Links in the Vaseline–Law School Defenders

I know.  I know.  I forgot about the amusingly-named Talking Heads compilation album in my links titles.

David Lat at Above the Law tasks me with his post, “In Defense of Going to Law School,” in which he believes the case against law school is, “greatly exaggerated.”  He gives five reasons for attending law school that counter in his opinion, “the extreme law school stance.”  I should add here that the LSTB is not “extremely” anti-law school.  In particular, if you (a) have marketable supplemental knowledge, connections, or a good enough law school, or (b) know of a small market for attorneys (this week I heard that Russellville, Alabama has zero lawyers), or (c) believe that the non-monetary benefits outweigh the costs, then law school is fine, though I recommend waiting until the tuition bubble bursts and costs drop.  The Law School Tuition Bubble takes an empirical view on legal education’s costs vs. benefits, even if it means perishing in the flames of positivism.

I don’t wholly disagree with Lat’s five reasons (except the third one) or tone, but his comments touch on many points I’ve discussed.

(1) If a law degree is like a lottery ticket, remember: some people still win.

True, and Lat is correct that some law students have better chances than others.  The level of one’s law school and one’s supplemental knowledge tilt the calculus in various directions.  Whether legal education, a regulated labor market, should be a gamble is another issue entirely.

(2) There are many great career options in law outside of large law firms.

I honestly hope everyone realized this before attending law school.  Lat reinforces this argument with two points: (a) a wisp of the versatile J.D. argument, and (b) recommending a career in legal academia.

I advise people to be wary of the versatile J.D. argument because it tends to disguise itself as the supplemental knowledge argument.  Even ATL’s career alternatives page (which Lat cites) refers to the following: comedy (which doesn’t require a law degree), cupcake vending (small business knowledge may help, but law degree is unnecessary), internship marketing (another small business, J.D. is possibly useful), football coach (no J.D. required), CEO (supplemental knowledge: which usually requires transactional practice, in-house practice, and then promotion), etc.  Any list of career alternatives must require a juris doctor and as little supplemental knowledge as possible to convince me that the law degree was worth acquiring to obtain the position.

As for legal academia.  Law faculty and salaries have expanded because of the tuition bubble.  They are unsustainable.  They will drop when the bubble bursts, and faculty will be out of work, especially the younger ones.  This is not a strong reason to attend law school.

(3) What else are you going to do with yourself?

Lat deploys the neoliberal argument that out-of-work individuals can spend recessions retraining for better opportunities.  As I’ve written earlier, this training isn’t frictionless, and smart economists will tell you that the jobs must precede the training.  Otherwise, you are living in a kind of supply-side command-economy, which creates credentials and unemployment.  We agree that law school works for a few, but systemically it is not a solution to mass post-college unemployment.  The legal sector should be closely observed when people are desperate for any job at all because legal education is festering in a tuition bubble.

The recession can only be cured by creating public-sector demand, not by more unemployed lawyers.  Suggesting that other professions are hit just as badly (I have read of an impeding shortage of doctors, so medicine isn’t a bad move as some say) is a non-sequitur.  Moreover, Lat’s comments on liberal arts degrees’ declining usefulness suggest that the problem is with how the government plans the economy to produce living wage jobs for young people, not whether law school is a good idea.

(4) Not everyone graduates with debt (or with as much debt as some people think).

True, many JDs do not pay the full price and are burdened with loans.  I am one of these people, very thankfully, but I won’t say to what degree.  There are problems, though.  For one, there is a bubble in law school tuition.  Legal education is overpriced and increasing.  Scholarships, supporting family members, or savings displace money that could’ve been shifted in more productive directions in the majority of instances.  Money taken from some students and given to others certainly doesn’t defend the legal education system.

(5) You get to put “Esq.” after your name.



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