Steven J. Harper has been blessed with notably good timing.

Born smack in the middle of the Baby Boom, the Minneapolis native excelled in school, collected bachelor’s and master’s degrees in economics from Northwestern University, then headed straight to Harvard Law School, where he was a classmate of future U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts.

Neither of Harper’s parents—a truck driver dad and a stay-at-home mom—got past high school. A working-class kid, Harper financed his future with student loans. By the time he graduated Harvard Law, magna cum laude, in 1979, the total debt he had incurred for his three degrees from Northwestern and Harvard came to about $16,000.

The Lawyer Bubble:
A Profession in Crisis

By Steven J. Harper
Basic Books, 272 pp.

It paid off. Harper went straight from Harvard Law to Kirkland & Ellis in Chicago, where he had been a summer associate. His starting salary was $25,000. He flourished, and was mentored and trained as a litigator by sage elder partners who invested their time and energy in the new blood brought into the old-even-then firm. This was the start of the Reagan era, and the U.S. economy began to boom after a long malaise. The future for the bright young corporate litigator was sweet.

“I led what anyone would call a charmed life in the law,” Harper writes in his new book, The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis. “Then, as now, most people assumed that the legal profession offered financial security and a way to climb out of the lower or middle class. Career satisfaction, upward mobility, social status, financial security—who could ask for more?”

Harper spent his entire career at Kirkland & Ellis, made equity partner by the time he was thirty-four, and did so well financially that he was able to retire from the practice of law in 2010, when he was fifty-three years old. He now writes books. His latest seeks to warn bright young sons and daughters of midwestern truck drivers that they best not try to climb that ladder that served him so well.

Some of the rungs are broken, others greased and impossible slippery, and that ladder doesn’t stretch to any place you would want to be, really. The era of law being the safe and well-compensated “traditional default option for students with no idea what to do with their lives,” Harper notes, is over, even if the tens of thousands who still flood into law school each year stubbornly believe that these macro forces will somehow not apply to them.

New JDs coming out of private law schools carry an average debt load of $125,000, the American Bar Association reported in March 2012. Student loan debt cannot be discharged in bankruptcy, and the supposed relief now offered by federal loan balances being forgiven after twenty-five years is hardly a cheerful prospect.

Though the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects 73,600 new lawyer jobs to be created in the U.S. in the current decade, American law schools graduate about 44,000 new JDs each year. So averaged over the decade, there are six new lawyers for each new job.

And a good number of those jobs are hardly the stuff of which dreams—or early retirements in favor of more creative pursuits—are made. They are low-end document-review gigs, at $20 or $25 an hour. New lawyers with loan payments to make cannot be too choosy, notes University of Colorado School of Law professor Paul Campos.

Legal-outsourcing firms “hire these desperate law school grads, who sit in horrible little basement rooms. They are performing mindless work in Dickensian conditions, stuck in there,” Campos says. “They will never be able to get regular legal work. This is the only thing they can get to pay the bills. Doc reviewers are the detritus of a collapsing system.” Campos likens doc review to “doing porn if you are an actor.”

Predictably, salaries even at traditional law firms have been falling. New associates hired by a big firm—as Harper was hired by Kirkland & Ellis—saw their median salaries fall by more than a third, to $85,000, between 2009 and 2011. The social mobility Harper enjoyed three or four decades ago thanks to his smarts, his hard work, an affordable top-notch education, and a job market that valued his new degree has vanished.

Harper chronicles the disruption of his once-genteel profession with considerable sadness, and places the blame squarely at the wing-tipped feet of two breeds of scoundrel: law school deans, and executive committees that have run big law firms (sometimes into the ground) for the benefit of a handful of big-name partners and at the expense of any old-fashioned notion of partnership and institution-
al longevity.

The bulk of Harper’s book dissects the structural and cultural transformation of Big Law, and goes on (for many, many pages) about factors that caused such firms as Finley, Kumble and Dewey & LeBoeuf to fold. He laments that the concentration of power in the hands of a few executive partners atop global behemoths means that relatively few of the thousands of junior lawyers will ever be granted a full
equity-partner role. With no job security or likely financial payoff for years of oftentimes mind-numbing junior work, Harper notes, a good number of young and mid-career lawyers devolve into alcoholism, depression, and even suicide.

Some of Harper’s most pointed criticism is aimed at law schools, “operating on the outer perimeter of candor to fill their classrooms,” funded by “free-flowing student loan money for which law school deans never have to account.” (In a stunning bit of research, Am Law Daily blogger Matt Leichter estimated recently that the federal government will loan law students $53 billion over this decade—a huge public investment to educate an army of new lawyers who are then rejected by the job market.)

Law school deans and professors occupy an odd moral ground. They are educators, dedicating their careers to teaching and the concept of justice. They are also well-paid cogs in an industry that is increasingly accused, by Harper and others, of essentially perpetuating a marketing fraud that destroys the financial lives and careers of half its students.

I got a glimpse of law schools’ reality-distortion field last fall, when I interviewed Erwin Chemerinsky, the founding dean of the new law school at the University of California, Irvine, a public university. Including living expenses (which are often borrowed along with tuition), a year in UC Irvine’s program costs nonresident students $77,000—the second-most expensive legal education in the country. (In-state students pay $71,000.)

Why, I asked Chemerinsky for a Washington Post Magazine story, did he design a new program that was so notably expensive? First, he denied that UC Irvine was more expensive than the University of Southern California or Stanford, which is not true. Then he said that UC Irvine had to charge so much because the school receives no public subsidies or taxpayer support: “If we are not going to be subsidized by the state,” Chemerinsky said, in an oddly high-pitched, singsong voice, as if he were explaining the simplest concept to a child, “and we are going to be a top-quality law school, there is not an alternative in terms of what it is going to cost.”

Chemerinsky’s no-subsidy explanation for why UC Irvine’s program is so expensive is not true either, it turns out. Last fall, the law school and the university refused to answer questions about how much, if anything, UC or any other public entity had spent to get the law school up and running. Repeated Public Records Act requests and months later, long after the Post story was published, I got my answer: as of June of last year, the state had “subsidized” Chemerinsky’s school to the tune of $75 million, and will do so at about $25 million a year going forward.

When I asked Campos last fall about my conversation with Chemerinsky, he was unsurprised. There is no crisis yet in the business of running a law school—there are plenty of students willing to fill those seats, and the federal government will loan them whatever their law school costs. “Here in legal academia,” Campos said, it is “like the French aristocracy in 1785. They have no idea what is going on.” While noting that he admires Chemerinsky as a constitutional scholar, Campos says that it is “impossible” for Chemerinsky to understand or assume any culpability for playing a role in what Campos regards as a crisis. Citing Upton Sinclair, Campos says that “it is difficult to get a man to understand something if his salary depends on his not understanding.”

So with law schools still marketing away to prospective students, insiders like Harper (who teaches as an adjunct at Northwestern University’s law school) and Campos are serving a need as they seek to warn those thinking about a career in law.

In fact, here again Harper finds himself a beneficiary of timing. A whole genre of disillusioned-lawyer/law student/law professor blogs have sprouted up, known generally as “scamblogs.” Campos started a (briefly anonymous) one called “Inside the Law School Scam” in 2011, and in October came out with his new book, Don’t Go to Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk. And Brian Z. Tamanaha, a professor at Washington University School of Law, made his own big splash with Failing Law Schools last summer.

There will certainly continue to be law schools, and lawyers, and plenty of legal work to be done. Harper and his brethren simply seek to counsel bright young aspiring lawyers to think long and hard before booking impossibly expensive passage on a creaky ship headed toward one nasty-looking reef.

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Elizabeth Lesly Stevens

Elizabeth Lesly Stevens wrote a weekly column on money and power for the Bay Area section of the New York Times before moving to Washington last fall.