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Go to law school only if …

Go to law school only if …

I don’t talk much about law schools here.   I try not to bring work home, so to speak.

But this article at The New York Times, Law School Economics: Ka-Ching!, is generating a lot of buzz:

WITH apologies to show business, there’s no business like the business of law school.

The basic rules of a market economy — even golden oldies, like a link between supply and demand — just don’t apply.

Legal diplomas have such allure that law schools have been able to jack up tuition four times faster than the soaring cost of college. And many law schools have added students to their incoming classes — a step that, for them, means almost pure profits — even during the worst recession in the legal profession’s history.

The article focuses on New York Law School (not NYU Law School), a lower tier school which manages to charge more than my alma mater, Harvard Law School, and has no trouble filling its enrollment and then some.

The law school market has the makings of a bubble, as Prol. Glenn Reynolds repeatedly points out, particularly at lower tier schools.  What is good for law schools is not necessarily good for law students, who often graduate with substantial debt and dim job prospects. 

It all is made possible by easy money in the form of government student loans and easy private loans on top of that.  It is not unusual for a law student to graduate with over $100k in debt.

Sound familiar?  Can you say housing bubble?

Is law school worth it?  Depends on what you are looking for.  If you are looking for a high paying job handed to you on a silver platter, then the list of schools which will give you that return is relatively small, and getting smaller.

It may sound trite, but you should go to law school only if you really want to be a lawyer. 

Law school as a default option because you have nothing else to do only is an economically viable option for the wealthy who can afford it, the poor who will get mostly a free ride, and those in the middle who get merit scholarships.

Even then, there are no guarantees.  As in many things, credentials will only get you so far. 

Some of the best and most successful lawyers I have met did not go to top law schools, and almost none of them had expectations that anything would be handed to them on a silver  platter or otherwise. 

For most people, law school should be for those who want to be lawyers.  The concept isn’t brain surgery.


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I’m interested in legal philosophy/jurisprudence and political philosophy; not necessarily practicing law. Should I try for law school or get my masters in philosophy and eventually toward earning a doctorate? Of course easier said than done. I say masters because my philosophy department isn’t a strong one.

    If you’re not interested in practicing law, go for the philosophical masters & doctorate degrees. A JD only goes so far, and then there’s the LLM (Library of Laws Masters Degree) and the LLD (Library of Laws Doctorate) to get to the same level you’ll be at with a PhD in Philosophy for roughly the same outcome. Law school will teach you to think in a different manner than any other education, but for what you want to do, it fits acceptably, but not great.

Donald Douglas | July 17, 2011 at 11:40 am

I sometimes wish I’d gone to law school. It’s interesting. And aren’t some folks saying a law degree is the new liberal arts degree? The same principle of hard work applies no matter what education one gets. I advise my political science students to think about law school as an all purpose option. Business, politics, law … it, well, liberal in the liberal arts sense.

here in the People’s Republic, lawyers who have passed the bar are w*rking as interns for free to bet the all important “experience”, while the firms bill their hours at full rate…

unsurprisingly, this has made the market for paralegals and others somewhat sparse.

fortunately, now that Jerry Brown is in charge, this will all change.

DINORightMarie | July 17, 2011 at 1:36 pm

Warning – long post ahead….. 😀

It is interesting that you commented on this, and that the NYT is writing about such a leftist sacred cow. As a mom with children nearing graduation, I have been looking at LSATs and law school – something I was considering as a second career myself one day.

Besides the obvious logic of your statement, “It may sound trite, but you should go to law school only if you really want to be a lawyer.”, I’ve often wondered why so many people are getting into law schools, and what the job outlook is today.

I talk to a LOT of parents who say their child has gone on to grad school or law school because they couldn’t get a job that will pay enough to cover their loan payment; the “kids” figure after they get the higher degree, they will be more “marketable” and also hope the job market will be better when they get out. At HUGE costs. Exorbitant debt.

After talking to lawyers in our area, I realized that there was a recession for lawyers, more than just a reflection of the poor job market these days. It seems, from what I gleaned, that there are too many law degree grads (supply) for the lawyer slots available (demand). Thus, a lot of newly graduated and BAR-certified lawyers are working as clerks, paralegals, etc., and are in debt so deep they don’t see a way out.

That is true of course of the entire college/education bubble, to perhaps a lesser degree. The costs for tuition at even the average state college or university are so high that even top graduates get jobs where they can barely make loan payments. Living at home is often chosen because of these high loan payments. They don’t have enough money to pay for rent, a car payment, utilities, food, etc. No real independence gained, for all their studying and time spent. No wages earned, typically, either. Not the path to the American dream.

It is no longer true that a bachelor’s degree guarantees a job, let alone a high-wage job. The ROI or cost/benefit is just not in favor of pursuing the degree; in today’s job market, that is even more true than ever.

I used to blame the colleges for this, since college costs have gone up more than 4 times the rate of inflation – and, as you note, for law schools that trend is even worse. I now know that the government sticking their nose into education is the real problem, as they have pushed higher education and “financial aid” via student loans (the source of most money loaned is the government, and now the student loan industry is OWNED by the federal government).

Also, the federal government is the provider of most grant monies for research at colleges and universities (e.g. National Science Foundation exists ONLY to grant money for research, typically to universities).

These two things combined have made colleges greedy. They are able to get “easy money” to fund new buildings, upgrades, improvements, expansions; and these “improvements” are often excuses for which they ALSO increase tuition and fees to re-coup. Tenured professors who get the most grant money are quite a commodity on campuses for this reason. They help the college’s bottom line. A rather vicious cycle.

If the free-enterprise, competitive process was allowed to work as it should (as it did in the past), without government intervention, this bubble would no longer exist. Since it’s grown so huge, it will be a hard fall for a while, but is fixable without a crash if something is done soon, IMHO.

The college application process is another giant money sucking machine, primed by the push that you MUST get a college degree (all public schools and most parents feed this to their children from elementary school).

As you probably have experienced, once a child approaching college entry takes the SATs, the inundation of application requests begins. Like non-profits hoping to get 1 hit to every X number of letters sent out, they hope that the letters will entice students to apply – whether they are qualified or not to be accepted (granted, they usually send more out to higher SAT-scoring students, but the flood happens regardless). Each application fee is anywhere from $30 – $80+ – non-refundable. So for each application, they make money. Lots of money.

Typically, universities and colleges receive many more applications than their freshman class can accept – often 100+ for each opening. Some have as many as 1000 applications for each slot.

That is a chunk of money, just so they can say, “Hmmm…..SAT scores, GPA, class rank – REJECT!” to 90% of the apps. The rest is gravy. That’s a real racket.

The university system in the US is good, but the massive costs, uncertain ROI, and the money-sucking machine that it has become are making many re-think the baby-boomer belief, “You MUST go to college or you’ll NEVER get a good paying job!”

There are books written about this recently, and several great articles, as well. Glad you brought this one to light!! I would never have known, as I don’t read the NYT – the fishwrap of record, as Michelle Malkin calls it. 😉

    Voyager in reply to DINORightMarie. | July 17, 2011 at 1:56 pm

    I recommend Engineering and Computer Science. Engineers basically build things. A lot of people get scared off by the math, but if you are good at writing you can do pretty well in the field. A huge fraction of engineering is actually documenting and writing up what you’re proposing, and most engineer write worse than I do.

    If you can speak engineer, and write well, you can be really handy.

    Funding for science from the government has been around for a LONG LONG time, it’s even specifically mentioned in the constitution as a job of the government, when was the free market ever the exclusive funding source for science? I agree that student loans probably aren’t the right place for government, but research grants are exactly where government belongs.

      DINORightMarie in reply to Awing1. | July 17, 2011 at 4:20 pm

      Have you ever seen what the NSF grants are for? The projects that are given millions for “science research”? Believe me, shrimp on treadmills is neither fictitious nor the worst waste in the name of “science research”.

      My husband used to be a subcontractor for NSF, here in Arlington, VA. He worked on the system interface for grant proposals; thus, he often saw the real proposal data. Believe me, there is more waste in these government grant programs than you would believe.

      Along the lines of ACORN getting money. Or National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) money for paintings of Jesus with poop smeared on it. It is crazy.

      Things that would never fly as real science research are submitted and granted all the time. Look up the NSF public grant information and you’ll see some of the insane projects that pass for science research (I’ll look up a link and post if I can find it).

      I agree, true science research should get grants, things that are going to help society like with medicine, energy, and so on. However, the waste and fraud is out of control right now. The NSF is in need of complete overhall, a reorganization.

      Of course there is also the duplication of effort in the different bureaus and agencies. DoE and EPA duplicate research and offer grants that NSF often grants to identical or similar projects. You see, the more money you can get from the various bureaus, the better you are at helping out the bottom line at the university. Or non-profit. Or whatever.

      It’s out of control.

      DINORightMarie in reply to Awing1. | July 17, 2011 at 4:58 pm

      Here are some links from the NSF grants page:

      This is their search page. First, I searched for shrimp . Note the Univ. of Wisconsin-Madison grant 0937847: $2 million for imaging systems equipment. Granted in 2009.

      Then I searched for penguins . Note the project 0733024: $1.6 million to Ohio State for teaching K5 students about the Arctic/Antarctic.

      This is just my cursory look. Try searching yourself. Look where the grants are going. Search by university. Search for amounts. Quite enlightening.

      I think these could be cut easily, or at least cut down drastically.

        I think that’s a reasonable stance, that art and science should be supported by the government, but only art that appeals to the broader society (I’m thinking the statues in D.C.) and science that has some tangible application or grander purpose than just “eh, we were curious”.

        I see plenty of room for cutting in our government’s budget (NPR for one, and I listen to it fairly regularly), but we need to attack those wasteful, useless and offensive programs, not the broader concept of government funding for the arts and sciences.

Back in the 80’s we were told that by now we would all be lawyers by now, so forget about the cost, forget about your future prospects for employment. Your future is set in stone. Accept it.

I’ve talked to a few students who, like me, will be entering law school next year, and a fair number of them (perhaps even a majority) really do just think they’ll get a high paying job handed to them after law school. Now, I guess I can’t speak with certainty, but I can’t imagine going into such a demanding profession as the law without having a certain passion for it. I definitely can’t imagine taking out the kind of student loans I will be taking (I wish it was only $100,000 for 3 years) unless I knew this is precisely what I wanted to do with my life. While I’m a little less afraid for the students I’ve met entering Cornell, some of these guys and girls (primarily philosophy majors, don’t ask me why) are clearly in for a rude awakening.
I think rolling back government sponsored student loans is probably the best solution. These kids may not be in a good position to decide whats best for their future, but you can be darn sure a bank or individual loaning them money would be. There’s certainly a role for the government helping out the truly underprivileged student who wants to go to college and can accomplish something if they do, but that role is very very limited.

    VetHusbandFather in reply to Awing1. | July 18, 2011 at 9:29 am

    Great point, my ability to pay off student loans played a huge role in deciding where I went to school and what I majored in. I was in that gap where my parents made too much for me to receive any significant grants or loans and too little for them to pay for my education outright. When you know that you are going to be paying for your own education, you really try to make sure you will get a good ROI.

Law schools exist to make Marxists. The majority of lawyers I know personally are rabid Marxists. Why anyone would dig themselves in debt this deeply while proclaiming Marxist slogans at the top of their lungs is proof you don’t have to be crazy to be a lawyer but it helps.

    Awing1 in reply to WarEagle82. | July 17, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    Considering Havard’s law school was founded before Karl Marx was born, I sense a serious flaw in your reasoning.

      Stop being a JERK Awing1.

      A.) Political philosophy can be INTRODUCED over time. Just because the attendees at Harvard Law may not have STARTED OUT as Marxists, doesn’t mean that they aren’t mostly of a Marxist bent NOW.

      B.) Just because the philosophy is now named after Marx doesn’t mean that similar philosophies existed PRIOR TO Marx. Marx just happens to be most famous for proclaiming them and putting them to paper. Marx’s ideas were around for a LONG, LONG time prior to Marx’s espousal of them; Marx just happened to make them elegant and verbally efficient for the masses to mindlessly repeat.

        DINORightMarie in reply to Chuck Skinner. | July 17, 2011 at 5:02 pm

        As our esteemed Professor Jacobson is an alumnus of Harvard Law, I wonder what his take is?

        Awing1 in reply to Chuck Skinner. | July 17, 2011 at 5:41 pm

        This individual made the claim that law schools exist to make Marxists. Not “some law schools” or even “most law schools” or “law schools now” just simply “law schools”. If the reason every law school exists didn’t occur until after one of those law schools was created, a logical conundrum is the result. And even if it was the case that every lawyer was to come out of law school these days a Marxist, it would hardly say anything towards the reason for a law school’s existence. While point two is well taken, it does not apply to a theory like Marxism because it is defined by the person who created it, in this case Karl Marx. The “similar philosophy” one would be looking for is socialism.
        For the record, I’d rather be a jerk than a raving idiot.

          WarEagle82 in reply to Awing1. | July 17, 2011 at 7:06 pm

          “For the record, I’d rather be a jerk than a raving idiot.”

          After viewing only a few of your posts, it is entirely evident that you have achieved both…

          Awing1 in reply to Awing1. | July 17, 2011 at 7:22 pm

          Ok Mr. “We don’t spend a percentage of our GDP” even though that’s how nearly everyone (including the prestigious conservative think tank ‘The Heritage Foundation’ measures government spending. Can you point to a single time when I’ve stated something factually errant that wasn’t immediately corrected by myself?

As of Sept. 26, 2007, more than 70% of the world’s lawyers were licensed in the US accounting for more than 90% of all of the world’s litigation. That’s 1,148,358 lawyers.

There’s a fictitious but historically accurate tourist attraction west of Boston called Sturbridge Village which I highly recommend. Its purpose is to recreate life in the US in 1832 and comprises of buildings and equipment of that era which were mostly saved from demolition by relocating them there. It is also staffed by people who adopt a character like cooper, blacksmith, miller, or other trade and actually work in character.

About 25 years ago, I was visiting and noticed that right next to some shop there was a law office and so I asked the shop keeper if a lawyer could make a living in such a small town, in character she replied: “There isn’t enough work to keep one lawyer busy but far too much for two.”

I believe we could eliminate most of the frivolous litigation that so inflate our cost of living if we were to apply a societal “needs” test to granting government scholarships and subsidies. Too much legal work in this country is contrived to keep ambulance chasers busy.

its an odd issue, lawyers write the laws we are supposed to follow, they argue them in courts, they are the ones who win/lose the fights against the laws their own ilk have created.
its gotten out of hand honestly and the good ones get bad raps cause of it.
I deal with one in area that specializes in worker comp law, that itself is a whole 10th level of hell of stuff written (by lawyers) so the worker cannot ever understand it.

There has been an AWFUL lot of commentary about this very subject on the American Bar Association discussion boards for about 2 to 3 YEARS now. Most of it has centered on the rising cost of law schools, along with the VAST number of graduates, and the introduction of additional Tier-4 schools, most of which the diploma from is UTTERLY worthless to practicing law, because you WON’T be offered a job by ANY reputable firm at which to learn the TRADE of practicing law, nor will you likely be able to find mentors who won’t look down upon you.

Ultimately, what is happening is that legal representation is becoming a commodity, rather than a profession, and in doing so is losing its elegance in favor of crass commercialism.

That being said, there ARE a couple of bright spots if you’re willing to relocate.

1.) I used to be Secretary of the Law Student Division of the State Bar of Michigan. As such, I had access to their data-files and attorney licensing statistics. In Michigan, more than HALF of the attorneys licensed are over the age of 60, and more than 1/3 are over the age of 70. Michigan, in the next 10 years will start to suffer from a distinct LACK of attorneys because of the attrition from the state. Now that I’ve said that, I would NEVER practice in the State of Michigan, because their STATE BAR as an organization is OUTRAGEOUSLY AWFUL. You could not PAY me enough to put up with their shenanigans and their self-righteous bullshit.

2.) Urban areas are more saturated than Rural areas. This is true nation-wide. I currently live in El Paso. We have a city population of 700,000, but only 4300 total attorneys who live here (1 per 162 people). Now, granted the area itself is economically poor, so attorneys can’t charge expensive rates, but there seems to be sufficient work for most attorneys to at least get by. As always, some practices do better than others (bankruptcy, immigration, criminal drug defense) but for the most part, if you can find a niche, you can do OK.

Contrast that to Austin, TX, which has a population of just shy of 800,000, and an attorney population of almost 30,000. Granted, it’s the state capitol, but still, that number of attorneys is ABSURD (1 per 22 people)

Most of the solutions that the ABA commentators have pressed is the VAST REDUCTION in the number of accredited law schools to roughly 120-130. Even THAT may be too high of a number. Assuming a class size of 300, 130 law schools would produce 31,200 attorneys assuming an 80% graduation/Bar passage rate.

1. I wonder if there are people who are less prepared to deal with life after finishing law school than they were when they started.

2. New graduates who haven’t decided on a career direction should consider a hitch in the military. The experience did me good back when I wasn’t ready for a long-term commitment to graduate school (and it turned out that the draft lottery would have nabbed me if I hadn’t joined).

But don’t sign up blindly. Check out the options and their tradeoffs, which may differ materially from my day.

    VetHusbandFather in reply to gs. | July 18, 2011 at 9:33 am

    Actually, I think practicing law for the Military is one of the best options out there for someone just finishing law school. It will build up their resume nicely, while providing a stable pay check and possibly some good loan repayment options.

[…] if you can do it for a reasonable amount of money.  Prof. Jacobson has some great advice at Legal Insurrection, but (IMHO), his advice is somewhat incomplete.  He encourages people to not go to law school […]