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.

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