Saturday, December 18, 2010

A Former Law Student Confesses: "I think about jumping from the 27th floor of my office building every day."

As most of you know, I am currently working on an article about suicide and student loan debt. Earlier this week, Matt Stannard from Shared Sacrifice interviewed me about the subject.

Since that interview, I've received a few posts from people who have informed me that they fully intend to off themselves (see the most recent comments here and here). As a result of these disturbing posts, I have asked many of you to come out in support of struggling individuals, and tell them that nothing - not even Everest-sized mountains of student loan debt -  ought to lead them to committing suicide. Thanks to all of you who have posted comments of support so far. Trust me, it helps. Several people have told me that if it weren't for me - and others who are raising holy hell about the student lending crisis - they would have killed themselves long ago. So please, if you haven't posted something supportive, think about doing it now. You never know, your own story about feeling similarly could safe a life.

So many people are hurting, and so many people are thinking about killing themselves. These people aren't crazy. Far from it. They are approaching their indebtedness from a rational perspective, and sadly suicide seems like a viable choice. That's not out of the norm. When there are severe economic downturns, people often turn to drastic measures to get out of a  hopeless predicament. Financial ruin leads many healthy people to an early grave, and quite often it's from their own hand. As Barbara Ehrenreich stated quite frankly in an article from 2008 entitled, "Suicide Spreads as One Solution to the Debt Crisis," when people feel backed up against a wall, it's only natural for them to say, "Just shoot me!" At that time, many people who found their homes being repossessed chose to proclaim, "I'll just shoot myself!"

After listening to my interview, a reader let me know that they contemplate jumping from the 27th floor of their work every day

Here's what they wrote:

Cryn, I listened to your interview and cried for hours. I graduated from law school with honors back in 2003 and never found a job as an attorney. I've worked a bunch of odd jobs the last 7 years just to survive. I've been a retail worker, a call center worker, a housekeeper, a dishwasher, and a temp - seriously, it seems like I've been everything except what I went to school for! I know my life is ruined and that I will never be a practicing attorney. I get it, really I do. After all, I'm around attorneys 24/7 in my current job and they look down their noses at me or else just ignore me. I am a loser and no one wants to be around a loser or else they might become one to. I try to remind myself that my life wasn't always like this - that people used to like me and that I had a lot going for me in college and even law school. However, after years of being snubbed and treated so terribly, I have learned to be as invisible as possible and to keep to myself. I'm sure that gives everyone at work a good laugh - then they can say I'm anti-social or not good with people and therefore not attorney material.

I could live without being a practicing attorney but what I can't get over is the fact I ruined my life by borrowing $100,000 to go to law school. I thought I was making a really good investment in myself because I believed in myself back then. I knew I would do well in school, and I guess I thought I would get a job and be able to pay back my loans. How incredibly wrong I turned out to be. Even if I am able to get out of student loan debt, I will be starting over from scratch. Zero savings. Zero retirement. Zero career options.

Every day I think about jumping out the 27th floor window of the office building where I am currently working to escape the mess I have made of my life. I am in so deep now, there is no way out. I used to keep myself up at night thinking about how I would ever pay my student loans off, but now I keep myself up at night, wondering if this is really how the next 30 years of my life will be - always moving from one dead-end job to the next, always being looked down at by attorneys (and even non-attorneys when they find out I'm an attorney but not working as one), always feeling so sick to my stomach that I can't hardly even eat anymore. I used to worry about starving to death if I couldn't afford to buy food if I never found a job, but now I don't have to worry about that because I have no appetite! Maybe I will just wither away and finally be put out of my misery. I really don't think I can keep doing this for another 7 years, let alone the rest of my life. I don't know what to do. While I haven't completely given up, I don't think it's that far around the corner. . .

I'm sorry this is long and depressing, but it's nice to get this all out. I am not asking anyone to forgive my student loans; I fully intend to pay back every last cent I borrowed. I just want to feel like all of my hard work and sacrifice was worth it, instead of always feeling humiliated, embarrassed, ashamed, bitter and angry. I'm so tired of feeling this way - I just want the pain to go away. Thanks for listening. 

As Matt Stannard asked, and I'll reiterate, how many people aren't reaching out to me? How many people will wither away, jump from buildings, or drink themselves to death because of their debt?


Nando said...

This is Nando from "Third Tier Reality," a blog devoted to informing prospective law students about the shrinking lawyer job market and skyrocketing tuition. Like Cryn, I have received a fair amount of emails from readers who have told me that they have contemplated suicide due to their job and debt situation.

Often, law school industry apologists and trolls tell law "washouts" that they are losers. On certain websites - such as those geared towards "T14" law students - you will see how vicious these pigs can be. Instead of letting these animals beat me down - or denigrate others as "losers" - I have decided to blog aggressively on the subject.

I never bought into the culture/mentality of law school. (I simply do not see the world through the lens of a middle-age man who is a member of the "upper" class.) Often, this can hurt a law student, in terms of the all-important grades. That is how law schools and arrogant law students measure "success."

This is an arbitrary measure. For instance, why don't we define success or creatity as ability to write a poem? Or as the skill to box someone's ears in? Or as the ability to simply listen, or make someone laugh? In the end, these skills will define you more than your success or failure in law.

In sum, do not let the bastards get you down. You have done what you can; the U.S. job market simply cannot meet the demands of college degree over-production. This is not a failure on your part - it is a monumental failure of the Higher Education $y$tem.

Look at how tuition has SKYROCKETED over the last 30 years. Our political "leaders" have allowed the manufacturing base to leave our shores. They have watched as their political donors, i.e. corporate masters, have sent legions of white and blue-collar jobs overseas. And yet these morons have daily reminded American youths to follow the Eleventh Commandment: "Thou shalt go to college." Yet, these swine have not bothered to keep decent jobs here. They have not done a damn thing to keep the cost of tuition down. The pigs then wash their hooves of the situation.

If all else fails, leave the country. Keep a low profile. At this point in time, it is not likely that foreign nations will extradict someone to the U.S. because of outstanding college loans.

John in Boston said...

I realize this will sound like a clinical and (dare I say it) legalistic reaction, but this is exactly what bankruptcy used to exist for - until Sallie Mae succeeded in buying off Congress to exempt student loans from bankruptcy protection.

Cryn, one of Sallie Mae's chief advocates in the Senate was - sorry to say - Joe Biden. Lately I've kind of wondered if Biden, no longer dependent on Delaware corporation financing, could be the Nixon who goes to the China that is Sallie Mae and student lending, in order to rectify this entire mess.

Monica R. Tanzey said...

Nando & Cryn,

I read both of your blogs diligently and want to say thank you for your words of encouragement and truth. The passion that you both display in your writing has kept me motivated during the past year- from passing law school, failing the bar exam (yes rude person at Chase, even students who graduated in the top 1/4 of their class can fail a bar exam and yes I studied my ass off!), and even now as I try to come to terms with never being able to survive repaying $270,000 in student loans.

Every single day, every hour of the day, I think about my student loans.. literally. It has become an obsession that is eating away at my soul. I try to think what I did wrong in the past. Is this karma? Should I have interned at the DA instead of the immigration clinic, maybe I should have not gotten a B.S. in Public Relations... everyday I second guess the decisions I have made in life. Now my newest decision is when should I just throw in the towel. Thank goodness I'm a pretentious little bitch deep down inside and the loan sharks haven't taken that away or else I would have already taken my 9mm and put it to my head. But, I know I was put on this earth to do something and something good I shall do. Since I know I'm never going to repay these loans in my lifetime, that I'll unlikely have children or that I will get to have the dream wedding or even by a house with my fiance, well I've decided to say screw it all and do something that makes me happy. I'm volunteering with AmeriCorps at the Boys and Girls Club. I make $500 a month. My fiance (a J.D. as well) and I are living in his parent's basement, we are driving 10+ year old vehicles, have no savings, but.... now I'm happy. I get to be a positive influence in some child's life. I get to use all those years of learning to give back to my community. I also figure how much can Chase garnish from my measly $500 a month? Let them ruin my credit, let them haunt me to the end of my days, but damn you Chase if you think that you can take my soul and my passion.

-Just a little Saturday morning rant to get my day of calling Sallie, Citi, Chase, Great Lakes, OSLA, and AES started...

Anonymous said...

State wage garnishment laws.
Still, the best bet is ex-patriate. Try Central America. Its still affordable and growing.

Anonymous said...

Law is a HUGE gamble for kids now to go into. I won't wax on about the struggles of persons I know personally. It is essentially a lottery now. There is a gap in understanding between typical pre-Boomer and Boomer parents, and their respective life experiences, and what a lot of law and graduate students are experiencing today.

Law, especially, is no longer the "ticket" it was understood to be by previous generations. The social compact whereby firms once trained newbies in exchange for the latters' willingness to work their asses off in the learning process is over. Now, people are somehow (and most irresponsibly and unrealistically) expected to hit the street straight out of law school and "practice law". This, of course, is tantamount o suicide (yes, yes, I know of the anecdotal successes, usually folks with serious pre-law school contacts and experiences).

The only problem with that is law school doesn't teach you how to do practice law. So don't take it personally, kid. I know it sucks. As a bottom-of-the -class grad of a few years back, from what is now a TTT, I had to go blue-collar to escape, essentially, the ghetto of a licensed law grad unable to find legal work. It can be done. Oh, and by the way, "fuck what other people think" should be your key phrase. Use it often and proudly.

I never looked back.

Monica R. Tanzey said...

Anonymous, thanks for the wage garnishment website! Nice to know my lenders can fight over $45 a month..

wascalzo said...

Let me first state how anxious I feel at this very moment. How I wish that no one had to go through humiliation when all they earned and worked for was success.
Yes its outrages, yes it horrible but it isn't the end of the world the end of your life. The door has been shut in your face...there is no hope, there is no reason to live, there is no God. Do you really believe this? Do you really think you don't make a difference at all?

You have successfully convinced yourself you are some sort of pariah, a non person. Your already digging your grave. “Today is the tomorrow you worried about yesterday”
You are moving forward by extracting your despair and sharing it with others that will listen, that may help your direction. This is not the end of any of you, its just the beginning, it is your path whether it was in your plans or not its your path . Just because you didn't get that "job" or didn't pass the "bar" or had to rob Peter to save Paul. You did the one thing you set out to do already, you went to college and graduated.
Join C.Cryn's crusade, advocate your struggles by actions. Those who studied law have legal knowledge & solid ground, access to legal libraries.

I just read your words and felt your energy and strength but yet practically none of the pain. Why...because I choose to and refuse to give up on any of you. nini

Anonymous said...

This is a 6-page article in The New Yorker. It makes the best argument against suicide I have ever read, from a gentleman who survived jumping off the Golden Gate bridge:

JUMPERS - The fatal grandeur of the Golden Gate Bridge

"I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped."

Even if your solution is to run away and be homeless in Asia, it's better than killing yourself. You will fully realize that after you jump.

(Note: communes are awesome. Be open-minded and join one if you are desperate. My 2-cents...)

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

I am so glad you posted this piece from the New Yorker. That is a superb article. Did you know that it was turned into a documentary? Thanks again.

Robby Scott Hill said...

Nando is right! Don't buy into the culture of law school or the legal establishment. The way to win is to not play their game. Be aggressive by networking with law firm clients & offering alternative services to them such as arbitration & contract administration & business consulting services that help them avoid courtroom litigation. Learn a language like Spanish & become a translator for their clients. Become an investigative reporter & report on corruption in the legal system. Do whatever it takes to force the law firms to pay attention to you.

J-Dog said...

"The way to win is to not play their game."

It's just like the movie WarGames with Matthew Broderick.

Seriously, I second Robby's suggestions. If you're down and out, before you even think of letting the system ultimately beat you, fight back on your own terms, not theirs. Grab a sign and go protest in front of the nearest law school/bar association office if you have to. Write letters to the editor. Start a blog like Nando or Cryn have done. Just don't resign from a rigged game.

ThoughtsOFARandomCollegeStudent said...

interesting mix of hope and fear on this thread. I am ashamed by the poor treatment and shabby prospects for trained and talented youth. The best they can do is find a way to manage debt and look for work...what kind of future it that. I agree with J-Dogg dont resign and fight them back!

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@ThoughtsOfARandomCollegeStudent - thanks for sharing. It is a mix of hope and despair, isn't it? We need to band together and fight the system. We MUST change it. The situation is insane. Spread the word about my work. All Education Matters, Inc. is now a non-profit, too. Don't give up the fight, and join me and others in the struggle to end the student lending crisis.

Nando said...

I am glad that this post has received many comments. I decided early on that I was not going to suffer silently. I also was fortunate to find a halfway-decent job after law school. Plus, I did not have a mountain of student loan debt.

I have received a fair amount of ignorant and hateful comments. Many of these come from university domains. I know this from looking up my Google Analytics. However, these comments DO NOT change the following facts:

a. that law schools are producing far too many graduates for the available number of attorney positions.

b. that the lawyer job market has been oversaturated for years, possibly decades.

c. that tuition at private and public schools has skyrocketed over the last 30 years.

d. that law firms are relying more on foreign attorneys and non-attorneys for legal discovery work.

e. that many law schools are operating as DIPLOMA MILLS, i.e. they are charging too much and accepting too many applicants WITHOUT REGARD to the prevailing job market for attorneys.

I am glad that there is a network of pissed off law grads who are willing to expose this system. (If you notice, I prefer to go after the law schools with a proverbial axe. While my tone is often harsh, I back up my argument with the facts, charts and industry statements.) I am grateful for people like Cryn for documenting the higher education gamble.

In the new year, let's make sure to keep up the presssure on these wretches.

As you can see, a law review article on the "law school scambloggers" will be published in the first issue of the 12th volume of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science and Technology. The author is Professor Lucille Jewel of The John Marshall Law School in Georgia.

Anonymous said...

Cyrn & Nando,

Thanks for your indomitable spirit in this class warfare! Managers we have; leaders like you two we need!
No one would believe how much I owe; I have a hard time with it and I'm holding the bills.

My marriage is officially over...45 days ago; thanks for the (up to 15/day) phone calls. The ex-wife and here affluent family did not care to go further with it, since it is my problem, not theirs. I was worth ditching though and having put all into a trust to her daughter,(twice a fool that I am) I had no recourse but to bow out.

I will survive a dead marriage, broke, on the street; I went through the suicidal ideation for about three years when I saw the end coming. I don’t know if I’ll survive the student loans…they won’t divorce me for sure, no, it won’t be that easy.

This is my home, my friends, what remains of my family that will speak to me after years of beleaguering by my Sallie Mae collection freaks. I do not want to go to Korea or China and learn a new language, start a new family (at 65?) I want my rights back so I can file bankruptcy!

Any attorneys out there with time to kill? Is resuce available, or would you be saving your own life if you knew how?

Last ditch effort

Nick said...

Ugh. This was awful. I don't know if it will help, but I have to point out one thing: The people who look down on you are, by definition, people who look down on others.

If you too tend to scorn others based on the kind of "success" symbolized by the kind of people who run law schools, well, you should stop it. You'll feel better and you'll be merely annoyed when the idiots at the firm act like they are better than everyone else.

Also, has it occurred to NO ONE that the profs and administrators in your law school were just trying to come up with a reasonably plausible ruse to charge six figures for nothing? Didn't you notice that total morons were getting good grades? People at my school were taking tests drunk and getting the A star. I don't think that's because the drunk tester settled on some mysterious formula. I think it's because, like working as a temp, the answer is actually pretty simple, to be easy to grade/check for a busy prof/coked-up boss, and all the crap you do to try to make it more complicated and "prove" your "worth" is just a waste of time.

These people making you feel bad are being assholes. And you know this because they are trying to make you feel bad. So.... Forget them.

Anonymous said...

I went to LS in 2003 to escape a dead-end IT job in a city that both my wife and I hated. Like nearly all of my classmates, I felt sure that I'd land in the top 10% of my class. Like 90% of my classmates, I was wrong.

My daughter was born during my first year, and my priorities shifted away from academia. I passed everything, but seldom ever made waves. Prone to occasional bouts of crushing doubt, I nearly dropped out after 1L, but managed to soldier on.

My personality, writing ability, and past professional experience led me to a legal assistant at a real estate development company gig during 3L year, which turned into an in-house position after bar passage. I thought I had cheated the system - turned a sub-par GPA into a career. Bought a house. A new car. Then, my employer learned what it meant to be overleveraged in a fizzling dirt market, and I was unemployed.

I spent 2 months with hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt, but no income with which to pay it. Credit cards went unpaid. Student loans were ignored. I managed to string some project work together until I picked up a full time gig at an exciting company with huge aspirations...and a fatally flawed business model. I lasted nearly a year, but my reduced salary meant that I remained several months behind on my debt.

Finally, the company ran out of money. Once again, I was unemployed. I spent my days sending out resumes, trying to hone my dull computer skills, and contemplating driving my aging SUV off into the hills, climbing out, and just walking into the snow. I'd entertain myself between monster/careerbuilder/hotjobs searches by looking at mapquest trying to find roads that dead-ended off in the mountains. Nights, I waited until the rest of the fam were in bed, and crawled into a bottle.

Finally, after another 3 months of near zero contribution to my family's wellbeing, I landed a job. The pay was still less than what I was making the day I passed the bar, but it was a steady check. Regardless, the debt mounted. Default notices arrived. I'd bounce between making payments on the most delinquent loans, in so doing, ignoring the rest. I'd spend hours looking for a better opportunity, but by now the recession was in full force, and there was nothing. Not slim pickings - just...nothing. My taste for vodka had bloomed into whiskey (and whisky), rum, beer, wine, whatever. This went on for years.

A few months ago, my wife and daughter went to visit family. I hit a deep low. Any time spent in my car (the same aging SUV) was a nightmare collage of accidents that I might engineer - a crash into a median here, a swerve into a reservoir there. At the office, I'd plan mountain biking rides on trails with significant exposure. I looked into my life insurance policy to see if I was beyond the payout restriction period for suicide (I was). I couldn't take it any more...while driving my wife and daughter home from the airportI burst into tears, and told my wife about how pressured I felt...about what a failure I ashamed I was...and about what I had been contemplating.

We talked, and I recovered...for now. I have a nagging reminder to call the mental health helpline offered by my state bar, but haven't done it yet. I know myself, and I know that I'm not all that far away from revisiting the ideations...maybe I'll call then.

C. Cryn Johannsen said...

@Jan. 11, 2011 - I am really glad you shared your story with us. More than that, it is good to know that you were able to share your pain with your wife, and that she was there to be supportive of you. You are not a failure. Not in the least. It sounds like you have worked very hard for yourself and your family. Unfortunately, we - the indentured educated class - have a lot more obstacles in front of us. As you are also aware, wages for the middle class have remained stagnant for 30 years. In addition, most households have to people earning income, so it's only natural to assume that pay would be better for people. But it's not. It's not getting better. It's getting worse. You add that formula with a high level of student loan debt, it's no wonder people are depressed, feeling suicidal, and abusing alcohol. It's easy to internalize things and feel like you are somehow to blame. I remember when I looked for months and months for jobs, and I kept thinking, "I'm not doing this right, or only if I had done that . . ." All of this superb self-doubt clouds the systemic realities of how this country has been turning its back on the poor and the middle class for decades.

If I may, I'd like to post your piece.

Thanks again for having the courage to tell your story.