If you’re a lawyer or law student, you probably know Top Law Schools or TLS, the collection of forums with a religious following of people who currently are, or were at one point, obsessed with getting into law school.
One superposter, an attorney in the Midwest, has written more than 14,000 posts over a seven-year period starting in college. That’s an average of 5.8 times per day, which puts him in the Top 30 on TLS’s leaderboard. He asked to not be named because of the potential impact on his career, so we’ll call him “Michael.”
Michael has defended the University of Illinois’s law school from haters in a thread called “Why UIUC Sucks” and sought advice on studying the key doctrines of Corporations Law, but mostly he has advised literally hundreds of people online about their odds of acceptance at a particular law school in the “What are my chances?” forum. Sometimes Michael posts on what is probably the most famous thread on TLS: “The Vale of Tears,” a long-running TLS thread for law students and recent grads without job offers. The name derives from a verse in an ancient Catholic prayer, “To thee do we send up our sighs, mourning and weeping in this vale of tears.”
The Great Recession was a well-documented disaster for those entering the legal field. During the financial crisis, law firms laid off associates and “no-offered” entire incoming classes. Early TLSers like Michael heard rumblings in 2009, but the general public became aware two years later when the New York Times ran a high profile story on this lost generation of J.D.’s facing the “grimmest job market in decades.”
Law schools initially ignored the employment crisis and continued to increase tuition. At first there were few critics from within the academy. In 2011, University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos began his blog Inside the Law School Scam. Shortly thereafter, Washington University law professor Brian Z. Tamanaha published his seminal book Failing Law Schools. “Many law professors at many law schools across the country are selling a degree to their students that they would not recommend to people close to them,” he wrote. Tamanaha predicted that structural changes meant that the legal market would never return to its pre-Recession levels. Unemployment for lawyers would be the new normal. The Vale of Tears catalogues the human toll of that trend.
It makes sense that there is so much weeping on this particular message board. These graduates face an average of $112,776 of student debt with no foreseeable prospect to repay. “The Vale gives people an opportunity to talk openly about sensitive personal and employment issues in a way you can’t with classmates,” Michael said.
Top Law Schools was founded in 2003 by Ken DeLeon, a Silicon Valley attorney who transitioned to a successful career in real estate. He started the site to help applicants optimize their chances at getting into law school. Historically most TLS activity focused on the law school application process, with forums dedicated to studying for the LSAT and writing a personal statement.
Often, students applying to law school will ask TLS to collectively “chance them” based on their GPA, LSAT, other factors, and choice of school. The TLS community has its own language that can take some getting used to. “Splitter” means an applicant with a low GPA and a high LSAT score, or vice versa. “Softs” means everything about a person’s application other than GPA and LSAT, such as interesting work history. When people agree with another poster on TLS, they’ll write TITCR meaning “this is the credited response.”
Although I was not a regular poster on TLS, I found the site very useful in law school. Every user I interviewed for this article agreed. “I’ve used TLS as a resource for every major decision — and many minor ones — ever since I became interested in law school in 2008,” wrote one TLSer. “It’s incredible that so many people are willing to help random strangers on the internet.”
Other professions have similar online communities. Business school applicants have Poets & Quants, which produces a series called “B-School Smackdowns.” (Spoiler alert: Wharton beats Harvard.) Unlike TLS, however, the articles on Poets are more popular than the forums, making the site more akin to an industry publication like Above the Law. Accountants have Going Concern, but that is mostly read by practicing accountants rather than students. Perhaps the closest thing to TLS is Chemjobber for science professionals. The popular blogger challenges the assumption that STEM degrees are “safe” by revealing unexpectedly high unemployment rates. He also provides data on the prevalence of depression and anxiety to draw attention to STEM’s mental health crisis.
Despite common themes, Top Law Schools distinguishes itself from other sites with its unique blend of elitism and pessimism. Each year U.S. News & World Report releases its official law school rankings, and schools that are ranked 1-50 are widely considered to be Tier 1. But TLS promotes an even snobbier hierarchy: Yale through NYU are T6 (top six); followed by either T10, T14, T15, or T20 (the exact number is fiercely debated); then the rest of Tier 1 and Tier 2. Tier 3 and Tier 4 schools are collectively referred to as TTT (“third tier toilet”).
The prevailing wisdom on TLS is that TTT schools are not worth attending. There are some threads like this where people tell someone he “should have known” he would strike out at jobs when he decided to attend a lower-ranked school. Over the years, the TLS moderators have campaigned to reduce negativity in the forums. None of the TLS users I interviewed supported these personal attacks, but they all felt being down on the legal market was justified. “In the post-Recession legal market, it’s unwise to debt-finance the sticker price for any law school — even the top schools in the country,” wrote one TLSer. “TLS is pretty ruthless about telling it straight.”
What fascinates me about Michael is that he’s a TLS mega-poster where law school actually worked out. He landed a well-paying litigation job through his school’s on-campus recruiting program. Many of his classmates struggled to find jobs, so he kept this news private in real life. He felt something like survivor’s guilt.
But Michael talked about his successful job hunt on TLS, which always benefited from the transparency of its users. He posted on “The Vale of Tears” to encourage others not to give up hope. He shared his mantra: “Keep your head up, you’ll find something, keep grinding, we’re all pulling for you.” When one of the Vale’s many anonymous job hunters finally found a position with a small town firm, he wrote, “Way to be, my friend.”
John has a very different story. He went to law school for the “existential reason” of being interested in social justice issues. But he also had practical experience working in corporate HR, a soft that could give him an edge in a tough job market. During the application process, John read the TLS forums extensively. When he applied in 2010, he knew based on his GPA and LSAT exactly what schools would admit him and at what price. “No question that TLS gave me an advantage,” he says.
Unemployment for lawyers would be the new normal. The Vale of Tears catalogues the human toll of that trend.
John reduces three years of law school to three words: “I was median.” Average grades meant employers wouldn’t look at him despite having a Tier 1 school on his resumé. Six years later, John still finds this insane. “The legal industry treats law graduates like your career is determined before it’s even started!”
John estimates applying to 500 jobs before and after graduation. Out of this, he got four interviews; two were just courtesies. The only “job” John landed was a volunteer position for a government agency. He lived in a former tenement in the South Side of Chicago and went on Medicaid for health insurance. Unable to make payments, his student loans quickly ballooned from $205,000 to $260,000. He scrambled to find doc review gigs for $19 to $22 hour. This meant reading thousands of spam emails and clicking on the ones that were not relevant to the pending lawsuit. He felt like a trained chimpanzee.
Whenever he could, John shared his nightmarish story on TLS. He posted in the “Vale” and began his own discussion threads styled as public service announcements:
Just a warning to all new applicants. This process takes a lot out of you mentally, puts you in a mountain of debt, and in the end, is nothing more than a giant pyramid scheme that allows silver-haired shysters running law schools to become millionaires with no accountability to what they are doing to students or to society [. . .] I've seen this scam wilt the life out of so many brilliant, young people, from the T6 on down. You should make sure you're not one of them.
Many on TLS were supportive, but John recalls a few hateful comments. “They said things like, ‘If you’re unhappy, it’s your fault. You didn’t study hard enough. You’re a median loser.’” John harbors no ill will toward his TLS bullies because he thinks they are displaying a classic psychological response to trauma. “It’s blaming the victim, sympathizing with the accuser.”
John resolved to put the TLS haters out of mind — just like his student debt. “The reality is if I don’t make any money, they can’t make me pay it.” He stopped obsessively checking his balances.
Today John has finally found a job with a small plaintiffs firm. The pay is erratic but his earnings now provide a small financial buffer. He still maintains his habit of deliberately not thinking about his student loans. “Thinking about how much I have to pay off compared to how much I have actually made up until this point will just drain the life out of me,” he said. “But I need that psychological energy to succeed at what I'm doing right now. If I can't make that happen, then nobody wins.”
Active TLS users believe negativity on the forums mirrors the situation in the real world. Michael thinks most lawyers and future lawyers are acerbic by nature, especially behind their keyboards. John says TLS “reflects the callous nature of the legal industry in general.”
The notion that TLS models real life recalls the argument that the internet actually is real life. Everyday people are asking these forums to decide their real life questions, publicly revealing highly personal stats to ask whether and where they should go to law school.
Michael describes his contribution to TLS the way others speak about the value of volunteering. He joined TLS because he needed to connect with current law students and recent grads who knew how to succeed in the new economy. In recent years, he’s been giving back to the site. I ask if he considers himself a “coach” to applicants and students. More like “educator,” he says.
For John, posting on TLS is all about justice. “In any other forum, these results would be looked upon as a giant unethical scam. We’d arrest the people that are profiting from this. But because it’s higher education, it’s somehow considered legitimate.” John is proud that TLS and other online communities revealed the law school crisis before it was well-known. He continues to post on TLS because not everyone reads those articles in the New York Times. Some might be misled by recent rosy portrayals in the Wall Street Journal and glamorous shows like Suits. TLS gives John a voice. “I want less people to apply. It’s the only way to force change in this industry.”
If that’s the case, John has work to do. When the legal employment crisis first attracted publicity, law school applications tanked. There were 38 percent fewer applicants in 2013 compared to 2010, contributing to a 30-year-low. But it appears law school applications are on the rise again with programs reporting a 12 percent increase between 2016 and 2017 even though the job market for lawyers has not significantly improved. Ten months after graduation, only about 63 percent of graduates find legal positions where bar passage is required, according to the American Bar Association. Many factors are likely at play, including the current political climate and a younger millennial cohort that was largely shielded from the recession. John continues to publish on TLS to reach this doe-eyed new audience.
I wondered if Top Law Schools had become what creator Ken DeLeon intended. DeLeon told me he envisioned a supportive environment where people could “synergistically help themselves through the forum and the community would give back to itself.” Overall, TLS seems to be abiding by its founding principles. But its approach to giving back to the community has become very unorthodox: On TLS, paying it forward means telling others to think long and hard before they join.