Do Law Schools Give Students a Raw Deal?

They do appear to paint a "rosy" portrait to their debt-laden students

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"How do law schools depict a feast amid so much famine?"  asks David Segal in a nearly 5,000-word New York Times report on the grim, debt-laden reality of many American law students. The problem, as Segal sees it, is that some of these institutions have simply become "cash cows": they accept crops of students by painting job prospects as "downright rosy" even though the market has indicated that "openings for lawyers have plunged" (by one account, nearly 15,000 positions have "vanished" since 2008). Left in the lurch are students burdened by mountains of debt with little hope of landing a job enabling them to pay it off.

Singled out in Segal's article isn't just a debt problem that comes with a decision to pursue higher education. He observes that some law schools use "creative" methods to boost their rankings in the all-important U.S. News & World report survey. One result is that these institutions inflate the number of "graduates known to be employed nine months after graduation" by lumping in students who are employed anywhere. "Waiting tables at Applebee's? You're employed. Stocking aisles at Home Depot? You're working, too," Segal writes about the misleading statistics. It's not until after graduation that many "furious" students learn that the $160,000 median starting-salary that was promised by "many" of these law schools, doesn't exist.

Needless to say, the New York Times report elicited a range of responses, from skeptical to laudatory:

  • The Heart of the Article: the Bait-and-Switch  Reuters' Felix Salmon has mostly kind words to say about the "compelling and accessible" NY Times article, noting that "precious few law graduates will ever waltz straight into a $160,000-a-year Biglaw job, especially if they graduate from a non-top-tier school." About that $160,000 median figure, Salmon writes:
Even at Harvard and Yale I'm suspicious of that $160,000 figure; for the non-top-tier colleges, it's clearly fictional. No matter how many of your graduates go on to $160,000-a-year jobs, there's always going to be a significant number who earn a lot less than that and there are going to be almost none who earn more. As a result, the mode might be $160,000, but the median will never be that high. (And in reality the distribution of law-grad salaries is highly bimodal, with the first mode at a much lower level.)
  • The 'Dismal Job Market' Isn't Just for Lawyers  Dean Baker at the Center For Economic and Policy Research brings up this point in critiquing the Times article (via Felix Salmon): According to many economists, specifically MIT economist David Autor, "most of the new jobs that are being created are at the top and the bottom of the skills level." The key, say these economists, "is to have more people go to college and earn advanced degrees." Baker argues that "if Autor is right, then the NYT has seriously misrepresented the state of the legal market. Alternatively, the economy could simply be suffering from a situation in which there are too few jobs in total. This would mean that the fundamental problem is not the skills of the workforce but rather the skills of the people designing economic policy."
  • Students Seem to Be Suffering From Cognitive Dissonance, finds the anonymous blogger at Subprime JD (which was highlighted in the Times article). As a law school student, the blogger observes that the more other students owe in debt "the less distress they exhibit." What causes this "almost delusional state"? Cognitive dissonance. That is, a "societal conditioning that a lawyer cannot be a failure. Those in fact, were the exact words relayed by Mr. Wallerstein in the NYT interview." The Subprime blogger later elaborates: "surely the law schools are to blame as they post fraudulent data. However, some personal responsibility lies with the decision as in the end the ramifications are life altering for the person who signed the dotted line."
  • If You Aren't Going to a Top Tier School, Tread Carefully  "The bottom line--which also applies, with some differences, to grad school--is that if you can get into and have a chance of good grades at a top-tier law school, a law degree may be a sensible investment," writes Scott Lemieux at The American Prospect. "A debt-financed degree from a lower-tier school, conversely, is much more likely than not to be a bad investment in terms of both money and time."
  • Should Schools Warn Graduates There Are No Jobs?  Maureen Downey at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrestles with the question raised in Segal's article. After pointing out that "most people" who go to graduate school "expect to work in their chosen fields," she eventually appears to side with increased "obligation" for schools to inform their students of economic realities: "A typical rejoinder is that students should study what they love and the rest will fall into place. I am not sure that many people can afford to adopt that posture in these new economic times where entire industries are in scale-back mode and jobs continue to disappear or move to cheaper shores."

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