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Law School is Wroth for Money

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Case Western Reserve's Law Dean Lawrence Mitchell's defense of law schools in the New York Times has made its round through the legal community already, but we've seen a few people agreeing with some of his more boneheaded points, so we're going to give the article a point by point breakdown.

I’m a law dean, and I’m proud. And I think it’s time to stop the nonsense. After two years of almost relentless attacks on law schools, a bit of perspective would be nice.

After decades of unfettered, blind optimism, the criticism is the perspective, and unless you think things like employment statistic transparency is nonsense then ...well, with fewer than half your grads becoming lawyers, you probably do think focusing on jobs is nonsense.


For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks. We entice bright young students into our academic clutches. Succubus-like, when we’ve taken what we want from them, we return them to the mean and barren streets to fend for themselves.

Here's what Case Western says on its employment stats page: "We are proud of our strong history of successful post-graduate employment. Our employment rate for the Class of 2010 was 91.6%, which was above the national rate of 90.5%." Case Western doesn't mention that only 54% of grads were in full-time law jobs. So yeah, looks like you're trying to lure students in and then don't blink when you drop them on back on the streets.

The hysteria has masked some important realities and created an environment in which some of the brightest potential lawyers are, largely irrationally, forgoing the possibility of a rich, rewarding and, yes, profitable, career.

Possibility. Yeah, and she also forwent the possibilities that come with buying lottery tickets. Rich, rewarding, and profitable? Only a tiny number of lawyers hit that trifecta. Most would be happy with 1 out of 3.

The starting point is the job market. It’s bad. It’s bad in many industries. “Bad,” in law, means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially at law firms.

Trouble finding a first job is known to lead to trouble finding a second job, and a low first salary generally means a life time of lower income.

But a little historical perspective will reveal that the law job market has been bad — very bad — before. To take the most recent low before this era, in 1998, 55 percent of law graduates started in law firms. In 2011, that number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic. And this statistic ignores the other jobs lawyers do.

A 9% decline below the worst ever previous market is catastrophic. The highest national unemployment rate in the last 30 years was 10.4% in 1983. Anyone want to argue that an 11.3% unemployment rate wouldn't be that bad, because hey, it's almost been that bad before?

Even so, the focus on first jobs is misplaced.

Except for the huge impact it will have on the rest of your career... and here you are trying to put all the emphasis on the education you get before your first job.

We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years.

No you don't. The typical legal career does not last 40 to 50 years. The typical lifetime of employment might last that long, but when you leave law to do something else, it's a career that law school wasn't educating you for.

The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving.

Leadership? At large firms there are a lot of followers and a very small number of leaders, and attrition rates are so high that only a handful of people will ever become leaders in a large firm. But, large firms are a tiny part of the market. Most lawyers work in solo shops or small partnerships. In these offices the lawyers might be on top, but there's no one below them to lead.

Creative problem solving? Creativity in law is code for malpractice. You learn best practices, what other people before you have learned, and then you repeat it a zillion times until you die.

Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.

How many people graduate from law school and go directly in to a job in finance or politics or the arts? Practically none. Some lawyers will make the transition, but only after years of plugging away in practice. The reason you have to put in that time is because it's the knowledge and skills gained on the job that make you attractive to other fields. It's not the legal education doing the heavy lifting.

Now, this might appear a semantic distinction, but it's not. Yes, for people who made the transition law school was a prerequisite. But you have to look at the context these alternative careers are typically presented in. Sure not everyone becomes a lawyer, but there are other things you can do with a law degree. If doing those other things is only possible after becoming a lawyer, then they're not things people can do when they don't find law jobs.

What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers, nor should they.

They shouldn't all be doctors or investment bankers. Nor should they all be lawyers. This doesn't register with Dean Mitchell though. He thinks some people should go in to medicine, some people should be artists, some people should be teachers, but every single person who has ever considered law school ought to go to law school.

The what else will they do question is important, sure, but look at the options Mitchell actually listed. Doctor or I-banker. That betrays an extremely prestige-oriented mindset. Maybe some of them will become teachers. Or musicians. Or journalists. Or police officers. Or, yes, even office drones. Mitchell's trying to make the argument "You're not going to be a rock star, and you're not going to play in the NBA, but law schools will let anyone in, and all of our grads are big shots." It's ludicrous.

Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets. And the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports projected growth in lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent, “about as fast as the average for all occupations.”

Median starting salaries for practicing lawyers is a joke, because only half of grads are going to get those jobs. The median for the other half is much lower. And the average salary for all lawyers isn't very useful either, because people making peanuts tend to leave the practice, leaving a pool biased towards the winners to average. Get the median pay for law school grads, and then we can talk.

It’s true, and a problem, that tuition has increased. One report shows that tuition at private schools increased about 160 percent from 1985 to 2011. Private medical school tuition increased only 63 percent during that period. But, in 1985, medical school already cost four times more than law school. And starting salaries for law graduates have increased by 125 percent over that period.

Mitchell is drawing from the one report that gets the numbers wrong. The actual increase in tuition at private law schools since 1985 is closer to 400%.

Debt, too, is a problem. 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, not all law school grads become lawyers, and of those that do, many wash out, so the average lawyer pay isn't the right number to use. Plus, you only take out a mortgage for a house when your income is high enough to pay for it. Your law school loans will come due after graduation no matter how little you're making.

Investment in tuition is for a lifelong career, not a first job. There are many ways to realize a satisfactory return on this investment. Even practicing law appears to have paid off over the long term.

You have absolutely no data on the lifelong careers of law school graduates, so stop talking like you do. Truth is you don't know.

The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy.

Life expectancies are getting higher, people are preparing less for retirement, and lawyers are worst than most about clinging to their jobs. Baby boomers will gray, but that won't open up any jobs. You'll have to wait until they die.

More opportunity will open to women and minorities, too. As with any industry in transition, changes in the delivery of legal services create opportunities as well as challenges. Creative, innovative and entrepreneurial lawyers will find ways to capitalize on this.

Sure, in any crisis some people do find ways to thrive, but it's a crisis because significantly fewer people are able to make it.

War time gives more opportunities for soldiers to be promoted, but more people will die than make it to Major.

The overwrought atmosphere has created irrationalities that prevent talented students from realizing their ambitions. Last spring we accepted an excellent student with a generous financial-aid package that left her with the need to borrow only $5,000 a year. She told us that she thought it would be “irresponsible” to borrow the money. She didn’t attend any law school. I think that was extremely shortsighted, but this prevailing attitude discourages bright students from attending law school.


You're a LIAR!

Case Western gives full rides to only 1.5% of students, and no one gets more than a full ride (a few schools give a few students stipends on top, but not Case Western). So, that generous financial aid package would have left her needing to borrow $5,000 for tuition, and another $23,000 a year for living expenses. That's $84,000 a year, not including increases in tuition and living expenses and accrued interest.

Maybe $84,000 would have been irresponsible, maybe not. That's a very personal choice, and we don't know. And neither does Mitchell. But what we do know is that Mitchell is lying when he said she'd only have to take out $5,000 in loans.

We could do things better, and every law school with which I’m familiar is looking to address its problems. In the meantime, the one-sided analysis is inflicting significant damage, not only on law schools but also on a society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers.

A one-sided analysis is bad. So, here's a two sided analysis. Of Case Western's class of 2011, only 46.3% found full-time, permanent jobs practicing law. And the other side: 17.9% were unemployed, and an additional 19.9% were under-employed.

But nevermind the casualties, what about losing the future great lawyers? ...Who cares? It's not like the nation loses its great minds. They go on to do something else. It's like a zero sum game. The only way we, as a society, lose value is if they go on to do something less worthwhile. And here's the basis of Mitchell's reasoning, he thinks that law is the most worthwhile thing you can do and anything else is a waste. Probably because he's paid to think that, because we can think of a lot better things to do with your life than filling in specifics on a form will or defending drunk drivers. And we're not the only ones, we'll give the final word on this to Antonin Scalia:

I mean there’d be a, you know, a defense or public defender from Podunk, you know, and this woman is really brilliant, you know. Why isn’t she out inventing the automobile or, you know, doing something productive for this society?

I mean lawyers, after all, don’t produce anything. They enable other people to produce and to go on with their lives efficiently and in an atmosphere of freedom. That’s important, but it doesn’t put food on the table and there have to be other people who are doing that. And I worry that we are devoting too many of our very best minds to this enterprise.

And they appear here in the Court, I mean, even the ones who will only argue here once and will never come again. I’m usually impressed with how good they are. Sometimes you get one who’s not so good. But, no, by and large I don’t have any complaint about the quality of counsel, except maybe we’re wasting some of our best minds.

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