Archive for January, 2011

Law schools: the students

In a recent post, I used The New York Times’ piece on the business that is law school to rail against the predatory nature of law schools. I told you, Dear Reader, that I would have a post to come about the students who attend law school. This is that post.

Well, this is that post with a bit of a twist. You see, yesterday Aaron and I saw Inside Job, the documentary about the global financial crisis that hit in 2008 and continues to be felt around the world. While watching Inside Job, I thought a lot about that Times article. The article features a guy, Michael Wallerstein, who must be nominated for Biggest Ass Ever to Come Out of Thomas Jefferson Law School. I’m pretty sure he’s the favorite for the win.  The kid is annoying at best, completely slapworthy at worst. Wallerstein calls himself part of the “Bailout Generation,” which is a totally new term for me. He seems to think that because Washington bailed out Wall Street, they may do the same for him and his student loans. His loans, by the way, may be $200,000, they may be $300,000. He doesn’t really know.

That attitude drives me crazy. Let someone else clean up my mess! But then after seeing Inside Job, I realized that it drives me crazy for another reason as well: it’s completely delusional. There is no Bailout Generation. At least not for people like me. Or even people like Wallerstein. The bailouts were, and always will be I fear, for the rich. And there will be no repercussions for those who receive them. Those folks go on to run other companies, run universities, run parts of the government. They go on to buy yachts and more houses in the Hamptons. They go on to write the tax code and financial laws. The repercussions of the pernicious actions of the rich, and of the government’s bailouts of the rich, don’t affect the rich, they affect the rest of us. They come in the form of an avalanche, hurting no one at the top of the mountain, but everyone on the way down and piling the most amount of damage on those at the very bottom. [I know the analogy isn’t perfect because, obviously, anyone in an avalanche’s path is going to be destroyed, but let’s just pretend it works.] Washington is not going to step in and help Wallerstein with his massive debt. It’s massive to Wallerstein, but it’s just one person’s debt and it’s meaningless to Washington. [In fact, Aaron told me recently that the interest paid to one’s student loans won’t even be tax-exempt as of 2013. As college and graduate school prices soar out of control compared with personal income, Washington has decided to get rid of the teeny tiny thing they did to help graduates out after accumulating massive loans to pay for an education.] Paying off Wallerstein’s debt — or any middle class or poor person’s debt — is not a priority for our government. There will be no bailouts for those who need the help.

Inside Job is a really great movie. It’s full of great footage of what the economic crisis really did — there are people living in tents in Florida, there are thousands of houses that sit empty and boarded up, there are people waiting in line for food stamps. There is great footage of the decadence and hedonism and arrogance that led to the crisis — Lehman Brothers’ six private jets, prostitution and cocaine, estates with acres and acres of land. But what really makes the movie so great is its simplicity. Over and over we hear that the financial world is far too complicated for us poor, pathetic lay people to understand. Economists laugh at reporters, as if their questions are cute or silly. And while I know that there are all sorts of things in this universe I do not understand, it does not take a genius, or even a BS in economics, to understand what went on here. It was greed.

The movie contains dozens of interviews of economists – some who had warned that the economic climate was becoming increasingly unstable and some who still pretend that they could not have seen this crisis coming. There are so many delicious bits in this movie! Some of the super fun ones come when the director, Charles Ferguson, interviews Frederic Mishkin, a professor in Columbia’s Business School, who also happened to be on the board of the Federal Reserve from September 2006 until May 2008, when he resigned. When Ferguson asks Mishkin why he resigned just as the world needed the most help, Mishkin answered that it was because he had a textbook to edit. Brilliant. Documentaries are so great when a director can get moments like that on film – it’s better than anything scripted. There’s also a perfect moment in the Mishkin interview in which he discusses his paper on the stability of Iceland’s economy. [The movie had started with shots of Iceland and a brief summary of how Iceland’s economy was a total house of cards. For more on Iceland’s nuttiness, I highly recommend this article in Vanity Fair from 2009.] Of course, Mishkin had taken money from Iceland’s Chamber of Commerce to write the puff piece. What may be even more interesting, though, is that his current resume cites the paper as a piece on the INstability of Iceland’s economy. When asked about the change, Mishkin dismissed it as a typo.

There are so many other great moments in the movie; moments when you laugh to keep yourself from crying. Ferguson is a polite, but tenacious, interviewer, which strikes an absolute perfect note, I think. My favorite thing in a documentary like this is when the director can get a previously cooperative subject to ask that the camera be turned off, which happened during part of the Ferguson interview with former Under Secretary of the Treasury during Bush 2, David McCormick. You can almost feel the satisfied grin of the movie’s crew. Zing!

Over the past couple of years, I have heard people state, or at least imply, that the homeowners who bought more than they could afford caused the economic crisis. I am now asking myself why I never felt that way, but why I am quick to blame Wallerstein for his behavior. Both groups of people have been swindled, really, and both groups of people could have known better. Of course part of why I blame Wallerstein is because he comes off as incredibly arrogant and entitled. And the poor homeowners highlighted in Inside Job did not speak English and were literally preyed upon by unscrupulous lenders and brokers. But both of those groups are probably extremes. Most people who have gotten themselves in over their heads are most likely in between. They maybe could have done better due diligence (what does this paperwork really say? how much do we really bring home a month? what kind of jobs are actually out there for recent law graduates? etc.), but both groups are clearly the Little Guy caught up in a savvy, greedy, well-oiled machine. So, while I am all for personal responsibility and owning up to your mistakes, we are talking about money-making practices that are designed to prey upon and chew up and spit out the person who is just looking for their little part of the dream. We aren’t talking about greedy kids or greedy working-class people. We are talking about folks who want to further their education or to put their family in a house. Those aren’t money-crazed people looking for a bailout. They were looking for a loan.

So while I put some responsibility on the students in this law school game, I put the bulk of the responsibility on the schools. The law schools, afterall, are supposed to teach ethics.

A breath of fresh air

There have been times over the years when I have used this forum to rant about poor customer service. You may recall Hyattgate or Chartergate. Recently, I have been annoyed because I have had to call Capital One three times in the last month to ask them to send a credit card with Aaron’s name spelled correctly. Twice, the card came with his name spelled Arron. I called again yesterday — when I came home to another mispelling — so we’ll see if the fourth card will be the charmer with a properly spelled name. But yesterday also came with a pleasant surprise. A major company that does what it says it is going to do. And does it promptly.

Aaron and I are going to St. Maaaaaaarten for our honeymoon in March.  Awesome, right?  I think so.  Anyway, it seems nearly impossible to get to St. Maarten/Martin from Madison in one day, so we fly out in the evening from here, have a layover in Newark and are off to the island the next morning. We have a similar deal on the way back, but the layover is in Chicago. Given this itinerary, we need cheap hotels at which to rest our vacation-bound and vacation-mourning heads. Last night, I booked said hotels. In Chicago, it’s some self-styled boutique hotel with free airport transport for $35. In Newark, I booked through Continental – my airline of choice and the airline that is flying us, on frequent flyer tickets, to the Caribbean. I booked a room at a Wyndham for $90; it was a little pricier than some of the other options, but it looked nicer, and gave us significantly more miles for the stay. I noted, though, that Continental was advertising the price as a “Best Rate.” I looked into this and found that Continental pledged that if I were to find the price for the same room at the same hotel for a lower price, Continental would refund me the difference plus 10% of that difference.  Well, I checked on Wyndham’s website and the room was listed for $80.  I quickly returned to Continental’s website and filled out the “Best Rate” claim form, hit send and did not hold my breath.

I figured there would be some catch.  You know, something like, well, the hotel’s own website doesn’t count or the room you booked has a love seat in it whereas the hotel’s advertised room has a chaise. Or $80 isn’t really that much less so you’re out of luck. Something. At the very least, I figured I would not hear anything for 4-6 weeks. Boy, was I wrong.

At 11:30 last night, I received an email from Continental thanking me for bringing the lower price to their attention and stating that I would be refunded the difference plus the 10% — a whole $13! Super hooray!

Go Continental! Thanks for making me so happy by standing by your promise.

My Saturday. Or how I stopped worrying and removed the carpet.

I love my home, but I am always — and I mean always — thinking about ways to improve it. I think about ways I can enjoy it more, make it prettier, more comfortable, more efficient. I also think  about how someday in the not too-distant future, I will probably try to sell it. I try not to overthink this part because I still want to be able to have my appletini bathroom walls without stressing about what a potential buyer will say.  Watching near-illegal amounts of HGTV does not help me in this endeavor, though.

So, today I woke up and was just really angry with our bedroom. I’ve been annoyed with it for some time and even mentioned to Aaron that today — Saturday — was the day for change. But as I sat in bed with the New York Times, I just stewed and felt paralyzed. While Aaron was out ice fishing, I was thinking about paint colors and furniture placement. Finally, though, I realized that the hugest problem with the bedroom (other than the size or shape, which I cannot really change) is the carpet.  It’s just nasty.  Here’s a pic.

And here’s a close-up.

It just has to go.  I’d like hardwood with a plush rug instead, but I don’t know that I can make that happen anytime soon.  I’ve been curious for a long time what was under this nasty rug.  I figured it wasn’t much because the building is from 1985 and the carpet looks pretty old, maybe even original.  So, what did I do?  I started to pull the rug up.  I was scared: what if I was about to destroy my bedroom?  But my curiousity won out and I am glad it did.  I think I found one of the reasons (other than Gracie) why I need to use my inhaler ten times a night when I sleep in my bed.  Sorry for the horror shot.

It seems that the carpet padding had disintegrated in many spots and left piles of dirt/dust/nastiness in its place. I’m really proud of myself for not throwing up when I saw what was under the carpet.  Instead, I went to work.  Having seen what was there, I certainly could not let it stand! I leapt into action! I visited the Internet and learned that to remove the carpet, I should employ a “carpenter knife” so that I could cut the carpet into smaller pieces, which would have made it easier to remove. That would have been nice. Instead, I just started to rip and rip and tear and tear.

Once I had all of the carpet up, I threw it outside (our bedroom has an outside door in it that accesses our deck — I’ve never been so grateful for that. Had I had to drag all of that nastiness through the house…well, I don’t even want to think about it). Back to the Internet!  How to remove that ubiquitous carpet tacking?  Easy!  Take a screwdriver and wedge it underneath the tacking; lightly tap the end of the screwdriver with a hammer; pry it up; and pull out the nails in the floor with the claw-end of the hammer.  Use the screwdriver and pliers to pull up all of the staples around the room (the staples are used to keep the padding down).

At this lucky point in time, Aaron came home! He was — weirdly — not too surprised to see all of the carpet in the backyard and all of the bedroom furniture in the living room. Instead of being surprised, he just put himself to work with a small crowbar and a hammer. No screwdriver for my husband!  Anyway, around the room we went in the tedious process that is carpet-tacking removal. The long walls weren’t so bad, but the closets were a pain.  The small work area and the many angles was a challenge. Aaron did not see any reason to take on this challenge so he left me alone and went off to search for heavy-duty trash bags. I won’t complain, though, because when he returned he hauled all of the debris out to the garage. Phew! So, this is the finished product.  Finished for now that is.

Funny how the bed made itself once the carpet was gone. So, what’s next? New flooring. Wood or laminate.  That is the question.

Law school: the schools

This is part one in a two-part series on my thoughts on this article from this Sunday’s NYT.

Is law school a racket?  One of the first jokes (I use that term loosely) students learn in law school is that the answer to every question is, “It depends.”  The answer to the question posed here is no different: it really does depend.  It depends on which law school you go to, how you finance it and what your end goal is.

I have long had issue with the US News & World Report’s rankings system and long suspected that there was little accountability and lots of number tweaking.  The article, though, gave me specific targets at which to aim my criticism: the schools themselves and the ABA.  (US News & World Report comes off — to me — as a weak lemming in the mix; reporting just what the ABA and the schools tell it to.)

I did not know that the ABA is setting the “standards” by which the schools measure themselves.  I suspect, of course, that the ABA is easily influenced by schools and their alum so, again, I focus my anger on the schools.

The schools have gotten away for YEARS with charging outrageous sums of money with promises of a rosy financial future.  We all knew that was happening.  What I did not know, though, is that one of the rankings by which US News judges the law schools is by looking at the employment figures for the school’s grads nine months after graduation.  Sounds reasonable, right?  Well, yes, but it does not mean that those grads have to be employed in anything related to the law.  They could be waiting tables, cleaning toilets or walking dogs for a living.  If they have a job, they count as a success!  What’s more is that if the school cannot locate its recent graduates — say, even 25% of them, which Thomas Jefferson School of Law apparently has lost — they count as employed to!  So, wowsers.  Incentive not to keep in touch with your grads?  I think so.

Another thing that I did not know, but suspected, is just how much the schools are overcharging.  Running a law school has a pretty high personnel-level cost to it, but it doesn’t have labs to run or super equipment to buy.  The article states that some law schools are so profitable that tuition money from them can be used to support other, less-flush areas of a university.  I actually don’t mind that idea and, in fact, I may even like it.  I like the idea of a law school, like Wisconsin, that is an important part of the university as a whole.  Law students can reap great benefits from having a fully-funded, thriving university outside its front doors.  Some law students get a dual degree in business or environmental science or history.  I took a Spanish class my third year.  But what about stand-alone law schools that pop up in strip malls in California?  Why does it cost $38,700 for one year of law school at Thomas Jefferson?  Or more than $40,000 at California Western School of Law? (Both in San Diego).  Because they can get it, I guess.  There is certainly no shortage of lenders.

So, the schools charge way too much money and lie about the job prospects.  That’s pretty bad, right?  What’s worse, I think, may be how self-righteous they are about it.

Beth Kransberger, identified as an associate dean of student affairs at Thomas Jefferson, is quoted as having said something that nearly had me throwing the paper across the room in disgust.  She first states that most students at Thomas Jefferson are either (1) the first in their family to get a law degree or (2) immigrants and, according to her, both groups are generally from modest means.  Um, hmm.  So, a dad who is a doctor + a mom who is an engineer = modest means?  Immigrant = poor?  Anyway, moving on.  Whether or not someone is from modest means has absolutely nothing to do with whether they should be accepted to an outrageously priced, craptastic law school.  Actually, maybe it does — maybe it means they should be automatically rejected because the school comes to its ethical senses, realizing that it deliberately preys upon the poor person who thinks a law degree from Thomas Jefferson is something worth paying for.

The idea that law schools are getting away with bilking students of vast sums of money by promising them a secure future in a very insecure world makes me want to scream.  What Ms. Kransberger, or any other law school administrator or professor, should be saying is this:  If you, potential law student, want to get a legal education you should be aware of the following:  (a) law school is expensive; (b) there is no guarantee that you will get a legal job — or any job — upon graduation; (c) the market is saturated with lawyers; (d) where your degree is from matters; (e) doing well in school matters; and (f) lenders expect to be paid back.  With interest.  Potential student, you should also know this: (a) a legal education can be a really great, exciting thing; (b) law school is at once academically vigorous and incredibly tedious; (c) being a lawyer is at once intellectually stimulating and painfully detail-oriented; (d) the law is the fundamental basis for a responsible civic community and, thus, as a lawyer, you will be a part of something very important; (e) you will, as a lawyer, often feel that you make no difference whatsoever and (f) every once in a while, you will feel very satisfied and proud.

Even if schools continue to charge crazy amounts for tuition (and I don’t see this changing anytime soon — it seems that academia always does well in a bad economy), I hope that they can at least be more honest with their consumers.  And if they cannot, they I hope the consumers will do their due diligence, wise-up and make more educated decisions.

Next post: the students!

[Full disclosure: Ms. Kransberger held a similar position to the one she holds now at the UW Law School when I was a student there.  In fact, at the beginning of my third year, I learned that the school would not be renewing the very small scholarship (about $500) that they had awarded me my first two years.  My friend, Jess, learned the same thing about hers.  Jess set up a meeting with Ms. Kransberger to discuss the situation, but Jess was quickly dismissed when Ms. Kransberger told her the decision was final, citing the school’s “obligation to its first year students.”  I believe I emailed Ms. Kransberger to complain about these decisions but never got a response.  To me, Ms. Kransberger seemed to be saying that her philosophy is to rope students in with inducements that they later take away when the students become so entrenched they have virtually no choice but to complete the degree.  Not that I would have gone to law school, or dropped out of law school, over $500, but the attitude was what struck me then — and strikes me now in the article — as almost unethical.]

We win!

So, we’ve come full circle really: pumpkin to the wedding.

What a great (and entirely exhausting) weekend! Aaron and I had the greatest wedding ever! Ok, well, maybe not, but it was exactly as I wanted it to be, minus a couple of people who could not attend. I thought it was really warm (sometimes too warm, really — we couldn’t find the thermostats), intimate, fun, cozy, friendly, loving and just…well, sweet. The ceremony was brief — Aaron read his cute vows, I read mine, Maggie figured out how to untie Sarayu’s knot on the ring pillow, we exchanged rings, Maggie the Minister announced our marriage and we all toasted with champagne! Ta-da! Then we dug into Aaron’s delicious carnitas and Bloom Bakeshop’s amazing cupcakes. Yum! [Sidenote: I could not recommend Bloom more — the owner is an absolute delight to work with, the cupcakes were gorgeous and taste-a-licious (I thought I might die when eating my cookie dough cupcake), and she readily made a couple gluten-free treats for my gluten-sensitive friend. Also, I didn’t even specify ANYTHING for her — just two gluten-free — and let her do what she does best: make delicious, and fun, cupcakes. Four thumbs up!]

The night went along and we played games, chatted, ate, drank, lit sparklers, Steve lit many sparklers at once causing the most disgusting blister I have ever seen, toasted to 2011 and finally went to bed. On Saturday, we were all treated to the World’s Most Amazing Breakfast (WMAB) courtesy of Terry & Steve. The b-fast included hot items, cold items, protein, carbs, starches, dairy, fruit, coffee, eighteen kinds of juices, bloody marys, mimosas, and leftover cupcakes galore! It was truly spectacular.

Then came the Rose Bowl. We’ll gloss over that part because, really, who cares. Hot dogs, leftover carnitas, hot hors d’oeuvres, more drinks, more games and more celebration carried the day (and evening).

On Sunday, almost all folks hit the road. I cried a lot when Sarayu left; I felt so grateful for her coming all that way to spend time with us. I felt that way about everyone, of course, but it hit me particularly hard to see my Little Indian head out to head home. Four of Aaron’s friends stayed until Monday, though, which meant Go Packers! Go Post-season! Go Sister Bay Bowl! And Go Kate & Aaron are up until 2 am again! Zoinks.

Monday morning came fast and the six of us acted like a well-oiled machine to get the house back in order for the Incredibly Strict Owner’s scrutiny. We had to be out by 10 a.m., but we beat the buzzer by at least 15 minutes. The ride home was rough — Gracie and Aaron and I all had a hard time keeping our eyes open. I really don’t think I’ve ever been so tired in my life. Aaron was a champ with the driving (I suggested we ask if Rosendale had a secret hotel somewhere) and we were home before 3 pm. We unloaded the car (and by “we” I really mean Aaron), which was even more full than when we drove up, if that’s possible. I took a nap and was still down for the count before 10 pm.

Best weekend ever? For me, definitely.

A special thanks goes out to Gwendolyn for her beautiful flower arranging; Heather for the last-minute chip run; Jane for making the world’s most beautiful ring pillow; Maggie for being an incredibly flexible and sweet minister; Terry and Steve for hauling our loads of crap, helping out in every possible way and for hosting the WMAB; my mom and Severa for the cupcakes and hors d’oeuvres; Mike, Jess, Stacy & Zach for the clean-up help; Sara & Chuck for not killing us for being short a room; CJ for letting Sara & Chuck stay with her; and Sarayu for best all-around: she did my make-up, she listened to me complain and didn’t get angry when I snapped, she did my hair, she slept in a different room every night of her stay, she slept on a couch, she bought me batteries, she brought me prosecco, she made my martinis (are you seeing a theme) and she had my back every time I needed it. Which was kinda a lot. I’m incredibly blessed to have the friends and family I do. I am so lucky. And I’m so very lucky to have Aaron. He’s a true gem.

And Gracie is the best dog ever.

January 2011

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