Circumstances under which going to law school can make sense

The reasons you should avoid law school are well known and I won’t repeat them here, but the other day I was explaining to a former student why she shouldn’t go to law school and she asked a perceptive question: Who should go? Under what conditions should a person go?

The answer is “almost no one” and “almost never,” but law school can be okay in a handful of circumstances:

* People who have already worked in law firms, probably as a paralegal but maybe under other circumstances, and who thus understand what the day-to-day life of a lawyer is like. That firm should have a job waiting and ready to go for the person before the person starts law school.

* People who have family (or close family friends) in law firms who can set the law school applicant up with a job straight out of school. If your uncle has a firm and wants you to take over that firm, law school can make sense.

* People with a very specific sense of what they want a law degree for and what they want to do with it—for example, people who desperately want to fight for voting rights, or immigrant rights, or something along those lines, and are convinced that those fights will be their life’s work, regardless of other challenges.

That’s really it; if I’m missing something, leave a comment or send an email. Law school mostly works for people who don’t need law school and only need the credentials that law school entails. There is a reason why most lawyers learned the craft on the job as apprentices, and law school only became a requirement in the post-World War II-era as a way of raising the salaries and status of then-existing lawyers.

Even going to highly ranked schools doesn’t make sense because, while you may get a big-firm job straight out of school, you’ll still be shackled to the work by student loan debt slavery, and you’ll still have to be a lawyer at the end (which most people don’t really want to do), and you’ll still probably not make partner (which means that you’re mostly working to line someone else’s pocket).

Don’t go to law school.

The followup to Lawrence Mitchell’s specious law school editorial

A friend observed that more than a few people savaged the editorial I discussed in “The specious reasoning in Lawrence M. Mitchell’s ‘Law School Is Worth the Money.'” The savaging doesn’t surprise me. Sometimes there are two sides to a story, but sometimes the evidence in favor of one side or interpretation is so strong that only a fool would disbelieve it.

If you know anything at all about law schools and the structure of law schools, it’s impossible not to see Mitchell’s piece as self-serving and disingenuous at best, and cruelly mendacious at worst. The kindest thing to be said is that Mitchell might simply be experiencing the intellectual blindness all of us suffer from occasionally. Chuck Klosterman, however, is the subject of this piece and defends law school out of ignorance. I don’t mean that as a synonym for stupid, as so many people do: I mean it in the dictionary sense, “lack of knowledge or information.” That shows in his response. Sometimes outsiders can make valuable observations that insiders miss. Sometimes they’re merely ignorant about an issue or field. He’s the latter.

The Mystal piece gets this right:

Heck, when I decided to go to law school, I kind of thought that I was signing up to go to “College II: This Time It Counts.” But that kind of casual connection misses a great big point: law school is a professional school. People go there to become professionals.

This attitude is really common among the 22 – 24-year-old set. It describes a part of my attitude at that age. Unfortunately, it’s also a tremendous mistake because of the money involved. Law schools have clearly evolved into institutions that work to extract as much money as possible from their nominal students. And the feds are enabling them to do so. There are differences between the federal student loan guarantees and what the big banks did in the leadup to the housing crisis, but the similarities are profound. I think the reckoning will play out differently, but it will play out.

I should clarify that I’m not arguing law school is bad for everyone, all the time. It isn’t. If you have the kind of personality that thrives in big-firm cultures, if you get into one of the top three law schools, if you have the self-certainty and tenacity necessary to be a top lawyer, fighting with other top lawyers: law school might be for you. But that’s maybe ten to twenty percent of the current law school population. The rest are being had, and are eventually going to tire of being had by law schools and their own bad judgment.

The specious reasoning in Lawrence M. Mitchell’s “Law School Is Worth the Money”

Lawrence M. Mitchell’s “Law School Is Worth the Money” is one of the best examples of specious writing I’ve seen outside of writing produced by the federal government. It seems appropriate for me to comment Mitchell’s ideas, given how I praised Paul Campos’s book Don’t Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk. I’m going to respond to Mitchell’s major points:

The starting point is the job market. It’s bad. It’s bad in many industries. “Bad,” in law, means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially at law firms. But a little historical perspective will reveal that the law job market has been bad — very bad — before. To take the most recent low before this era, in 1998, 55 percent of law graduates started in law firms. In 2011, that number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic. And this statistic ignores the other jobs lawyers do.

Most other jobs don’t require the assumption of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get a legally-mandated piece of paper that lets them perform those jobs. That’s the real catastrophe. Law school only has one purpose: to prepare people to be lawyers. If half aren’t able to become lawyers, that’s a catastrophe for those with the debt burdens that deans like Mitchell aren’t lining up to forgive.

Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets.

Notice the weasel words: “the median starting salary for practicing lawyers.” What about the 50% of graduates who can’t find law work? The same is true in the second half of the sentence: “the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490.” People who get law degrees and then can’t practice are screwed. This is a classic example of How to Lie with Statistics. Mitchell is fishing for the credulous.

Thirty years ago, getting a law degree made a lot more economic sense: the tuition was much lower, and so low that people who got law degrees but didn’t practice weren’t effectively signing up for a decade if not decades of perpetual student loan payments.

The average student at a private law school graduates with $125,000 in debt. But the average lawyer’s annual salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.

Again, notice the bit about “the average lawyer’s annual salary,” which ignores how many lawyers, and especially recently graduate lawyers, are unemployed. It also ignores the misery of being an associate at a big firm, and the fact that not all or even most big-firm associates are going to make partner. Some of those average lawyers aren’t going to be lawyers for their entire careers.

The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy.

People have been saying this about professors since at least the early 90s, and it’s been untrue for professors for at least that long. As Paul Campos points out, there are about twice as many J.D.s being graduated as there are jobs. That means an excess of lawyers and potential lawyers that’s only growing with time.

In the meantime, the one-sided analysis is inflicting significant damage, not only on law schools but also on a society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers.

Mitchell’s analysis could only make sense to someone arguing a legal case; it makes no sense to someone trying to assess the truth. He says, “For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks.” That’s apt, because his essay reads like an investment banker making an idealized case for investment banking, despite the evidence all around us.

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: “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, though this may sound odd, law school itself doesn’t prepare people for practicing law.

That wasn’t really a problem when tuition was cheap and proto-lawyers could work cheaply for a couple years to learn the trade. Now the stakes are high and law school’s inadequacies are a huge problem, because having more than $100,000 in law school debt that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy will hurt people for decades, especially if they can’t get the training necessary to actually practice law. 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, to change the system. There’s little pressure 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.

See also “The specious reasoning in Lawrence M. Mitchell’s ‘Law School Is Worth the Money‘” and “Why You Should Not Go to Law School.” Do not listen to your parents, for whom law school might’ve made financial sense, or your friends’s empty congratulations, because most of your friends don’t know any better. Law school enrollments have plummeted since their 2008 high, for good reason.

Here’s an interview with a Columbia law grad who quit law for a coding bootcamp. Skipping law school would’ve made more sense, but news about how bad the legal market is relative to the tech sector has not percolated through the entire country (yet).

March links: Dissertation changes, jazz, security theater, publishing, and the LSAT

* Dissing the Dissertation: MLA considers radical changes in the dissertation. This seems obvious, necessary, long overdue, and welcome.

* The Social Conservative Subterranean Fantasy World Is Exposed, and It’s Frightening; notice this: “Comedians may, in fact, be even bigger beneficiaries than Democratic politicians who are watching a stampede of women voters into their welcoming “we don’t hate you because you’re sexually active” arms.”

* On Jazz; “Listening to Jazz is like simultaneously hearing all the footsteps on the sidewalk of a city. . .”

* The real reason health insurers won’t cover people with pre-existing conditions.

* The Unwelcome Mat, on security Theater and how the U.S.’s idiotic stance border is hurting itself.

* With This Machine, You Can Print Your Own Books at the Local Bookstore; translation: self-publishing is going to grow as this kind of machine spreads.

* Who cares if book publishers are colluding with Apple to raise e-book prices?; as Matt says elsewhere, “the publishing industry is facing intense competition and disruptive change no matter what these guys do, and the DOJ may as well leave them alone.”

* A comment from my friend, “Laila:” “It seems somehow appropriate that your follower was a prostitute.” Oh?

* Fewer people are taking the LSAT—and, if they’re smart, fewer will go to law school.

Links: The death of safe sex?, hypocrites in many forms, law school, Nikon, birth rates and female conscientiousness, liberal arts, and more

* “The Death of Safe Sex“? (The question mark is mine).

* Law schools increasingly look like scams; see here for more.

* The Cowboy and the Welfare State, concerning “an area of Minnesota where people inveigh against the welfare state, despite being inextricably tied to it.” Filed under: hypocrisy.

* The War on Cameras, which actually concerns whether police are accountable to the public or to no one, a la The Wire.

* My Last Day: Le Bernardin’s Pastry Chef Reflects on 8 Long Years.

* How Nikon is killing camera repair.

* For Women Under 30, Most Births Occur Outside Marriage. This quote from the article: “Ms. Strader said her boyfriend was so dependent that she had to buy his cigarettes. Marrying him never entered her mind” reminds me of Bryan Caplan’s post “Poverty, Conscientiousness, and Broken Families,” where he says, “even when [the authors] are talking about men, low female conscientiousness is implicit. After all, conscientious women wouldn’t associate with habitually unemployed men in the first place – not to mention alcoholics, addicts, or criminals.”

* When to be meek.

* Skills and the liberal arts.

* The Real Defense Budget.

* James Fallows on tricks of the interview trade. I want to find an excerpt but the piece has too many to choose one.

* Mag Lights are still made in the USA.

* “A school suspended a teacher for using the racial epithet in an educational context. Now he’s suing his district. Why is this considered hate speech?” The school’s reaction here is inane; you can’t teach books like Huck Finn without using the word “nigger” (for that matter, it would be hard to discuss, say, the lyrics of Jay-Z—or community cohesion and The Wire—without using it). Racially derogatory terms can’t be magically excised from the language, and to pretend they don’t exist is to ignore a vital avenue of discussion.

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