An Expensive Law Degree, and No Place to Use It – The New York Times

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44 Responses

  1. LeeEsq says:

    One way around the current employment crisis is a European style tracking system but I don’t think that this would work in the United States for a variety of reasons.Report

  2. notme says:

    The military needs lawyers. You must pass a bar, however. For folks that have passed, it’s a good opportunity.Report

    • Michael Cain in reply to notme says:

      Are military lawyers subject to the “up or out” problem that regular officers face?Report

      • notme in reply to Michael Cain says:

        Yes, if you are passed over twice for promotion in a row you are out. That’s not usually a problem though bc a lot of folks only stay for one two hitches and then leave. I have friends on the active duty side that stayed in for 6 years (not yet up for promotion) and left once they got the experience to get another job.Report

        • Michael Drew in reply to notme says:

          How does a shortish stint as a lawyer in the military help an attorney in the private sector thereafter? I bet it opens a lot of doors in government service. But how do firms approach such applicants?Report

          • notme in reply to Michael Drew says:

            As a JA you get responsibility early in your career that you wouldn’t get a large firm. The first post for most JAs is legal assistance which is like general practice. You get a client and help them with their issues after a year or so you move on to another area of practice. Your next area might be admin law giving general legal advice to unit commanders. Or overseas you might be the one telling a LTC what force they can use in military operations. That happened to one of my national guard classmates, who went overseas right out of officer’s basic. Or you might work with Iraqi police and judges to help establish a civil legal system like one of my other classmates. It looks better on your resume than discovery. I know some folks that after their first year on active duty were made Trial Counsel and were prosecuting court martials.


      • Saul Degraw in reply to Michael Cain says:


        I think @notme is being more of a right-wing troll and using JAG as a universal cure-all because the military makes you Republican or something. Some problems with @notme’s proposal:

        1. JAG doesn’t accept everyone and competition for JAG spots can be just as fierce as competition for biglaw jobs.

        2. JAG is not good for the physically disabled.

        3. This is ignoring the real issue which @j-r brought up below. A lot of law schools dealt with plummeting applications by radically lowering their admission standards. Now someone like Ms. Goshen in the article might be an inspiring story if she made it and in some ways, she already is. The woman had siblings who were in and out of prison and she graduated from college. So far she has a mountain of debt and failed the bar exam twice. I don’t know what her LSAT score was but it can’t be high. Now the really tricky issue is what do you do with the Ms. Goshen’s of the world. She clearly wants to do something very specific but it might not be something she is cut out to do. The United States has never been good at putting the kind of brakes on people that save them from massive amounts of debt.Report

        • notme in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          “Right wing troll?” Don’t you have better material? I like to mention it b/c I get tired of hearing folks whine about not being able to find a job when they are unwilling to seek employment in areas they might not otherwise take. My mother was a licensed clinical social worker with a masters. There was a time when the only job she could find was with Catholic Charities even though she disagreed with most of their policies. She took the job because she need to help support our family.

          Yes, the JAG Corps can be competitive but not always depending on how the economy is. I know a guy that went to George Mason School of Law and had a very successful career, retiring as a COL. Sure the Army won’t take the disabled but seriously how many disabled folks do you see in law school? It’s almost if you are looking for an example of someone that can’t join even though it’s a very rare example. I never said that joining the JAG Corps was a universal cure all.Report

          • Kim in reply to notme says:

            I find it personally really annoying when you are being helpful, and only then do people insult you, notme.

            Because, quite frankly, often you do seem to post just to get under people’s skin. Well, I can be that way too, if you like.

            But when you are being a decent commenter, I kinda hope that everyone gives your ideas the due respect they deserve.Report

        • North in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          Saul, sorry but regardless of notme’s history in this particular comment I didn’t see anything trollish. It’s kindof a bad idea to crap on productive comments because the commenter sometimes makes trollish ones, that’s not the incentives we want ya know.Report

          • Burt Likko in reply to North says:

            I agree with @north here — @notme ‘s comment was helpful to this discussion and not trollish. JAG is an option that a lot of law students dismiss out of hand and maybe shouldn’t. I gave it some thought, did some research, and did an interview before deciding it wasn’t for me. Some of my classmates did it, and so did some friends, and they served for 4 to 8 years and got at least good-enough jobs — in one case a very good job at a prestige firm in his hometown — after their separations. As is the case for a lot of things in the legal industry, a small number of people wind up in the high-visibility, high-compensated stratum while most of us mere mortals make good but not great money and have comfortable but not extraordinary upper-middle class white-collar lives. Some JAGs make a career out of it and they have good military careers as officers, which again is in the grand scheme of things not an awful way to live your life even if you don’t attain Romney-like wealth.

            Nor do I see any evidence whatsoever that military training and military service does a lot to change a person’s politics. Military students I teach for my business law and business ethics classes come in roughly equal numbers of Republicans, Democrats, and don’t-really-care-that’s-not-why-I’m-heres. The Republicans seem to tend to be a bit louder about national political issues (mirroring society at large, IMO) and folks in the military often employ blunter language than civilians are used to, but that doesn’t mean there are more Republicans or that military service somehow indoctrinates you to anything other than service itself.

            JAG isn’t for every law student, just as military service isn’t for every person. It does involve some lifestyle concessions which are very different from what a lot of law students seek when they enter law school. Nor is military lawyering a cure-all for the woes of the newly-admitted as a group or as individuals. But there’s nothing wrong with it. Especially these days now that DADT is history, one’s political preferences ought not be an impediment to considering service for the vast majority of students.Report

            • Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


              I am not sure it is really an option. How many JAG spots open a year? There was one person from my class offered a JAG position. Though to be fair, I am not sure how many I applied.Report

    • Mike Schilling in reply to notme says:

      How many JAs are there? It sounds like a good career option, but I expect that if it became more popular, it would be as competitive as the rest of the market.Report

  3. Kazzy says:

    How is this different from Trump University?Report

    • Snarky McSnarkSnark in reply to Kazzy says:

      Because more than 0% get the jobs they are looking forReport

    • Francis in reply to Kazzy says:

      I suspect that the Lawyers Guns & Money blog is not the favorite for most people here. But Paul Campos has been killing it for years on the absurd economics of the law school business. He’s got a couple posts up right now smacking down professors who are outraged by the NY Times piece.

      The major difference between Law School and Trump U is that the US govt will lend you every last penny of the cost to go to law school. And if you are still flat broke in 10 (public interest) or 25 (every other job) years, they’ll forgive the remaining debt. (A little more complicated than that, but not much.)

      It really is the most bizarre debt peonage system going. The federal govt is sending billion annually to law schools who soak up the funds in salaries, expensive buildings and administrative bloat. The extra money being sent to professors (compared to 30 years ago) funds the writing of an enormous amount of legal ‘research’, the vast majority of which is just utter bullshit. (More money = more professors teaching the same number of students. Therefore the extra time needs to go somewhere, e.g., legal research and writing.)

      But instead of just paying for research through competitive grant programs (OMG, the professors would have to justify their work?), the current system funds the research via debt taken on by the students. Which is, of course, not dischargeable in bankruptcy and therefore follows the graduates around for the rest of their lives. Thus, federally supported debt peonage is alive and well.

      Oddly enough, the fix is dead easy — cap federal support at (say) $25,000 per year. Unfortunately, that would absolutely gash the revenue stream flowing into law schools, and the howls of outrage from academics who are losing their ability to do very little for a living and get paid for it would echo through the halls of Congress.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Francis says:

        Campos and Farley are both first-rate bloggers.Report

      • Kazzy in reply to Francis says:


        So… is this better or worse? If these law school grads don’t get job, am I the taxpayer ultimately on the hook for their unpaid tuition debt?Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to Kazzy says:

          Student loans can’t be discharged in bankruptcy, but IIRC, they can be discharged if you’re sufficiently old and still broke.Report

          • Saul Degraw in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            @mike-schilling @francis

            Student Loans rarely get discharged. The famous story of them getting discharged is a 68 year old woman with health issues who was living on a fixed income of 740 a month.

            The other famous story is a court would not discharge the loans of a woman who suffered from on and off homelessness.Report

        • Francis in reply to Kazzy says:

          Oh it’s just bad all the way around. The Public Interest route at least has young lawyers doing work that in theory has some social benefit (and yes, notme, there are plenty of conservative 501(c)(3) organizations).

          The 20-25 year programs I think of as more of a pity program — if you’re in your 50s and still in debt the govt will just write it off. The idea behind these programs is you pay 10-15 percent of your discretionary income for the entire term of the program, then the govt writes the remainder off at the end.

          To give the knife a good twist, my understanding is that you will continue to accrue interest on the unpaid principal. So falling out of the program can have brutal consequences.

          I don’t have time to get into figuring out what is discretionary income and all the ways one falls out of compliance. But apparently getting all the way through any one of these programs is very tough road, and one that forecloses home ownership and even marriage for some people due to the debt load carried for so long.

          I also note that these programs are subject to Congressional approval and are under heavy scrutiny. They could easily vanish.

          As a public policy matter, I can understand making student debt nondischargeable for a reasonable period after graduation. Neither public nor private lenders would be much interested in lending money if young people could borrow substantial sums for education then immediately walk away. But 25 years is outrageous. Make it 7 (like the Biblical jubilee). Lenders will then be far more cautious in doling out huge sums, and then the colleges and grad schools would have to find ways to lower their costs.Report

          • Morat20 in reply to Francis says:

            For fun added bonus: You can’t consolidate your student loans to lower your effective interest anymore. Not without removing them entirely from the “student loan” thing. (You can take out a third party loan, pay off your student loan with that).

            Used to be — way back in 2000 when I did it — you could take your student loans and lump them together into one singular loan, and if the interest rates had dropped you could get a lower rate. (I think my loans from the 90s ended up being at like 1%). Sometime between then and 2006 or 2007, that got changed. You cannot lower your effective rate. You can consolidate your loans, but the rates won’t change.

            Which is why despite interest rates now being low, by wife’s loans for her Master’s degree were stuck at 6.8%.

            Which is really, really, really weird because student loans are backstopped by the US government — which means the Sallie Mae and Navient are making bank off everyone’s inability to drop their interest rates.

            It was a nice, hefty give-away to the student loan business. (It’s not like they face any risk. In practical terms, the companies administering student loans are basically just doing bookkeeping for someone else’s money. They don’t even handle enforcement. So every point above the government’s own rates is pure profit).

            And not one too many people noticed when it passed. I certainly didn’t, not until I tried to consolidate my wife’s loans to a more reasonable rate.Report

            • Burt Likko in reply to Morat20 says:

              I did this too, after a few months of failing to be able to make regular monthly payments (I took a public interest job just out of law school). As a result, it took me until just last month — two decades after graduating — that I finally paid off the last of my student loans and bar study loans.

              Granted, I only made the minimum payments the whole time because hey, it was the cheapest money I ever borrowed. But still, there were times it felt like a fiscal albatross around my neck and there was fish-all I could do about it other than pay, pay pay. It got dreary.Report

              • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

                Hey, congrats! (My wife and I went the 10 year route because we wanted the debt off our backs, and boy were there some very tight months when either of us were between work.)

                As to solving the tuition issue, I think that there are a number of ideas out there to bring sanity to the system:

                1. Fed loans go only to schools with 75+% bar passage rate. Everyone else is deemed to be a grifter.
                2. Schools must have a certain percentage of their professorship teaching at a particular rate to qualify.
                3. Legal research is funded through competitive grants (what agency administers social science grant funding) and must go through peer-review before being published.
                4. Qualifying schools therefore have a band in which to operate of student / effective teaching faculty.
                5. Loans are then funded to the amount necessary to run an efficient law school in the community in which the school is located, up to a cap. Boston’s a lot more expensive than Little Rock.

                If Harvard / Yale want to pick only student who can pay full freight, they can already do that given their applicant pool. They could also dramatically reduce their tuition and draw the balance from the school’s endowment pool. Most others will want to bring tuition at least reasonably in line with the available federal grant.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

        As a general proposition, I like your proposed solution of capping tuition at a reasonable level, Brother @francis , but I do see an issue.

        Not every school would reduce tuition to match the federal support limit, and the schools that could resist this the most would be the ones with the highest demand for attendance: the blue-chip schools like Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Michigan, Chicago. They’d leave their tuition high because people would either privately borrow or self-finance to go to them, calculating that they offer higher odds of landing graduates high-paying prestige jobs.

        Students of limited to middling means would have diminished ability to attend those schools and a more difficult time scaling the heights. You have to be rich to get into the high-tuition schools to get a high-paying job. This would create even greater economic class polarization in the legal industry than already exists.

        Maybe that’s a price we ought to be willing to pay in exchange for greater democratization (in the long run) of entry to the profession at all.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:


      That’s a good question. I suspect the answer is what Snarky and Francis said. The professor’s have real enough credentials and there are students who get jobs, real lawyer jobs with their law school educations.

      But the odds are not what they used to be and might never have been as good as law schools made them out to be. Yet many schools are not taking the high point and instead decided to overburden those that were not meant for the profession probably.

      However, I still don’t know what to do with the people above like the woman in the article who wanted to do crim defense because of her family biography and because of watching documentaries like Making of a Murderer. There seems to be something so pure in her but it causes her to make some monumentally bad decisions.

      I think this is the dark side of the American dream. We are not good at telling people to be content with what they have because it goes against our fundamental cultural assumptions.Report

  4. j r says:

    The [admissions] committee agonized over whether it should accept fewer students or keep its class size roughly constant and admit weaker candidates. In the end, it opted for the latter, a decision [Bruce Berner, retired Valparaiso associate dean] admits wasn’t entirely on the merits, since fewer students would have meant less revenue.

    I know how they feel. On Saturday I agonized over the decision to sleep late and then go get a few beers instead of going the gym and then getting a head start on the work that I need to get done before Monday. Honestly, you guys have no idea how much I suffered thinking about doing the right thing, but choosing to do the expedient instead.Report

    • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

      I don’t know that this is entirely true. Schools are businesses, whether we like to admit it or not. There is a point at which one can be virtuous to a fault and undermines its long-term sustainability.

      Schools serve many missions. In my more idealistic days, I used to rage against systems wherein big donors were sometimes given preferential treatment. “It’s unfair! It undermines our values! RARRR!!!” But the reality is that, without those big donors, our school would have likely been an even worse place.

      So in exchange for a six-figure donation, we let a family have their first choice of teacher. But that six-figure donation opens up 4 seats for tuition assistance kids who’d otherwise have no chance of being at the school. So what is the “right” decision*? Treat everyone identically and end up with a pretty homogenous population? Or make occasional ‘deals with the devil’ and compromises to serve larger goals? Essentially, we’re asking if the ends justify the means? There isn’t a single answer, obviously, as you need to look at the specifics. But it isn’t as cut and dry as we often make it out to be with an obvious “right” answer.

      * I realize this is a bit of a false dilemma. That family may donate regardless. Or perhaps there are other ways to convince them to donate that don’t risk violating certain principles. And ideally they’d donate for the “right” reasons. But that ain’t the reality most of the time.Report

      • j r in reply to Kazzy says:

        What is the “end” of a middling law school? If it’s to continue to provide jobs for its faculty and administration at the cost of students who will most likely never be able to recoup the NPV of their tuition, then I question the idea of putting the long-term sustainability of that institution justifies anything.

        If a law school wants to continue to offer its services to willing students, I have no inclination to stop them. I would, however, like to stop subsidizing them with federally-guaranteed loans, questionable licensing and credential schemes, and, perhaps most importantly, a set of cultural narratives that support the fetish for credentials.Report

        • Kazzy in reply to j r says:

          Well, yea, some institutions deserve to crumble and perpetuating them is more about maintaining power and/or the financial well-being of those in charge.

          And I agree with your second paragraph… it strikes me that the issue facing law schools/law school students is multi-layered with few people involved deserving much sympathy.

          I just meant to say that, more broadly, these decisions are less about “good versus bad” and more about “one imperfect choice versus another imperfect choice.”Report

  5. Jaybird says:

    How much of lawyering is, for lack of a better term, outsourceable?

    I know that, in computers, a *HUGE* number of things that might have required a team in the 90’s can now be done with some automated tasks and a lot of the stuff that can’t can be done overseas by a call center for pennies on the dollar. (That stuff that happened to manufacturing? Yeah, it happened to system administration.)

    Don’t get me wrong, the guys who are really, really good can still command top dollar for their skills. It’s just the guys who were merely on the cusp between being a great junior admin and a mediocre journeyman admin who found themselves with an unsalable skillset. (And after all that work getting the MCSE!)

    To what extent is that happening to lawyerdom?Report

    • Kolohe in reply to Jaybird says:

      From some recent posts on “Big Law” in various quarters that’s exactly the problem. 15-20 years ago, associates right out of school were doing high drudgery, but still value added work, and getting a good enough apprenticeship doing that drugery to be able to manage things upon promotion.

      Now though, a whole lot if not most of that scut work is all computerized, so the newbies really don’t have stuff to do that’s worth 6 figures, and futhermore aren’t doing the rigamorole that gives them (by rote and default) their ‘real’ education as a practicing lawyer.

      I saw something similar in the Navy when the new Virginia class subs came on line. There was a system that had 6 people run it – one dude (they were all dudes back then) who was very senior & experienced, one that was fairly experienced, one that at least a few years under his belt, one that had at least a few months and one that could have just walked off the pier that morning. So you basically had a continuum of training and experience, starting at the most basic (and scut work) position and eventually moving up to be in charge of the whole team.

      The Virginia class shed half the people from this setup, but it did it thusly – the team now running things consisted of one very senior and experienced person, and two fairly experienced ones. Now, yay, technology got rid of the scut work jobs, but it also got rid of the comfortable learning curve.Report

      • Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:


        It doesn’t even need to be big law. Lawyers of my dad’s generation (and previous ones probably) can tell you that they cut their teeth on car-crash cases (as an example) that were worth 2000 or 3000 dollars.

        Those small value cases just don’t exist in litigation anymore and the system is so expensive that lawyers can’t bring relatively low valued cases without everything being eaten up in court fees and experts.

        Lower value cases now tend to settle for tens of thousands of dollars but probably closer to six figures.Report

    • Saul Degraw in reply to Jaybird says:


      That is hard to answer.

      Doc Review is a huge part of litigation especially complex litigation. Predictive coding is getting better and better but is not quite there yet. You can plug some key words into a computer program and it can sort through millions of pages and turn them into tens or hundreds of thousands of pages and those pages will be relevant with a high amount of accuracy. Yet a human still needs to read the documents to find the really hot stuff. A human also needs to do the redacting for privilege or other issues.

      When it comes to writing and responding legal documents? I am not so sure. Sites like RocketLawyer try and simplify the documents but it ends up a mess. I am not sure a lawyer can write a motion for summary judgment or an opposition to one yet. Or draft or respond to discovery. Or meet and confer letters.Report

    • Francis in reply to Jaybird says:

      “How much of lawyering is, for lack of a better term, outsourceable?”

      A lot. Word processing software. E-mail. Computerized research tools. The Internet. Courts accepting e-filing. Form-filled contracts. etc etc.

      Back in ye olden days (in 1992) when I started practicing law, attorneys were just getting their own desktop computers, fax machines were still in use and e-mail was just arriving. Now, secretarial jobs have virtually vanished.

      As in-house counsel I run a one-person law firm with virtually no library and no support staff. Even a few years ago this would have not been possible. Now, if I want to know the appropriate language to put in a contract to consent to arbitration in London, it’s a google search away.

      The old big law firm model was anywhere from 3 to 6 associate attorneys per partner, each at different skill levels. Attrition was horrendous, but since the law firms were growing to meet the growing demand the pyramid model could work. Now, the major purchasers of legal services have finally gotten a handle on their legal budgets and are steadily driving the cost of services down. The old pyramid model has collapsed and law firms have many fewer trainee associates than they used to.

      You might think that the huge glut of lawyers would lead to the availability of legal representation to poorer people. But most people don’t have even $5,000 lying around and that’s the bare minimum to do anything contested. (Actually, I will defer analysis of the economics of small firm practice to Bro. Burt.)Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

        I’ve been known to request higher up-front fee deposits than $5,000, but very rarely less. Generally, if I demand more, it’s because I really don’t want the work and think a diplomatic way of not being asked to do something I’d prefer not to do is to quote a fee deposit higher than I believe my would-be client can pay.

        Or if it’s a small business dispute with cross-claims of equal partners stealing from one another and you explain to me that it’s not about the money, it’s about the principle of your former friend doing this do you and having the nerve to accuse you of it. Then, it’s $10,000 minimum up front, and pay as you go, or I quit if my bill goes unpaid for more than 7 days. We do take credit cards and I know a guy at an equity lender if you need help financing participation in an economically pointless pissing contest.Report

        • Francis in reply to Burt Likko says:

          Economically pointless? I’ve got a guy in the office who’s in to his attorney for $30K on a business dispute that at this point is probably worth nothing. The dispute certainly isn’t pointless to the attorney.Report

          • Burt Likko in reply to Francis says:

            Jarndyce and Jarndyce may well represents the ideal of some attorneys’ existences.

            But my inconvenient professional ethic (“My client ought to somehow benefit from my services”) persistently obstructs the complete unleashing of that sort of raw cupidity.Report

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