Law School: You Get What You Put into It…Sort Of

Earlier, I distinguished the versatile juris doctor from the supplemental knowledge argument.  The two are not to be confused, and I’ll see to that in this post.

The versatile J.D. argument counterintuitively and often misleadingly asserts that a juris doctor will open employment doors beyond private or public legal practice, even though in reality that means either practicing law beforehand or performing jobs that really do not or should not require a three-year graduate-level law degree in the first place.  For example, in civil law countries, compliance or corporate general counsel are competently performed by people who have undergraduate degrees in law.

Supplemental knowledge means education and skills acquired before going to law school.  This is quite significant now because despite the recession, those with rare or unusual supplemental knowledge can make enormous salaries in niche positions, which I’m fine with because that’s just straight-up supply and demand.  People in these circumstances often proclaim (or are used to claim) that the juris doctor is a versatile degree.  In reality, your mileage may vary.

Allow me to illustrate:

Objects not to scale

The majority of law school entrants are fresh from college.  They typically have liberal arts degrees because people with science degrees tend to go directly into science where there’s existing demand for their labor.  Additionally, there are people who have fluent foreign language expertise (oral and written), and comparatively older people who have skills and experience from previous work or even advanced degrees.  The problem is that upon graduation, the demand doesn’t necessarily meet supply.  Foreign language-types, J.D.-B.S.’s, J.D.-grads, and J.D.-elders are in far greater demand than liberal arts J.D.’s who are essentially interchangeable because they’re so common.

Even marketable supplemental knowledge doesn’t necessarily make law school a good investment.  It’s been demonstrated pretty clearly that law school is not a good investment for an increasing number, with some arguing that salaries must be $65,000 or larger to validate the investment.  One of four outcomes must occur when combining law with supplemental knowledge:

(1)  Law degree carries: The student ends up with a high-paying legal job irrespective of the supplemental knowledge.  Law could’ve been a successful escape route from a nonperforming degree.  This category includes all liberal arts JDs that came out ahead.

(2)  Supplemental knowledge carries: The student completes the degree, receives a high-paying job that’s partially related to law but more to the supplemental knowledge.  Law school’s risk isn’t justified.

(3)  Synergy: The student’s supplemental knowledge combines with the legal education to create more than could have been obtained with either.

(4)  Dissonance: The supplemental knowledge was nonperforming, but the law degree didn’t help either.  This category includes all unsuccessful liberal arts JDs.

I think the versatile J.D. argument masquerades as the synergy outcome.  In my experience, though, examples of synergy are hard to come by, and they’re usually more common with older workers whose supplemental knowledge is losing value in the current economy.  Dissonance is remarkably common, including many young lawyers and even those who doubled-down on LLMs and lost.  Point is, given the law school tuition bubble, you’re better off sticking to what you have than piling a law degree on top of it hoping for a synergy outcome that’s not going to happen.

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