The Secret Is Out About Law Schools

Television and the movies have glamorized the life of lawyers. While most young people who are contemplating law school probably realize that the high-powered attorney who gets out of his Ferrari in his $3,000 suit and marches into the courtroom to win his case is just a stereotype, that image is hard to shake.

Conversely, what show or movie has ever shown lawyers who scrounge for monotonous temp jobs as they struggle with overwhelming student loan debts? That wouldn’t lure anyone into law school, but it’s closer to the norm than is, say, Boston Legal’s Denny Crane.

Thanks to a recent New York Times article, “Is Law School a Losing Game?” large numbers of young Americans who might have been seduced by the law school mystique may decide that it’s not such a wonderful path after all. The takeaway from the article is that law school has been greatly oversold and would be a disastrously bad choice for many young people.

The author focuses on a number of young Americans who have earned their J.D. degrees but can’t find anything better than peripheral legal work, if even that. One young woman with her J.D. earns what she can by babysitting!  Yet they have inescapable student loans to pay off and since tuition at law school often tops $40,000 per year, they’re in the same predicament as Kelli Space, who recently explained how she accumulated $200,000 in debt to get her sociology degree.

Easy, federally-backed student loans are behind the law school bubble just as much as they are for undergraduates. Author David Segal nails it when he says that such loans are “the gasoline that fuels the system.” The student who is the primary character in this tragi-comedy borrowed so much that he spent a month studying in the south of France (we aren’t told what he studied, or how hard) prior to law school and after completing his law degree, took out $15,000 more for living expenses while studying for the bar exam. Now he’s hooked, with debt increasing much faster than he can pay it off. (His strategy is not even to try.)

If the money is analogous to a drug, law schools are analogous to pushers. The core of the article explains how law schools make their degrees seem oh-so-appealing despite the fact that many graduates will end up with low-paying law jobs or no legal work at all.

One of their tactics is to fudge the figures on the percentage of students who are employed within nine months of graduation. To the unwary, that number (which is not independently verified) seems to mean that 93 percent (the average as reported to U.S. News for its famous rankings) land jobs in law firms, government offices, and other places that use the services of lawyers. In truth, those numbers include people who are working at jobs that have nothing to do with the law, students who didn’t respond (probably because they don’t have jobs they want to crow about), and even some who were hired part-time by the law school just before the nine-month deadline to help process admissions. They are thus “employed” for purposes of these statistics.

Another misleading datum that law schools carelessly (but craftily) use is the supposed starting salary for law graduates in the private sector of $160,000 annually. Many gullible young people look at that like a dog looks at a T-bone steak, but it’s wildly inaccurate. That may be the median for graduates of elite law schools such as Harvard and Yale, but few if any graduates from mid- and lower-tier institutions land such lucrative jobs.

A law school classmate of mine who is a federal administrative law judge with 30 years of experience only makes that much. Leading prospective students to think that high-paying jobs are common smacks of deception.

Some law professors feel very uneasy about the recruiting games their administrators play. Indiana University professor William Henderson, co-author of this Pope Center paper on legal education, says that the way law schools manipulate data makes him “feel dirty.”

Indeed it should. One of the principles law students learn in their contracts courses is that a contract entered into as a result of fraud is voidable at the option of the defrauded party.  If a law school employs false or misleading statistics to make it seem as though enrolling there is an almost certain path to a high-paying legal job, it has crossed the line. As Professor Henderson says, “law schools have a special moral obligation to tell the truth about themselves.” Clearly, some are not.

The reason why they don’t isn’t hard to find: they’re cash cows. Tuitions are high and operating costs are relatively low, despite the fact that law professors are among the best paid in the academic world. Evidently, universities are no better than most of us when it comes to temptation—if it’s a choice between shading the truth and having to give up a lot of easy money, they’ll shade the truth to avoid frightening away some students.

Where the article disappoints is its failure to thoroughly diagnose our glut of lawyers problem. Segal does mention the easy money that is available for students—law students can borrow recklessly thanks to the same federal aid programs available to undergraduates—and the strange allure that just “being a lawyer” has for some people. Those reasons, however, comprise the tip of the iceberg. The great mass of the berg is the fact that state law has made the current form of legal education, the three-year, high-cost law school, the only permissible portal for prospective attorneys.

As Lawrence Velvel, Dean of the Massachusetts School of Law explained in this Pope Center Clarion Call, the American Bar Association’s accreditation standards greatly increase the cost of legal training, but without doing anything to improve quality. That’s important because in nearly all states, a person who wants to take the bar exam must first graduate from an ABA-approved law school. (Six states permit students who have graduated from non-ABA schools and four allow people who have not graduated from law school but who have “read law” under a practicing attorney or judge to take the bar exam.)

If we want to make legal education less costly, and thereby make legal services more widely available, the right move is to open this market up to competition. States should allow individuals to attempt the bar (passing which, incidentally, is itself neither necessary nor sufficient for competence as a lawyer) no matter where or how they have studied law.

There is nothing magical about taking courses taught by law professors; most people who have gone through law school will tell you that it’s mostly a waste of time and money in studying material that will never have any relevance in their careers. Nearly everything a lawyer needs to know is learned on the job, not remembered from law school.

(Anyone interested in the history of how we got to our restricted legal market and the arguments in favor of deregulating it may want to read my paper covering those topics.)

But even if states and federal government do nothing to decrease law school subsidies and increase competition, the information provided to people considering law school by this hard-hitting New York Times article as well as the increasing number of blogs by disaffected law students can do much to deflate the bubble. Having the information that law school credentials are not all they’re cracked up to be will engender in the minds of many the appropriate attitude: caveat emptor!