The recent New York Times article has caused a flurry of reactions with regards to Mr. Wallerstein and his responses to the mountain of debt that he owes. I have been in the scam blog arena for over a year and have also openly spoken out against law schools. The reaction of Mr. Wallerstein is actually pretty common amongst similar persons that owe a tremendous amount of money. As a 2009 fourth tier law graduate I have spoken to many of my classmates about their situations. I find that the more they owe, the less distress they exhibit. In fact, those who have repeatedly failed the bar exam are more likely to ignore the student loan letters that continue to pile up month after month. They reason to themselves, “I don’t have job and don’t have a license, so why bother?” Others who are working in the legal field but aren’t making anything close to what is necessary to pay off their loans also have a relaxed response when asked about their heavy debt burden. Even in law school when the markets were falling apart and law firms were cutting thousands of attorneys with some firms even going into liquidation, there was little response from my classmates. This denial has been confirmed from other interviews I have conducted in the past year, whether the school was tier 1 or tier 4.
So what is it that causes law students and law graduates to live in a almost delusional state? One big reason is cognitive dissonance and more so, societal conditioning that a lawyer cannot be a failure. Those in fact, were the exact words relayed by Mr. Wallerstein in the NYT interview. Lets explore this topic in more detail. Also, I would like to commend Mr. Wallerstein for having the balls to do the interview with the Times. He will be used as a lightning rod by many scoffers out there. I salute you for helping get this important story out.
Cognitive dissonance is an uncomfortable feeling caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously. The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivation desire to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs, and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming, and denying. Per wikipedia.
So here is our general rule: that a uncomfortable feeling is caused by holding two conflicting ideas at the same time. Mr. Wallerstein clearly suffers from dissonance as he is in a tremendous amount of debt but at the same time is “satisfied” as a law school customer. How does he attempt to reduce his dissonance? By justification and denial. He justifies his precarious financial situation by feeling superior to others who have not become attorneys. He feels that since he did something difficult that many others cannot do the decision to incur the debt was justified. As many are mistakenly under the false impression that lawyers make tons of money and to be successful in our society one must make a ton of money, it is apparent that Mr. Wallerstein and is using justification to reduce the pain of his reality. The reality being that he cannot find full time work that pays him enough to satisfy his loan obligations.
Mr. Wallerstein also utilizes denial to reduce his dissonance. The most important excerpt from the article:
Another of Mr. Wallerstein’s techniques for remaining cool in a serious financial pickle: believe that the pickle might somehow disappear.
“Bank bailouts, company bailouts — I don’t know, we’re the generation of bailouts,” he says in a hallway during a break from his Peak Discovery job. “And like, this debt of mine is just sort of, it’s a little illusory. I feel like at some point, I’ll negotiate it away, or they won’t collect it.”
There is no pickle. There is no debt. Its illusory. These statements clearly show that he is in denial about the situation he finds himself in. Thus, two methods of reducing dissonance are clearly identifiable in the article. No more using Mr. Wallerstein as the point has been made. The Times could have interviewed thousands of other Juris Debtors with the result being similar responses. Per society at large, because they are lawyers they have achieved success. Yet their bank accounts and financial status proves that they are financial failures. Two contradictory beliefs being held at the same time. Cognitive dissonance is truly rampant amongst other recent lawyers and law students.
The worst about this whole mess is the fact that these graduates have failed to realize the big picture: that they have been misled by the law schools. Yes, that's right fellow Juris Debtors. The law schools have been using "enron style accounting" to fudge the employment statistics that the schools publish. The most important element of fraud is misrepresentation of a material fact. Is it not blatantly obvious that strong employment statistics are material reason as to why students choose to attend law school? Would Mr. Wallerstein have attended Thomas Jefferson if he knew how dismal his job prospects would be? I think not. But for the fraudulent actions of the law school he would not have been on the cover of the NY Times. Nevertheless, his dissonance continues.
Again, the cognitive dissonance stems from the decision to go to law school. Many from the classes of 2006 and onwards ask themselves this question, whether or not it was worth it. Have they made a mistake? When you include the six figure debt the question has much larger implications. Many others have realized that they made a horrible mistake and are now in big trouble. Some blame themselves, others blame the law schools. Surely the law schools are to blame as they post fraudulent data. I would apportion 80% of the fault with the schools for posting false data, 20% with the students for not doing their own due diligence. However, some personal responsibility lies with the decision as in the end the ramifications are life altering for the person who signed the dotted line. In he end, the consequences lie with the ultimate decision maker, absent a massive class action or some debt relief. Many now find themselves in a horrible position with debt that grows ever larger with no conceivable means of getting rid of said debt. Students or prospective students that are reading this need to realize that we live in a fucked up world where honesty is now the exception, not the rule. Buyer definitely beware.
While others have also claimed that “they can’t put me in jail” when asked about how they feel about their loans, the reality is that they are in fact enslaved economically. Its called indentured servitude. The Juris Debtor will not be able to purchase a car, a house, go on a vacation, have kids, or partake of many other pleasures of life that others take for granted. While the chains in the past were made out of steel, today’s slavery chains are digital, following the borrower around until they die. I firmly believe the individual's subconscious is speaking out when any reference to jail is made. Deep down they know they are slaves but refuse to believe it. Surely many will scoff at the assertion that nondischargeable debt is not equivalent to slavery. In the days of old this was referred to as Peonage. In addition, studies have shown that severe debt can cause all sorts of harm to one's emotional, physical and mental health. Of course, the student loan debt trap is not confined to law school graduates as many other post grads are getting crushed by this debt such as pharmacy school grads, mba's, dentists, and a plethora of others who pursue overvalued degrees. We are creating a army of mentally battered people across the country. How this situation will culminate only time will tell but my forecast is clearly negative.
In conclusion, the healing process for many of these individuals will begin when they finally recognize the gravity of the situation they find themselves in. Being $200,000 plus in debt is a serious problem, especially when job prospects are dismal. When the system systemically batters the emotional well being of the new intelligentsia, the ramifications for the future of our country are profound. Hopefully some reforms can be put in place so that we can stop digging this deep hole. Also, it is up to the individual borrowers to accept that they have been wronged and that they have also made a terrible financial decision. When the sufferers of CD wake up, they then will be of a sound enough mind to do something about it such as spreading the word. Or we can watch the student debt clock at the top of this blog grow ever higher.