Thursday, November 29, 2012

Disingenuous and Misleading Op-Ed in NYTimes About Prospects for Lawyers

This op-ed, by the Dean of Case Western Law School, which is ranked somewhere in the mid 60s, putting it in the lower half of Tier 1 schools, is grossly disingenuous and self-serving.

First off, let me get right into it by attacking his school directly: Of the 2011 graduates of Case Western Law, only 67% are in positions that require a law degree, and a full 15% are unemployed. This is nearly twice the October 2012 national average of 7.9%.

Additionally, examination of the statistics on Case Western Law's employment page reveals that the vast majority of employed graduates are in small firms, business or government. These are the precise jobs that Mr. Mitchell points out pay $60-80,000 a year. If you graduate with $125,000 in debt, a full $18,000 a year comes out of your post-tax income, and such payments are non-deductible. Now we are talking about the reality that for the lucky ones who do have jobs, they are making from $42-62,000 a year. That just doesn't seem worth it, especially given the long hours, high stress and mundane nature of many of these jobs. Note, importantly, that the average starting salary of college graduates in 2012 was $42,000. So basically, the average graduate of Case Western Law has spent three years and taken on life-changing debt to earn what their younger siblings are making right out of college.

I'd also like to point out that most of Mr. Mitchell's assertions about "average salaries" should be categorically dismissed. Most professions have something like a bell-curve distribution in salaries, meaning that the 'average' salary is actually a meaningful number. However, the curve of salaries in law has a long tail and two distinct peaks: the majority of lawyers will make $50-150,000 throughout their careers, but a very meaningful percentage start at $160,000 a year, before bonus, and wind up making several million dollars a year as partners, often for decades. As a result, the 'average' wage is hideously skewed. Further, as the "white-hairs" retire, more young associates are not being hired to compensate - firms are simply shrinking: according to BLS statistics, by 2020, approximately 360,000 law school grads will be competing for around 73,600 jobs. Super.

Mr. Mitchell's arguments about the value of law school training are also greatly exaggerated: you do not graduate from law-school ready to be a lawyer by any measure. The motto for law school may as well be "come and see if you are good at this": law school functions as a sieve to identify students who are naturally inclined to reading large volumes of text and then regurgitating them in 30-40 page essays written in three hour examinations. These students get As and go to work in big firms. To go into more detail, the 1L curriculum, universally, requires you to read two or three cases per class, sit in a room of 40-100 other students, and the prof picks one student and grills them on details of the case. Then, your entire grade for the semester is determined by that one three hour test at the end. For the vast majority of classes, that's it. I do not see any strong reason to assume this teaching method, or the skills for which law students are given high grades, are either strong predictors of talent for law - a profession that requires a lot of communications savvy, compromise and necessitates comfort with uncertainty - or appropriate methods to nurture talent for law.

Also, keep in mind that using the casebook method to teach law students is the rough equivalent of teaching the history of medicine to medical students. If you are lucky, in law school, you get some real practical experience in a clinic or moot court, or you get to meet some really smart and engaging professors and classmates (disclaimer: I lucked out and had a few fantastic professors and lots of clinical experience). But that's a crapshoot. And, as with professors in any discipline, many law professors are there because of their research or the prestige of the institution, and aren't particularly talented at or inclined to teaching. So whereas medical students are actually practicing medicine, law students, by and large, are discussing the differences between trespass quare clausum fregit and de bonis asperte - a difference that has not been relevant for centuries. Why? How is that remotely useful? Don't take my word for it, however: the NYTimes covered the problem of law school education quite well. It takes years of practice after law-school to become competent as an attorney, a fact newly minted lawyers come to grips with immediately.

It's also worth acknowledging that Mr. Mitchell, educated at Williams College and Columbia Law school, a t-14 school, most likely makes something like $300,000 a year. This may be why Mr. Mitchell argues law school is worth it - for him, it is.

The conclusion of all this is that yes, law is still a viable and profitable career if you go to a t-14 school, or maybe even top 25. Once you start getting past that, however, you will find this same story at every other law school in the nation, and far grimmer at schools rated tier 2 and below. This is why, when friends ask me if they should go to law school, I tell them that they either need to go to a top ranked school or get an extremely generous scholarship to a lower ranked school. Otherwise, it just isn't worth it.

In the end, law schools are vastly over-recruiting and there are too many lawschools, as the ABA has been way too lax in accrediting lawschools. Compare law to other regulated professions, such as medicine, dentistry, or veterinary practice, and you see that in those other industries, admissions to professional schools are actually correlated with market demand. It would be great if the same applied to law schools as well, and, anyway, think about it: who wouldn't want a world with fewer lawyers?

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