Thinking of Law School? Let the Buyer Beware!

Editor’s Note: This essay, by the Pope Center’s George Leef, is the second installment in a Clarion Call special series, “If I Knew Then What I Know Now.” In the near future, the Pope Center will devote an entire new section of its Web site to providing alternative forms of information to prospective college students, ranging from hard data to the anecdotal experiences of some who have “been there.” This series of personal essays, extending over the next few weeks, will offer different perspectives and guidance for students and their parents. We look forward to the possibility of having our readers share their experiences as well.

The best I can say about my decision to enroll in law school back in 1974 was that it seemed like the thing to do at the time.

I graduated, but went into teaching instead of legal practice. Fortunately, in those days law school wasn’t nearly so costly as it is today and I had no accumulated debt to pay off.

Looking back on my experience many years later, I came to see that law school is mainly a barrier to entry that keeps down the number of legal practitioners. It is not an essential form of education for those who want to enter the profession. The real education in how to do lawyering occurs on the job, mostly under the tutelage of experienced attorneys. Law school is a very expensive preliminary that covers a few vital matters, especially how to do legal research and writing, but people could learn how to do those things outside of the law school setting.

Nearly everything a student learns in law school is promptly forgotten, never to be used again.

The legal profession, however, demands three years of that very costly background work before allowing an individual to take a licensing test – the bar exam. Large numbers of students go to law school, racking up big debt loads, only to find that the legal profession doesn’t have nearly enough high-paying jobs (or even medium-paying ones) for all the graduates. This September 2007 Wall Street Journal article discusses the weak job market for law school graduates. One recent graduate of Seton Hall’s law school calls it a “waste” since high school friends working as plumbers and electricians are making more than he is and don’t have $118,000 in educational debt hanging over them.

It’s for those reasons that I have often advised young people in college against going to law school unless they’re absolutely, positively certain that being a lawyer is the right career move.

In response, I often hear something like, “But isn’t law school a good background that will open a lot of career options other than the law?” My answer is that the high cost in money and time (foregone opportunities to earn money or learn something with more immediate practical value) makes the “background” of the Juris Doctor degree an inordinately expensive proposition. Having a law degree may signal to prospective employers in other fields that you’re trainable, but there are better ways of doing that than devoting three full years to learning arcane stuff like the Rule Against Perpetuities.

One of the most revealing commentaries on legal education (and the bar exam) I have ever come across was written by attorney Douglas Kern. It is available here. He contends that the true purpose of law school …. is to make money for the law school! They’re great cash cows for universities and they provide employment for a lot of professors who spend most of their time researching and writing law review articles and books. Kern states that a secondary point of law school “is to flatter the egos and delusions of the brainiacs who teach there. And that, young law school graduate, is why you can pontificate at endless length on theories of critical legal deconstructionist realism as touching upon Marxist feminist radical queer Afro-Latino post-structural comparative gender issues, but you still can’t write a damn will.”

Kern also spills the beans on the bar exam. It only shows that the individual is good at memorizing and regurgitating legal information, not that he’s competent to handle any case. Furthermore, the bar exam is useful to the legal profession in controlling entry into the guild: “The Grand Old Men of the law set the bar exam pass rates based on the influx of lawyers that they deem tolerable in any given year.”

Law school used to be optional. Back in the first half of the 20th century, most lawyers entered the profession by apprenticing themselves in law firms. One of America’s most famous lawyers, Clarence Darrow, attended law school for just one semester (at the University of Michigan) then dropped out because he figured he could learn the lawyering business faster by working with actual lawyers than by listening to professors.

That was then. This is now. Law school is mandatory in all but a tiny number of states (where it’s possible to take the bar exam without having earned a law degree) and they take full advantage of their protected market position to squeeze an awful lot of money out of students.

So when thinking about law school, it’s wise to bear in mind this famous legal maxim: Caveat emptor.