Monday, January 10, 2011

The Trouble with Law School

The NY Times reports this week on the backlash against law school. Thousands of people who have gone deeply into debt to get law degrees now find that they cannot get employment as lawyers, and therefore cannot pay off their student loans, and they are angry about it. Part of this is the result of the lousy economy, and some of these people may get legal jobs when conditions improve.

But there are some real problems with legal education in America. As the Times explains, many universities have opened law schools as profit centers, banking on the widespread belief that all lawyers make lots of money. They encourage potential students with bogus statistics on how many of their graduates get legal jobs and how much money they make. Some of the numbers the Times reports are shocking, e.g., several mediocre law schools that claim their average graduate earns a starting salary of $160,000 a year, the same number cited by Yale and Harvard. But even as law school tuition soars, the number of law students continues to grow:
Job openings for lawyers have plunged, but law schools are not dialing back enrollment. About 43,000 J.D.’s were handed out in 2009, 11 percent more than a decade earlier, and the number of law schools keeps rising — nine new ones in the last 10 years, and five more seeking approval to open in the future.

Apparently, there is no shortage of 22-year-olds who think that law school is the perfect place to wait out a lousy economy and the gasoline that fuels this system — federally backed student loans — is still widely available. But the legal market has always been obsessed with academic credentials, and today, few students except those with strong grade-point averages at top national and regional schools can expect a come-hither from a deep-pocketed firm. Nearly everyone else is in for a struggle. Which is why many law school professors privately are appalled by what they describe as a huge and continuing transfer of wealth, from students short on cash to richly salaried academics. Or perhaps this is more like a game of three-card monte, with law schools flipping the aces and a long line of eager players, most wagering borrowed cash, in a contest that few of them can win.

I fear that no amount of bad news about the struggles of recent law school grads will change any of this. The reason I foresee a continuing flood of young people into law schools is that law school offers a predictable path to a good job. It is the predictability that, I think, is key. In our society you graduate from college with a degree in something vague that may or may not qualify you to do all sorts of things, but how do you translate that into a professional job? That's mostly up to you. I have parlayed my history Ph.D. into a good job at a decent salary, but the process was so convoluted that I would have trouble even explaining it to a young person who wanted to replicate it, and it depended crucially on my impressing people who were in a position to promote me. It also took quite a while, and I worked for two years and several summers as a poorly paid archaeological excavator and supervisor. I first earned an adult wage at 30. This has been the path of many of my friends as well, who have eventually landed managerial jobs after years of confusion in cheap apartments.

Not surprisingly, many 22-year-olds dread this uncertainty and are looking, instead, for a clearly laid-out career ladder, especially one that promises to use their brains and lead them to prestige and money. The law beckons. They follow.

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