Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) — Paul Campos

Paul Campos saves what might be the best paragraph of Don’t Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk for the very end of the book, so I’m going to invert his structure and start with it:

Have you ever said to yourself, “I don’t know what to do with my life – so I’m going to spend three years of it going deeply and irreversibly into debt, in a quite possibly futile attempt to enter a profession that I have no actual desire to join?” I bet you haven’t, because who would ever say something that idiotic? Every year, however, thousands of people are perfectly capable of doing something that idiotic. If they weren’t, half the law schools in the country would be out of business tomorrow.

We’ve looked into the mirror and seen the enemy, and the enemy is ourselves. Sure, someone else might hand us the weapons we use to mutilate ourselves—that is, student loans—but someone who hands you a loaded gun isn’t obligating you to shoot yourself in the foot. Perhaps they shouldn’t have handed you the gun, but they did, and you can’t wholly blame that person for your mistake. It sure is more fun, however, to blame someone else for your mistakes than it is to stand up and say, “I’m an idiot and I’ve made bad life choices.”

I, however, am idiot and made a bad life choice—but I quit law school after one year, based largely on bad assumptions, fear, stupid desire, anachronistic beliefs about the legal market, and various other factors I’d rather not examine in detail. The problems with law school are slowly becoming better known: “for more than 30 years now the market for legal services has been contracting relative to the rest of the economy.” The basic problem is that law schools have been raising tuition faster than the rate of inflation for decades, and the legal market is a well-defined and studied one: there are about twice as many credentialed lawyers being minted as there are jobs for them to enter.

You don’t have to be a mathematician to realize that some of those would-be lawyers are going to be left out. In the last, they would have been left with relatively little debt, which would have made arguments like “a law degree will open doors even if you don’t practice law” at least somewhat plausible and mildly tenable. Now those kinds of arguments aren’t. There are lots of common, bad reasons people go to law school (Campos: “Like a lot of other people, I went to law school I couldn’t think of anything better to do. At the time I applied I was three years removed from my undergraduate days as a somewhat aimless English major [. . .]”), and law school itself doesn’t really prepare people for practicing law.

That wasn’t really a problem when tuition was cheap. Now it’s a huge problem, because having more than $100,000 in law school debt that can’t be discharged will hurt people for decades. Plus, law school isn’t even imparting important skills for lawyers: as Campos says, “The two most important practical skills that any lawyer working in private practice must possess are the ability to acquire clients, and to get them to pay their bills, which happens to be two things that most legal academics have never done in their lives.”

There’s little pressure, at least right now, on legal academics to learn these kinds of skills and impart them to their students. The only way I can see to create that kind of pressure is by convincing enough people not to go to law school that the schools themselves start receiving market pressure to reform. Without that pressure, they can simply continue.

Campos is a law professor and has spent the last year and a half writing about the problems in law school on the blog Inside the Law School Scam, which is like porn for academic eggheads. It’s got lots of well-researched money shots. But, also like porn, too much of it all at once is enervating, and by now the larger point—don’t go to law school—is or should be well-known. For people considering law school, the only real question can be answered with a binary: Should I go to law school? The answer is almost certainly “no.” For most people, ITLSS only needs to be read once: the problems of law schools are most pressing for law school insiders, not for the rest of us. We need to know that “most people currently attending law school would be better off not doing so.”

And it’s intellectually honest to admit as much: “I’ve become increasingly aware that my ridiculously good job is being paid for by people who are increasingly unable to get the kinds of jobs they came to law school to get.” But relatively few insiders are willing to admit that the systems they participate in and propagate aren’t good for outsiders. That’s one reason Campos’s book is so admirable. It’s also uses stories but eschews relying exclusively on them and focuses instead on money.

The more I pay attention to the world, the more I see how much money and financial constraints underlie a lot of surface phenomena. In an ideal world, money is a strong proxy for value; a company like Google or Apple is worth a lot because both provide a lot of value to people. The education world, however, has broken that link, and the breakage is getting worse with time.

I wonder how long it’s going to take until some law school decides to utterly reverse course and simply say that it’s going to have ugly buildings, a small library, huge class sizes, and very low tuition—say, $10,000 a year. Or $9,500. The professor-to-student ratio would be something like 1:100, and there’d be a dean and virtually no other administrative support or special programs. But this model would focus on being sustainable and making sure that students don’t face penury at the end of law school.

Instead of working to compete with the current model that almost all law schools employ (or deploy), Jake’s hypothetical would do the opposite, and be proud of getting people a legal education for under $30,000 in tuition, with a maximal focus on employability following graduation and a minimum focus on student loans (I’d also love to see open-source textbooks). They could advertise their alternate strategy, and maybe have a blog that explains the ways the conventional system is set up to screw students.

As far as I know, a couple of schools try the “admit everybody and charge them a lot” model, but few try the “admit many, but charge them a little model.” The notorious Thomas M. Cooley Law School does the former, and no one who knows anything about law school will go there, but they charge $54,000 per year right now. There might be institutional or ABA-imposed barriers that I’m unaware of. Still, if that kind of model is successful, it could at least challenge the hegemony of the Harvard-Yale-Stanford model of law school, which is untenable and getting worse.

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