Why Does Everyone Want to Go to Law School?

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  1. Avatar NewDealer
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    I graduated law school in 2011 at the age of 30. This put me in prime years for the law school sham probably. Though I was also a bit odd because I was a slightly older student. Most of my classmates started law school between 22-24. Though there were plenty of older students. I really enjoyed my law school education. My law school had a long history of providing a good deal of the lawyers to the Bay Area/Northern California for most of her history. We suffered a lot in the crisis though. Interestingly a lot of my friends from law school are working as lawyers. Mainly for small or medium sized firms, some for the government as prosecutors and district attorneys. At least three are working for their parents though, probably more.

    My career path was an inbetween. I worked for thirteen months for a firm on a project to project basis and that wrapped up in the end of April. Now I am looking for my next move. I am getting a lot of places tell me that they just hired a bunch of new associates. So I think the market got better but I missed the ship :/. Though last week I had two interviews and a recruiter submit me for a position.

    I wrote about this for the League’s Higher Education symposium under the headline careers for the slightly impractical student. My joke was that Law School was for people who wanted to make good money but were too nerdy for business and not scientifically inclined enough for medicine, engineering, math, etc.

    I graduated from what America calls a “small liberal arts college” in 2002 with a BA in Drama. Small liberal arts colleges tend to be academically elite and tend to attract a very smart and precocious but not necessarily practical kind of student. Most if not all of these schools do not have “practical” majors like Business, Marketing, Nursing, Engineering, etc. You could major in a pure science like Chemistry and Biology. Most pre-med types ended up doing that. If you wanted to do engineering, you needed to a joint 3-2 program with another university like Columbia or RPI. I don’t know anyone who did this. Many of my friends also majored in subjects like Drama and English and we wanted to be artists of various sorts.

    From 2002-2003, I taught English in Japan because I wanted to live abroad for a year.

    From 2003-2008, I tried with varying degrees of non-success to start a career in theatre as a director including going to grad school. Theatre is extremely hard to make a living in but this is a subject for another post. The people I know who do it are either independently wealthy or misfit enough that any kind of office life beyond the occasional temp job is impossible for them. I am neither of these things.

    However my attempts to get a normal job from 2003-2008 were met with a lot of silence. I worked as a freelance legal proofreader during this time. Those jobs paid decently but the work was not very frequent. I worked for a small publishing company as a publicity assistant for ten dollars an hour and as an independent supervisor for an board of directors election at a non-profit. Any other attempt at getting a “normal” job completely and utterly failed. The Corporate world seemed to want nothing to do with me. I didn’t even get any interviews.

    So law school it was because my grandfather was a lawyer (though retired by the time I was born), my dad was a lawyer, and my brother (LeeEsq at the League) is a lawyer. My timing probably could have been better but I needed to get the theatre thing out of my system. I would have flunked out of law school otherwise.

    Despite the crisis, my thirteen month gig was the best year of my life as an independent working adult. I paid my rent, my insurance, and still had money for fun and some savings. Though I am still concerned about the future and landing that associate position is still a bit of a challenge it seems. Some of my friends from law school “hung up their own shingle” but all these people have partners or spouses with jobs and therefore a secondary source of income plus access to health insurance. I do not have a spouse or partner.

    Basically, I don’t know whether I was part of a scam or not. I never wanted to do Big Law and I knew that my starting salary would almost certainly not be in the six-figure range (this seems to be a big part of the scam, the misleading about starting salaries and hiring rates. It took my dad and brother 1 year to get their first law jobs and both started with modest salaries) However, I am still one of many somewhat impractical people who went to law school because we could not get employment anywhere else. Since America is a nation of 300 million people, there are probably a lot of us very smart but very impractical people. Liberal Arts majors of the World Unite! You have nothing to lose but your Foucault!

    But no one really had an answer to my question from my League essay. What are careers for liberal arts majors in the era of STEM, STEM, STEM? A lot of the paralegals at the firm I worked at were liberal arts majors. Some were doing it as a day job and writing or working on their art at nights and weekends. Others were seeing how they felt about legal careers.

    Journalism is dying, academics is increasingly impossible because now everyone seems stuck in adjunct hell. What are we to do?Report

    • Avatar Kimsie in reply to NewDealer
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      says:

      Ahh… Japan. Where this:
      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQgGUEnMZrg
      counts as community service.

      … and people wonder why my stories always sound so out there!
      Because this actually happened. (as in, they put together the readers,
      and even hired voice actors… and then distributed them to schools.)Report

    • Avatar Lyle in reply to NewDealer
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      says:

      There is a crying need in STEM for folks that can actually write in English. I recall when I was working on a standards committee we had an English major in the group. and he was able to make the documents we were working on much clearer. This does however mean that one needs to minor in at least Math and Physics, and perhaps some field of engineering. How many times has one read computer documentation that is not well written. Also this applies to folks that major in some foreign languages, if they can translate technical and user manuals into actual good English they are valued.
      I don’t know how large the market is but it is an area. However it does require one to have an aptitude in the STEM area at least thru calculus and calculus physics, which of course leaves a lot of folks out of the picture.
      One question occurs how many english programs have good technical writing training, rather than focusing on further explication of shakespeare for example. Or interestingly anthropolgy if willing to apply has some application in figuring out how folks will use new technology, and providing input in the design phase to make the technology better.
      So it suggests that one do a minor in STEM (i.e. the first 2 years type course) along with a humanities major.
      In the law school case if one has the STEM background what is the market for patent attorneys like?Report

      • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Lyle
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        says:

        “In the law school case if one has the STEM background what is the market for patent attorneys like?”

        As far as I know, good to excellent. Same with attorneys with serious foreign language skills. You will always be able to get at least well-paid document review work if you are fluent in Japanese, Korean, and other hard languages. But fluent is really fluent and not “I can read Manga aimed at teenagers fluent.”

        “One question occurs how many english programs have good technical writing training, rather than focusing on further explication of shakespeare for example.”

        Larger universities probably have at least courses in technical writing. The issue here is that what is the point and purpose of a university education. This seems like a never ending debate. Is it to create good employees or well-educated and intellectually curious citizens who cane think and write critically and well? If the purpose is to create good employees, we should focus on technical writing. If to create well-educated citizens, we should focus on Shakespeare and Milton.

        “I don’t know how large the market is but it is an area. However it does require one to have an aptitude in the STEM area at least thru calculus and calculus physics, which of course leaves a lot of folks out of the picture.”

        Including me. The issue seems to be that law school was the destination of choice for smart people who were not cut for medicine, business, or engineering/science careers. This worked well for decades and in the past few years the system has been destroyed. A lot of the panic seems to be in finding careers for these people.Report

        • Avatar Lyle in reply to NewDealer
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          Historically the point of a college education was in many cases to get a job. Look at the names of many institutions when the were founded, before they became comprehensive universities, they were Normal or Teachers colleges, thats vocational training. Or look at the Land grant schools, which were set up to train in the Agriculture and Mechanic arts (engineering). Before WWII there might have been one basically comprehensive state supported university in a state. Perhaps this is a return to that state of affairs.Report

    • Avatar Pierre Corneille in reply to NewDealer
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      But no one really had an answer to my question from my League essay. What are careers for liberal arts majors in the era of STEM, STEM, STEM? A lot of the paralegals at the firm I worked at were liberal arts majors. Some were doing it as a day job and writing or working on their art at nights and weekends. Others were seeing how they felt about legal careers.

      I do think that a lot of liberal arts majors will do best by doing something like the the “day job and writing or working on their art at nights and weekends.” And sometimes, the day job might be something with a lot of drudgery (perhaps paralegal work fits in here): they might have to accept punching a time clock and dealing with customers over the phone or otherwise serving people, or pushing papers and being an office drone, or doing some other job that provides income but is not fulfilling.

      This might have sounded harsh–and I admit there was at least a little of the chip-on-shoulder “well, that’s what I did” ism at the back of my mind when I wrote that–but sometimes living the life of the mind is or ought to be its own reward. Not all liberal arts graduates (and here I include the graduates from state schools and not only the private liberal arts schools) will go on to executive positions or the old standby of “work at a non-profit.”

      If the demand is for STEM, that’s probably what’s going to be the moneymakers. (I suspect that the supposed demand for STEM might be more of a pre-bubble marketing hype than anything, but I really don’t know, and as Lyle pointed out, there might be a demand for English-speaking and good-writing STEM workers.) Sometimes the liberal arts are their own reward. And I think graduates in liberal arts and those considering in majoring in liberal arts are well served to think of it that way instead of throwing good money after bad at law school or grad school.Report

  2. Avatar NewDealer
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    says:

    Another aspect of being someone with a law-student/lawyer mind is that law-student/lawyers tend to get fairly cranky when listening to people speak meaningless nonsense.

    A lot of career advice these days seems to be in the form of useless and vague buzzwords and terminology like “think outside the box”. I have never met a lawyer or law student who could stand such advice and often world get very cranky if someone told them to “think outside the box” or any other buzzword non-sense. Yet there are people who can lap those empty phrases up like they are very sage advice. There seems to be a lot of business and management abuse of the English language with phrases like the above. All phrases like that are void for vagueness.Report

  3. Avatar Burt Likko
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    says:

    I, too, wrote about law school and the career that can reasonably be expected to result from it for the symposium. First, I asked why anyone would want to go to law school in the first place. Second, I explored the hoops you have to jump through to get in. Third, I looked at how one gains admission to the bar (at least in the United States; the OP offers a welcome counterpoint with a look in the UK). Fourth, I looked at what the actual practice of law is like and the remuneration actually available. Finally, because it was getting pretty bleak, I looked at some ideas to reform things.

    At the end of the day, I largely agree with the OP: my impression is that law school today would not be worth it given the realities of the legal profession. NewDealer is more optimistic than I, as appropriately befits his status as a younger attorney. I will say that I think it can get better. It just hasn’t yet.Report

    • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Burt Likko
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      says:

      I don’t what else I can do besides be optimistic. At this point I have too much skin in the game. Going along with Paul Campos style railing would only put me in a pit of depression and despair. Especially because he is kind of lacking on advice for people who were part of the “law school scam”. He doesn’t seem to have any advice on what underemployed lawyers could do as alternative careers.

      Though I wonder how much of this is because many industries only seem to select from certain schools. A kind of “old Boys network” that now includes more women and minorities (presuming they attended the right schools):

      http://chronicle.com/blogs/percolator/brown-and-cornell-are-second-tier/27565

      The article basically states that the best Law Firms, Investment Banks, and Consultaning firms only want people from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and maybe Stanford. I’ve seen some small boutique law firms say this quite strongly on their website as a selling point. Choice quote from the article:

      ‘Here’s a manager from a top investment bank describing what happens to the resume of someone who went to, say, Rutgers: “I’m just being really honest, it pretty much goes into a black hole.”

      What’s surprising isn’t that students from elite universities have a leg up; it’s that students from other colleges don’t have a chance, even if those colleges are what the rest of us might consider elite. Here’s what a top consultant had to say about M.I.T.:

      You will find it when you go to like career fairs or something and you know someone will show up and say, you know, “Hey, I didn’t go to HBS [Harvard Business School] but, you know, I am an engineer at M.I.T. and I heard about this fair and I wanted to come meet you in New York.” God bless him for the effort but, you know, it’s just not going to work.

      There are exceptions, but only if the candidate has some personal connection with the firm. And the list of super-elite schools varies somewhat depending on the field. For instance, Columbia might be considered elite by some investment banks, but others describe it as ”second-tier” or “just okay.”’

      I went to an undergrad institution that would be considered very elite. According to Wikipedia, nearly 8000 hopeful students applied for a spot in the class of 2016 and slightly over 1800 were accepted. This is an acceptance rate of just under 23 percent.

      Yet according to the linked article, we are second tier and probably not going to be considered by many companies in many industries. We had a computer science major but perhaps other top tech firms are similarly snooty and only want MIT, CalTech, Stanford, etc.

      In short, this could be another reason for the law school trap, many bright students from many schools cannot get into a lot of places because of the name of their degree granting institution. This can include many top schools like Wesleyan, Williams, Amherst, Vassar, Swathmore, MIT, Cal Tech, Michigan, Cal, Reed, Colby, Bowdoin, Oberlin, Kenyon, Grinnell, the University of Chicago, etc.

      The issue does not seem to be that students are not considering alternatives but hiring managers and HR are narrow-minded in who they accept depending on the industry. If an Oberlin grad can’t even get herself an interview because her degree says Oberlin than why should she consider things beyond law school?Report

      • Avatar Barry in reply to NewDealer
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        says:

        “I don’t what else I can do besides be optimistic. At this point I have too much skin in the game. Going along with Paul Campos style railing would only put me in a pit of depression and despair. Especially because he is kind of lacking on advice for people who were part of the “law school scam”. He doesn’t seem to have any advice on what underemployed lawyers could do as alternative careers.”

        He has also failed to bring peace to the Middle East.

        What he *can* do is to keep some people from going into the meatgri der in the first case.Report

        • Avatar NewDealer in reply to Barry
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          says:

          And sound oh so righteous, oh so noble, and oh so holy while still retaining a lucrative salary from the scamming Institutions that he professes to hate.

          Wikipedia tells me that the University of Colorado Law School is ranked 44th according to US News and World Report. Respectable but not stellar. The same wikipedia article says that Inside the Law School Scam calls Colorado “overranked” and it should really be “117”

          Do you think that Mr. Campos tells his Property students to runaway while they are still ahead? Or does he just go on teaching The Rule Against Perpetutities and about Easements and the Fee Simple?Report

      • Avatar Brandon Berg in reply to NewDealer
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        says:

        In short, this could be another reason for the law school trap, many bright students from many schools cannot get into a lot of places because of the name of their degree granting institution. This can include many top schools like Wesleyan, Williams, Amherst, Vassar, Swathmore, MIT, Cal Tech, Michigan, Cal, Reed, Colby, Bowdoin, Oberlin, Kenyon, Grinnell, the University of Chicago, etc.

        I’m skeptical of this, for any proportional definition of “a lot.” There just aren’t enough Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford graduates for more than a tiny percentage of employers to draw exclusively from that pool. On the order of 5,000-7,000 graduating seniors each year, for all four schools combined. Some employers may hire exclusively from these schools, but that can’t be the norm, or anywhere close to it.Report

  4. Avatar LeeEsq
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    says:

    I think that law kind of works as a default profession for people who are ambitious and driven intelligent but do not want to pursue a career in architecture, business, science, engineering, academics, medicine, and variety of other fields. Maybe they feel they do not have the talents for a particular field like architecture or engineering. They might think that other fields like teaching will not give them the money they want but that they do not have the right mindset for business or finance for some reason. They go to law as a an alternative.

    When I entered college, all I knew was that I wanted to major in history. I had no idea what I’d do after graduation. Towards my junior year, I decided that I’d either go to law school or continue on and get a PhD and go into academia. I knew that getting a PhD would take a long time and did not wanted to get to work sooner than latter, so I decided to go to law school.Report

  5. Avatar DBrown
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    says:

    I cannot believe so many people pile on such massive debt to obtain a law degree. Worse, except for a few top schools, a degree from most schools offer little chance to obtain a job that readily allows the person to pay back the debt and still live a life that can afford a middle class experience. That all said, if one attends say MIT for a STEM degree, the cost (unless you have a lot of money) is down right cheap. What they say what they charge and what you are really asked to pay is a world of difference – in the case of MIT, I make very high end five figures and I will pay about 15% of their stated tuition for my child; these schools are a great deal if you have the academics to get in … . This would have occurred for Stanford, Caltech, Princeton, Yale and so on. People should not rule these schools out on a cost bases.Report

    • Avatar Barry in reply to DBrown
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      says:

      People simply don’t know. They see average salaries and don’t realize that those are ‘trimmed’, meaning that the law schools count the successes and ignore the failures.Report

    • Avatar Michael Drew in reply to DBrown
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      says:

      I think we would have to know more about the particulars of your child’s case as an applicant to these schools to know how this experience generalizes as an example for families looking at choosing and financing a path through higher education for their children. It doesn’t sound like your situation is necessarily an entirely common one.Report

  6. Avatar Barry
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    says:

    John, thanks for mentioning yhe blog ‘Inside the Law School Scam’. I found it to be eye-opening.Report

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