If Law School Is Worth The Money, Why Subsidize It?

Lawrence Mitchell, “Law School Is Worth the Money,” New York Times Op-Ed.

For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers [Two years? The first scambloggers started in, like, 2007] and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks. We entice bright young students into our academic clutches. Succubus-like, when we’ve taken what we want from them, we return them to the mean and barren streets to fend for themselves.

The hysteria has masked some important realities and created an environment in which some of the brightest potential lawyers are, largely irrationally, forgoing the possibility of a rich, rewarding and, yes, profitable, career.

Seeing the shrinking class sizes, Lawrence Mitchell, dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, proclaims, “The line must be drawn here!”

It’s a bold statement that amusingly contradicts other, telepathic deans who swear that the people who aren’t applying to law school just wanted to make money anyway, so good riddance. I like bold, especially coming from a dean of a law school where 15 percent of its 2011 graduates were unemployed or didn’t return their surveys, another 16 percent claimed to work in solo-10-lawyer firms, and tuition has inflated 47.7 percent over inflation since 1999. (Just shy of the buy-two-year-get-one-free club)

Yet, the dean is ready for these empty-calorie retorts:

[T]he focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.

Once it’s clear that large numbers of graduates aren’t working as lawyers at graduation, we pivot to an argument from ignorance: We don’t know what will happen to law school graduates after 6, 9, 33, 50 years, therefore they must be in occupations making substantial use of their law degrees.

And what happens if they’re not? It’s a lot easier to shift the responsibility of a failed career onto a graduate many years into the future than the February following graduation, so deans not wanting to appear like succubi should recognize that making unfalsifiable claims while getting paid a six-figure income regardless of their graduates’ outcomes jeopardizes their credibility. On the bright side, one doesn’t need to go to law school to make the same fallacies that bedevil intelligent design creationists. It also, apparently, doesn’t prevent it.

Those interested in the only longitudinal study of law graduates I’ve come across are welcome to read about how large percentages of 1970s law graduates no longer practice law. However, in the lingo of investment banks: Past performance is not an indicator of future success. Given the prolapsed economy and the permanent contraction in the legal services industry, we can make pretty grim predictions of how the world will change for new law graduates rather than old.

What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers, nor should they.

Funny, not 24 hours ago, my scambloggity peers united in celebration at the news in my previous post that law school classes are the same average size as when the students were protesting Vietnam. What are the non-applicants doing with their lives? Sadly, probably the same thing they’d be doing if they’d graduated from law school. It’s not their fault the United States has given up on creating living wage jobs for young people, but law schools won’t create them either. Supply does not create demand, and America’s young can expect no help from subsidized law schools in resisting the orthodoxy that callously promises everything and delivers nothing, as Dean Mitchell’s op-ed attests.

[T]he United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports projected growth in lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent, “about as fast as the average for all occupations.”

Dean Mitchell neglected to include the next sentence in the BLS’ Occupational Outlook Handbook entry on lawyers, “Employment of lawyers is expected to grow by 10 percent from 2010 to 2020, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available.” [Emphasis LSTB]. I fancy myself as generous to those whom I disagree with (almost always deans and professors) and leave the harshest personal criticism for my scamblogging peers, but this is really bad.

Debt, too, is a problem. The average student at a private law school graduates with $125,000 in debt. But the average lawyer’s annual salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.

We’re back to the unkillable zombie of JD-lawyer equivocation. Law school applicants (should) want to know what income the law degree will get them, not how much they’ll make as a lawyer, but don’t worry, applicants don’t know to frame the question that way (or if they do, they know better than to apply), and the law schools are willing to indulge their mistaken belief that they’ll work at law firms at a decent wage and not as doomed solo practitioners mailing 10 percent of their incomes to the Department of Education.

The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy.

My hypothesis: Run, don’t walk from aging professions. If there were jobs available, then younger people would have filled them before their seniors grayed in the first place.

*****

There’s more from Dean Mitchell’s op-ed I could pick at—especially his story about the woman who refused to borrow even $5,000 to study law (Ha!)—but I’ll spare all parties the added agony. Law schools see themselves as institutions of integrity and justice, but they are in fact enormous wealth transfers from the populace that leave reduced living standards for most graduates in their wake. Much like a twist on the infamous Milgram experiment, law school deans were told they were doing real good for society every time they pushed the button, until some scamblogger chucked a rock at their windows and showed them the button is connected to the poverty-creation discharge pipe.

But to throw a bone to those whom I disagree with, if you want to do some good, use your elite clout to advocate restoration of bankruptcy protections for your graduates and termination of the Direct Loan Program for your current and future students. Tell America to stop your unlimited subsidies to level the playing field.

If you want to prevent the alienation, stop alienating people.

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