Caveat Emptor: In Defense of Richard Matasar and New York Law School

In Saturday’s New York Times, in what amounts to an article (opinion piece) full of hyperbolic accusations that are better found in a Dateline NBC whodunit, David Segal alludes to the seeming hypocrisy of New York Law School as a reformist legal instituion, and Richard Matasar, as its Dean. He is wrong. Dead wrong. A reporters duty is to tell the whole story, and not half of it. And while Mr. Segal correctly portrays the well known problem surrounding law school, namely that they are too expensive, he puts no blame on the people who attend, nor on the job market that forces them to. Instead, we are made to believe that the entire student body, all who matriculate, are legal zombies, following the beck and call of Mr. Matasar.  Riveting fiction.

A little background.   As a 2003 graduate of Rutgers University, I found that my illustrious choice of double majoring in Political Science and Philosophy didn’t afford me many opportunities at well paying work. My parents, first generation immigrants, paid for my college schooling. I was the first of my family to graduate. At no point did they ever pressure me to go to law school nor did they have some grandiose cliche Jewish parent dream of a lawyer in the family. They were happy that I was learning, and not a communist. Simple people. When I was 20, my father suddenly and tragically passed away and I realized that I needed the closest thing to financial stability I could find in life.  An uncertain life.  I needed a career. Not a job. A career. And so I embarked on a path to law school. I chose New York Law School because they chose me. In other words, they said yes when I applied, when many others did not.  I surmise that was the same reason many of my classmates chose New York Law School as well.

Fast forward to August of 2003 when Richard Matasar gives a speech to the incoming class of New York Law School (you would, think, from Mr. Segal’s article, that the incoming class required a large football stadium to accommodate the size, but somehow we made do with a large room) wherein he states some feel good words you’d expect; “new path”, “horizons” etc.,  and then states words which I have taken to heart since that very day: “Learn Law, Take Action”. It resonated. I have no idea to this day why it did, but it did. Without sounding too much like a great nephew of Ayn Rand, I realized that this was a personal choice I had made, and that the future would be determined solely by what I chose to do here.  Not on a brochure printed at Staples telling me how much money I’d make as a graduate.  I’d like to think I left most of my naivete at college.

In my first year of law school, which, like the books and movies tell you, was amazingly intellectually rigorous, I made Law Review. Shocking to all involved, trust me. While the remaining 90% of my class felt detracted (or so they seemed to say), I was told I’d be receiving job offers left and right from large law firms. One or two interviews came and went. No offers. I didn’t blame the school. Nor was there any reason to. There were more likely explanations at play here.  Maybe I didn’t ace the interview, or perhaps there was a better qualified candidate. Maybe someone from Boston University School of Law applied (yes, employers think like this).  The truth was that I was interviewing for  Labor and Employment Law jobs, and really, I didn’t give a shit about Labor and Employment Law.

As the second and third year of law school education came and went, a common trend became apparent.  Students consistently complaining about the lack of jobs, and ergo, the school was faulted.  No one respected this school.  What a silly decision to come here.  I didn’t necessarily disagree at certain points, but I never ever doubted the schools (particularly the faculty’s) efforts at helping us.  They cared.    On dates I was asked if I went to NYU Law. I simply demurred and mumbled something about New York Law School and ordered more wine.

Upon realizing that my job prospects weren’t necessarily splendid, albeit while a member of the illustrious Law Review, I made an appointment with Career Services for some guidance, and they, although amazingly pleasant, told me to join a bar association and list some languages on my resume. In other words they said “Good Luck.” I didnt expect any more from them. I didn’t think I should have. They don’t have a “Box O’ Jobs” on their desk that you can drop your hand into. Realizing it was time to grow up, I attempted to network (see, “sell yourself”) in any possible situation I could. In Brooklyn, we call that hustling.  Its, you know, how people, get jobs and stuff everywhere.  Since the beginning of jobs.  This led to interviews and yet, still nothing.

In my third year of law school, as part of my requirement for Law Review, I began to compose a paper on a topic I selected. The topic was centered around the need for the reform of the legal education system. I made an appointment to see Mr. Matasar in his office to discuss his perspective on this (not knowing who he was at the time, I thought he’d give some canned response on “changes in the future”). First and foremost, I was somewhat taken aback about how accommodating he was to meet with a random student about a law school paper discussing reform in the first place(at the time I didn’t know any of his views on this).  What followed was a conversation which lasted the better part of an hour where he described in detail and with considerable passion, his thoughts on revolutionizing the way law schools operate, and basically agreed that change, drastic change, is inevitable and should be welcomed. This was in 2006.  In short conversations with him, when he was been gracious enough to have me speak at alumni events, his views are completely in line with what he said before.   Name me more than 5 others Deans who’d be willing to do this.  No, seriously.  Not say they would.  Really and actually would.

Shortly thereafter, I secured a job through a family friend working for a solo litigator in New York. Pay wasn’t great.  Certainly wasn’t $100,000.00  My law school loans stood at $150,000.00.  Upon passing the Bar Exams in New York and New Jersey, I immediately quit my job and opened up my own solo practice. To my knowledge, there were no statistics surrounding how many graduates in the 2006 class did this in the brochures New York Law handed out. I surmise I am the only one who did. Five years later I have two offices and an associate, who, like me, graduated from New York Law School…in the middle of her class. My intern is a 2nd year from New York Law School. I’m going to hire more people from New York Law School.  I’ve graciously been asked to guest lecture classes at New York Law School on the topic of starting your own law firm and the pitfalls surrounding same.  The lectures resonate, not only because I’m a young lawyer and quite close to the ages of many of the matriculated students, but because they, like me, will face horrible job prospects.   They’re scared, just like I was.  They will be forced to open up their own practices in the coming months and years. It will no longer be a voluntary choice like the one I made.  But none of us went into this with blinders on.  None of us can say New York Law School tricked us.  If we do, we’re cheating ourselves at of taking the appropriate personal responsibility for our actions.

In his article, Mr. Segal quotes a 2010 graduate (mind you, one graduate in a class of hundreds) who states New York Law School has a “factory feel” to it. I’ve no idea what that means.  Like a sausage factory?  Or a Ford factory line?  Are they just pushing out lawyers on a conveyer belt?

Here are my “factory” experiences, for which I knowingly and gladly paid $150,000 and believe it to be worth every penny:  When I had lunch with Professor Michael Perlin while I was in law school and he explained his love of the law and Bob Dylan, it didn’t possess much of a factory feel to it. When Professor Elizabeth Chambliss, to whom I will be forever indebted and grateful, gave me the opportunity to tell her classes my story on a yearly basis, it didn’t have a factory feel to it. When Professor Karen Gross explained, in her classes and, thereafter, in emails to me, how financial literacy can change and empower people’s lives, and in part made me become a consumer Bankruptcy attorney, that didn’t have any factory feel to it. When Professor Levine, Professor Jonakait, and Dean Matasar himself made me understand how one can actually use and implement the law and change peoples lives (Professor Jonakait used to say “you’re not a real lawyer unless you’re in court”) there was, and remains, no factory feel. These individuals literally transformed and changed my life. They allowed my practice to come into existence, to grow, so that I could hire more students from New York Law School. Dont blame the faculty. Don’t blame Dean Matasar, who, in less than a decade, turned New York Law School from a laughing stock that my peers in Cardozo and Brooklyn Law peers would laugh at, to a gleaming building in TriBeca that people literally fall over themsleves to get into. Blame the students who, for the most part, like me, never had dreams of becoming a lawyer, but decided to go anyway.  Blame their parents. Blame us. Blame the economy and the profession as a whole for creating such a ridiculous glut of lawyers (many of which absolutely hate practicing law).

There are simply too many me’s out there. Too many people who see the law as not a way to “change” anything, but as a profession that their parents want them to go into. A safety net, which, shockingly, isn’t so safe anymore. Thats the market. This was our choice.  We signed on the dotted line.  Where did personal responsibility go? Where did determination and drive go? Nothing was promised to us. Mr. Segal would have you believe that the next great generation of legal minds looked at a printed glossy brochures with some estimates and decided to plunk down the cost of a house based on that solely? Granted they were nice brochures, but…give me a break.  The same lawyers that complained about not having jobs a few years ago will be the lawyers working on the inevitable class action suits that will be filed against law schools in the coming years.

All five of my best friends are lawyers. All five. None of us thought we’d be lawyers as children. There were no courtrooms in our basements. It was the market. We didn’t know what to do. We wanted nice lives and so we did this. We all pay student loans. Huge student loans. But, unless I’m missing something, Dean Matasar didn’t break into my house in the middle of the night and have me sign forms with Sallie Mae (and if he did, they would be unenforceable anyway-thanks Professor Gross!).  For this very reason, the article David Segal publishes is a perversion.  His declaration that Matasar can’t be a reformist because the tuition is sky high and many more people enrolled misses the point that Matasar doesn’t make these students pay this tuition.  They do it knowing the market is abysmal.  They do it knowing they could pay 1/3 of that at CUNY.  That doesn’t mean he’s not a reformer.  That means that, until the entire legal community gets their act together and decides that law school should be 2 years and not 3, and should have an apprenticeship aspect, NYLS can charge $50,000 a year because people are gladly paying it.

My classmates and I were complaining about the lack of jobs back in 2006. You want to tell me the students from 2009 didnt know? Give me a break. They thought the same thing that I thought, and that many of my friends thought. Some were devoted to law. But besides those 3 people, the remaining portion wanted to make a good living and to have a career. And….and…maybe…possibly….they didn’t have a job and were kind of freaking the hell out (which would also explain the rather odd explosion of young speech pathologists in New York City).

Is there an inherent contradiction in what Dean Matasar does? In an idealistic sense, maybe. Maybe he could slash tuition in half (which would likely double the number of applicants). Maybe he could accept less people. Maybe he could shake some incoming students and scream “DONT DO THIS. RUN. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, RUN” and then get arrested. But I can tell you that far from the one sided, irresponsible portrayal in this Times piece, Dean Matasar is in fact a revolutionary in the field of law school reform. In my experience with him, hes never been one to say “No” to something different or out of the box. Nor has the faculty. I’ve screamed for years about practical implementation of the law to help students hit the ground running upon graduation. Never received a “No.” He has undoubtedly transformed my alma mater. So much so that now, on dates (yes, still dating, thats a whole other blog), if someone asks me if I went to NYU, I say “No, I went to New York Law School.” And then I still order more wine.