“Do well in college, go to law school, get a big job, make lots of money, have a happy life—I just think those times are gone,” says Matthew Willens, a Chicago personal injury attorney. That statement might sound like yet another lawyer’s lament, but Willens is backing it up with a publicity-seeking stunt. He’s offering a $1,000 scholarship to a driven, qualified student who wants to pursue a graduate degree—as long as it isn’t a JD.
Does he have a worthier profession in mind? Nope. Anything but law works. “It’s pretty subjective at this point,” he says.
This is the first time his firm has decided to offer up scholarship money. “The holidays are coming up,” Willens explains. “We were having an office meeting, and we decided we wanted to give a scholarship of some sort. Of course, we’re a law firm, so it makes sense to give a law school scholarship, but I just couldn’t get on board with that plan. I think law school is no longer a safe route to a successful career for a majority of people considering law school.”
BLAMES LAW SCHOOLS FOR FUNNELING SMART GRADS INTO A MARKET THAT CAN’T ABSORB THEM
It’s not that Willens thinks the graduates are at fault. He blames law schools for taking the best of the best—in terms of grades, anyway—and funneling them into a market that can’t actually absorb them. “Basically, you do really great in college, you’re a very smart person, you go to law school, you develop your legal mind, you become hopefully smarter,” Willens describes, envisioning the path of a typical graduate. “And now you’ve got a college degree, a law degree, a license to practice law, and nowhere to utilize your education that you just spent several years on.”
Still, he doesn’t totally let graduates off the hook. Willens takes issue with newly minted lawyers who respond to the tough conditions by striking out on their own. “When someone gets out of law school and there’s no job opportunities, a lot of them are prone to hang their shingle and start their own law practice,” Willens says. “It certainly doesn’t benefit the client who hires the lawyer. It doesn’t benefit the lawyer himself, who’s not getting good training. And I think it hurts our profession in general.” As far as Willens knows, graduates who make that transition successfully are the exception, not the rule. “I know the way I was trained, which was multiple hours a week for many years from my bosses slash mentors,” he says.
In that case, should law schools just prepare their students better? Willens asserts that his scholarship doesn’t address that question; he’s more interested in sending a message to individual would-be lawyers. “This isn’t a law school critique,” he says. “What I want is for someone considering law school to think really long and hard about it, and not to think that law school is a safe career choice like it used to be.”
‘I’VE BEEN TOLD I’M THE BIGGEST JERK IN THE WORLD’
Many people in the legal community have commended Willens for speaking out. Willens reads an email from a lawyer in San Diego aloud. “There were a lot of things that I wish I could have known before deciding whether to go to law school,” the email says. “I hope that you are also able to educate potential students on the myth that you can do anything if you go to law school.”
Of course, not all the feedback has been so positive. “I’ve been told I’m the biggest jerk in the world,” Willens happily admits. But his scholarship isn’t meant to discourage absolutely everyone. On the contrary, scholarships for undergraduate students serve as a stimulus. He lists a few conditions that might make for a happy law school graduate: “I think if you have a passion for law school or a passion to be a lawyer, if you have the money to afford it, and if you have the stomach for a lot of job market adversity once you get out of school—those are the three main ones,” he says. “Or you’re going to graduate at the very top of your class from one of the better schools—I think those people tend to find jobs easier than others. Or you have the holy grail of networks.” The point is that Harvard Law School graduates with connections and trust funds belong to a tiny, tiny minority.
As for everyone else, Willens doesn’t lay out a plan for making the legal market kinder. In fact, he acknowledges that his opinions might turn out to be wrong. Simply being right isn’t his ultimate goal. “We’re talking about it,” he says. “That’s a good thing.”