SOMEBODY’S CHILD

Nine years ago, Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) supported a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now he wants Congress to repeal the provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act that deny federal recognition to such marriages. Apparently, his reversal on this issue began two years ago when his college freshman son told Portman and his wife that he was gay.

Plenty of prominent national figures have similarly changed their views. The tide of history seems overwhelming, even to conservative commentator George Will. Others can debate whether Portman and those who have announced newly acquired positions favoring gay rights are courageous, hypocrites, opportunists, or something else.

For me, the more important point is that his own child’s connection to the issue caused Portman to think differently about it. Applied to lawyers, the question become simple:

What if the profession’s influential players treated the young people pursuing a legal career as their own children?

Portman’s explanation

In 2011, Portman knew that his son was gay when 100 law graduates walked out of his commencement address at the University of Michigan.

“But you know,” he told CNN recently, “what happened to me is really personal. I mean, I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue. Again, my focus has been on other issues over my public policy career.”

His key phrases are pregnant with larger implications: “[W]hat happened to me is really personal….I hadn’t thought a lot about this issue.”

Start with law school deans

As the lawyer bubble grew over the past decade, some deans and university administrators might have behaved differently if a “really personal” dimension required them to think “a lot” about their approaches. Perhaps they would have jettisoned a myopic focus on maximizing their law school rankings and revenues.

At a minimum, most deans probably would have disclosed earlier than 2012 that fewer than half of recent graduates had long-term full-time jobs requiring a legal degree. It seems unlikely that, year after year, they would have told their own kids that those employment rates exceeded 90 percent. Perhaps, too, deans would have resisted rather than embraced skyrocketing tuition increases that have produced six-figure non-dischargeable educational debt for 85 percent of today’s youngest attorneys.

Then consider big firm senior partners

At the economic pinnacle of the profession, big firms have become a particular source of not only attorney wealth, but also career dissatisfaction. In substantial part, both phenomena happened — and continue to happen — because managing partners have obsessed over short-term metrics aimed at maximizing current year profits and mindless growth.

For example, the billable hour is the bane of every lawyer’s (and most clients’) existence, but it’s lucrative for equity partners. If senior partners found themselves pushing their own kids to increase their hours as a way to boost those partners’ already astonishing profits, maybe they’d rethink the worst consequences of a destructive regime.

Similarly, the average attorney-to-equity partner leverage ratio for the Am Law 100 has doubled since 1985 (from 1.75 to 3.5). Perhaps managing partners wouldn’t have been so quick to pull up the ladder on lawyers who sat at their Thanksgiving tables every year, alongside those managing partners’ grandchildren who accompanied them. Not every young associate in a big firm should advance to equity partner. But offering a 5 to 10 percent chance of success following 7 to 12 years of hard work isn’t a motivator. It invites new attorneys to prepare for failure.

Finally, compared to the stability of a functional family, the current big law firm lateral partner hiring frenzy adopts the equivalent of periodic divorce as a cultural norm. Pursued as a growth strategy, it destroys institutional continuity, cohesion, community, and morale. Ironically, according to Professor William Henderson’s recent American Lawyer article “Playing Not to Lose,” it offers little or no net economic value in return.

Adopting a family outlook or a parental perspective isn’t a foolproof cure for what ails the legal profession. Indeed, running law schools and big firms according to the Lannister family’s values (“The Game of Thrones”) — or those of Don Corleone’s (“The Godfather”) — might not change things very much at all.

It’s also worth remembering that Oedipus was somebody’s child, too.

A PLUTOCRAT’S PITTANCE

Recently on ABC’s “This Week with George Stephanopoulos,” the usually thoughtful George Will practically jumped from his seat at the prospect that the interest rate on student loans might continue at 3.4 percent (based on a federal subsidy that President George W. Bush signed in 2007), rather than move up to 6.8 percent. He was — for him — apoplectic at the idea of creating what he was sure would become yet another “entitlement.”

Will opposes such relief because the average college student graduates with around $30,000 in loans and, over a lifetime of earning superiority over non-college graduates, he says, “that’s a pittance.” One man’s pittance is another man’s fortune, I guess. Then again, Will has a much different opinion about a slightly greater amount — $36,900 — when it’s the additional tax he’d pay on a million dollars of annual income if the Bush tax cuts expire.

But rather than search for consistency that can’t be found, put Will’s comment next to Mitt Romney’s related suggestion that young people should do everything they can to attend college, even “borrow from your parents.” If only all college-bound students had parents who could float them six-figure loans for however long it might take to repay them.

About those big salary differences

That leads to the point that Will sidestepped: repayment could take a while. Will’s “pittance” argument relies on studies showing that a college degree produces better lifetime earnings for those who obtain them. Historically, that’s been true. But it ignores what’s been happening to the newest college graduates. The NY Times recently reported  how unemployed graduates have been flocking to unpaid internships. Sadly, two years ago it ran a similar piece. Meanwhile, the Times also reports, they and their families are buried in debt.

Ultimately, many who get degrees will fare better than their non-degree counterparts. But at the moment there are more unemployed and underemployed recent college graduates than ever. Studies show that their delayed entry into the labor market will likely translate into huge lifetime earnings losses. As baby boomers defer retirement because the Great Recession wiped out their savings, the plight of young people worsens.

How about lawyers?

Among the most burdened in the youngest generation of debt holders are new attorneys. Their average law school debt exceeds $100,000 — and it’s climbing. So is their reported unemployment rate, especially now that law schools have to start disclosing the truth about their graduates. If you’re wondering why all of those students went to law school when there are legal jobs for, at most, half of them, deceptive deans have been a big contributor.

On their promotional websites, law schools routinely reported more than 90 percent of their graduates as employed. But they didn’t mention that the number included those with part-time jobs, non-lawyer positions (like working at Starbucks), or temporary employment by the law school itself for just long enough to count in their U.S. News ranking.

A compromise

Tavis Smiley responded to Will’s position with this: Wall Street bankers got zero-interest rate loans from the government; why can’t students get a break on theirs? That’s not a bad question. However, not all students need relief from their student loans. Families like the ones Mitt Romney had in mind sure don’t, but many others do. The Wall Street Journal recently profiled one — a 34-year old unemployed attorney with more than $200,000 in educational loans, mostly from law school:  “It’s a noose around my neck that I see no way out of.”

Here’s a compromise: get rid of the noose by returning to pre-1976 bankruptcy rules. In those days, any baby boomer who wanted out of even federal student loan debt could get it. Filing for bankruptcy was an extreme step and few did it. In fact, there was never empirical support for changing the rule. There was even less reason for the added protection against discharge that private lenders received in 2005 — a change that no legislator is currently willing to admit sponsoring.

Those who cry “moral hazard” should prove it — not simply list a theoretical parade of horribles that never happened under the old rule. If the bankruptcy option was good enough for baby boomers, it should be good enough for their kids.