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Tuesday, August 08, 2017

The Case for Law School Part I


We are all very familiar with the arguments made against going to law school in recent years. A couple examples here and here and here. There have been some real fears and other exaggerated ones about the lack of jobs and debt burden. A part of me believes that there is a small contingent at the N.Y. Times who had a parent that pushed law school and a rebellious adult who now hates all lawyers because there has been an extraordinary amount of negative press there. Here are just a few of the many titles: the law school debt crisis, an expensive law degree and nowhere to use it, the debt burden of law school graduates. I understand this potential motivation to a certain extent, as I was “too lazy” to go to medical school (according to my parents) and became a lawyer.

So with all of this bad press, law admissions have been down. But should they be? Why should students go to law school? I will put forward a few arguments.

At the outset my defensive argument (which has been the frontline from the law field) but I think the weakest and least important one: The economy has not been strong for new job growth, but law jobs are struggling just the same as other jobs. The job growth for law jobs is on track with other professions according to most recent numbers of the Bureau of Labor Statistics and lawyers make a median salary of $118,000 a year. Not bad. According to NALP, Employment numbers for the class of 2015 were over 87% employment. Also pretty respectable. But even if employment numbers are not as strong as they could be (sometimes they have been at 90% or more), should you decide not to go to law school because at the time you graduate college the job numbers aren’t great for all students? Maybe you are an above average student or really have skills that will make you a good lawyer. Or should you not study law just because you might not want to practice law?

Obviously a degree in law is not for everyone. I’ve seen several students lately who I believe have made the mistake of choosing to do a master’s degree or no advanced degree because of some of the negative press against law schools.

So instead of going on the defensive and arguing job numbers or about struggling law schools, I want to provide some insight into why a law degree is an important one.

  1. Law school teaches you how to see both sides of an argument better than any other degree. Law school teaches you how to determine a reputable source from a bad one, a good argument from a weak one, and to see through logical fallacies. Often lawyers are criticized for becoming dispassionate because of this great skill. Students that come into law school feeling indignantly opposed to abortion rights will be forced to confront the legitimate arguments on the other side and have to rethink their views. This is an invaluable lifelong skill. There is no other education that will teach you this kind of analytical thinking. And the byproduct of this is that it makes it hard for lawyers to argue with nonlawyers (ask your snarky lawyer friends but it is true). It is important now—more than ever—to have people able to see the holes in arguments and to be able to understand both sides of an issue. It is important for people to be able to decipher real from fake news and be able to see the logical problems in arguments.

I will share other thoughts in my next post…


Posted by Shima Baradaran Baughman on August 8, 2017 at 07:20 PM | Permalink



Posted by: Aldo Hedin | Jun 12, 2018 1:20:35 PM

A very interesting post. I look forward to your series. A few thoughts:

1. True, the overall employment rate was 87%. But, that includes JD *advantage* jobs. The JD *required* employment number (66%) is hardly impressive. While the JD-advantage number does include some solid employment outcomes (big business, consulting, etc.), it also includes positions that few people would think of as being worth the three year/ $80k-$200k investment -- claims processing, residential real estate sales, etc. Bottom line: the vast majority of law students make that investment to become lawyers, not claims processors.

2. I think appreciating one's lens is important. Most of the professoriate went to excellent schools and had terrific job prospects. Our conceptualization of the definition of JD-advantage jobs is at least partially a function of our law school environment. But, these days, those terrific job prospects really aren’t what they used to be. (At least one Top 25 school has a 65% JD-required employment rate.)

But, the most significant problem is the lens's impact on the critical analysis of how the lower tier schools affect the thesis (that law school is worth it). We in the professoriate tend to focus only on the top schools because that's our employment frame of reference.

Meanwhile, many schools lead to below 40% JD-required jobs and a 50% total employment score. These schools exist, and they contribute to the employment scores you cite. Therefore, any analysis of the case for law school must make a more nuanced distinction between whether Top 14 schools are worth it; whether T1 schools are worth it; whether T2 schools are worth it, etc.

3. Top law school grads can legitimately think about the importance of the intellectual and analytical training they receive. They use those skills to become CEOs, consulting firm partners, etc. Outside of the top schools, however, this belief in employability thanks to esoterica really doesn't jive with reality. Lower-ranked schools' JD-advantage jobs generally do not include C-level gigs or prestigious government positions. Their JD-required jobs don't require just analytical skills.

I look forward to your future posts. This is indeed an important subject.

Posted by: LawProf | Aug 9, 2017 12:00:53 PM

@myessayslab I agree with you to some extent but not fully. I think students should study what is interesting but also what provides them the lifestyle that they hope for in the future. This is a hard thing to think about when you are in college because you may not have the life experience to know what you will want in 10 or 20 or 30 years. This is why I'm not opposed to some subtle or not so subtle parent opinion on this topic

@Jeff Lipshaw The legal education doesn't necessarily work for everyone. If a student embraces it though, they will at least challenge their world view or understand that there are other sides to it that they may not have thought about. Or at least be able to make analytical points to counter emotional ones that they may have held before law school. It's certainly not foolproof, as you noted correctly that Ann Coulter is a great counter example.

Posted by: Shima Baughman | Aug 9, 2017 11:10:32 AM

Re Paragraph "1.": Really? Seems to me the empirical proposition that people change their fundamental views on things like abortion because of law school is questionable. Also the empirical proposition that there is no other education that forces one to confront legitimate arguments on the other and have to rethink views seems questionable. It is true that law school teaches a particular kind of analytical thinking (how to come up legal theories in pursuit of instrumental goals), but I'm not sure that it isn't merely a subset of the kind of analytical thinking that you have to do to make any argument, descriptive or normative, in the arts and humanities. I do know, from my years of being in board rooms and management suites with colleagues who had advanced degrees in business, environmental science, chemistry, organizational behavior, physics, English, etc., that suggesting I was uniquely able to see holes in arguments because I had a law degree would have been a rhetorical mistake!

My observation over many years is that the inclination to see the other side's point of view is affective and emotional and not reasoned. One variant on this is my maxim "the rule of law is not a rule of law." What inclines you to confront legitimate arguments and ACCEPT them is a kind of empathy or willingness to get outside your yourself and into the metaphoric shoes of another. Law, and legal argument, is just as capable of being a club as a physical club. Rather than doing the beating yourself, you appeal to a third party holding the power. The rule of law isn't a rule of law because losing and accepting the loss is a cultural or emotional or psychological disposition. Getting along with other without resort to law takes the same willingness to accept Mick Jagger's dictum that you can't always get what you want.

I suppose this is a cheap shot, but Ann Coulter is a lawyer (Michigan J.D., 1988). She graduated with my sister-in-law. As I understand it, law school didn't change her much.

Posted by: Jeff Lipshaw | Aug 9, 2017 10:01:49 AM

If a student would like to be a lawyer, a student should study law. If a student would like to be a journalist, a student should study journalism. The most important thing is to take up a job that is interesting for you. No matter whether the job numbers are strong or not. Students should study what they really like to do in life.

Posted by: myessayslab | Aug 9, 2017 6:19:27 AM

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