Why People Go To Law School – Or At Least Why I Did
by New Dealer
Guest Author Brian John Spencer posted an essay today wondering why people still continue to apply for law school even though the legal market exploded in 2008 and has not really recovered and might not recover for a long time. I wrote my story down there but I think there are some broader points to be made about the way job searching seems to work in the United States especially for college graduates.
The United States has one of the largest mass educated classes in the entire world. According to Wikipedia’s article on Educational Attainment in the United States about 30.9 percent of American’s 25 or above have a Bachelor’s Degree. The same article stated that only 8 percent of Americans have a Master’s degree and 3 percent have a Doctorate or Professional Degree.
As we have discussed many times on the League including very recently, there are a lot of institutions of higher education in the United States. This includes dozens if not more schools that can be considered highly to very selective. Everyone knows about the Ivy League and the Big Land Grant State Universities. They also know about MIT, CalTech, and some other large elite private schools (though largely because of sports) like Notre Dame, Duke, USC, and Stanford. However, hundreds if not thousands of people graduate from schools that are just as exclusive in their admission status as the Ivies but probably have less “brand recognition”. Plenty of people do know about these schools but many do not. A small list of these schools includes: Amherst, Williams, Swathmore, Haverford, Middlebury, Oberlin, The Seven Sisters, Brandeis. Davidson, Colby, Emory, etc. I am a graduate of one of these schools. All of these schools are very hard to get into and have distinguished graduates in all fields. However, their “name recognition” is all over the map. Someone from the Northeast probably knows about Colby but might not know about Reed in Portland, Oregon. Someone from the South might know about Davidson in North Carolina but never heard about Middlebury in Vermont or Kenyon in Ohio. The educational landscape of America is vast.
Every year thousands of young people graduate from one of the many elite colleges and universities in the United States. However not all these people have jobs lined up and many might have a hard time getting their first job despite a degree from a highly-selective college/university. In January 2011, The Chronicle of Higher Education posted an article called “Brown and Cornell Are Second Tier”. The article summarized a study showing that the best law firms, investment banks will largely only accept candidates from Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and (maybe Stanford) Give and take some exceptions depending on the industry and company. One manager said that a resume from Rutgers would fall into a “black hole”. Even a MIT student would be denied according to another hiring manager.
This kind of snobbery and limited thinking is probably not limited to the legal, consulting, and financial industries. Big tech and engineering firms probably also have their own hierarchy of colleges and universities. You could major in computer science at my alma mater but I never heard of any one from my college getting a job at one of the top Silicon Valley firms or a hot Internet start-up. The business side of Silicon Valley seems to be staffed with the same Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford set. Same with many other companies in other industries.
The Chronicle for Higher Education Article explains to me why many people still continue to take the LSAT and go to Law School despite the doom and gloom in the Industry. It seems to me that we have thousands of young people who graduate from top colleges and universities every year but cannot get jobs because their diplomas do not say Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, and maybe Dartmouth, UPenn, and Columbia every now and then. Based on observation and experience, many of these bright young people suffer along in underemployment and career non-advancement for a few years and decide that law school is their path to a solid and stable life. Many might have one or more parents who are lawyers.
I think that a lot of these people choose law school because every other job opportunity seems closed to them and with good reason based on the Chronicle article, it might very well be true. Maybe they could mitigate their circumstances by moving away from major cities (Will’s Kansas City Plan) but maybe not.
Law School still looks like a safer (not necessarily safe) bet if you are in your mid to late 20s (or older) and found it hard to get your foot in the door employment or career wise. My post college employment history was largely filled with temp jobs, a part-time job with a very small publishing company, and running an election at a non-profit. I made multiple attempts at non-legal employment but very few people seemed to want me especially at any kind of non-project based job. It is not so much that I picked law school but it seemed to be the only option left. And I think this is true for many people. I really enjoyed law school and love being a lawyer but perhaps things would have been different if other places let me get a foot in the door.