Kimber A. Russell is a recent law school graduate and one of the bloggers at the forefront of the “law school scam” movement, a loose affiliation of lawyers, law school graduates and law students who are asking for greater transparency from law schools in terms of their employment survey information. Some scam bloggers have alleged that certain law schools are inflating the hiring success and salaries of their graduates in order to appear more competitive, which in turn may convince prospective students to attend law school without being provided with the proper data to conduct a proper cost-benefit analysis. Kimber’s profile increased after a New York Times article highlighted her and her main blog, Shilling Me Softly on the subject of law schools and “scams”, an article which we reacted to in our 3 Things to do Before Deciding to Further Your Education.
Despite being interviewed by much more prominent outlets than our humble blog, Kimber graciously agreed to an interview to discuss education in our country today, and particularly as it relates to law schools. The message is to be careful before taking on student loans, and do as much outside research as you can. Here is the interview:
1) Please summarize the alleged “law school scam” and how it may effect prospective students in their decision making process and how much student loan money they take out.
The so-called “law school scam” means different things to different people. On the fringe, it’s viewed as an elaborate conspiracy conjured up by law school administrators and the American Bar Association to defraud naive students–often referred to as “lemmings”–by luring them into schools with promises of lucrative legal jobs that don’t exist merely to boost U.S. News & World Report rankings in order to keep their coffers overflowing with filthy lucre.A more moderate summation of the situation, which I myself hold, is that the U.S. News & World Report annual rankings have created perverse incentives for law schools to disseminate misleading, if not outright fraudulent, information to prospective law students about
the true value proposition of a Juris Doctor degree. The ABA accreditation standards require all law schools to operate, essentially, as “luxury models” despite the fact that students from lower-ranked schools have almost invariably never had the same opportunities afforded to graduates of the vaunted Top 14 schools as ranked by USNWR. What this means is that even the lowest-ranked ABA-accredited school with the very worst reputation will still cost most students the same in tuition as the Ivy League institutions. Students are being lured into these schools with promises of lucrative employment that will enable them not only to pay down student loans often reaching amounts of up to $150,000, but also to embark upon a rewarding and fulfilling legal career.
What the so-called “scambloggers” have endeavored to do over the past several years is to reach out to prospective law students to inform them about the real risks inherent to the pursuit of a law degree, as well as to persuade students who are considering law school as merely a way to put off entering the “real world” against taking the plunge in the first place.
2) At what point did you buy in to the alleged “law school scam” theory? How has this idea grown in the last few years? Have you seen any positive developments stemming from this “movement?”
I first took up the pen, so to speak, last summer as I assisted another class of recent graduates prepare for the bar exam. So few of them had job offers, and some of those who were lucky enough to have employment realized that the downturn in the legal services market meant that after paying off their student loans they would be worse off financially than when they first matriculated. Many students were forced to move home with their parents or seek out any kind of non-legal work that they could find merely to stay afloat, because going into default on financial obligations means the revocation of one’s law license in many cases.Regardless of the types of platitudes spouted by industry shills such as the ABA, including the old chestnut that “students seek JDs for various reasons, and not all of them intend to practice law,” it has been my experience that the vast majority of students go to law school for precisely that reason, but the stark reality is that an increasing number of graduates will never have the opportunity to do so.
I began my blog because I wanted to add my voice to the debate and increase awareness among prospective law students about the real life-altering consequences that often are a direct result of obtaining a Juris Doctor degree in this economy, and in consideration of the rapidly shifting paradigm of the legal services market.
I think that the notion of law school being a risky proposition has been floating around for some years, but it was only with the rise of the blogosphere that the message began to seep out. The infamous “Loyola 2L” whose identity is still a mystery to this day was one of the first blog commenters to rise to prominence based upon his/her unabashed opinion that law school had become “a hustle”. Other bloggers began to emerge, the most notorious being Scott Bullock of the now-defunct “Big Debt, Small Law” (a few classic posts are archived here) and “Nando” of Third Tier Reality, and our numbers are growing.
Over the last year, the so-called “scambloggers” have achieved incredible amounts of mainstream attention, from regional newspapers (Connecticut Law Tribune, New Jersey Star-Ledger), prominent blogs (Slate), and national newspapers (New York Times, USA Today and see the reaction to the NYT article here). In addition, Law School Transparency has risen to prominence and has effectively shamed the ABA into taking much-needed action with respect to improving the accuracy and availability of employment statistics for law school graduates so prospective students can make truly informed decisions about whether law school is the right choice for them.
Disabusing the general public of the notion that law school is a path to guaranteed success has been but one positive effect of the scamblogging movement, and spurring law schools into taking greater responsibility for their graduates–or at the very least shaming them into considering making changes–has been another.
3) Most people in your shoes would probably blog anonymously. You do not. How has this effected your career? Have you received any threats, legal or otherwise from your website or quotes in articles on the subject such as in the ABA publication or the New York Times?
I originally blogged under the pseudonym “Locke” as I was fearful that my current employer would find my views to be incompatible with my company’s mission. Hypocritical as it may seem, I work for a bar review company, and my continued employment depends upon a constant supply of law school graduates, so to rail against the legal education system would appear to be a direct conflict of interest.It wasn’t until the notorious Zenovia Evans debacle that I was emboldened to step out of the shadows. I couldn’t countenance remaining anonymous while taking Ms. Evans to task for embarking upon her alleged hunger strike under a pseudonym herself, so I revealed my identity to a New York Times reporter
, informed my employer of my blogging activities and let the chips fall where they may. Luckily, my company is fully supportive of my work on the blog, because it is clear that my sole purpose in writing it is to be an advocate for law students and new graduates, especially those who fear retribution from the legal community
for “speaking truth to power.”
I believe that real and lasting change can only come when more anonymous bloggers are willing to come out of the shadows and be bold and courageous. If anything, only positive things have come from my revealing my true identity, and I certainly would never wish to work for an employer who did not value a person willing to fight for her beliefs in the full light of day. After all, I thought that was what made for a good lawyer!
4) What advice would you give to a college senior who is interested in attending law school?
Research and reflect. By that I mean do real, substantive research into what the legal profession truly is. Anyone whose opinion of lawyering is based solely upon glamorous depictions of attorneys in films and television shows will ultimately find the actual practice of law disappointing, to say the least. Do an internship in a law firm that practices the type of law that interests you. Volunteer at a non-profit organization that provides legal services to needy clients. Ask a lot of questions of as many attorneys as you can and find out from them what they like most, and least, about their jobs.Also, do an honest self assessment. If you are considering law school as a way to hide from the bad economy, then law school is not the right choice for you. The legal profession is rapidly changing, many jobs are being eliminated as a result of improved technology and legal process outsourcing, and the plain truth is that increasing numbers of law school graduates will never have an opportunity to practice law because while new JDs continue to pour out of law schools, the entire legal market is permanently contracting. If you think law school is a guaranteed gravy train, think again, especially in light of the fact that law schools manipulate their employment statistics to make it appear as if their graduates are earning more money and obtaining better jobs than they actually are.
Spend time thinking about how you will finance your degree if you do ultimately decided to matriculate. If you have to take out more in loans for all three years than you honestly believe you will be able to make during your first year of employment, do not go to law school. The opportunity costs are simply to great, and it is a myth that the JD is a versatile degree that opens doors in non-legal fields. Nowadays, employers consider JDs seeking non-legal positions as either failures or as unreliable because they will surely fly the coop once a legal job opens up. Many unemployed attorneys are actually removing the credential from their resumes entirely in a last-ditch effort to land a job…any job.
5) Do you have any creative personal finance tips learned from your experience with student loan debt?
I wish I did! Fully half of my salary goes on my student loans each month, and I’m on the extended repayment plan. I most likely won’t be debt-free until well into my golden years. My best advice would be to avoid fully financing any degree, whether it be undergraduate or graduate, with student loans. If you’re stuck with them, then avoid falling into the forbearance trap, because putting off those payments for any significant period of time will exponentially increase the amount you will ultimately be expected to pay. Make an effort to make those quarterly interest payments on unsubsidized loans during school so that the interest won’t be added to the principal and further encumber you with additional debt.
6) What’s next for you?
I will continue to work diligently not only for the cause of law school transparency, but also for the complete overhaul of the legal education system in America. Currently, students are not prepared to practice law, and counter-intuitive as that sounds, and in this economy, it’s simply unconscionable for law schools to cling to the same curriculum that has been in place for almost 140 years.
Thanks Kimber. For those readers who are interested in reading more about law school scams, check out Shilling me softly or down by law, or some of the other law school scam blogs, including.