he says about big firms, though -- not the part about partners being evil (everyone I work with is very decent), and not the part about working for evil clients or doing boring work (my work is quite interesting and I don't shudder over any legal position I've ever taken). But we do work a lot, we are tethered to the office by technology, and we do have to kowtow to clients. Some people get tired and dillusioned -- it's not like we're saving the world. But people ought to take a little personal responsibility. If you stay at a firm because you want a lot of money, don't bitch about it. I think most law schools have pretty decent loan forgiveness programs, so I'm not buying that people are working at big firms out of the gate because they have no other choice. Some people love their work at the firm, some people don't. If you don't love it, leave (or shut up and become an alcoholic).

3/09/2007 8:42 PM  
Blogger Armen said...

I don't want to interrupt the good discussion, but here are the answers to the OT questions.

1. No one knows how many questions you need to get Max. But rough estimates place it around 50% or less even.

2. That was totally a clean hit. Video here. H doesn't leave his feet, (not boarding) S is aware of H's presence (not charging or boarding), S is playing the puck (not interference), and H doesn't use an elbow or his stick (not elbowing or cross-checking). This is probably one of the dirtiest plays in hockey since the McSorley smash against Brashear (sp?).

3/09/2007 9:28 PM  
Blogger Isaac Zaur said...

Earl (if that is his real name) has teed up one of my favorite hobby-horses: the non-law-specific “crisis” in American employment. See, it has always seemed to me that Americans, generally speaking, hate their jobs. Sometimes it seems like bitching about work is more or less our national pastime. And certainly the western Europeans think we’re out of our minds. I got in an argument with my father about this over the winter break, though, so I sat down at the computer to try and substantiate my view. I printed out about fifty surveys and meta-analyses of U.S. job satisfaction, going back to about the middle of the last century. Most of the raw survey data was from Pew and Gallup; the compilations and longitudinal studies came from various think tanks and the DOL.

What I discovered, very much to my surprise, was that the vast majority of Americans like their jobs. Very roughly, the figure was about 70% to 80% positive responses across survey topics (e.g. hours, relations with co-workers, employers, meaningfulness of work, ability to earn a decent living). Even more amazing was the fact that these results were consistent across time—notwithstanding the dramatic changes in the labor market during the last fifty years: globalization and the disintegration of the labor movement, to name just two prominent examples.

Two major exceptions: the quality and amount of employer-provided health insurance, which people are more and more worried about for at least the last fifteen years or so, and this demographic shift: older workers, who used to be much more satisfied than younger ones, are now only approximately equally as satisfied as their youthful counterparts.

Another fascinating and somewhat counter-intuitive general result is that U.S. workers almost always think that other workers have much worse jobs than they do themselves. These figures are much more sensitive to general economic conditions than people’s reporting on their own work experience, but I don’t recall seeing any data that suggested workers felt they were worse off, job-satisfaction-wise, than the average.

Sadly, I didn’t bring all this data back with me after the break, and I don’t have time to replicate it in full. But this Pew survey is representative (notwithstanding its somewhat misleading title, which reflects the understandable but regrettable bias most surveys display towards finding some notable change--to justify having done the survey in the first place).

If you don't want to plow through the survey, or even the executive summary, here's the take-home: 89% of U.S. workers are completely or mostly satisfied with their jobs; 93% are completely or mostly satisfied with the kind of work they do.

The Pew study suggests that there was little difference across races and only a slight difference across gender (men happier with work). I haven't seen data on this subject, unfortunately. If anyone can point to some I would be eager to see it.

3/09/2007 9:49 PM  
Blogger Isaac Zaur said...

I looked again--there's some limited race-related data in this Pew survey, but not much, and it's all just B/W/H. Short version: Blacks and Hispanics are a lot more likely that Whites to think they'll get laid off, and Hispanics have a much more positive view of the impact of immigration on the labor market.

3/09/2007 10:10 PM  
Blogger Tom Fletcher said...

Re: leisure time. As if on cue, Slate.

The history of the twentieth century seems to be one of declining workloads... (and before that, in an agricultural setting, there were no days off).

I'll be honest, I feel pretty lucky to be living in America c. 2007.

3/09/2007 10:28 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Well said, Earl. My mother would tell us all to count our blessings.

3/09/2007 10:39 PM  
Blogger Isaac Zaur said...

Why are people happier in their own lives than they think other people are in theirs? Earl assumes it's because "we're taught, trained, and expected to be relentlessly optimistic about our own lot in life." Or maybe it's because unhappiness is more interesting than happiness--tells a better story, sells more books, as Earl was suggesting in a previous post on this thread. To the degree that the latter is true, I might like my congressman but distrust national politics for the perfectly logical reasons that I have 1) better empirical evidence, 2) less-mediated impressions, and 3) a more accurate sense of the relevant values-criteria respecting my own representative (or school system, or job, or industry).

The false-consiousness idea is a powerful one, but it has a serious problem, on glorious display here, in that it proves WAY too much. I basically take Earl to be saying that it doesn't matter what people say, he reads the economy in a way that should make them sad, so if they say anything else they're deluded. At this point we're back to Lear and Edgar.

3/10/2007 1:18 PM  
Blogger Isaac Zaur said...

I agree that polling is not a smart way to measure the actual economy. I didn't mean to suggest that because people like their work, the economy must be in great shape. In fact, I think asking most people about things like whether they approve of international trade deals is pretty non-sensical. So far I only glanced at this Penn/Freedman study, but a lot of its questions seem to ask about things that most workers have no information about. But if there's one piece of data that individual workers with no special expertise in politics or labor economics DO have, it's how they feel about their own work.

By the way, I absolutely reject your analogy. If you want to say the questions in the satisfaction surveys (they are many and various) are non-sensical, then analyze the grammar of those questions. Assume (it's a pretty bad oversimplification, but assume anyway) that they all asked some analog of "how satisfied are you in your current job?" As long as the inference I draw is that some percentage of people are completely, mostly, or not-at-all satisfied with their jobs, then this is not at all like asking on one single day if you had a good time in anti-trust and concluding how much you like law school. Instead, it's like asking if you like law school, and concluding whether and how much you like law school. "My" pollsters may be guilty of errors, and if so you should absolutely point them out, but they're not commiting the category mistake you accuse them of.

3/10/2007 4:26 PM  

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