Why Does Everyone Want to Go to Law School?
by Brian John Spencer
For some reason people in America and the UK people have come to regard Law School as some sort of panacea. The pinnacle of academic learning and the route to meteoric career earning: the ultimate career backstop that offers glamour, big respect and guarantees a bulging bank balance.
Let’s call this ‘Law School Think’: the reason why everybody wants to go to law school.
However it’s all a myth.
The idea of Law School being a panacea is a perception ingrained so deeply that young men and women enrol in the face of hard facts that scream out: “Don’t go to Law School!” Slate writer Eric Posner provides a great prefatory note here.
And shame on all those law schools that peddle the Law School myth; only for all those ambitious, hardworking, albeit deluded young people to see their (ill-gotten) dreams melt between their fingers.
But what worries me is that the Law School myth has yet to be busted – it is still alive and well in the US and UK. Because of this I explored the problem on the Huffington Post with a post entitled, ‘Law: The Default Career Choice’. And on the League we’ve had Burt Likko look at some of the problems facing law school and law practice more generally – see here.
On this occasion I want to go a little deeper and unpack some of the detail. Get in deep and see what’s driving young people in the US and UK to enrol in law school in the face of hard facts that say: “don’t!” Here’s a breakdown of the reality as it is in the US and UK. I’ll look at each in turn, starting with the US. Then I’ll look at why we still do it and how we can stop it
In the United States things are especially bad.
Stating the obvious a little here, but the problem is that the legal economy is really flunking.
Since 2008, some 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished. The double digit growth of the pre-boom years was an aberration and job figures will be flat in the near and medium term. It hasn’t helped that more and more firms are adopting new practices and liberalising their business models, including outsourcing a lot of the entry level work.
The reality is that the market for law graduates is saturated, while the legal profession itself has excess capacity and haemorrhaging jobs.
In this context, the legal higher education needs to undergo a radical re-adjustment. Like perhaps… not produce as many wannabe lawyers – but like the profession itself, law school seems to be in denial. As the Atlantic put it, ‘the legal economy is in shambles and law schools have done virtually nothing to react.’
The bottom line is this: law schools need to supply law graduates to the legal economy at a level that is commensurate to the level of demand in that economy.
Though it would be false to say that nothing has changed; applications and enrolment numbers are both down. You can see some great graphs, good reading and interesting links on a post by Aaron Kirschenfeld, entitled ‘The Law School Crisis, visualized.’
On a side note: it’s also important to note that Law School needs to up-skill and broaden the learning curriculum to match the ‘New Normal’ of law practice. If BigLaw and small law have changed, then shouldn’t Law School? Of course it should! But that’s a discussion for another day – back to the Law School enrolment figures.
According to Above the Law, Law school apps have dropped to 54,000 annually, from 100,000 in 2004.
But as Steven J Harper, author of the ‘The Lawyer Bubble’ said:
‘You’re still going to have way more applicants than you have seats in law schools. And as the recent employment data shows, in 2012 we had a record number of law school grads, over 46,000. The bubble is continuing to grow. We are an extraordinarily long way from anything that looks like an equilibrium between supply and demand.’
‘There’s something about observing these lemmings scrabble their way into the maws of ruthless law schools, despite dire warnings and appeals to common sense, that just…gets under my skin.’
In the UK Law Schools things are bad.
The extent to which the misfortune of law graduates has been documented in the UK hasn’t enjoyed anywhere near the same exposure as in the US.
According to Legal Week the total number starting a law course in September 2007 stood at 17,702, just over 18,000 in September 2008 and 18,394 in September 2009. In 2009 law was actually the top subject choice in the UK according to UCAS.
In 2009-10 there were 11,370 full-time and 3,140 part-time solicitor students compared to just 4,874 newly registered training contracts. That’s a surplus of 9,636 students – pretty much the majority of students.
This was in the context of a legal profession that according to RBS, was ‘carrying thousands of excess solicitor jobs.’ Michael Todd QC, Chairman of the Bar Council has said that many have students “no hope” of a job in law.
So unfair are the terms of engagement that many graduates have to settle as paralegals or have been forced to go elsewhere. So it’s pretty clear that the British, like the Americans have been captured by ‘Law School Think’.
What’s up with ‘Law School Think’ – Why does it exist?
The head of the American Bar Association, William Robinson has no sympathy for jobless law grads and said that law students should have known what they were getting into.
Personally I wouldn’t agree with the William Robinson analysis. It’s pretty easy for young people to get caught up in the compelling narrative of ‘Law School Think’ spun by the media and self-interested Law Schools, and as upheld by out-of-date social hearsay.
To my mind there are two reasons why young men and women choose Law School in the fact of a legal economy that’s tanking:
- The overhang of an old truth/socially reinforced illusion
- Sinister doings of Law Schools who want to maintain the status quo
On the first point: there’s not much to this, it’s just that old fashioned regard that holds the lawyer as an exceptionally gifted, successful and very well off person.
Look, it may have been true at one time. But now it isn’t. And because of a lag period, parents buy into the old thinking and in doing so, fool themselves and their children into going to law school thinking their kid’s going to grow up and be Atticus Finch, Alicia Florrick or Reese Witherspoon.
In this video Matt Yglesias explained how his career guidance from friends and family extended as far as a very vague and very broad suggestion that he should go to law school.
‘A turning point in my life was when I ran out of excuses to do more higher education. On reflection, my English literature degree (four years), GDL (one year) and BPTC (one year) amount to a massive waste of time and money. Indeed, if I could do it all again, I wouldn’t even go to university. But perhaps, as a middle class person whose university lecturer parents placed a high value on education, these were just the hoops I was destined to jump through.’
It may have been true at one stage but the idea that law school = a well paid job is dead. As Above the Law said, ‘Remember when studying law was a path towards the good life of home ownership?’
On the second point: this is a little more complicated. There’s a lot two it. Steven J. Harper has spoken of ‘The Law School Sham’ and there’s even a blog that goes by the title, ‘Inside the Law School scam’.
Undoubtedly there’s reluctance for insiders to adjust: after all, there’s an incentive to uphold the old order and the status quo. Frankly: Law Schools are cash cows. As the New York Times said:
‘Tuition at even mediocre law schools can cost up to $43,000 a year. Those huge lecture-hall classes — remember “The Paper Chase”? — keep teaching costs down. There are no labs or expensive equipment to maintain. So much money flows into law schools that law professors are among the highest paid in academia, and law schools that are part of universities often subsidize the money-losing fields of higher education.
“If you’re a law school and you add 25 kids to your class, that’s a million dollars, and you don’t even have to hire another teacher,” says Allen Tanenbaum, a lawyer in Atlanta who led the American Bar Association’s commission on the impact of the economic crisis on the profession and legal needs. “That additional income goes straight to the bottom line”.’
Paul Campos, a law professor at Colorado tried to lift the lid on the law school sham through his blog, ‘Inside the Law School Scam’. He had expressed grave concerns about how law schools were raising fees to absurd levels while simultaneously being less than open about the employment prospects of new graduates.
And the reaction of law Schools? A collective shrug. They don’t give a toss. Just keep the students rolling in and keep the balance book buoyant; but just let them worry about getting a job and paying off their debt.
So what do we in the US and UK need to do?
We need to bust the myth and ‘Law School Think’ which elevates Law School to some sort of zenith. The old order thinking is both ill-informed and massively damaging.
What Law School Think does is to promote the inefficient allocation of resources. We need high schools and colleges to inform their students on the market realities of the legal economy.
On the side of this we need to promote other professions and push for parity of esteem.
Above the Law put it best on approaching the question of Law School. They said:
‘If you don’t have a strong and well-informed desire to be a lawyer, then you probably shouldn’t go to law school (unless you’re so rich that you or your parents can afford to treat law school as “finishing school for liberal arts graduates”).’
Or, as Forbes Magazine said to the graduating class of 2012: just ‘Don’t Go To Law School’.