If you haven’t read it yet, take a few minutes to digest Law School is Worth the Money, written by the entirely non-self-interested dean of Case Western Reserve University’s law school. After you stop hyperventilating, please come back…
Okay, so where were we? Right. I don’t know about you, but I was silently yelling, “WTF?!? Are you kidding me?” and trying not to stab my eyes out.
Where to start? I’m tempted to go line-by-line, because basically every single sentence deserves a response (seriously, if this is the sort of unsupported argument they’re teaching at Case Western, God help us), but let’s just focus on the high points. (Most of which I’ve already covered in detail here: Law School Myths, Debunked.)
Yes, Dean, the Debt is a Problem
I know lawyers are supposed to be bad at math, but — conveniently — I went to the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. So I know this statement is ridiculous:
“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, where to start?!?
- First off, a home is a physical asset. If times get tough, you can sell it. If times get really tough, and no one will buy your house, you can walk away from your mortgage. Does it screw up your credit for a few years? Sure. But you’re off the hook. YOU CANNOT WALK AWAY FROM YOUR LAW SCHOOL LOANS. (Okay, maybe in very, very limited circumstances you can get them discharged, but it’s orders of magnitude more difficult than just not sending your mortgage check and living rent-free while you wait for the bank to foreclose.) And no one is buying your law degree (although I’m sure lots of recent grads would like a return option). It’s not an asset. It has no actual value. None. Without job prospects, or some extreme increase in psychic satisfaction, you just went $125,000 in debt for nothing.
- You’re not paying off debt at a mid-career salary. Leaving aside the issues with the “average” lawyer salaries (don’t worry, I’ll get to that), when do students start paying off their law school debt? Six months after graduating. When do they reach the “average” lawyer salary? Well, I’m going to guess when they’re an averagely experienced lawyer — say, halfway through their 40-50 year career. So what f**king difference does it make how much an average lawyer with 20 years of experience makes when we’re talking about current graduate debt loads?!? It’s totally irrelevant. And, suffice it to say, the lawyer with 20 years of experience did not have anything close to the average debt load of today’s graduates.
The reality of the situation is that law school debt is an ongoing disaster for many graduates.
To ignore that reality, and just throw up your hands (as the dean of a law school!) and say, “Oh, wait 20 years and you’ll have plenty of money to pay it back,” is insulting and unrealistic.
It’s a problem. You’re partially responsible for creating it. Deal with it.
Stop Misleading Potential Students About Salaries
Given the sloppy reasoning throughout this piece, it’s possible Dean Mitchell is truly unaware that starting salaries for law graduates are bimodal, but I doubt that’s the case. No, he just prefers to talk about the “median starting salary for practicing lawyers” because that number looks better than the reality.
Seriously, if you’re thinking of applying to law school, please take the time to understand this graph:
I’ve discussed it in detail here: Law School Myth #1: Lawyers Make a Lot of Money, and it’s very, very important.
Almost no one makes the median (or mean, for that matter) starting salary. A small subset of new law grads makes a lot more, and most people make less.
Prospective law students, ignore these average starting salary numbers. They’re useless for practical planning purposes.
Before you apply to law school, figure out which category you’re likely to be in (BigLaw, or everyone else). And don’t kid yourself. You’re not a special snowflake. I know it’s tough, but try to play the odds rather than engaging in deluded wishful thinking.
Where’s My 50-Year Legal Career?
I actually agree with Dean Mitchell that we shouldn’t be focused so heavily on first law jobs. However, my reasoning is a bit different.
Let’s take an example. If you look at Columbia Law School’s stats for the class of 2006, I’m a resounding success as a graduate. Federal clerkship, highly paid BigLaw job. Win!
Not so fast.
Interestingly enough, they’ve never once asked me what I did next.
Nor did anyone follow up to see why I “retired” from the practice of law in Massachusetts only four years after being admitted.
Strange, no? What explains this complete lack of curiosity about what’s happening to young lawyers?
No one wants to know.
No one — from law schools, to the ABA, to state bar associations — seems to be collecting data on why lawyers are leaving the profession in droves. (You know who’s actually trying to gather this information? Above the Law. Help ‘em out.)
Even if recent grads don’t leave the profession entirely, the odds of staying in a BigLaw job more than a few years are slim. If you’re female and/or minority, the odds of staying in a firm job are even lower. (Making me long for some actual evidence that: “More opportunity will open to women and minorities, too.” Yeah, when’s that going to happen exactly? We’ve been waiting for a generation now, and I’m not seeing much evidence of progress in the BigLaw partnership ranks or other positions of power in the profession.)
The deeper question here is this:
Why are schools patting themselves on the back for getting their top graduates into highly paid BigLaw jobs, knowing that the vast majority of these graduates aren’t going to be there five years later?
What does it say about the profession that the supposed gold ring career path is so intolerable that almost no one can stand to do it for more than a few years?
What comes next? I’m not seeing a lot of institutional interest in exploring that question. What I am seeing is a bunch of “recovering lawyers” who wasted a ton of time and money chasing something that wasn’t what they thought it was.
Newsflash: The “Best and Brightest” Probably Shouldn’t Be Lawyers
Finally, the belabored dean bemoans the idea that “society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers.” To that I say, “Thank goodness!”
How much longer are “the best and brightest” (whatever that means, anyway) going to be funneled into meaningless careers as the servants of the global businesses that can still afford BigLaw rates? How much longer are they going to waste their talents and potential dealing with nutso partners and pointless discovery requests? How many hours of their lives are they going to bill to enrich their overlords before realizing it’s all a bill of goods?
What real value is anyone in a typical law firm creating for society? Maybe you can point to a few examples, but most of the work being done is pointless at best and actively harmful at worst (that’s why it costs so much).
If you want to talk about creating value for society, send the best and brightest to go work as community organizers, or solar installers, or social entrepreneurs. Get them jobs in schools, or startups, or hospitals. But, for the love of God, do NOT send them to law school!
(Yes, I know every law school dean likes to point to the handful of esteemed alums who had distinguished careers in public service. Those people didn’t graduate with $125K debt loads. That was a different time, and they had different options. Public interest work simply isn’t an option for most debt-ridden law grads these days, so let’s not pretend the best and brightest law grads are going to be doing it. They’re not. Most of them can’t. And how’s your LRAP, anyway?)
For the record, I think there are plenty of decent reasons to go to law school (“I want to be a lawyer and I’m willing to give up a lot to do that” being one of them). But this is also a profession with a lot of very serious problems.
For law school deans to pretend otherwise — or to imply that anyone discussing the obvious shortcomings of the existing legal educational complex is somehow unfairly dissuading people from going to law school — is simply irresponsible.
You’re part of the problem, and it’s real. Deal with it.
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