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June 18, 2010 [feather]
Law school scam

For a long time, the conventional wisdom among humanities majors has been this: Law school is the way to go if you want a safe, secure, flexible, and lucrative way to keep reading and writing for a living. I can't count how many times I sat with English majors who were wrestling with what to do with their lives, who saw themselves as having a choice between grad school (intellectually thrilling, but with very poor job prospects) and law school (less seemingly thrilling, but with rock solid prospects for any number of career paths afterward). I didn't try to sway them one way or another--just to help them make "informed decisions," which is, of course, an alchemically obscure and irreducible process of balancing passion and pragmatics. Still, and perhaps this was because it was Penn, where the Wharton School exerts a distinctly pre-professional influence on undergraduate culture, almost all of them chose law school. For many, it wasn't even much of a choice.

Over the years, I wrote countless law school recommendations and very, very few grad school recommendations. I never worried too much about the ones who were law school-bound--the students I worried about were the ones who decided to go for PhD's in English. Grad school in the humanities is a scam. There are simply no jobs, tenure is disappearing, the culture of the academic humanities is pathological, and the sort of academic life grad students hope to acquire is ceasing to exist. But law school, I felt, was a safe bet--and would also offer its own variety of intellectual thrill. Who wouldn't want to learn to think with the precision, capaciousness, originality, and historical-mindedness that the law requires? It's beautiful and powerful and very, very useful. When done well, it's applied scholarship, scholarship with decisiveness and impact.

But bubbles are bursting everywhere we look these days. Last month I posted about how Loyola's law school is cooking transcripts to give its grads a leg up on the job market. Now comes word of widespread cynical profiteering at the expense of students' futures:

It's grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.

Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don't dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.

Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can't get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.

And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years.

This dismal situation was not created by the current recession--which merely spread the pain up the chain into the lower reaches of elite schools. This has been going on for years.

The law graduates posting on these sites know the score. They know that law schools pad their employment figures--96% employed--by counting as "employed" any job at all, legal or non-legal, including part time jobs, including unemployed graduates hired by the school as research assistants (or by excluding unemployed graduates "not currently seeking" a job, or by excluding graduates who do not supply employment information). They know that the gaudy salary numbers advertised on the career services page--"average starting salary $125,000 private full time employment"--are actually calculated based upon only about 25% of the graduating class (although you can't easily figure this out from the information provided by the schools). They know all this because they know of too many classmates who didn’t get jobs or who got low paying jobs--the numbers don't jibe with their first hand knowledge.

They know the score now. But they didn’t know it when they first applied to law school. They bought into the numbers provided by law schools. The mission of these sites is to educate, to warn away, the incoming crop of prospective law students--to save them from becoming victims of the law school scam.

In other words, law school is turning into grad school, only with debt. At least if you are getting a PhD in English, you can do it for free. You might live on a shoestring (I lived on $10,000/year when I was getting my PhD during the early 1990s), but your tuition is covered and you don't graduate six figures under.

Is this an argument for following your passion and getting that lit PhD after all? No. I think it's an argument for thinking practically about the handshake between educational options and career options before and during college--and for making choices along the way that are at once economically viable and personally satisfying. There are crafts and trades that don't require college, that pay well, and that are very satisfying and very stable forms of work. There are affordable colleges and unaffordable ones. There are majors that translate readily into work, and majors that don't. And there are ways to have it all--I'm the last person to tell people they shouldn't study the humanities and shouldn't care about the liberal arts. They should. But there are double majors, well-chosen internships, and other ways to make sure that one's course of study leads to paying work in the end. That may sound crassly materialistic, but unless you are independently wealthy, that's what has to happen.

Meanwhile, what about the schools themselves? For years, a few lone voices in the academic humanities have been arguing that the dire employment situation of new PhDs happened on their watch and is their fault--but they haven't convinced those who've got theirs to get off their butts, take responsibility, and reform the system that keeps them comfy at others' severe expense. Things continue, and the tenured few seem happy to live out their careers taking care of number one, leeching off the underpaid labor of others, and leaving a professional wasteland for a legacy. Go team!

Law professor Brian Tamanaha is telling law professors that they need to do better:

Wait a minute, we protest.

Law professors are not scammers. We advance the rule of law and justice. We promote efficient legal institutions. We develop legal knowledge and knowledge about law for the good of society. We are the conscience of the legal profession. Indeed, we made a financial sacrifice to become academics when we could have earned more money as practicing lawyers.

The students made their choices. They should have done more research. They should have thought more carefully about the consequences of taking on so much debt. It was their foolish over-optimism to think they would place among the top 10% of the class and land the scarce corporate law jobs. They should have known better. (If the numbers on our website are misleading it's the Administration's fault; and we don't set the high tuition.) Don't blame us.

It is their dream to become a lawyer--we provide them with the opportunity and what they make of it is up to them. Besides, a law degree is valuable even if you don't get a job as a lawyer. It improves your reasoning ability. It opens all kinds of doors.

When annual tuition was $10,000 to $15,000, these rationalizations had enough truth, or at least plausibility, to hold up. When annual tuition reaches $30,000 to $40,0000, however, it begins to sound hollow. Students at many law schools are putting out a huge amount of money for meager opportunities.

What can we do? As a start, we can provide prospective students with straightforward information about the employment numbers of recent graduates. It is open knowledge that many law schools present employment information in a misleading fashion, or don't disclose it at all. This lack of candor on the part of law schools is itself a telling indication that there is something problematic about the product we are selling to prospective students.

More crucially, law schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. (The fact that many students get scholarships is no answer because it simply means that some students, those paying full fare--often the students with the worst prospects--are subsidizing others.) This will be painful: smaller raises (perhaps even salary reductions), smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel, and conferences.

The longer law schools delay in undertaking these measures, the more casualties there will be. At some point, law professors can no longer disclaim responsibility for the harmful consequences of this enterprise. (These comments are not meant to point fingers at others--I too want to earn as much as I can, with lots of time for research, knowing that this is paid for by students.)

Professors at elite law schools might think this has nothing to do with them because their graduates are getting opportunities that justify the cost. In narrow terms this might be correct. But the current contraction of the legal market has spared no one (except law schools!), so their graduates are not immune. Their graduates too are burdened by massive debt.

Law school tuition has tripled in just 15 years. Annual tuition at Yale, Columbia, and Berkeley will likely top $50,000 by next year. Add $20,000 per year in living expenses, and the total cost of becoming a lawyer at these institutions will be $210,000. (That’s not counting the cost of an undergraduate degree.) Other law schools are not far behind (New York Law School projects an annual cost of $67,615).

The negative consequences for individuals and for society of the extraordinary price of entry to the legal profession will become more apparent over time. And it all happened under our watch.

Will law professors act to clean up law schools' act? They should. But if the example of the academic humanities is any indicator, they won't. Lowering costs and being honest about expectations would come out of their pockets and their comforts--and that would be just too much.

posted on June 18, 2010 6:52 AM

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Is the same thing happening for MBA students?

Posted by: SR84 at June 18, 2010 9:22 AM

In investing, it's pretty well known that you can't make money by doing the same thing everyone else is doing. I think the same is largely true in career choice...if everyone things law or whatever is the way to go, the increased supply is going to drive down the demand.

A couple of years ago, GE CEO Jeff Immelt, in warning Dartmouth students to avoid the herd instinct, observed that the most popular employer choice for members of his own B-school graduating class (1982) was a then-trendy videogame company, Atari. **Seventeen** members of this Harvard B-school class went to work at that company.

Posted by: david foster at June 18, 2010 3:55 PM

There's one thing missing from your post, and it is that in law school you don't actually learn anything about how to be a lawyer. That _+only+_ comes after you graduate, at which point you are permitted to buy the DVD set (or whatever format now) that will prepare you for the exam. Law school will not fix itself until it reforms its curriculum. Law firms have now begun informing the law schools that they will not longer undertake the training of the freshly-minted lawyers who have just passed the bar, because their clients will no longer pay the high fees for work by newbies. The result...no work for the graduates because they have no experience. And they won't get experience because everyone knows that they know zilch (whether from Harvard Law or Podunk State), and would rather hire someone with three or four years of experience. At this point...send them to graduate school. At least with the Master's Degree they'll have minimal debt and can get a real job in the real world, unlike a dropout from law school.

Posted by: Armitage at June 18, 2010 8:51 PM

In law school you don't actually learn anything about how to be a lawyer. That only comes after you graduate.

Sounds like too many grad programs in English, which could care less about teaching you how to be a teacher.

Posted by: Eveningsun at June 19, 2010 10:06 AM

Law schools shouldn't be giving their applicants false information about their job prospects, and applicants should be far less eager to believe what they being told by a school that's hoovering tens of thousands of dollars out of their pockets, but I wonder: If law schools were more straightforward about the odds, would it dissuade very many people anyway? Graduate programs in the humanities rarely promise anything to their applicants but an interesting experience and the accompanying debt, yet people keep paying big money to flirt with the idea of becoming scholars. As a ten-year adjunct who's tried to be straight with students who apply to grad school, I'm coming to the disheartening conclusion that there's only so much we can do, individually or institutionally, when so many ostensibly educated people insist on leaping before looking.

Posted by: Jeff at June 19, 2010 12:57 PM

Jeff, I think a big part of the problem is that we as a society do a pretty terrible job of giving kids realistic information about what career options are out there and what the involve/require. TV & movies focus on lawyers, cops, and doctors/nurses, giving of course very skewed ideas of what these fields really involve. Guidance counselors typically know very little about the real world of work and just recite the platitudes du jour. Unless a kid learns about a particular field from one of his parents, any ideas he has about it are likely to be based on casual stereotypes.

Posted by: david foster at June 19, 2010 3:52 PM

At least if you are getting a PhD in English, you can do it for free.

Not to nitpick, but this is becoming less and less the case. In fact, in my case, it wasn't the case at all--because I had to pay for my doctorate.

Funding in the humanities is drying up everywhere. And it's been my experience that whatever funding that is available for graduate students is handed out erratically and with little logic or justification. Many of the graduate students in my program who a) delayed taking their exams/completing coursework; b) very rarley held office hours for their students (or held them "by appointment only"); and/or c) used their funding to support their novel-writing ventures rather than their dissertation writing ventures (which is what they were being paid to do in the first place) continued to receive money no matter how little progress they made. The rest of the student population was milked for whatever tuition money they could provide, no matter how well they did in their academic work.

The bottom line for me--and I tell students this when they come asking about law school or graduate school--is that this whole "finding yourself" thing is a bunch of Gen X BS (and for the record, I'm talking about my generation here). Sure you can "find yourself," but don't go thousands and thousands of dollars into debt to do it (law school), and don't expect graduate study in the humanities to play out like some kind of extended episode of Oprah's Book Club. Pursue those options only if you're deeply, deeply passionate about the material that you'll be studying. Don't know what material you'll be studying? Well, read "x" academic journal or "y" law review article to find out.

Also, stop listening to all of these trumped-up news stories about how college graduates can't find jobs (or the jobs that they want). Finding the right job--and the job that is the most fulfilling for you personally and professionally--usually takes time and patience. Don't expect that just because you completed a college degree that you'll walk into your dream job tomorrow--and don't think that hiding out in school until you can find that job is the answer. Heck, I hided out in graduate school for six years beyond college, and I still don't have my dream job--one of those mythical tenure-track positions.

Of course I say all of that in a much more diplomatic fashion, but that's basically what I say.

Posted by: Anonymous at June 22, 2010 7:01 AM

I'm glad to see it's not just the victims of the law school scam who can come out and admit that law school is far too often a way for schools to bilk students for $100,000 and send them into a job market that cannot absorb them.

Posted by: Scammed Hard! at June 26, 2010 10:10 PM