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.


  1. Great post. I was led here by Google looking for reactions to that very biased piece. Interesting that the NYT did not allow comments on it at their site.

    Please continue and pick at the rest of the story and the woman who refused to borrow. I would love to see more!

    1. Thanks Anon (like your e-mail address too). I cut it short because I have paid writing to do, but there will always be more non-arguments like this for me to write about so stick around.

  2. How about the simple trick of logic he uses with regard to the $125,000 debt vs. average lawyer’s salary? The average lawyer (nationwide) may make $130k. But even by his own numbers, the average first year makes $61,500. At $125k in debt, assuming they are all non-private loans, they are looking at $1,400/month in payments (unless they qualify for income-based repayment). About 32% of their after-tax income would go to loan payments. They will be paying $1,400/month for TEN years.

    Sure, the AVERAGE first year lawyer may make $61,500 — but many make $40,000-$50,000 and have the same student loan debt and may 40-50% of their aftertax income in loan payments.

    Income-based repayment can lower payments (and it does for me, a practicing first year attorney in the mid-west at a 3 attorney first with 2 support staff making $44,000/year and feeling VERY lucky about it), but the that income-based repayment means I will be making student loan payments for YEARS. My current calculated income based payments is NOT EVEN ENOUGH TO PAY THE INTEREST on my loans. If I were to make only that payment (and, I can afford little more), I would be paying on these loans forever. Or for 25 years at which time it will be forgiven. And, between my husband (a non-lawyer, B.A. holder), we have just shy of the $125,000 in debt the Dean uses.

    A law degree is not like a house. Student loans are not like a mortgage. No matter how bad the market, I can liquidate the house.

    1. also the $61k average figure is itself an illusion — there is a significant minority of grads (10-15%) who make biglaw entry rates $140-160k, and a larger chunk (40-50%) that make either a salary well below 50k, or work in a non-perm job, etc. and the rest are not counted in the average because they have no jobs.

      Basically if you are not in the minority of those in biglaw jobs (or other, super rare prestigious less paying jobs like fed clerks), you’ve lost the LS gamble

  3. Love how Dean Mitchell limits salary average data to “practicing” lawyers.

    So, Dean Mitchell, what’s the salary average for non-practicing lawyers, i.e., lawyers tending bar or waiting on tables, lawyers being paid by their law schools to do “research,” etc. And is a doc review drone making $20/hr. “practicing” law? What about a solo practitioner with no clients??

      1. And ya gotta especially love his closing argument (paraphrase):
        “All of you scambloggers are going to cost us the next Clarence Darrow or Thurgood Marshall.”

  4. Let’s be clear the brains that could be the next Clarence Darrow or Thurgood Marshall are doing the kind of stuff that people like Elon Musk and Craig Venter and anything other than the law. The law right now has reached a point where it inhibits society rather than propels it. See books like Philip Howard’s Life Without Lawyers.

    Law school education is a scam to rake in as much money as they can while the getting’s good.

  5. Lawrence Mitchell’s opinion piece is so pathetic, it is not worthy to be used to line a cat’s litter box.

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