A lot of people wonder if they should go to law school or if they should stay in law.


Here’s how you can tell.


Consider this picture from the New York Times of the Chairman and Vice Chairman of Sullivan & Cromwell meeting to discuss, presumably, some billion-dollar merger or some attempt in Congress to regulate Sullivan & Cromwell’s best clients, major financial institutions.


It’s an image fit for Hollywood: big-name lawyers wheeling and dealing in the top of a skyscraper in downtown Manhattan. Is that the Statue of Liberty in the background?


Here’s a more representative example of a lawyer’s office, again from The New York Times. That’s Thomas Cox, whose glamorous office is apparently a spare room in his house, with a spectacular view of a highway map for the State of Maine.


But what a story Mr. Cox has to tell. I haven’t been able to find out much about his prior practice, except that he hated a good portion of it:


I ended up working for the successor interim bank and for the FDIC itself trying to call in the demand loans that Maine National Bank had made. A lot of those demand loans had been guaranteed and secured by the owners of the businesses involved, and the mortgages were all on their homes.

Maine’s a small state, and Portland’s a small community. Most of us know each other. And I had actually helped the bank make the loans to a number of the businesses that were impacted by that bank closure. So I knew, on a first-name basis, a lot of the business owners whose property I ended up going after later on. A lot of them were perfectly fine small businesses, but because the FDIC model is to call in the loans immediately, it put these business owners and their homes in major jeopardy. And it was a difficult, challenging, unpleasant experience. It was not a feel-good time.


In the movie, he’d be played by George Clooney Steve Buscemi.


After he retired, Cox wanted to make amends, and so started working pro bono publico for Pine Tree Legal Assistance, a non-profit that provides free legal services for low-income residents of Maine.


One of his randomly assigned clients, Nicolle Bradbury, lost her job, couldn’t pay her mortgage, and so was getting evicted. There really wasn’t much to do about it one way or the other — she hadn’t paid, simple as that — but, you know, lawyers are there to ensure the system works correctly, and they can spot problems. And that’s when Cox’s pro bono publico — “for the good of the public” — rose to the challenge:


Suddenly, there is a frenzy over foreclosures. Every attorney general in the country is participating in an investigation into the flawed paperwork and questionable methods behind many of them. A Senate hearing is scheduled, and federal inquiries have begun. The housing market, which runs on foreclosure sales, is in turmoil. Bank stocks fell on Thursday as analysts tried to gauge the impact on lenders’ bottom lines.

All of this is largely because Mr. Cox realized almost immediately that Mrs. Bradbury’s foreclosure file did not look right. The documents from the lender, GMAC Mortgage, were approved by an employee whose title was “limited signing officer,” an indication to the lawyer that his knowledge of the case was effectively nonexistent.

Mr. Cox eventually won the right to depose the employee, who casually acknowledged that he had prepared 400 foreclosures a day for GMAC and that contrary to his sworn statements, they had not been reviewed by him or anyone else.

GMAC, the country’s fourth-largest mortgage lender, called this omission a technicality but was forced last month to halt foreclosures in the 23 states, including Maine, where they must be approved by a court. Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase and other lenders that used robo-signers — the term caught on instantly — have enacted their own freezes.


The employee in question signed 10,000 foreclosures a month, each one of which he swore, under oath, was correct and accurate to the best of his knowledge.


His total lack of any “knowledge” of the foreclosures, and his false affirmation under oath to the contrary when he hadn’t even read the documents, was a “technicality.” Can I stop paying my mortgage, claim under oath that I actually paid it, and call it a “technicality?”


But that’s beside the point here. If you’re wondering about a career in the law and hoping that you can get paid a few million dollars to gaze out on the Statue of Liberty while hobnobing with the most powerful people on earth, then, please, go into something else. There’s always Wall Street.


If, however, you can imagine yourself in a spare room of your home, going the extra mile for people casually written off as deadbeats, and find satisfaction in making a real difference, then sign on. It’s not an easy road, it’s often not lucrative road, but it can provide riches beyond anything that money can buy.


[Update, December 2011: In a sad coda to this post, Thomas Cox recently lamented how the Maine Supreme Court refused to order sanctions against one of the banks involved, despite claiming opining that “such fraudulent evidentiary filings are being submitted to courts is both violative of the rules of court and ethically indefensible.”]