Subtle clues revealing the cause of a fundamental problem confronting the legal profession are everywhere, even in the sports section.

Recently, the New York Times wrote about 26-year-old Josh Satin, who made his major league debut for the New York Mets on Sunday, September 4. This time of year, such stories about minor league ballplayers getting a chance to play for out-of-contention major league teams are common. Regrettably, one of my hometown franchises — the Cubs — affords such opportunities almost every year.

This line of the Satin article caught my eye:

“After graduating as a political science major from Cal, Satin was selected by the Mets in the sixth round of the 2008 draft. And like any number of 20-somethings with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects, he kept law school applications at the ready.”

Satin was drafted the  same year I began offering an advanced undergraduate course that targeted students like him. For many juniors and seniors who can’t decide what to do next, law school becomes a default solution that buys them more time. Sometimes it works out okay; for too many others, it’s a place where dreams go to die.

Bad information bears much of the blame for the problem of poor career choices that, in turn, contribute to widespread attorney dissatisfaction. Law schools skirting the outer limits of candor to fill their classrooms have made the problem worse. So has the transformation of big firms from a profession to a collection of short-term profit-maximizing businesses that use misguided metrics to drive decisions.

As a consequence, some not-so-funny things happened to many of those who went to law school for the wrong reasons. For starters, the promise of a secure future at a well-paying job turned out to be illusory. The persistent problem of lawyer oversupply rose to crisis levels during what would have been Satin’s first year of law school, if he’d gone. Since then, the market for new talent has gotten worse.

But even many who found decent legal jobs have been unpleasantly surprised. Popular images of dynamic lawyers engaged in courtroom battles widen the gap between student expectations and the reality they’ll encounter; that eventually makes for some very unhappy attorneys. By the time the truth hits, many find themselves burdened with educational debt equal to a home mortgage, albeit without the house.

That doesn’t mean no one should go to law school. The law is a great and noble pursuit in many ways. In fact, even the most pessimistic assessments suggest that about half of all attorneys enjoy satisfying careers. I sure did.

Nor does it mean that everyone who dreams of playing major league baseball — or any other high-profile job that the media infuses with irresistible glamour — should give it a shot. Everyone enjoys watching extraordinarily talented celebrities ply their trades, but for most of us, being a spectator is our highest and best use at such events. In his address to the Northwestern graduating class of 2011, Stephen Colbert referred to commencement speakers who tell college graduates to follow their dreams and asked, “What if it’s a stupid dream?”

But acknowledging the stupidity of a dream shouldn’t make law school the fallback answer to one of life’s most important questions, “Now what?”

I don’t know if Josh Satin will remain a major league ballplayer. If he doesn’t, I don’t know what he’ll do after that. But meanwhile, give him credit for having the courage to pursue passions for which he obviously has talent. It’s a safe bet that he’s happier than his college classmates “with a liberal arts degree and nebulous career prospects [who] kept law school applications at the ready,” sent them in, and pursued legal careers for which they had incomplete knowledge, limited enthusiasm, or both. Compounding the difficulties with which they began law school, they’re now having trouble finding the secure, well-paying and exciting work that they thought would be waiting for them when they graduated.

It turns out that for most of the nation’s 50,000 annual graduates, those particular jobs were never there at all.

2 thoughts on “FROM THE SPORTS PAGE

  1. This is an ideal follow up to Suffering in Silence. I had very little compassion for the person you quoted in Suffering who had commented on an article on the same subject. That person observed that she/he would never be able to own a house or have children because of the vagaries of achieving “success” in the practice of law.

    My initial response was that that person should not breed because the person evidently made a very uninformed decision about choosing law as a profession/career and now blames the profession for their plight. On the Sports Page provides more nuanced insight into the plight of those who choose the law as a career. Your current post appropriately emphasizes that it is important to choose law, or any other vocation, because of a commitment to the profession and not just to “hit the big time” whether the “big time” is law or baseball.

    That being said, I now confess I had a degree in English Literature, but was lucky enough to join the profession 30 years ago and I have also enjoyed a wonderful career engaged with a profession I love and admire. I ignored the admonition issued by the dean on the first day of orientation: “If you are here because you have a degree in English Literature and can’t get a job, leave now.”

  2. Steve —

    You’ve provided much for the reader to ponder in your typically insightful and provocative piece.

    Serendipity brings the announcement today that Glenn Fine, the fomer inspector general of the Department of Justice is joining Dechert. Fine was captain of the Harvard basketball team and was drafted by the San Antonio Spurs. Fine chose a career at the law and clearly succeeded at the bar. Would he have achieved stardom in the NBA? We’ll never know.

    All of this brought to mind two classic American poems: Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken and Langston Hughes’ A Dream Deferred.

    Jerry Kowalski

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