In the last post, I pointed out that the law school tuition bubble is technically a juris doctor bubble, the distinction referring to the asset that is being overvalued and not the loans taken to acquire that asset. For instance the previous economic bubble was a housing bubble (not a mortgage bubble) because real estate was the overvalued asset.[i] Knowing this, (a) what a J.D. does, (b) its academic requirements, (c) how long it takes to obtain one, and (d) its cost are more central to the bubble than related issues like attorney oversupply, which I’ll not shy away from. The bubble is in the education system, but if J.D.’s were readily useful beyond legal practice, easily obtained, or dirt cheap, then the problem would be different or nonexistent.
These four factors interrelate, but bear with me as I focus on the first.
I’ve heard people say, “I’m going to get an MBA.” I’ve never heard someone say, “I’m going to get a J.D.” or, “I’m getting a law degree.” If you’ve experienced otherwise, feel free to comment. In fact, I don’t think I even heard a law degree called a J.D. until fairly late in life, and I hadn’t heard of a L.LM. until well into my 2L year. I think the semantics here is important: People who go to professional school talk about the school or the profession, not about its degree. Instead, I’ve heard, “I want to go to law school,” or, “I want to become a lawyer.” As a result, we can agree a J.D. is a professional degree whose purpose is legal practice. Doesn’t sound so revealing, huh?
But why then do we hear how versatile the J.D. is? (I first recall hearing this from a classmate in my 1L year.) This is what bugs me about it. Professional training should be narrowly focused for two reasons: one, the more specialized the labor, the fewer of its practitioners are necessary in the economy, and two, professional education should require no more time and focus beyond what is necessary for practicing the profession. So we’re left with a “versatile” law degree that has questionable use beyond legal practice, despite my classmate’s comments.
Now, I’m a student of comparative law, and I know that in civil law countries, law is an undergraduate degree. From what I recall it’s a highly common one too. Upon graduation, people enter the workforce and perform all sorts of law-related jobs that don’t require going to court. There are few lawyers. Civil law systems avoid the onerous requirements of extra professional schooling, and reserve legal training on an as-needed basis. This leads to cartelization problems that we don’t have, but a shortage of professional labor is usually easier to solve than a surplus. For those who point out that the American common law legal education system also produces judges (which I’m fine with), legislators, executives, policy analysts, and lobbyists, one can respond that they could’ve done what they’re doing with a broad undergraduate legal degree…to say nothing of a political science or philosophy degree.
You should now ask, “What does all this mean for our tuition bubble?” The jack-of-all-degrees means the bubble is worse than it looks. Imagine you’re filling a small pool with a garden hose. The pool is the legal profession, the hose-water is new JDs being added to it. If we believe the person filling the pool isn’t holding the hose steady, and lets some water miss the pool, or if we believe the pool is overflowing, we don’t know where the new water is going and whether it’s serving a useful purpose. Then the person filling the pool says, “Hey, hose-water is quite versatile: Whatever misses the pool or overflows can also help water the lawn.” Then you reply, “But rainwater or an efficient sprinkler system does that too. You’re just wasting water.”
Lesson: if you find overpaying for a professional degree unappealing, you’ll find overpaying for a degree-inflated professional degree about as appealing as drinking bass.
Next, law school tuition bubble or education bubble?
[i] Regarding this blog, “tuition bubble” is more searchable and is in current use.