6 posts

The least sympathetic ‘I have lots of student debt’ story ever

Yesterday the New York Times brought us a story about the plight of law school graduates that focused on a guy named Michael Wallerstein. Ostensibly, Wallerstein’s purpose was to serve as a nice thumbnail for the story’s angle: that law schools are ripping students off and leaving them with lots of debt and very little in the way of job prospects.

Now, in general the article made a pretty solid case that structural incentives are driving law schools into a never-ending chase for more students and more tuition money, even though the job market for new lawyers is basically complete shite. Fair enough.

But the more we learn about this Wallerstein character, the less I want to feel sorry for him. Let’s review his case!

And many students enroll for reasons other than immediate financial returns. Mr. Wallerstein, for instance, was drawn by the prestige of the degree. He has no regrets, at least for now, even though he seems doomed to a type of indentured servitude at least through his 30s.

“Law school might not be worth it for another 10 or 15 years,” he says, “but the riskier approach always has the bigger payoff.”

Good start! Is he an asshole, or just painfully delusional? We don’t know yet, and must read on to find out. Very suspenseful, New York Times!

WHEN he started in 2006, Michael Wallerstein knew little about the Thomas Jefferson School of Law, other than that it was in San Diego, which seemed like a fine place to spend three years.

“I looked at schools in Pennsylvania and Long Island,” he says, “but I thought, why not go somewhere I’ll enjoy?”

All major life decisions should really come down to whether or not the weather is good. That’s the kind of critical thinking I would look for when hiring an attorney.

Mr. Wallerstein is chatting over lunch one recent afternoon with his fiancée, Karin Michonski. She, too, seems unperturbed by his dizzying collection of i.o.u.’s. Despite those debts, she hopes that he does not wind up in one of those time-gobbling corporate law jobs.

“We like hanging out together,” she says with a laugh.

If love paid the bills, these two would be debt-free tomorrow. But it doesn’t, and Mr. Wallerstein has no money in the bank, no assets and — aside from the occasional job as a legal temp — no wages to garnish. He and Ms. Michonski live rent-free in a nearby brownstone, in return for keeping an eye on the elderly man who owns the place.

Wait. These two (I kind of feel sorry for the girlfriend getting dragged into this, but since she obviously has such awful taste….) have no plans for ever repaying their debts while they live for free in a New York City brownstone. And we’re supposed to feel sorry for him.

WHEN Mr. Wallerstein started at Thomas Jefferson, he was in no mood for austerity. He borrowed so much that before the start of his first semester he nearly put a down payment on a $350,000 two-bedroom, two-bath condo, figuring that the investment would earn a profit by the time he graduated. He was ready to ink the deal until a rep at the mortgage giant Countrywide asked if his employer at the time — a trade magazine publisher in New Jersey — would write a letter falsely stating that he was moving to San Diego for work.

“We were on a three-way call with my real estate agent and I said I didn’t feel comfortable with that,” he says. “The Countrywide guy chuckled and said, ‘Everyone lies on their mortgage application.’ ”

Great. We found the one group of people more hateable than bratty law school students… Countrywide mortgage loan officers. What a nexus of suck.

Instead, Mr. Wallerstein rented a spacious apartment. He also spent a month studying in the South of France and a month in Prague — all on borrowed money. There were cost-of-living loans, and tuition of about $33,000 a year. Later came a $15,000 loan to cover months of studying for the bar.

Oh, he actually did the right thing! Way to pay attention in those ethics classes! But wait, then he went and rented a huge apartment and dicked around in Europe. What kind of “studying” can a law student accomplish in France in only one month? Is this actually part of the curriculum? Are we training lawyers in how to make a fucking salade nicoise now?

Today, his best guess is that he should be sending $2,000 to $3,000 a month in total, to lenders that include Wells Fargo, Citibank and Sallie Mae.

“There are a bunch of others,” he says. “I’m not really good at keeping records.”

Good. I hate when my lawyer bothers to do stupid shit like “keep records.” Keeping records is for gay-ass bitches. Fuck that. I’d rather hire a lawyer who knows his way around the hostels of Prague.

AS a student, Mr. Wallerstein assumed that the very scale of law school — all the paperwork, all the professors, all the tests — implied that pots of gold awaited anyone with smarts, charm and a willingness to work hard. He began to doubt that assumption when the firm where he had interned told him that it hadn’t been profitable for two years and could not offer him a full-time job.

Well, the assholishness is strong in this one, but don’t forget his delusional side! But now is where we get to my absolute favorite part of the article, when Wallerdouche really brings it all together….

MR. WALLERSTEIN, for his part, is not complaining. Once you throw in the intangibles of having a J.D., he says, he is one of law schools’ satisfied customers.

So yeah, obviously he’s quite the sympathetic victim of the unscrupulous law schools.

“It’s a prestige thing,” he says. “I’m an attorney. All of my friends see me as a person they look up to. They understand I’m in a lot of debt, but I’ve done something they feel they could never do and the respect and admiration is important.”

This guy is $250,000 in debt and works a crappy document review temp job and yet he’s STILL convinced all his friends look up to him. Like I said… don’t ignore this guy’s ability to delude himself.

Unless, somehow, the debt just goes away. 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.”

He gives a slight shrug and a smile as he heads back to work. “It could be worse,” he says. “It’s not like they can put me jail.”

Now far be it from me to take an overly moralistic view of debt. I consider defaulting on a debt to be an economic problem, not a moral one. But knowing what we know about this guy’s reasons for going to school, his desire to live in a big apartment near the beach, the European vacations and his complete lack of a viable career path…. I nominate for the title of Mr. Wallerstein America’s Least Sympathetic Student Debt Story.

(I think this story won the title in 2009.)