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People smoke. People speed. They don’t exercise or get enough sleep. They go to law school. By now, everyone is aware of the consequences of these actions. In fact, they have known them for some time. The question is: who is responsible? Placing blame is, after all, a central component of the law. In the case of what ails legal education, however, it is not very easy to assign. I had the privilege of speaking with a variety of industry thought leaders on this topic for a research study on The Evolution of the Legal Profession (pdf) (sponsored by DiscoverReady). They identified two reasons that individuals assume the debt to go to law school without a full awareness of the potential outcomes. First, most prospective law students sincerely believe they will graduate in the top 10 percent of the class. “You sign the loan papers with the idea that it will all pay off and it is the idealized big firm life that allows people to take debt,” notes Indiana University Maurer School of Law Professor William Henderson. He recommends that the ABA Section on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar direct schools to walk students through the application process more carefully to conduct an intelligent analysis of their career prospects. Second, law school applicants are generally naive consumers of debt. “As soon as tuition rose to a level where people had to borrow significant sums in order to go to law school, you had students with no experience taking out loans, repaying them or understanding what it means to have debt,” says University of Miami School of Law Dean, Patricia White. “It was a little bit like the foreclosure crisis and the mortgage debacle,” she adds. These seem like plausible explanations given the decreasing level of zeal amongst budding barristers, evidenced by the recent examples of individuals trying to sell or return their law degrees, and the increasing number of applicants. To address this disparity, last fall, in her first year as dean, White sent accepted applicants who had already paid their full non-refundable deposit a unique letter that generated national attention. In it, she asked, them to reconsider their choice of attending law school. The dean offered them the option to defer their admission for one year to further reflect on their chosen path. Of the 32 students who accepted her offer, only eight enrolled this year. POTENTIAL OPTIONS If law schools really want to start addressing the transformation of the legal industry, perhaps they should consider providing stronger warnings. That said, would it have made any difference to you if law schools warned students on their websites and in every piece of marketing that 90 percent of students are ranked below the top 10 percent of the class or that the number of jobs that pay $160,000 per year has dropped significantly? Consider all of the serious warnings adults ignore every day. Perhaps schools should highlight the number of graduates who stop practicing after one year, five years and 10. Maybe revealing the percentage of law school graduates that default on their loans will have an impact. White is not sure about the utility of that last point. “Historically, default rates on student loans have been very low,” she says. Maybe there is a way to offer a percentage of tuition insurance. Schools could charge even more for the first year and propose some type of money-back guarantee covered by the overall increase in its fees. TESTING TRANSPARENCY Many students complain that it is ultimately a transparency issue because they were not given enough information to make a rational decision. That is, however, only part of the problem, says Henderson. “Students do not ask for the information because of the idealized stereotypes going on in their heads,” he advises. I must admit that as an applicant, I never asked for additional details on the kinds of jobs people received within a few months after graduation. Instead, I merely glanced at a few statistics to confirm that graduates actually found employment. “Part of the problem is that students enroll in law school without really knowing what they will do,” says White. She describes law school as “the great generalists graduate school” because the typical undergraduate has no real sense of what law is. “It is more common for undergraduates to have a popular culture sense about what the law is,” she adds. I was an economics major in college. I was always fascinated by the concept of sunk costs and the irrational nature of consumption. Why do you stay? Is it the money you have already borrowed? The lack of alternate options? As an admittedly sub-10 percent of the class law student, both were true for me. I didn’t know what else to do and decided not to consider the debt that I was incurring. What about giving law students who complete only one year of school a paralegal certificate that would allow them to leave, yet provide them with a marketable acknowledgment of the time they spent? With that in mind, should schools begin counseling students to quit after their first year? After all, $50,000 in debt is much better than $150,000. I leave that debate to the thought leaders. And, it rages on. “There are plenty of innovative paths you can take with your law degree,” says fixed-fee maverick Jay Shepherd, founder of Shepherd Law Group in Boston. “But the onus is on the students to do their homework. If you haven’t thought about it in advance, then shame on you for not having figured it out,” he adds. That said, “Providing additional salary data would be a helpful step,” says Charles Roboski, Assistant Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Michigan State University College of Law. THE CREATIVE HUSTLER I propose that students consider one key point that is more apparent now than ever before: being a hustler (which I mean in the most positive sense) is typically of greater importance than grades and experience. If you commit to creatively hustling your way into a job opportunity, you will be better positioned than your classmates. In fact, I think the student who requested a refund in an open letter to the dean of Boston College Law School, which made national news, could channel his talent to embody the principles of hustling. Though they didn’t use that term, all thirty respondents to my survey agreed that there is a key to success in the law. While they provided an extensive range, the suggestions all focused on passion, sincerity, a client-centric mindset and enthusiasm. All are key traits of the modern-day hustler. Creativity and “thinking outside of the box” are critical, says Beth Anisman, a consultant with B&Co. and the former Lehman Brothers Global Chief Administrative Officer for Legal, Compliance and Audit. You must be motivated. “You cannot succeed without a tremendous amount of drive; you need to put yourself on the line and risk failure,” says Fulbright & Jaworski Partner Robert Owen. “If you don’t have that kind of internal drive, it is not a good profession for you,” he adds. Be enterprising. “There are lots of smart people and good lawyers, but you have to be entrepreneurial,” says Kaye Scholer partner James Blank. Pay it forward. “Treat everyone with whom you interact, whether he is your client or court personnel, with respect,” says Frank Vecella, Associate General Counsel for Litigation at Ericsson Inc. “Mentor and secure good mentors throughout your career,” he adds. Develop targeted knowledge. “Learn something about something other than law,” says University of Southern California Law School Professor Gillian Hadfield. “Understand your client’s business; it is not enough to understand the legal problem,” advises Richard Fields, CEO of Juridica Capital Management (US) Inc. “When you understand your client’s business, you can find solutions quicker, faster and cheaper,” he adds. Enjoy what you do. “If you are just doing the job for money, you are never going to be happy” says Larry Bortstein, founder of the Bortstein Legal Group, a New York-based law firm focused on technology and other commercial transactions. Lawyers must create such a memorable and positive experience so that price is not an issue. “Make sure that your customer has a hugely rewarding experience every time they deal with you,” says Valorem Law’s Patrick Lamb. Ultimately, confidence is the key to success in the law, notes Shepherd. If you are savvy enough to generate national attention for attempting to return a degree from a top-tier law school or auctioning it on Ebay, imagine the kinds of dynamic solutions you can offer a client. The industry needs to continually add to its new breed of innovators in the spirit of Lamb, Shepherd, Henderson, Jeff Carr (vice president, general counsel and secretary of FMC Technologies, who participated in the research study) and so many others looking to reshape the profession. If they could do it again, some lawyers would certainly cut their losses after their first year. Most end up finding their way, albeit via a circuitous route, to the place they should be. I have had the honor of speaking with federal judges, CEOs, chief legal officers, and, of course, students at law schools nationwide. I am often inspired by their challenges and their triumphs. The industry is shifting in an unprecedented way, but the keys to success have not changed very much. While the market has contracted, creative, sincere and enterprising law students always find a way. Try the hustler thing. While you’re at it, don’t smoke, drive slower and go to the gym once in a while. I still find sleep elusive. Ari Kaplan Advisors, is the author of “The Opportunity Maker: Strategies for Inspiring Your Legal Career Through Creative Networking and Business Development” (Thomson-West, 2008) and the upcoming book, “The Transformation of Professional Services: Creating Innovative Practices in a Digital Marketplace” (John C. Wiley & Sons, 2011).

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