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Thursday, April 30, 2015

The Perceived Value of a Law Degree

One of the topics for the mini-symposia is what the future holds for law schools. This led me to think about how law schools communicate to the public that a law degree is still useful

There has been a lot of discussion about the changing nature of legal education. Responding to studies, like the Carnegie Report on legal education in the United States and Canada, law schools have been under pressure to make law school more “practical.” Coupled with the economic crisis that affected the legal industry and the media’s critique of legal education, we have all read that law school applications are down and that some schools are shrinking class sizes. 

One can predict doom and gloom for law schools. However, it seems to me that higher education is under attack in general. One doesn’t have to look far to find articles and books advising students to skip college to start a business instead, or documentaries critiquing the business model for higher education in the United States.

Law degrees may not offer the security of the days of old, but what non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field does? Perhaps the general response from law schools has been too narrow. Maybe it is partly driven by the US News & World Report Rankings methodology, to the extent that the post-graduation employment statistics are affected by whether the position requires a law degree.

The future of law schools probably depends, in part, on the perceived value of legal training. I do not mean to suggest that law schools should not be responsive to the changing times. Yet, I wonder whether the defense of legal education could not be more robust. A law degree is essential if you want practice law. However, as we all know, legal education can be valuable even if you do not plan to practice law. The flexibility of the law degree is, arguably, one of its advantages.  Unlike surgical training, for instance, legal training gives you skills that are transferable to other fields. Maybe (like some of the students I have encountered) one intends to run a business, to go into politics, or to have a career in diplomacy. If so, having a law degree may be highly useful, even if it isn’t essential.  Isn’t that a good enough reason to go to law school? 

 

Posted by Jan OseiTutu on April 30, 2015 at 03:09 PM in 10th Anniversary | Permalink

Comments

Maybe if law school were quicker and cheaper, it would make sense to go for those fringe benefits mentioned. But, if you've ever tried to look for a non legal job with a law degree, it's extremely difficult to sell employers on the idea that the JD is a general degree that qualifies you for many things. It's viewed as a specialist degree. Most employers staffing for non legal jobs view someone with a JD as a flight risk.

Posted by: perkinwarbeck | Apr 30, 2015 4:33:39 PM

Jan,

The flexibility argument is a tough one to make, and one which needs to come with quite a few caveats. For instance, it's important to separate out the education and training of law school from the education and training of post-graduation law practice.

The discussion then would also need to do some cost/benefit analysis, and do so in comparison to the alternatives. For instance, law school does give some knowledge useful to starting a business, but is that knowledge worth $150,000 and 3 years? Is there a cheaper and quicker way to get it (perhaps a buck fifty in late charges at the public library)? And is there an educational program that more directly gets at what you need? (Perhaps your future business owner would have been better off with an MBA, or 3 years of work in the industry he wants to enter.)

And to speak to perkinwarbeck's point, he is absolutely correct that it can be a career detriment. If you're not entering one of the traditional fields lawyers move into (government, lobbying, consulting, etc), the law degree can be a very big red flag on your resume. I've had that exact issue come up in an interview and was asked why I wouldn't just want to go make a ton of money as a lawyer instead.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Apr 30, 2015 4:37:42 PM

Thanks for your comments. I think these are fair points. I wonder how much the "flight risk" perception continues to exist in this current market, and whether law graduates might have ways to respond effectively. Yes, it is a specialized degree, but it is a specialized degree that can bring value in many ways.

In my short time teaching, I have encountered a handful of students who are entrepreneurial, or involved in family businesses, who tell me that they have no intention of practicing law after they graduate. They decided to attend law school because they thought it would be valuable for them in their business endeavors. When I chatted with one student about his plans, he said he wished that law schools would recognize that not everyone plans to practice law and that he finds career panels too focused on law practice. Perhaps he is an unusual student, but that was his critique of law school.

Posted by: Jan | Apr 30, 2015 8:03:40 PM

Jan,

Have you asked any of those students why they didn't attend business school instead?

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | Apr 30, 2015 8:18:53 PM

Maybe a JD is a red flag in some industries--it certainly isn't in the insurance industry. Non-legal jobs that prefer a JD abound, and can always lead to a legal job later. Yes, there is some sacrifice initially on the salary, but bright and energetic people can move ahead quickly.

As more lawyers enter mainstream businesses, I think the question that Derek Tokaz mentions about going to make more money "as a lawyer" will fade. I have always been a lawyer, even if my title has been manager, director, etc.

I haven't regretted the decision to go to law school at all, even if most of my positions have been "JD preferred". I just think there needs to be more discussion about the changing market so prospective and current students can make more reasoned decisions.

Posted by: Marcos Antonio Mendoza | Apr 30, 2015 10:21:27 PM

For quasi-legal jobs, like compliance, it might make some sense, but for most occupations it just isn't really worth the additional time and expense of learning things that, unused, you'll forget in a couple of years. For corporate jobs you certainly miss out on a lot of practical skills such as financial accounting and IT that will put you behind the curve when going against MBA students. In the "critical thinking" category I don't know if law school particularly gives you a leg up in comparison to a shorter degree in philosophy or history or something, especially considering the combination of lowered admissions standards and the impetus for law schools to pass even low-performing students (it's difficult to flunk out of law school).

Posted by: twbb | May 1, 2015 7:41:55 AM

If law professors actually appreciated legal practice and had some real experience with it, then the perceived value wouldn't be so low.

Posted by: Anon | May 1, 2015 7:46:11 AM


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Derek,

I had not asked why they did not pursue an MBA. Next time I will purse that line of inquiry!

Posted by: Jan OseiTutu | May 1, 2015 11:49:00 AM

I like the question, and think it is where the focus should be. There is benefit to law school. (Analysis, careers, rigorous thought). There are costs to law school (tuition, opportunity costs, stigma in some jobs).

The comparison of the two is value. At some price, law school is broadly attractive. At some cost is is attractive to almost no one.

Posted by: Jojo | May 1, 2015 12:19:42 PM

It's probably worth knowing that just like the law degree, the generalist MBA degree is also in decline. However, specialist business degrees have seen a sharp rise in the last few years (going up close to 30%).

Now maybe the kids getting these degrees are just choosing poorly, but I suspect their instincts about the value of being a generalist and "flexible" are probably pretty good. After all, these are people who quite likely have been looking at the job opportunities available to them, and have seen exactly what employers are looking for.

I think the problem with being flexible is that there's almost always going to be someone better suited to any individual task. You've got a large grab bag of skills, but only a few of them will ever be useful at any one time.

In a law job, you might be able to make use of 80-90% of your skills. In what we might call a "closely related" field (compliance, contract administration, etc), it might be closer to 50%. You bring in your knowledge of corporate law, contracts, maybe some tax, but not crim or property or T&E. In a distant field, maybe only 10% of your legal skills get any use.

Then compare the law grad to the specialist non-law grad. He's absolutely out of the running for law jobs, but in the closely related field he brings 90% of his skills to bear, because that's what he specialized in. You're cobbling together your skills to make you a good health care compliance officer, but this competitor majored in health care compliance. He's got you beat. And in that distant field? Let's make it hospitality management, the health care compliance specialist won't be as competitive as the law grad, but there's also going to be a hospitality management grad in the mix to beat them both.

Of course this oversimplifies things, and there's a lot more that goes into hiring decisions (prestige of the school, undergraduate major, prior work experience, biases of the hiring manager, actual supply of labor, etc). But, I think this gets pretty close to the mark. Being a generalist is good if your work actually requires you to do a bunch of diverse tasks (for instance, an entrepreneur does in fact have to do a bunch of diverse tasks). Otherwise, it doesn't really matter that you might also be relatively competent at some other task which you are not in fact going to be doing. The hotel looking for a hospitality manager doesn't care that you could also teach AP US Government at a private high school.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 1, 2015 12:56:26 PM

Cutting the number of law graduates would be helpful to legal employment - but perhaps adding more MBA type courses instead of law and ... would be a better idea. It would mean less pure law education, but increase flexibility, and many lawyers could benefit from a better understanding of accounting, management accounting, human resources, etc.

Posted by: Lurker | May 1, 2015 3:27:07 PM

Lurker,

You know that law schools won't add MBA type courses instead of Law And. They'd add them in addition to Law And, raise their tuition to meet the increased professorial headcount, and then blame it on students who demand more diversity in classes.

Posted by: Derek Tokaz | May 2, 2015 2:47:31 AM

Derek nails something important about generalists. I'd extend the logic some, as follows:

1. There are two kinds of "generalist" in play, which we might call "generalist skills" and "generalist people." Generalist skills are skills that apply to multiple functional domains. "Good writing." "Math." "Public speaking." "Leadership." "Self-control." Generalist people are people who have the capacity to operate in multiple functional domains, which includes not only having generalist skills but also having, or being able to quickly acquire, diverse specialist skills.

2. I would guess that being strong in enough of generalist skills is sufficient for a good selection of what we might call middle-performance jobs. It is surprisingly hard, it seems, to find people who can string together a coherent sentence or run a store without sexually harassing someone. It also seems quite likely that law school develops a fairly broad array of specialist skills.

3. However, in pretty much all high-performance jobs everyone has at least a minimally competent level of the relevant generalist skills, and you can't do much better by improving them. (Even doctors and computer programmers can string a sentence together.)

4. The places where generalist people are most likely to be prized are in areas (industries, employers) where change is rapid, i.e., where there's a high relative degree of uncertainty about what specialist skills are likely to be needed in the near term down the road.

5. It is very hard to convince others (particularly, the people with money) that one is genuinely a generalist person, rather than a dilitante or a hack. Partly that's because being a generalist person is the kind of thing that people try to fake, partly it's because it's hard to actually know whether one is faking or actually being a generalist person, and partly it's because the people with money tend to have an easier time accurately evaluating specialists.

6. There are generalist skills that facilitate (or constitute?) becoming a generalist person, like learning unfamiliar things quickly and well. There are also generalist skills that facilitate convincingly signaling one's generalist personness.

7. The case for law school in terms of generalist skills other than those given in #6 is necessarily weak, for all the standard reasons (opportunity cost, etc.). If, however, law school makes one into a generalist person---or can be adapted to do so---then that would seem to be a much more persuasive value proposition, independent of all the, you know, actual law stuff. Can it be?

(8. Footnote: law itself may be a generalist skill independent of its specialist facet. That's interesting, but I don't have anything interesting to say about it,)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | May 2, 2015 2:39:37 PM

"Law degrees may not offer the security of the days of old, but what non-STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) field does? Perhaps the general response from law schools has been too narrow. Maybe it is partly driven by the US News & World Report Rankings methodology, to the extent that the post-graduation employment statistics are affected by whether the position requires a law degree."

Please note that a law degree costs a very large amount of money. It's been repeatedly pointed out that a minority of grads are getting jobs which offer a reasonable hope of paying off those costs. And these days the claim that bad starting jobs will somehow likely lead to much, much better jobs a few years down the road have to be backed by something other than claims of 'versatility', or bad research based on cohorts mostly from another world.

Posted by: Barry | May 4, 2015 10:19:37 AM

"Then compare the law grad to the specialist non-law grad. He's absolutely out of the running for law jobs, but in the closely related field he brings 90% of his skills to bear, because that's what he specialized in. You're cobbling together your skills to make you a good health care compliance officer, but this competitor majored in health care compliance. He's got you beat. And in that distant field? Let's make it hospitality management, the health care compliance specialist won't be as competitive as the law grad, but there's also going to be a hospitality management grad in the mix to beat them both."

I'm in the middle of a job search in my profession, and I can tell you that specialism is everything; I'm constantly having to defend not having done exactly the new job for the past decade.

Posted by: Barry | May 4, 2015 1:34:20 PM

The idea that "STEM skills" somehow offer lifetime job security is absolutely silly. 35 year old programmers lose their jobs and never find their way back into the industry, etc, etc. The only clear path to lifetime job security right now is medicine. There's nothing that comes close.

Posted by: Prof | May 4, 2015 6:09:48 PM

1) I think for the current era the generalist argument is way oversold. Aside from people who run their own small businesses I'm hard pressed to identify people who work, at a high pay scale, as generalists in their early to mid careers. At the tail end of a distinguished career, some people move back toward a broader remit, but the path there that I've seen runs through the mastery of a narrow discipline in a way that builds deep relationships with people who have broader needs. Even within law, I've known partners, specialists in, say, corporate law, who have found it very hard to compete internally within their firms or externally with outside clients for work against lawyers with more granular specialities.

2) To the extent law school offers a partial match for a number of fields such as compliance, don't count on it lasting. Law schools offer too much law, at too high a cost, and little to none of the other critical skills necessary for these fields. Compliance and similar fields will do what such fields have always done - develop their own training and credentialing paths. I've written at this at greater length, and the issue is whether law schools want to watch this happen or whether they are willing to significantly restructure in order to be part of it. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2530051

3) The correct approach for law schools is not to sell law degrees as useful or to find purchasers of open seats. The issue for law schools is to identify what needs are unmet, and move to fill those needs where there is a fit. In the current era of pervasive legal duties, the needs for legal education go way beyond the traditional JD, but law schools keep focused on trying to sell what they have always sold.

Posted by: Ray Campbell | May 10, 2015 4:39:50 AM

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