Law school enrollment is declining at a marked rate. New American Bar Association figures show that last fall’s first-year law student enrollment was 24 percent below the all-time high registered in 2010. There hasn’t been a smaller entering class since 1975. Slowly but surely, it seems, Americans are realizing that the juris doctor doesn’t provide the path to prosperity and prestige that it once did. A number of stories from disappointed law school graduates and attorneys have reinforced this sentiment.
These developments have inspired me to share details from my law school experience.
The Road to Law School
As an undergraduate economics student at the College of Charleston, I was fortunate to be surrounded by passionate professors and engaged students. Seminars, book colloquiums, high-profile guest lectures, and student debates occupied much of my time. Later on in law school, I would come to miss this atmosphere of intellectual vibrancy, which made my time in college so worthwhile and stimulating.
In spite of my college’s invigorating academic environment, my preoccupation with politics got the best of me. I was a C-SPAN junkie. I studied political rhetoric the way rabid fantasy football enthusiasts study player statistics. I also read politicians’ biographies and discovered a commonality: almost all politicos have law degrees. And so I made up my mind. I would go to law school, work for a state attorney’s office, and then run for office. I was going to change the world for the better through the political system. And since some of the people on my family’s genealogical tree had been politicians in Maryland, I would be adding to the family legacy of political involvement!
I applied, and was eventually accepted to, the University of Baltimore School of Law. During the application process, the now-former law school dean made a pitch that would make any salesperson take notes. He eloquently bragged about how more than 90 percent of graduates had jobs upon graduation, that UB graduates’ bar passage rate was higher than Maryland’s average, and that simply possessing a J.D. would open numerous doors of opportunity. He noted that many judges, legislators, prosecutors, and lobbyists in the state were UB alums who hired other UB alums. If you wanted a career in government, UB was the place to be. I was sold.
The only real doubt I had about law school involved student loans. Law school was going to add six-figure debt to my credit report. I remember discussing my hesitation with my former roommate, who told me that law school debt, unlike, for instance, credit card debt, was “good debt.” And my parents and family members, who had for years preached the importance of frugality and sound personal finance, were quick to dismiss my concerns, saying that I would easily be able to pay off my loans within ten years.
A Serendipitous Summer
The summer before I began law school, I watched a documentary called Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy, based on a book written by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. Although one of my College of Charleston professors had once played the documentary during class, I didn’t really pay attention until I watched it a second time that summer. It blew my mind, as I was exposed to the world of classical liberalism and free market economics—a world that I had largely ignored in college due to my left-leaning political infatuations. There was no turning back. I wanted to learn as much as possible.
By the time I stepped foot on the UB Law campus in the fall of 2009, I had read F.A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Milton Friedman’s Capitalism and Freedom. For the next three years, I would go on an autodidactic journey that would shatter my political delusions and statist/collectivist worldview. I don’t mention this as an aside, but rather as a crucial part of my law school experience. One cannot read works by Ludwig von Mises or Thomas Sowell—great thinkers who had dismantled the flawed logic behind many of the laws and regulations that occupied my time in law school—and then read sections of the Dodd-Frank Financial Reform and Consumer Protection Act, or the National Environmental Policy Act, without experiencing feelings of great frustration and distress!
In fact, my love affair with this new world of ideas would eventually cause me to pursue a non-legal career.
Law School Culture
In the world of commerce, competition is a great thing. The incessant push for profit spurs innovation, encourages efficiency, and leaves consumers with an abundance of valuable goods and services. In law school, however, competition takes on a different shape. Everyone in law school is ambitious, smart, and motivated, and for the first time in their lives, these “alpha” students are completely surrounded by other “alpha” students. Pressure to be in the top of the class, land coveted internships, and be a law review member is intense. This dynamic lends itself to vitriolic clashes of egos and severe stress.
I know a former classmate who cried for hours after she found out that she had received a “B” in one of her courses (it was the first time she had received a grade below the “A” range in her life). In class, students would send cold stares in the direction of anyone who dared to offer an in-depth answer to a professor’s question or provide insightful comments, as such behavior was a clear indication that the talkative student was a “gunner.” The term “gunner” is a pejorative used by law students to describe other law students who are outwardly hyper-competitive, or who exhibit a willingness to disregard basic norms of human decency to achieve their self-serving goals. For example, one of my law school buddies recently regaled me with the story of a girl who flirted openly and shamelessly with her professor while in class, presumably to get a better grade.
My professors were, in the main, competent, helpful, and experts in their respective legal fields. But law school is an extremely difficult place to hide philosophical and political viewpoints. After all, big issues like property rights, constitutional law, civil liberties, and financial regulations are discussed with frequency in a variety of classes. It quickly became apparent to me that most of my professors (and fellow classmates) were either card-carrying members of the Democratic Party or left-of-center. I was often bombarded with “progressive” ideology and with subtle and not-so-subtle jabs at capitalism and the Right.
Some of my professors and classmates demonstrated a willingness to engage in a dialogue, however. To their credit, some of these individuals would spark up conversations, both in class and out of class, to try to understand my perspective, as I had developed a reputation as the lone libertarian at UB Law (a group of students even began to call me “The Free Market,” since I frequently and openly used economic logic to debate and analyze the legitimacy and efficacy of various laws and policies). Unfortunately, other students and even some professors were hostile toward anyone who challenged their dogma. As I mentioned before, I began to miss my days at the College of Charleston, a place where, at least from my perspective, students didn’t view other students as enemies and competition to be crushed.
1) Academically speaking, everything that matters in law school is taught in the first year. In that first year, students (OK, some students) learn how to read court cases, write “like an attorney,” and articulate complex legal arguments. Many second- and third-year courses, though perhaps interesting, don’t serve to help students prepare for the bar exam or actual legal practice. My maritime law, national security law, and sports law courses certainly didn’t make me an expert in those fields or add to my skill set. A number of my classmates were quite cynical about second- and third-year course offerings, and told me that they were unnecessary and ultimately a huge waste of money.
2) An individual should consider law school only if he or she is set on becoming an attorney. He or she shouldn’t go if motivated by vague bumper sticker notions about changing the world or helping the less fortunate. And an individual definitely shouldn’t go if, as I once did, he or she wants to use a law degree as bona fides for a political/governmental career. A law school is a professional school. It’s a good place for people who don’t have a stringent philosophical stance and who are willing to engage in what can at times be tedious and monotonous and frustrating work. It is not the best place for people who are passionate about ideas or who have intellectual dispositions.
3) Law school is incredibly, perhaps even criminally, expensive. For me, it ended up being a six-figure affair. And when one’s student loan figures have gotten that high, why worry about taking out an extra few thousand dollars? I enjoyed a semester abroad in Scotland, and even bought guitars and a home recording studio with student loan money that was downright too easy to obtain. Prospective law students should do everything to avoid taking out loans. If they’re not careful, they could become, like many law school graduates I know, indentured servants for the Department of Education.
4) Prospective students should perform due diligence. They should ask alumni of the school if they profited from, and enjoyed, their law school experiences, and if they are happy with their careers. And prospective students should check into the methodology behind job statistics. My school, like many others at the time, proudly boasted about 90 percent post-graduation employment rates. But what kind of employment gets counted? If someone graduates with slim legal job prospects and takes a job as a bartender, does that count in the school’s employment statistics? And if a graduate does find a legal job, is he or she underemployed? I know many graduates who are now in the legal profession, but doing work that, in years gone by, paralegals and interns would do.
Law school was not a complete waste of my time. I gained some valuable friendships and even met my girlfriend during my stint at UB. I became a better writer, a better public speaker, and a more critical thinker. But the direct and opportunity costs of attending law school, and the soul-crushing, alienating feelings that came from being surrounded by egomaniacal, narrow-minded, and often vicious statists, were enormous. Buyer beware!