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Tuesday, December 18, 2012

An interview with Patrick Griffin, author of "The Catcher in the Drain"

Last Friday I linked to a 1992 article in the Chicago Reader, a free weekly alternative paper.  The article, called "The Catcher in the Drain," made the case why a big chunk of students were making a mistake by going to law school.  He methodically went through the reasons for getting a J.D. -- higher pay, more prestige, degree flexibility -- and explained the problems with each.  At the end, he compared himself to Holden Caufield, who dreamed off trying to stop others from jumping off the cliff.

The author of the article is Patrick Griffin.  He is now at the MacArthur Foundation, serving as Program Officer for Juvenile Justice in U.S. Programs. Before joining the Foundation, he was a writer, researcher, legal analyst, and director of projects for the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ), where he became a national authority on comparative legal analysis of state transfer and blended sentencing laws. Griffin began his career as an attorney, and before joining NCJJ had practical experience as an editor of business-oriented legal publications and as a freelance journalist whose essays, profiles, and general-interest reporting appeared in magazines and newspapers nationwide.  He  graduated magna cum laude from the University of Michigan and received his law degree from Harvard Law School.

I wanted to check in with Griffin 20 years later and see what he thought of his article now, and on the state of legal education.  He was kind enough to answer my questions below.

 It's been twenty years since you wrote "The Catcher in the Drain."  What do you think of that article now?

I had always thought it was a good piece and been proud of it.  But re-reading it now, I’m less sure.  I was writing for attention, obviously.  I wish I could go back in time and tone it down, sober it up.  But some of the ideas were worth raising, and people certainly responded to it—it was reprinted in a bunch of places.  I got letters.  It wasn’t like people needed to be told that there were “too many lawyers” in some sense.  But the process that produced the too-many-lawyers condition had not been explored that much, I think.

Have you followed any of the recent press with regards to law schools?  What do you think?

I sympathize with the law school grads who are suing their schools because they feel they’ve been misled.  I don’t know what to say about it as a basis for litigation, but they’re probably performing a public service by calling attention to one aspect of the problem.  My piece, somewhere near the end, actually proposed something like a “money-back guarantee” requirement for law degrees—and suggested that it might make law schools more cautious about scooping in wanderers like my young self.  But of course I was focusing on career satisfaction and career fit issues, not on the more basic problem of lawyer unemployment.

Some folks would look at your article and say it was prescient.  Others would say it's proof that this is all cyclical, and law schools will be back in full swing soon.  What is your perspective?

I wasn’t predicting anything, but the phenomenon I was writing about—people going to law school for reasons that made no sense, from their own or society’s point of view—was certainly about to become more widespread.

Has anything changed in the practice of law over the last twenty years that would change your article, if it were written today?

If anything has I wouldn’t know.  But I’ve changed.  I continue to think that law was a mistake for me, but now I suspect that if I hadn’t made that mistake, I’d have made some other one.  I think people like me are destined to screw up in their twenties.  And then figure everything out, absolutely everything, in their thirties.

Would you tell a prospective law student today the same thing you would have told them twenty years ago?

A lot of it is still true!  I probably wouldn’t argue as strenuously as I did then, though.

There has been a lot of criticism of lower-ranked schools for selling false hopes, but top-tier schools like Harvard are still generally assumed to generate value for their graduates.  But you criticized law school from the perspective of an elite law alum.  What would you say to someone planning to go to your alma mater?

Most of the things I said about law and its dissatisfactions were as true for Harvard grads as for anyone else.  If law is a mistake for you, then Harvard Law is a mistake too.  But I realize now that I failed to think very much about the elite/non-elite distinction at the time, just because I didn’t have a lot of experience.  Or rather I only had my own, which is what I wrote about.  In hindsight, having had a bunch of jobs and something resembling a career, it’s easier for me to see that brands like Harvard are worth something in the marketplace.  It’s a little flag that signifies something vaguely positive, and I’m sure it has benefited me at times.  It’s certainly not a reason to go to law school, but if you’re going anyway…

Did you ever hear from anyone at Harvard about the article?

I never heard anything from anyone at Harvard directly, but the article was cited a few years later by a Harvard professor—Mary Ann Glendon—in a really good book (I think it was A Nation Under Lawyers, which was much better and more serious than its title).  She used me as an example of the kind of person who really doesn’t belong in the profession.

How has going to law school shaped your subsequent career?

At the time I wrote I was working for a legal publisher, but not long after the article came out I started writing freelance and watching the kids.  Eventually I took a job in a delinquency research office—as a writer, really, not as a lawyer, though some of what I did had to do with law—and that led to my current job with a foundation.  So…?  I have no doubt that law school profoundly shaped my subsequent career, but I have a little trouble sorting out how.  It opened doors and closed doors.

It looks like going to law school has perhaps played more of a role in your career than the typical non-lawyer: you've done a great deal of work on juvenile justice systems, including being director of projects for the National Center for Juvenile Justice (NCJJ). Are you giving short shrift to the benefit of going to law school, even though you are not a practicing attorney?

It was three years with a lot of smart people, so there were intellectual benefits.  And it’s a credential, which is a form of currency—in my case, pretty devalued, but not completely, not like Confederate money.  I see the value now, in the experience as well as the credential, better than I did when I was younger.  But the same would probably be true of any comparable experience, in retrospect.  Three years in prison might have been valuable too.  

What happened, eventually, was that I found jobs that were congenial to me, jobs I felt I could be good at, and then shaped them so that I could make use of as much of my experience as I could.

Do you think some of the "scam" blogs have taken on the role of your "antilaw counselors," to some extent? Should there be a more formal devil's advocate in the law application process?

I didn’t really know these existed!  I’m pretty out of it.  But it sounds like they might be useful.  So might a devil’s advocate—but the problem there is that clever young people are always going to figure out how to say the right words.  I’d have figured it out.

What advice would you have for law schools themselves?

I doubt they would take my advice.  But I guess I would ask them to give thought to whether there’s any truth in the notion that there are too many lawyers in an objective sense as well as too many lawyers who would be happier doing something else.  And if there is, what responsibility do they bear, and what should they do about it, singly or collectively?  It’s easy to say that everybody should be free to make their own mistakes, but if you’re the one benefiting from those mistakes, year in and year out, doesn’t it create some obligation to do something at some point?

Posted by Matt Bodie on December 18, 2012 at 09:08 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink

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