Monday, July 30, 2012

The Olympics and Productivity

Out of town guests, a wedding, and the beginning of the summer Olympics converged to form an unproductive weekend.  I do not watch much television, but hours spent glued to the tube do not seem wasted when watching doubles badminton, archery, or ping pong (Admittedly, I watched all three this weekend in addition to the major sports).

It's a little like my yearly hiatus from productivity during the first four days of March Madness.

But how can you blame me when you get to watch this?

So the planned posts will be coming later this week.  At least I hope they will - fencing, water polo, handball, trampoline, and wrestling are still on the Olympic docket.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Your Reading List

A quick post today to let you know about some books you should be reading and people you should be following.  

Burke Strunsky is a senior deputy district attorney in Riverside California.  He has recently released a true crime book, detailing a few of the cases he has handled in his career.  It is called The Humanity of Justice.  Check out the website here.  Oh and not only is he a public servant, but 100% of the profits got to the Humanity of Justice Foundation.  The foundation is dedicated to helping the lives of abused and neglected children

Most of you might know Mark Pryor from D.A. Confidential.  A journalist turned prosecutor wrote a novel called The Bookseller.  It is due out on October 9, 2012, and has been receiving great reviews.  Check out the reviews, site, and pre-order here.  

Frequent contributor and crime and suspense novelist Lisa Regan has two books being released soon.  Finding Claire Fletcher will be available from Sapphire Star Publishing on December 6, 2012, and Aberration will be available on June 6, 2013.  Check out her site to pre-order and read about her journey to publication here.    

Congratulations to all three.  You'll be hearing more about these books once I'm able to read them. 

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Anonymous Victim Meets Anonymous Defendant

There have been many comments, posts, and emails about the importance of a defendant's rights versus a victim's rights on this blog.  The U.S. Constitution lists the rights every person and every defendant is entitled to.  The right to remain silent, the right to have a case tried by a jury, and proved beyond a reasonable doubt, etc.

We must look to state legislatures for the protections of victims.  In all the jurisdictions I know, a sexual assault victim's identity remains a secret (example is the Jerry Sandusky trial).  It cannot be mentioned in court documents or by the media.  Also, juvenile defendant's enjoy the same anonymity.

Not Savannah Dietrich.  Savannah is a seventeen year old victim on the cusp of going to jail.  Yes, the victim may go to jail.

Savannah was sexually assaulted by two teenage defendants, who then posted pictures of her on the internet.  She called the police, who arrested both boys.  The case wound through the juvenile system, which is confidential and closed to the public.  Savannah and her family were unhappy with the plea deal, which has not been made public.

She then took to twitter, releasing her attacker's names in violation of a court order.  Savannah went public with her ordeal and her name, even though she didn't have to.  I am an avid supporter of empowering victims.  See here.  My sworn duty, however, is to enforce the laws, which include contempt of court.  I support Savannah going public, but she definitely violated a court order by tweeting the names.

Would I prosecute Savannah?  Well, that's what prosecutorial discretion is all about.  Doing what's right.  What is right?  Fortunately, I don't get paid enough to make that decision in a case like this.

There will be a hearing on July 30, regarding Savannah's contempt charge.  It is a juvenile proceeding and thus closed to the public.  Savannah, however wants to make it public.  The defendants attorneys are fighting that.  One article reported that the criminal petition was withdrawn, but I cannot find another article to corroborate that.  If it was withdrawn, that means the prosecution would not be prosecuting Savannah.

Many interesting issues are arising out of this case.  Savannah's tweets touch on the First Amendment freedom of speech and whether she should have the case open to the public and media.  And whether her First Amendment right overrules the court's order to keep the proceedings private.  It pits her feelings and what she views as rights against the defendants'.  It is a constant battle within every case.

Not a week goes by that I don't have a conversation like this.

Witness:  Why do I have to come in?
PD:  You have to testify.
Witness:  Why do I have to testify?
PD:  So we can go forward with the case.  We can't prove it unless you testify.
Witness:  I gave my statement to the police.  I told them who did it.  That's enough.
PD:  It's enough to arrest them.  But to move forward, we need testimony.  A person has a right to confront witnesses.
Witness:  What about my rights?

The conversation is also had when discussing a reduced plea with a very cooperative victim.  I'll post how we come to plea bargaining decisions and how we discuss those with the victims next week.

So what do you think?  Should the victims have rights?  Do they have enough now?  Does one set of rights have to trump the other?  Can they co-exist?

Monday, July 23, 2012

Battle of the Elderly

At risk to letting any stalkers know, I take the subway into work every day.  Most days, I look around, wishing I was back on the New York subway.  Wishing for some person to strike up an instrument or a magician to make a sorry parakeet appear from inside a plate.

Most days, I'm disappointed.  But not today. 

As I climbed down the last step, angry words met me.  They weren't directed at me, but they were loud enough to echo throughout the tunnels.  Everyone's first thought in that situation is that some friends are joking around.  At least, mine is.  It's probably because we would rather not get involved.

I entered the platform, expecting to see two young men in the throes of testosterone.  Shock did not describe it when I passed the two men by.  A black man with a long white beard sat on the metal bench, an older white man with a cane stood over him, berating him.   I stood about twenty feet away, pretending to read my book.

The white man was yelling at the black man for "eyeing his girl."  The only issue I saw was there was no female in sight.  The black man was yelling right back.  He stood up and the two yelled about "taking it outside."  Drastic step for an invisible female, I thought.

I shuffled closer, together with another man.  We looked at each other, wondering what was going on and whether we would really have to separate these two men who had trouble standing. 

The men stood feet away from each other, and my new friend and I began to move in to separate them.  But the white man ambled away, yelling that his adversary was sufficiently warned.

They got on separate cars when the train arrived.  My new friend and I got on a different car.  The subway is like live theater, only unscripted.  And two bucks for a show?  Who can beat that?

Friday, July 20, 2012

How to Get Away with Murder, Part Two

Did I throw you off with the post in between this series?  Well, we're back at it.  Check out part one here.

The same day Samuel Ciapa's body was discovered by authorities, Alan Tomaski fled to West Virginia.  That's fantastic evidence called "consciousness of guilt."  In this case, however, it was the prosecution's undoing.  

A lengthy investigation ensued.  Tomaski and his co-defendant Hesse were prime suspects, but the case never developed to the point of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.  The crime occurred in a suburban police department, with limited murders.  The case warranted constant attention from their detectives.  In a bigger police department, it might have moved to the back burner as newer homicides replaced it.  

Following his conviction for manslaughter in the first degree and sentence, Tomaski had time to do his research.  He stumbled upon a case similar to his.  In People v. Turner, the prosecutor asked for the lesser charge of manslaughter first on the murder second indictment.  Defense counsel objected on the ground that manslaughter was not proven during the trial.  The appellate court held it was ineffective assistance of counsel for the defense attorney not to object on the grounds that the statute of limitations had passed.  The court reversed the conviction and dismissed the indictment.

Tomaski had hope and sent the case to his lawyers.

Two private, high-powered attorneys with seventy years of criminal defense experience filed a motion. In it, they said that they were ineffective in their representation.  The People replied saying that they were very effective, because it was the strategy all along.  Allow the lower charge, so that they could appeal it later on and get the case dismissed.  Very shrewd, said the prosecutor.

The original trial court held a hearing and both defense attorneys took the stand in public.  Both admitted that they missed the issue, that they committed an error.  That they were not effective in their representation.  

The prosecutors countered and questioned about their legal experience and strategy.  They argued that this was a tactical decision and because of that, Tomaski shouldn't benefit.

The court seemed to agree with the defense attorneys.  That's when the prosecution remembered the statute of limitations has a flip side.  It can be extended in certain situations, like when a defendant is out of the state or imprisoned in another state.

They took out their calculators and went to work.  The murder was in August of 2002 and Tomaski was indicted in June of 2010.  That was almost eight years - a little less than three years over the statute of limitations.  If they could show Tomaski was out of the state for that period of time, it would be excludable and not counted against the five year period.

Tomaski was in and out of jail for the years he was in West Virginia.  There was no proof he was in New York.  A sigh of relief!

Wrong.  Grandma's journal surfaced.

If you recall from the first post, the police collected Tomaski's grandmother's journal when they searched her house.  Grandma told the defense attorneys to look in the journal.  In it, she described the dates when Tomaski was home in New York with her.  She described when he went to West Virginia and even when she picked him up and drove him back to New York.  

Time for another hearing.

Grandma testified and read the relevant portions of the journals.  It was undisputed that Tomaski was in West Virginia for over two years when he was in jail there.  The prosecution had to save around 150 days of disputed time when he was not in jail.  Grandma said he was in New York and the prosecution countered that grandma could not be credible because she was covering for Tomaski.  The judge listened to her testimony and read her journal.

And then, in July of 2012, the court decided that grandma was believable.  Her journal was collected before the statute of limitations issue was even a relevant issue.  It was difficult to believe she contrived the journal entries, which were in police custody, before anyone knew the statute of limitations would become the key.

After serving 18 months for the murder of Sam Ciapa, Tomaski walked out the front door.  He could not be tried again because of double jeopardy.  The jury acquitted on murder second and the statute of limitations barred manslaughter first.

And that is how you get away with murder.

Check out the articles, here and here.  

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Remember the Days?

Looking back, I had a glorious childhood.  I lived in a suburban dead-end street.  The hours in a day stretched longer than I could count.  I can't remember it ever raining.  The trees were always filled with green leaves and friends my age abounded on the street.

Most of that is probably the distorted view we all use when looking through our mind's prism into the past.  The vision turns into something different than the reality.  But it's still warms my heart to look back.

I remember my friends coming to my house around 9:00 in the morning, right after mom made breakfast.  Or I would run to their house.  We never rang doorbells.  Instead, we would stand on the doorstep in front of an open door and yell in a sing-song voice, "Oh, Jo-ey," or whoever's name it was.  As I got older, I discovered this manner of greeting was unique to my neighborhood.

The person would come to the door, ready for the day.  Not just the morning, the entire day.  We would collect our bikes, complete with pegs for carrying friends we'd meet along the way.  Then, we would disappear. 

The street turned into a playground surrounded by woods at the end of the street.  The woods shielded the remnants of a seldom, if-ever, used and decaying railroad track.  The wooded trails led to creeks and forts built by our street forefathers.  It was a new direction everyday.  Follow the tracks to the next town, or county?  Float, swim, or fish in the creek on a hot day?  Or repair the forts and hack new trails in our version of the Amazon rain forest?

Parents never questioned where we were going or what we did.  No one set-up a play date for us.  The only curfew was to be back before the first street light glowed.  It was like country living in the suburbs. 

Sadly, those days are gone.  As much as I want to, my own children will not have that much freedom.  We now live in a world where ten year olds are abducted on city streets in broad daylight.  I'm sure these events happened back then, but it seemed that no one knew about it or worried about it.

Witness the frightening and sickening events caught on tape:

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

How to Get Away with Murder, Part One

I'm very interested to see what kind of search words will bring people to this post.  It will be a two-series post, culminating later this week.

Over the last year, an interesting and sad tale has played out in Buffalo, New York.  In 2002, two men killed another man they suspected of stealing a pound of marijuana from them.  In 2011, Alan Tomaski was convicted of manslaughter for his role in the stabbing death.  Sadly, it was a pretty typical case.

The unusual scenes played out after the conviction in a movie-like series of events.  It culminated with the same judge who sentenced Tomaski to 25 years in prison having to make the decision last week whether to release him and vacate the conviction.  No witnesses recanted their story.  DNA or fingerprints didn't exonerate him.  It was the good old fashioned statute of limitations that reared its head after this trial.  And apparently, everyone missed it.  The homicide chief, two veteran defense attorneys, and even the judge didn't pick it up.

The defendant, who had nothing but time after the conviction, found what he claimed was an error.  It began a series of events that could set a convicted murderer free.  And grandma tried to save the day, of course.

This is the opposite of a wrongful conviction.

The statute of limitations prohibits prosecution of certain crimes following a specific period of time.  It allows for closure for the police and the public.  In New York State, the time frame for felonies is five years.  There are certain events that can extend the period.  Examples are if the defendant leaves the state or the crime cannot be solved without DNA.  Murder second and murder first do not have a statute of limitations.  This is the reason cold cases can still be prosecuted twenty years later.  Manslaughters and below have a five year statute of limitations.

Check out a previous post on the difference between the two here.

In Tomaski's case, his co-defendant, Michael Hesse held the victim down while Tomaski stabbed him.  The investigation took years to develop, which was normal in many murder cases.  Part of the investigation included a search warrant at Tomaski's house, where he lived with his grandmother.  Police seized a journal belonging to his grandmother, hoping to find additional evidence of the crime in there.  It was collected years before the events this post describes.  Both Hesse and Tomaski were charged with murder in the second degree by an indictment in 2010.    Hesse agreed to testify against Tomaski in exchange for a reduced plea to manslaughter in the first degree.  By agreeing to plea, he waived his right to challenge the statute of limitations in his case.  It was eight years later, but since Tomaski was charged with murder, the statute of limitations didn't apply.

Tomaski decided not to plead guilty and go to trial.  Everything was fine, until the most overlooked event in every trial occurred - the charge conference.  This is when the lawyers and judge decide what crimes the jury will consider and what legal charges they should hear.  At Tomaski's charge conference, the prosecution asked the judge to have the jury consider both murder in the second degree and the lesser included charge of manslaughter in the first degree.  It was a tactical move.  The defense objected, but the judge allowed it.

The jury found Tomaski not guilty of murder in the second degree, but guilty of manslaughter in the first degree.  The judge sentenced him to 25 years in jail.

While in jail, Tomaski sent a letter to his private attorneys containing a reference to an appellate case like his.  Like Tomaski, that case involved a defendant charged with murder after the five year statute of limitations who was then convicted of manslaughter by a jury.  The appellate court vacated the conviction because the manslaughter charge could not be maintained after the five year statute of limitations.  Tomaski said that his case was similar.

The attorneys pulled their file out of the closed pile and went to work.  Even those attorneys had no idea the lengths they would have to go once they set the ball rolling down the hill.  Over the next year, a heavy does of humility would be served to everyone.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Stand Your Ground Law: Charging or Blocking?

A very well researched and interesting guest post today from Colin W. Maguire on the Trayvon Martin murder case.  Colin is a law student and the Interim Publicity Editor for the Thomas M. Cooley Law Review.  Well-wishes, questions, comments, and job offers can be sent to him at

A person who is not engaged in an unlawful activity and who is attacked in any other place where he or she has a right to be has no duty to retreat and has the right to stand his or her ground and meet force with force, including deadly force if he or she reasonably believes it is necessary to do so to prevent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the commission of a forcible felony.    Fla. Stat. § 776.013(3) (2005).

.           .           .

Approximately 92 words make up Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” Act, but those words measure the difference between defense and offense, between justification and retribution. It has captured our collective attention since the death of Florida Teenager Trayvon Martin, and questions linger as to how those events transpired.  It is clear that a physical altercation between Trayvon Martin and his killer, George Zimmerman, occurred on the evening of February 26, 2012; he admitted this to policeZimmerman claims that Martin attacked him from behind after Zimmerman followed Martin as part of his volunteer neighborhood watch activities.  While Zimmerman observed Martin, Zimmerman contacted 911 and was close enough to Martin to give a description of the young man.  Zimmerman then stated that the physical altercation was immediately preceded by a verbal exchange where both parties were in close proximity to one another.  If the State of Florida cannot disprove Zimmerman’s self-defense claim under Florida Statute Section 776.012, then Zimmerman will be immune from criminal prosecution or civil action under Florida Statute Section 776.032.
            The law, and similar laws in other states, has been the subject of hot debate for the better part of a decade. “Stand Your Ground” laws, and related legal analysis, have been compiled in a timely and informative manner by Ms. Cheryl Cheatham and Mr. Andrew Plumb-Larrick of the Case Western Reserve School of Law’s Green Law Library and provided for public consumption on their blog.  Law enforcement officials struggle to apply the law, often faced with conflicting stories about a shooting, and almost immediately give the case to State Attorneys to assess the nuanced application of “Stand Your Ground” laws.  Even as early as 2008, a prophetic, then-law student named Zachary L. Weaver compiled a list of Florida homicide cases which presented incredibly difficult legal questions regarding “Stand Your Ground” law.
It is likely that Zimmerman will invoke a self-defense claim at his trial under Florida’s “Stand Your Ground” law. If he is found guilty anyway, then the recent establishment of a legal defense fund for Zimmerman indicates the parameters of “Stand Your Ground” law will be brought up on appeal. Zimmerman’s assertion that he pursued Martin from a distance and had close-contact with Martin before Martin allegedly struck Zimmerman could encompass a critical part of any appeal.
As the Florida Supreme Court stated, “[t]he role of the judiciary is to give effect to legislative intent.”  Did the legislature intend for somebody to literally stand their ground and defend themselves or is the threatened individual only under “no duty to retreat”?  The difference is quite critical because to stand means “to support oneself on the feet in an erect position [or] to take up or maintain a specified position of posture…”.  Conversely, retreat is defined as “to draw or lead back”.  If the inclusion of one is the exclusion of all others, then a duty solely not to retreat puts no affirmative duty on a threatened individual to not move forward; could this be what Florida's legislature meant in drafting the “Stand Your Ground” law?  On the other hand, the legislature may intend for two simultaneous duties: first, the person defending themselves does not have to retreat; and second, the person defending themselves cannot advance toward their attacker because they may only stand their ground.
The latter interpretation probably makes more sense to the everyday person because it is a principle we know well in popular culture: the block versus the charge in basketball.  Read this succinct explanation of the rules by the NBA and note the legal parallels to “Stand Your Ground” law:
A block/charge foul occurs when a defender tries to get in front of his man to stop him from going in that direction. If he does not get into a legal defensive position and contact occurs, it is a blocking foul. If he gets to a legal position and the offensive player runs into him it is an offensive foul. In both situations, if the contact is minimal, no foul may be called. To get into a legal position defending against the dribbler, the defender just needs to get in front of him. On a drive to the basket, the defender must get to his position before the shooter starts his upward shooting motion. For most other cases, the defender must get into position and allow enough distance for the offensive player to stop and/or change direction.

This comparison is not meant to be callous (just a long-time NBA fan’s attempt to make sense of a contentious and complex legal issue); rather, it denotes a clear and relatable example of how “Stand Your Ground” law could be objectively viewed as two simultaneous duties by one claiming self-defense – the duty to not advance mixed with the duty to not retreat.  (Block vs. Charge and § 776.012) The NBA’s rule allows a defender to get into a “legal position” and allow the offending party to run into the defender; by implication, the defender cannot run into the offender.  If the defender moves into the offender or the defender does not allow an offender to “stop and/or change direction”, then the defender is no longer being defensive, but is now also an offender.  This results in the penalty not being called on the offensive player for a charge; rather, the penalty is called on the defensive player as a block.  Therefore, though the defender has no duty to retreat per se, the rule penalizes the defender if both parties are not standing.
            As the facts continue to emerge, Zimmerman’s claims of his movement during the episode which lead to the death of Martin should be an integral part of whether a “Stand Your Ground” defense applies.  If the verbal altercation preceding the shooting of Martin included movement by both parties toward one another, then one logical interpretation of a rule involving no duty to retreat might be that the party claiming to defend themselves lost the rights’ of a defender.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Be a Student of Loans

Staring down the barrel of well over six figures in debt while holding a government salary will alter your perspective on debt.  The restless nights hoping they don't cash your rent check until payday.  The daytime worries about where you'll get money for Christmas.  I didn't appreciate what debt can do to a person until I decided to take care of it.

College is expensive.  So is law school.  The government and the universities have made it easy to finance your education.  Just sign on the dotted line and we'll send you a check.  Don't worry it's not payable until six months after you graduate, when you're making tons of money.

I hope you can see the danger based on my previous posts this week.  (Here and here).  There has to be a better way.

First of all, you have to decide if higher education is the right option.  Are you going to college or law school just to delay the real world?  Do you really want to become a plumber or electrician?  If so, learn the trade.  No sense amassing tons of unnecessary debt.  What about the type of degree?  A Russian poetry major might be interesting, but the only jobs available will be teaching that to college students some day.

Not sure about what kind of degree you want or whether college is right for you?  Try a community college first.  The costs will be low and it will give you a flavor of post-high school life.  Work hard and get good grades and you'll be able to transfer to a good college after one or two years.  And, hopefully, now you'll have an idea of what to study.

Okay, so what about loans?  Every needs them right?  There's no way to get through college or law school without them.  Paying them off in thirty years is normal?  You even get a tax break.


I worked two jobs through all of college and law school.  In addition, I took out the maximum amount of money in loans the federal government would allow.  That means the loan paid for my tuition and gave me some extra money for things I absolutely thought I needed and deserved (a new laptop, a vacation, a night out with some friends).

I was making enough money at my jobs to pay for college at my state school.  Instead, I chose to spend that money on frivolous items and take out loans.  My jobs would not have paid for the entire law school tuition, but it would have defrayed the costs, allowing me to breathe easier when I graduate.

Imagine graduating college or law school with no debt.  What can you do?  Anything you want.  You are not tied to trying to take any job that comes along to pay your hefty bills.  You can take  a shot starting a business or starting your own firm that way.  Or you can take that year doing volunteer legal services in an inner city, on a modest salary, but learning how to be a lawyer.  There is no worry about how to pay the bills so you can do anything you want.  Or, if the job you do accept isn't what you thought it would be, you can leave without a worry about finances.

But you get a tax break for your loans, you say.  I know we're lawyers, but this involves a little math.  Borrowing $100,000 at even 2.5% interest means you pay $2,500 per year in interest.  You can deduct up to $2500 (filing jointly) from your salary at tax times.  That means if you make $100,000 a year, subtracting $2,500 brings your adjusted taxable income to $97,500.  Assuming a 28% tax bracket that means you  would pay $28,000 in taxes on the $100,000 income or $27,300 on the $97,500 adjusted gross income.  So to pay $700 less in taxes, we are willing to pay $2500 in interest?  It doesn't make sense.

As you can see, I am clearly anti-debt.  I'm still digging free from the mess I created.  A few years ago my wife and I compiled a budget and put a plan together to pay off the debt.  In just under three years we have paid off over 50 % of our debt load and hope to have it all gone by the end of next year.  Then, we are free to use all that money to build our wealth, free from sending our money to other people.

There are hundreds of law schools to choose from.  Is a Harvard education and debt bill worth the cost?  Probably if you think you can graduate near the top and want to work at one of the top firms.  But if you want to work for the legal aid society, this may not be a good idea.  What about those tier two, three, and four schools?  Why not choose a public school and the significantly reduced cost that comes with it?  If the schools will get you to the same goal, why spend $60,000 a year when you can spend $15,000?

To recap the week:  1) Work on deciding a plan for college.  If you don't know what to do with your life, try classes at a community college.  Investigate possible careers before choosing a major.  2) Figure out how to pay for college.  Work during the school year and summer.  Strongly consider state schools.  Apply for every scholarship.  There are hundreds out there that are unclaimed every year.  3) Figure out what a lawyer does and decide if you want to do it.  Then, figure out a plan to pay for it.  DO NOT just think everything will work out.  It is a difficult job market and the costs of education are only rising.

I anticipate some debate over some of these views.  Many people believe that you should just make the minimum payments on student loans and invest other money you would use to accelerate your payments.  I disagree, because you just keep that weight of risk hanging around your neck for thirty years.  But I look forward to comments and emails.

Have a good weekend.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

To Go or Not to Go

What do you call a busload of lawyers who fall off a cliff?  A good start.

A law degree means you have passed the bar exam and now will have to tolerate every lawyer joke from every wannabe comedian in the world.  Okay, so why would anyone want to go to law school?  The common perception is that attorneys are a lower form of life, waiting to drain unsuspecting clients of their resources.  No one calls an attorney until something terrible happens to them.  Something life changing.

But that's what a lot of us love.  We meet people at their lowest point.  Whether they've been arrested, are getting divorced, a loved one died, or the IRS is calling in a tax bill.  People come to us and we get to use our education and talents to help someone who is truly in need.  Someone who doesn't know where to turn.  Someone without hope.  We get to show them the path to hope.  How to protect an estate for their children.  How to handle an arrest with dignity.  How to settle a divorce and help their children.  We become the intermediary for what is bad in someone's life.

It is a truly noble calling.  Everyone deserves an educated and hard-working attorney. 

At risk of upsetting law school admissions across the country, let's get one thing straight.  Not everyone should go to law school.  Heck, not everyone needs to go to college (but that's more of a student loan issue I'll discuss later this week).  I know we are a nation of "we can achieve anything we set our mind to", but that doesn't mean we should always do it.

There are many things a law degree can do.  It will give you an advanced degree.  It will change your way of thinking through problems.  It will allow access to jobs otherwise unavailable. 

There are many things a law degree does not do.  Provide you a job.  Guarantee you will pass the bar exam.  Pay your student loans.  Show you how to live your life. 

We spend three years in law school reading, studying, highlighting unimportant details in textbooks, and then it's time for the real world.  Time to get a job.  What's the plan?  What's the strategy?  Do we treat job hunting like hunting with a shotgun?  Fire  and spray shots everywhere, hoping something will hit a target.  Or a rifle?  Fire and aim at a very specific target, but risk losing out on other jobs if your one goal doesn't work out?

The legal profession is different now than even ten years ago.  Law schools churn out newly minted lawyers every year.  Where do they go? 

As this New York Times Blog points out, only Nebraska and Wisconsin don't have enough lawyers.  Every other state is running at a tremendous surplus.  That means lower jobs and lower salaries because there are more people fighting for those jobs.  In New York State, we are averaging over 7,000 unneeded attorneys a year!  In ten years, that's 70,000 more attorneys than is truly needed.

Need more statistics?  There are 728,000 lawyers in the U.S. right now.  Divide this by 300 million population.  That means there is a lawyer for every 413 people.  Compare this to biochemists, 25,000 jobs, physical therapists, 198,000 jobs, or even chiropractors, 52,000 jobs.  There are plenty of lawyers.

Combine this with the advent of legal advertising and many legal markets are struggling.  What does advertising have to do with it?  It's the reason people drink Pepsi and Coke, not RC Cola.  It's what they see.  Personal injury cases generally bring in the most money for a firm.  When all of those cases are funnelled to one or two factory firms who spend millions on advertising, the cases for other lawyers dry up.  Many law firms who can't afford billboards and commercials have folded their tents.  I know many lawyers who scrape by on only assigned cases, or who spend twelve hours running through courtrooms across the county. 

What about the high paying legal jobs?  They're out there.  But a person's first year in law school is usually determinative of whether it's attainable.  After the first year, you can apply for summer internships.  The high-paying firms only hire the best credentialed for the summer.  Then, new associates are picked from the summer interns.  These jobs are difficult to get. 

If you are lucky enough to get one, please don't fall into the golden handcuff trap.  New attorneys spend years without making money.  When that first big paycheck comes in, a spending spree is in order, right?  New car?  House?  Eat out every night?  Be careful.  A big spending lifestyle leads to a reliance on a big earning job.  Big firms are not immune from economic downturns.  Big firms also require big billable hour requirements, requiring six or seven days a week in the office at some places.  This leads to high burn-out.  When the associate decides he's had enough in two years, they still have large debt hanging over their head and an addiction to a big money life. 

Public service jobs?  You want to help the world?  Please do it, we need you.  But now we get into the debt problem.  That $200,000 degree from the private law school is an expensive piece of paper, especially on a $45,000 per year salary.  The debt limits a person's job options.  There are debt forgiveness programs for certain jobs, but they usually don't kick in until after ten years of payments.  And should we rely on the government?  Programs like these might be the first to go in difficult economic times.

My advice is to be smart about your career selection.  It is difficult to ask a seventeen or eighteen year old kid to decide what to do with the rest of their life when they enter college.  I didn't know and I'm sure I'm in the majority.  But don't just waft through core classes and the easy electives.  Go out and experience what different careers have to offer.  Find out what a person with an MBA really does.  Find out what a lawyer really does.  What about a doctor?

Lead a life towards a purpose.  Once you have done the research on careers, you will be able to choose one.  Many lawyers I know regret the decision to go to law school.  Many don't regret it, but regret the amount of debt they piled up.  There are more still who are happy.

It is your life.  Lead it towards somewhere, before it starts leading you towards nowhere. 

Then, you must decide if it is worth the cost.  Check back for the student loan analysis this week. 

Monday, July 9, 2012

Should I Go to Law School?

I was watching Madagascar with my nephew yesterday.  If you haven't seen it, it's a movie about some zoo animals in New York City who get released into the wild.  Chris Rock is the voice of the zebra, Marty. 

Marty is the catalyst for the release.  Early in the movie, he is speaking to Alex the lion (voiced by Ben Stiller) about the direction of his life and how he is sick of doing the same thing every day.  At one point during his speech, Marty says, "maybe I should go to law school." 

I was writing this post anyway, but that was a perfect reminder about how many people choose to go to law school. 

I found there are two camps of people in law school.  The drivers and the wanderers.  Drivers know they want to be a lawyer.  Maybe their parents were attorneys.  Maybe they wanted to change the world and thought law school was the way.  Or they had a first career and realized later in life they wanted to be a lawyer.  Wanderers are the Marty's of the world.  They choose law school because it seems like a good option or it's a way to delay the real world for awhile.  I fell into the second camp.

Lawyers are like any other people.  Some are good, some are bad.  Some are successful, some are not.  And we are finding out that we are subject to the same laws of economics as every other job - supply and demand.  When the demand is high, lawyers have jobs and high salaries.  When demand is low, there is a surplus of talent, unemployment and low starting salaries. 

We are in the low demand and high supply cycle.  The proof is all around us.  Lawyers that have graduated in recent years are employed in factories or doing insurance to make ends meet while they look for a legal job.  Law school admissions have dropped with the increased unemployment and underemployment. 

Making ten dollars an hour on the factory line doesn't help pay off six figures worth of student loan debt. 

So, should you go to law school?  Should you spend three years of your life racking up debt to go into a field that right now has only 55% of its graduates employed in the field after graduation?

This week, I'll discuss the decision, the costs, and the results of law school.

If you are thinking about law school, ask yourself why.  What type of lawyer?  Why do you want to be a lawyer?  Did you hear that they make good money?  Did you hear they live in nice houses and drive nice cars?  Or is it just a decision to delay getting a job while you figure things out? 

My high school history teacher said, "if you fail to plan, you plan to fail."  It's true in life and law school.  If you choose law school, you have to know why.  Do your research on what a lawyer does.  Be proactive.  Speak to lawyers in the community, in different fields.  Call them up, send them an email.  Ask them what they think.  Do they regret the decision?  Are they happy?  What's the work-life balance like?  Maybe you decide you would hate to keep track of every hour of your day so that you could bill a client for it.  Maybe you decide you enjoy special education law.

Options are limitless with a legal degree.  Which is good and bad.  Good because it can open doors to otherwise unavailable jobs.  Bad because it allows people to keep wandering, and never focus. 

The debt is real, even though you won't feel it for six months after graduation.  But those thousand dollar a month payments will come and a job may not.  This is life and you have to make informed decisions.  Otherwise, events control you instead of the other way around.

This week, I'll discuss the reasons to go to law school, how to choose a school, and how to manage the debt.  As always, I'll be honest.  

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Cost of Law School

It's hot and there are not many people in the office this week.  I enjoy working when court is down and attendance is sparse.  I'm off to take care of some nagging files and clean off my desk.

Please check out these articles on law school, loans, and the job market.  I'll put my thoughts on the issues next week.  Have a good week and try to stay cool.

The Chicago Tribune

The Wall Street Journal

The Star-Telegram

Monday, July 2, 2012

May I Approach?

City Court is a different breed of animal.  It's the court that handles misdemeanors and violations.  Rules of law and procedure are relaxed in favor of rules of fairness.  The dress code surprises you every day.  See here.  Apparently, even the court officers get into that relaxed mode.

Generally, the public sits behind the three foot wall until their case is called.  They can approach and check in with a court officer, but must return to their seat.  Only attorneys and police can walk into the arena.

There was a lull between cases while the court waited for the sheriff to produce inmates.  The judge read his computer.  The court officers turned to their cell phones for distraction.  An enterprising spectator walked through the opening in the wall and up to the clerk's table, removing his file from the pile and returning to the audience and out the door.

No one stopped him or said anything.  The clerk discovers the file is missing and everyone pieces together what happened.   

The next case is called and the ADA asked for permission to approach the bench where the judge and clerk sit.

The judge replied, "go ahead.  Obviously, no one's going to stop you."