Thursday, November 29, 2012

The shady economics of law school

Back at George Washington I had a law professor named Lawrence E. Mitchell. He was my corporate finance professor. And we learned an awful lot about corporate finance.  The real takeaway from the class, however, was Professor Mitchell's teachings about dicey corporate accounting practices.

This was in the mid-90s, years before Enron and all of those other book-cooking corporations crumbled under the weight of their Alice in Wonderland balance sheets.  Professor Mitchell was WAY ahead of the game on this stuff, though, noting how rampant and wrong it was that corporations were valuing things as assets when they really were costs, setting themselves as virtual ponzi schemes designed to pay executives now and screw investors later and the like.

I found all of that incredibly useful as a lawyer. Indeed, I remember and use the concepts from that class more than any other class I took at GW. And not just in legal practice -- when all of the corporate scandals began in the early 2000s, I knew exactly what was going on thanks to Professor Mitchell. The man, quite literally, wrote the book on corporate irresponsibility and I am a much smarter and well-informed person because of him.

Flash forward to today and I read an editorial in the New York Times from one Lawrence E. Mitchell.  I had lost track of him over the years, but he is now the dean of Case Western Reserve Law school in Cleveland.  His editorial is about how, contrary to the growing sentiment over the past few years, law school is a good investment:

For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks. We entice bright young students into our academic clutches. Succubus-like, when we’ve taken what we want from them, we return them to the mean and barren streets to fend for themselves.
The hysteria has masked some important realities and created an environment in which some of the brightest potential lawyers are, largely irrationally, forgoing the possibility of a rich, rewarding and, yes, profitable, career.

I realize a dean of a law school has to say such things, but the cold hard reality is that, unlike it was for me and my friends back in the 1990s, law school is no longer a good investment for most people. It's a piss-poor one, actually, and unless you (a) have rich parents or already have the money saved to pay the exorbitant tuition; or (b) have a great chance of getting a well-paying job due to family or personal connections in private practice, law school is a sucker's bet.

If you choose to go to law school, you will go into outrageous amounts of debt and you will come out facing a job market that no longer hands out jobs with six-figure salaries as if they were samples of Genral Tso's chicken at the food court.  It's brutal out there, and new graduates are killing each other for increasingly scarce and increasingly lower-paying jobs, all the while law schools -- which are used by universities as profit centers -- belch thousands of new graduates into the job market each May.

To be fair, later in the editorial, Dean Mitchell notes that the market is rough and that it may be wrong to focus on that first job out of law school. Look beyond that first job out of law school, he says, to the rewards that will come later.

There is some truth to that part. Indeed, I'm the living embodiment of a law school education helping one do things other than practice law. But as I have noted quite often, the road I traveled is not an easily replicable one. Indeed, if it wasn't for sheer dumb luck and the unexpected and possibly undeserved generosity of other people at a couple of key times in my journey, I never would have made it. Oh, and I also had the benefit of 11 well-paid years in private practice before that -- with jobs obtained in a radically different legal job market than the one exists today -- to help me along the way and to give me the comfort to take the sorts of risks I took to get to where I am.

So as I sit here this afternoon, I am more than a little dumbfounded. Dumbfounded that the man who taught me everything I know about financial mismanagement, shady accounting and corporate ponzi schemes -- the man who, more than anything else, warned me against anyone who would classify something as an asset when it truly represents a cost -- is in the New York Times advocating that students continue to go into crazy law school debt and defending what has become, in essence, an educational ponzi scheme, all because he believes this thing that is literally bankrupting students is truly an asset.

But hey, I bet there will be more applications for Case Western as a result.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Talking Head

When I was a teenager and people asked me what I wanted to be someday, I'd jokingly say "An expert."

When they asked me what I meant, I'd say "You know, those guys on CNN who they beam in via satellite. The ones you only see from the waist up, in front of some fake backdrop of a city?  Those guys who, somehow, just happen to know everything there is to know about whatever random topic just happens to hit the news that day?

"Man, where do they find these people? Do they just sit around, knowing their one little subject and nothing else, hoping that someone would call and ask their opinion?"

Oh ... wait:

Saturday, November 3, 2012

On the road again

Just over a year ago the wheels came off. In order to avert a head-on collision I steered into a ditch. As soon as I stopped skidding the engine blew up. No matter how good it looks in the garage, and no matter how hard you try to fight the rust, old wheels always stand a good chance of betraying you.

I started talking to Allison right after I crashed and burned. Talk turned to friendship, friendship turned to affection and affection turned to love. It's been close to a year now, and it's still wonderful. We just get each other and give other what we need without even thinking about it. Who knew things could be so easy?

It has not been totally easy, of course. We've had to work through some of my stuff, some of her stuff and a bunch of other stuff. But most of all distance. Distance is a bitch. We talk and, thanks to the Internet, see each other every day, but that's a pale substitute. We've visited each other often, but because of their rarity, our visits are imbued with a certain weight, as though we have to pack three or four weeks of a relationship into a long weekend. We've managed as best as we can to keep having fun and to keep living in the moments we have. We've managed to not get bogged down too much by stormy pasts, uncertain futures and those damnable, damnable trips to the airport which send us off on our separate ways. But it's hard. About as hard as something that you can still call happy gets. No one is meant to fly so much. It's such an uncivilized way to travel.

The future always remains at least a little bit uncertain and there is still stuff to be worked through, but we're about to eliminate a good bit of that uncertainty and all of those damnable drives to the airport.  In late December I'm flying to San Antonio on a one-way ticket. The next day Allison and I are taking off in her car and we're driving back to Ohio. She's moving up here for good.

Because of the kids and all of the changes and adjustments in the offing we're not setting up housekeeping just yet. But it is an important step. And an exciting one. For the first time we'll be able to get on like most folks get on. To hang out, go out and be together without all of that weight and distance getting in the way. Without having to worry that, if we pick the wrong restaurant, we won't be able to make up for it for another month. Most of all we're both creatures of habit and routine and it will be awful nice to fall into some comfortable ones with each other at long last.

I'm really looking forward to that. I'm especially looking forward to the drive back from San Antonio. It's been a while since I've been on the road. It will be nice to cruise down the highway again, confident that the ride will be smooth and steady.