The Verdict Is in on the Lottery, Why not Law School?

Jenn Ladd, “Law School Letdown,” the Baltimore Sun.

The article isn’t bad, but the tagline is:

“With a hefty price tag and a shrinking number of jobs, is law school worth all the effort? The verdict is still out.”

The Sun, though, is in sort of a bind. Often local newspapers will only consider their state’s law schools’ plights. Sure, Maryland has only two law schools, both public, but adjacent D.C. has six, nearby Virginia has several, and Pennsylvania does as well. Sure the local schools probably have a leg up in posting grads in government positions, e.g. prosecutors and public defenders, but in the private sector, the two schools’ grads have to compete with the swarms that Georgetown releases into the wild each year.

Still, the two schools’ charge a lot less, but the article finds that the students magically graduate with six figures of debt, much more than triple the tuition. In fact their grads are around the national average, which might be due to Grad PLUS loans generous extension to full living expenses.

This prompts the question: Is the verdict still out?

Nope, it’s in. The only people I endorse going to law school are those who’ve worked in the field already, have minimal opportunity costs (e.g. they’re working part-time anyway), and are offered a full tuition waiver. That’s it. No one else should go. That doesn’t mean there won’t be some people who come out ahead without a scholarship, or that somewhere in the seats of today’s law schools are future legendary jurists, but it does mean that ex ante, those legendary jurists are better off not taking the risks.

The reality is that law schools have no idea what the medium-term value of a law degree is. When they do, there’s nothing stopping them from providing self-serving information. Take LawProf’s recent post on NYLS, which despite winning a dismissal of the lawsuit filed against it still gallingly implied that its graduates did better four years after graduation. The bottleneck argument and the versatile J.D. are alive and well, but note that nothing in the new 509 Standard precludes a law school from doing this. They can publish damning evidence of where their graduates are nine months out and then cover it up with a biased sample of what slightly older grads are doing. Hopefully fewer people will believe them anyway, but it’s another hurdle for informing applicants. As for very long-term data, we can suspect that a third of 1970s grads from non-elite law schools had left the profession. It’s probably significantly higher today.

Since the odds are so bad, why not view law school as the lottery and treat it as such? Perhaps it wouldn’t be as interesting to read about.

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