How Scam Blogging Threatens the Law’s Professional Image

I first want to express my sincerest gratitude for the opportunity to appear on the Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.   I have been a long time reader of the Faculty Blog, and what was true when I first started reading this blog continues to be true now: I have thoroughly enjoyed the quality of content posted here on a regular basis.  We have Alan Borsuk’s timely pieces on public education.  We can watch the fireworks as Professors Esenberg and Fallone debate.  And Dean O’Hear’s posts flag for us new and forthcoming scholarship by members of the Marquette community (to say nothing of his posts tracking cutting edge developments in federal criminal law).  In short, this blog has gotten it right.

Some law blogs, however, are not quite so lucky.  In fact, one trend in law blogs that has garnered nationwide attention this year is an example of blogging gone wrong.  That trend is called “scam blogging.”

Here is an account of how the scam blogging movement came to be.  Since the financial crisis in the late-2000s, the job market for student summer associates and licensed attorneys has taken a nosedive.  This is particularly true in the larger markets like New York and in their larger law firms:  Once major businesses in the United States folded, took major financial hits, or simply became more cost-conscious, the law firms representing them felt the recession’s sting as well.  Stories abound of large law firms laying off associates and partners alike.  Though not to the same extent as the larger markets, law firms in smaller markets like Milwaukee have had to make cuts as well.  In Milwaukee, some mainstays of law school on-campus interviewing reduced their summer associate hires or just did not show up in the Fall 2009.  With many sources of employment drying up, students have shifted their job searches to the few jobs—any jobs—that make themselves available.

Many law students, myself included, thus have struggled to find attorney positions with decent, even livable pay.   Not everyone is without a job: some classmates of mine have managed get state and federal judicial clerkships and others jobs at large law firms.  Others were able to secure employment at the law firms with which they worked throughout their legal education.  But these are the lucky ones.  Many have not obtained permanent, full-time legal employment after graduation.  Adding to the anxiety of the job search are the crushing amounts of student loan debt shouldered by my classmates; some debt figures may reach over $100,000.

My classmates trying and failing at the seemingly Sisyphean task of seeking employment in a down economy have reacted in ways that are many and varied.  Most of my friends have expressed resignation, shaking their heads and uttering short, emasculated complaints like “It’s tough” and “The economy sucks” and the like.  A handful laugh it off, noting with somewhat forced grins that they will just move back in with their parents after graduation.

And then, there are the scam bloggers.  These law students and graduates have taken to the Internet to voice their complaints about the cost and quality of legal education.  They claim that their schools defrauded them—or scammed them, if you will—into believing that most of the schools’ graduates landed employment in private practice or with the government or in business post-graduation, all implying to them that they would be working as attorneys.  But lo and behold, the employment statistics reported by the schools may have been inflated, counting someone working at the law school on a part-time basis and someone working as a barista at Starbucks as employed under their statistics.

These blogs are dripping with anger and vitriol.  Some are littered with curse words.  One website even refers to law schools not as schools but with various names for toilets, restrooms, and garbage cans and will even post piles of fecal matter and vomit to begin a rage-fueled rant about a particular legal academic institution.  And what of professionalism? Not for us, says one scam blogger, for that is a concept imposed by the elites in the legal profession upon the rest of the bar.

Shock tactics aside, this suggestion raises a number of questions about how the legal profession should be treated as a profession.  Did our concept of law as a profession merely develop so judges, law professors, attorneys at white-shoe firms, and other members of the legal profession’s elite could force their will upon the rest of the legal community?  Do we treat it as such because lawyers have enjoyed a place of hierarchy in American society from the very beginning?  Is the concept of law as a profession merely a vestige of centuries past?  Or is it just an intellectually hollow “it is just because it is” proposition?  And if the legal profession’s special status is simply a product of elitist social construction and historical accident, why should we hold legal professionals to high moral and ethical standards?  Should lawyers and law students care when we see others like the scam bloggers acting reprehensibly?

I say we should care.

We should care because lawyers occupy a special place alongside an American institution that is both a structure and an ideal: democratic rule of law.  Respect for the caretakers of our legal system is essential to our respect for the legal system itself.

We should care even more when the legal system’s reputation is under attack.  To be sure, public distaste for lawyers, whether their allegedly exorbitant or even extortionate fees or some of our justice system’s rights and privileges that seem less than immediately intuitive, has existed in the United States since its inception.  The volume of these complaints ebbs and flows, with low points occurring with Watergate and the corporate scandals of the early 2000s and points not quite as low in between.  Lawyers are easy targets in political campaigns: conservative candidates will often blame money-grubbing plaintiff attorneys for an overly litigious society that creates a hostile business climate and pushes the cost of health care into the stratosphere.  And there is no need to catalogue the lawyer jokes that have appeared anywhere from the New Yorker magazine to my high school freshman year religion class.

Today, professionalism in the field of law is indeed under attack from the inside, and it is projected on the Internet for the world to see.  Comb through the comments on the ABA Journal’s website, and you will find snarky readers making ad hominem remarks about other commenters and throwing insults at other targets.  The comments are admittedly tamer than what one would find on Youtube videos, but out of a website whose intended readership mostly comprises the legal community, I would expect more civility.  The scam blogger presence, however, is in an entirely different league, especially now that the New York Times has made their presence known.  See David Segal, Is Law School a Losing Game?, N.Y. Times (Jan. 8, 2011).

Most bothersome about the scam bloggers are not necessarily the opinions they espouse.  Their opinions do give someone pause to think about how some law schools market themselves to the outside world.  Whatever the bloggers’ faults, the message for more truth in advertising among law schools has certainly been heard and raised a few eyebrows.  See, e.g., Lucille A. Jewel, You’re Doing It Wrong: How the Anti-Law School Scam Blogging Movement Can Shape the Legal Profession, 12 Minn. J. L. Sci. & Tech. 239 (2011); Segal, supra That they may have galvanized beneficial change is something to be commended.

The main problem I have with scam blogging lies in their decorum.  These scam bloggers are future lawyers.  When the economy picks up, they will be drafting wills and contracts and complaints, arguing about truth and justice to judges and juries, and advising individuals and businesses on how to comply with a multi-faceted legal system.  It reflects poorly on future lawyers—members of a profession that prides itself for critical thinking and searching below the surface for the truth—that they would so quickly say that even they, the next generation or lawyers, would be so easily fooled by employment statistics.  And when many of the legal profession’s future caretakers can be seen in public on the Internet throwing tantrums about their job prospects and debt, however valid those concerns are in their own right, what does that say about the future of the legal profession as a whole?  What of the legal community’s sense of exceptionalism?  Of being special?  Of being held to a higher standard?

Of being professionals?

Editor’s Note (7/6): This post has provoked several vituperative responses, which have been submitted without the authors’ full names.  This blog’s comments policy, in relevant part, is as follows:

We reserve the right not to publish comments based on such concerns as redundancy, incivility, untimeliness, poor writing, etc. All comments must include the first and last name of the author and a valid e-mail address.

This Post Has 13 Comments

  1. Daniel Friedman

    Andy man, I think you’re great and I am only going to say this to you because I care…stop drinking the kool-aid! The only reason why these scam bloggers were able to gain the attention that they have is because of the vitriolic imagery and language they use. We live in the 24 hr cable news world where in order to obtain an audience, everything needs to be full of drama — even our news. If they had not used the language the way they did, they probably would not have drawn any attention to the issue of law school transparency, and the problem would continue to go unnoticed. As law students, Marquette did a good job in instilling in us the legal writing principle that when we write, we should write in a style that is appropriate for our intended audience. These writers are doing just that—they are getting the attention of mainstream media, and then in turn, potential law school applicants who may be looking at law school with rose-colored glasses; when in fact, as many of us have discovered, and should know, the law and law schools itself should be viewed in shades of gray.

    Just as you state that the legal profession has been held in high esteem throughout history; so to has Satire as a literary form been held in high esteem in making political statements. I believe, as vulgar as many of these blogs are, that their writers are modern day satirists. Yes, they are angry and yes, they probably are not casting lawyers in the best of light. But I have a hard time blaming them. From early on in life we are told that we should get what we paid for. Because so many law schools have fudged employment statistics, a lot of people feel they are not getting the benefit of their bargain. These bloggers decided to use their words as a way to combat that while others are filing legal actions against their schools:
    Who is to say which group is projecting the profession in the more positive light?

    If schools had been honest all along, this would not have been an issue. But it is, and the issue needs to be corrected either by disclosing true employment statistics much in a way that would be a warranty to “buyer beware” or else by lowering the hefty sticker price it costs to attend in order for students to obtain the actual benefit of their bargain—which is entry into a noble profession that pays a comfortable wage and allows law school debt to be paid off. I believe that correcting injustice is what the legal “profession” is about and thus, these scam bloggers have served justice and the profession positively.

  2. Andrew Golden

    “I believe, as vulgar as many of these blogs are, that their writers are modern day satirists”

    Sorry, Dan, but I disagree completely with you. When I think of satire, I think of Jonathan Swift, Stephen Colbert, etc. I don’t, however, see these bloggers griping about not getting corner offices and a red carpet rolled out for them when they graduated law school as speaking satirically. You talk about being taught from an early age that “we get what we pay for,” but much as I hate to give credence to this notion — and I say this not as a directed jab to you, but as a general commentary — it appears that these temper tantrums recent law school grads are throwing are a direct corollary to another social more: the “I tried my hardest, so I deserve a ribbon” phenomenon.

    I don’t know about you, but I don’t recall any promises being made to me about wealth and prestige when I got my acceptance letter to Marquette. And, frankly, I chose Marquette for a number of personal and academic reasons — and I’m glad I did — but I wasn’t deluded into thinking it wasn’t going to cost me significantly more than it would to go to the regional law schools that would have offered me grants and financial aid. And I took a HUGE gamble in moving halfway across the country to a place where I had no legal network whatsoever, but I believed I could make it work. And even with all the things I did in law school, with my internships and community work and helping to run two of the more influential organizations on campus, I STILL had to freelance for 6 months before I got my current job.

    Here’s the thing: I’ve been out of law school for 2 years, and I can name maybe 5 or 10 people, tops, in my graduating class who wanted a job in the legal field and either don’t have one or would give up their solo practice for something less than a sweetheart offer. And that’s 2 years out, which may seem like a lifetime to you but is really a drop in the bucket career-wise. Sure, we’re not all in the fields we want to practice in or the kind of firm atmosphere we’re comfortable with, but we’re all drawing paychecks. And our experience isn’t really that much different than my friends with PhDs or Masters or MDs or MBAs; we all recognize that you don’t start out as the CEO or the general counsel, and it takes time and effort. If people want to sit and pout and whine because they have to struggle for a little bit, fine. But they could have chosen a cheaper law school, or a different part of the country, or different internships, or any number of other factors. They could have gone part-time and worked while they did it. Suggesting that they aren’t the people primarily responsible for their lot in life is, in my opinion, incorrect.

  3. Cryn Johannsen

    @Andrew – you then are not familiar with the various forms of ribald humor that is all about the lower bodily stratum. Some of the funniest forms of humor are grotesque. Read up on early 16th century humor, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Bakhtin does an excellent job of providing analysis about these types of humor in his work about Rabelais. And anyone who’s ever been around attorneys know how they can talk. That doesn’t mean they’d waltz into a court room and start screaming cuss words and talking about fecal matter. I appreciate the fact that the writer was fair about the scambloggers, but the argument is weak.

    I do not write like the scambloggers, but that doesn’t mean I don’t get it.

  4. Chris Jacobs

    Professional image? We are in the most hated profession in America.

    To Andrew, do you only know 5-10 people in your class? Or are you counting the people who are making less than min wage?

  5. William Boyle

    “These scam bloggers are future lawyers. When the economy picks up, they will be drafting wills and contracts and complaints, arguing about truth and justice to judges and juries…”

    This isn’t actually true. When the economy picks up, these people will not be lawyers, they will not have clients. Firms will not go looking to hire people who have been out of work for a year or more. They will go back to their normal on campus interview process and recruit graduates fresh out of law school.

    The firm I was laid off from has begun increasing its head count, but none of the people laid off were contacted about getting their old job back.

  6. Eugene Dusseldorf

    “Nationwide, there were only 26,239 job openings for lawyers, while 53,508 people passed the bar.”

    That happens every year.

    Given that, perhaps the lack of decorum on the scamblogs is not a greater offense than the fraud itself.

  7. Evan Meagher

    Nationwide, there were only 26,239 job openings for lawyers, while 53,508 people passed the bar.

  8. John Goldblum

    As a 2006 pre-financial crisis T25 graduate, the job market was painful for anyone not in the top 1/3 or so and not easy for those within it.

    As to decorum, which is more uncouth?

    The law student who attended a T50 school with an advertised “average private practice salary” of $125,000, then shamelessly blogs about the resulting post-graduate unemployment and $160,000 debt burden; OR

    The same T50 school that knew private practice average salary represented a mere 14% of its graduates and also failed to disclose that large numbers of its graduates were unemployed, making minimum wage, reluctantly in non-legal jobs, back in graduate programs trying to erase 3 years of law school, or living back with their parents?

    The first is the product of ordinary people under extraordinary circumstances. The second is the product of greed.

    The first lacks grace. The second destroys lives.

    Let’s gracefully address the problem and not the symptom.

  9. Andy Carter

    Andrew, you imply that you have not gotten a job; I am therefore a little puzzled as to where you obtained this view of what you consider professionalism. Certainly not from your professors, the vast majority of whom either never practiced or practiced for a few short years. The simple fact of the matter is there is a fundamental dishonesty in the law school industry, where it has become a business–even while law school administrators and faculty loudly argue it is not. That is the central argument behind the scam bloggers, who resort to over-the-top attacks because up to this point nothing else has worked. The law schools have failed in their duty as gatekeepers (Marquette accepts almost half the people who apply, which is ridiculous). The law school establishment knows what you do not; if they were honest, a lot of law schools would close down and a lot of career service personnel who compile employment statistics would be out of work. The anger that the scambloggers feel is legitimate.

  10. John Smith

    This is an interesting part in your defense of the law schools:

    “It reflects poorly on future lawyers—members of a profession that prides itself for critical thinking and searching below the surface for the truth—that they would so quickly say that even they, the next generation or lawyers, would be so easily fooled by employment statistics. And when many of the legal profession’s future caretakers can be seen in public on the Internet throwing tantrums about their job prospects and debt, however valid those concerns are in their own right, what does that say about the future of the legal profession as a whole? What of the legal community’s sense of exceptionalism? Of being special? Of being held to a higher standard?”

    Issues of outright fraud aside, do you think the law schools’ employment statistics are a bit…MISLEADING?

    When I was in law school, I remember reading about a lawyer’s duty not to mislead. And there was something else about honesty as well, but who cares.

    Its very interesting when the law schools talk about the integrity of the profession, but when they get called out on questionable statistics, they simply say, “well you should have known better–caveat emptor.”

    Where is the law school’s integrity? If the law schools don’t have it, why should we expect the lawyers to have it?

  11. Michelle Gentry

    Mr. Spillane,

    It’s a little unfair to hold these scambloggers to the higher standard of one who practices in the legal field when they clearly don’t enjoy the benefits of practicing in the legal field. That’s the whole point for their disgust: despite years of work and hundreds of thousands of dollars, they have been excluded from the legal field and have little chance of ever practicing. Furthermore, in any other profession, dishonestly reporting false statistics to increase business would not be tolerated and would be considered shameful. (Does Bernie Maddof ring a bell to anyone? Did we overlook his crimes because his victims were for the most part sophisticated investors, or was his crime the fact that he was dishonest?) Are we to believe that because the legal business is accustomed to regulating itself and reporting its own fudged employment statistics that such dishonesty is to be tolerated in a profession where it is particularly dangerous?

    To say that the scambloggers should pay the dues of working in the legal field and be held to its higher standard of communication, all while working in retail for $7 an hour (over 50% of all recent law graduates that I know are working in retail for that wage), is unjust. If you are going to saddle them with the debt of an attorney, but give them little opportunity to work in the field, it’s unfair to then tell them that they should continue to act like they are attorneys while having them live on the salary of a Wallmart worker. If the legal field doesn’t like the language the scambloggers use, perhaps it should instead look at ways to get new graduates in the field working, being productive, and reducing the exploitation of firms hiring new graduates for less than minimum wage.

    Furthermore, what I find truly shameful isn’t the language the scambloggers use: it is that a profession has reduced itself to having its members working in places like Starbucks, Home Depot, etc. THAT is what is truly shameful and will bring down the profession.

  12. Donald Petersen

    The techniques that the scam bloggers use are often less than “professional”. Perhaps they are “shouting” to call attention to the fraudulent placement statistics published by law schools because the ABA has long ignored the problem and few laymen cared about the problem. In my consumer rights practice, I am saddened by the number of lawyers who are crushed by their student loan debts. Many of the recent law school graduates who contact me seeking help probably never will practice law and many will likely not use their law degrees.

  13. Daniel Friedman

    For a take that meets your call for decorum, I suggest reading an anonymous tenured professor who is a new “law school scam blogger.” Definitely work friendly—no pictures of toilets and pretty well written.

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