Plenty of scholarships will students pay for their legal education, but Chicago personal injury attorney Matt Willens of the Willens Law Offices is taking a different approach. His “Anything But Law School” scholarship offers $1,000 to a college graduate who goes on to graduate school, but avoids law school.
Willens said that the scholarship, announced this month, is an attempt to raise awareness about the rough job market for law graduates and to encourage students to pursue less risky careers. The National Law Journal spoke with Willens about motivations. His answers have been edited for length and clarity.
National Law Journal: This is a pretty strange scholarship. What do you hope to achieve?
Matt Willens: There is something plaguing the profession that I love very much. Plain and simple, there is just not a good job market for lawyers, yet law schools are giving out thousands of diplomas each year. Sure, there will be jobs for the top of the class at the top schools, but then there are the rest of us. People finish law school, they have $100,000 in debt, and there aren’t jobs out there.
So a lot of people say, “Well, no one is hiring so I’ll hang out my own shingle. I’ll start my own law practice.” Becoming a good lawyer takes years of training. You have people out there who are practicing without training. They’re doing the best thing they can. Sometimes they do the right thing, and a lot of times they don’t. It’s a black mark on the profession of the law.
I’m not anti-legal education, if you have the money and a burning passion to get a law license. If you’re willing to face a lot of adversity in the job market, then by all means, go. But most people go to law school and they want to get a legal education and become a practicing lawyer. The likelihood is that won’t happen.
NLJ: Some people might think that this is a stunt, but you sound pretty serious.
Willens: It’s not meant to be a stunt. It’s meant to bring a point to the forefront of our profession. There’s a lot of discussion about the law school not properly training lawyers, with new graduates who aren’t prepared to practice.
This isn’t anti-law school. It’s saying: Look—I’ve been a lawyer for nearly 20 years. I’ve gotten calls from lawyers who were partners at major law firms making six-figure salaries, asking to do $10-an-hour law clerk work because they could not find employment anywhere. At the same time, I’ve got young, new lawyers coming to me who are starting their own practice because they can’t find a job, and they need help. I’m always willing to help, but the truth is they need far more help than any mentor can provide. Becoming a good lawyer requires consistent, daily training for years.
NLJ: Tell me a bit about you law school experience and your practice.
Willens: I went to Loyola University Chicago School of Law and I graduated in 1995. Mind you, the job market was tough back then, but not nearly as tough as it is right now. I knew from law school that I wanted to be a personal injury trial lawyer. That’s what I became. I clerked at some personal injury firm in law school and I enjoyed it. I worked at some very good, top-tier firms. I didn’t start my own firm until I had been out of law school for about 12 years. And even then I thought, “I’m not sure I know enough. I’m not sure I have enough training.”
For people starting law firms directly out of school, I don’t think it’s fair to their clients. I don’t think it’s fair to them and it’s not fair to the profession.
NLJ: How will you select the scholarship recipient?
Willens: I don’t know if we’ve come up with that. Obviously, we want someone who wants to advance their education and someone with a good undergraduate grade-point average. We maybe want someone who has considered law school and has decided not to go based on the current market conditions, among other things.