Questioning 'Unemployed J.D.'

August 25, 2010

When a recent law school graduate announced a hunger strike this month, many rallied around "Ethan Haines," as he described himself. Within the blogosphere, and among many legal educators, there is worry about the tight job market for new law grads, and debate over whether too many students are being admitted to law school.

The hunger striker's blog -- Unemployed J.D. -- was coy about the real identity and background of Haines. And while Haines answered questions for Inside Higher Ed via e-mail a few weeks ago, Haines declined to get on the phone until Tuesday. That's because Tuesday's USA Today featured an article revealing who Haines really is.

Haines is Zenovia Evans, and she is a 2009 graduate of the Thomas M. Cooley Law School, in Michigan. But while her blog's name and her comments described her as unemployed, she's arguably employed. She's an M.B.A. student at the University of Colorado at Denver working as an independent contractor for a Colorado law firm and preparing to sit for the bar exam. She's continuing her hunger strike -- in its 20th day as of Wednesday -- but is drinking some liquids and fruit smoothies, based on medical advice. She is also the self-published author of a book that encourages undergraduates to consider law school -- a fact that has outraged some of her online supporters who believe that part of the solution to the law employment crisis is to stop encouraging so many people to go to law school.

In an interview, Evans said she stood by her campaign and that her personal story should not be the focus of discussion of law schools and career placement. She said she referred to herself on her blog as "class representative" because she wanted to speak out on behalf of many who are frustrated by not finding a job.

As to the fact that she called herself unemployed when she isn't, she said that she viewed her campaign as helping "the unemployed or the under-employed." Evans has also stressed the burdens of debt -- and she said she has $150,000 in debt from law school. But she is currently borrowing more money (although she said comparatively small sums) to enroll in business school. She said that she is impressed with the program quality and doesn't see a contradiction in complaining about student loan debt and taking more on, given that she feels she is learning valuable material in her M.B.A. courses.

Evans hasn't asked law schools to guarantee jobs. She sent requests to 10 law schools, randomly selected, asking them to meet new standards of transparency on their job placement rates and to agree to do an audit of their career counseling programs. The standards were developed by a group called Law School Transparency, which argues that many law schools are less than forthright in the way they present data, effectively fooling prospective students into thinking that enrolling will lead to a lucrative job with a top firm or a prestigious one as a clerk. The group, and other advocates for reform, say that law schools play up unscientific information (such as alumni success stories) instead of providing detailed reports about where recent graduates actually end up.

To date, Evans said that none of the law schools have responded to her request, so she plans to continue to fast.

Before identifying herself, Evans was quite critical of her own law school (without naming it) for not providing enough information or assistance about careers. The Thomas M. Cooley Law School does seem to engage in some of the practices various student groups criticize. Its main career-oriented content on the Web pages for prospective students consists of alumni success stories. Information elsewhere on the site includes more complete statistics, which suggest a job placement rate and average salaries well below national averages. Of those in Evans's class who reported their status to the law school, 78 percent are employed and their average salary is $52,000.

An outside public relations outfit that works for the law school confirmed that Evans was a graduate, but said that the law school did not want to talk about the issues she has raised. "Cooley is proud of the quality education that it provides its students. We won’t be commenting further on the matter," said a spokesman at the PR agency.

While Evans's alma mater isn't talking about her, many in the blogosphere who called her a hero when she was Ethan Haines (and who still agree with her demands on law schools) are now attacking her. Much of the criticism comes from those who believe that if law schools were honest about supply and demand of lawyers, they would stop growing and might in fact shrink. And these people believe that anyone considering career paths that don't involve law school should get encouragement in that direction. Evans has self-published J.D. Lifeline books, one of which is designed to encourage undergraduates to find ways to go to law school. She also has a blog in which she gives advice to law students.

To many, this makes her part of the problem. The website J.D. Underground featured posts Tuesday with titles such as "she wants in on the pyramid scheme" and "This is just ... incredible self-promotion." (Posts there and elsewhere also conveyed a fair amount of snobbery, with many suggesting they would have preferred to have discovered that Ethan Haines had a degree from a highly ranked law school. Evans herself appears ambivalent about her alma mater -- on her LinkedIn page, she names her undergraduate institution and the university where she is earning an M.B.A., but states that her law degree came from "Contemporary Midwestern Law School.")

The blog Shilling Me Softly -- which had embraced the cause of Ethan Haines -- attacked Evans in two posts Tuesday. "I'm officially withdrawing my support of the alleged hunger strike. Zenovia Evans is an opportunist, and even if she is sincere in this case and has been starving herself for justice, I don't trust her. Now that she's outed herself, people will naturally do a little poking around on the interwebs, and they will very easily be able to find her LinkedIn profile, her blog, and they will find this blog post where I lay everything bare and reveal her for the hypocrite that she is."

Evans said in the interview that her new critics don't understand her goals. She said she believes in legal education and just wants improved career services, especially for those who are seeking jobs outside the traditional law firm route.

She said that -- unlike the bloggers who turned on her Tuesday -- she doesn't want to discourage people from enrolling in law school. "I don't think law school is a scam. I think it's a great degree and it's done amazing things for me," she said. And while Evans stressed that she didn't view her choices as typical of those of most law students, she did say, "I have a career track."

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