People immersed in, or even somewhat familiar with, the criticisms of law schools that can be found on dozens of scam blogs and even in a few impeccably mainstream venues are understandably somewhat puzzled about why the law school bubble has yet to burst. Not that there aren't signs of trouble -- as of March law school applications were down more than 11% from the same time last year -- but as commentators on yesterday's post noted, if you look at sites like this one, there's very little indication that anything has changed.
Why is it that the more things change, the more they stay the same? One reason is that it takes a long time and a special set of conditions for serious criticisms of any cultural institution as well-defended as the American law school to filter down to a mass audience. People have been pointing out almost since the memory of man runneth not to the contrary (i.e., the 1930s) that law school is for the most part an intellectually vacuous and practically useless experience, that law is on the whole an unhappy profession, that going to law school to get rich is in the vast majority of cases a terrible idea, and so on and so forth.
All of it made very little difference for reasons that were fairly straightforward. The intellectual critique of legal education has never gotten anywhere because law schools are not intellectual institutions (Such critiques are in the end like a serious film critic taking Jerry Bruckheimer's latest summer blockbuster to task for its aesthetic failings.) That law school has never taught people anything about practicing law is a cost that the legal profession itself simply absorbed, partially out of, like so many other things, sheer inertia, and partially because real lawyers have always on some level understood that the whole idea of undertaking serious vocational training in an institution that in any way resembles the modern American law school makes no sense. That law is an unhappy profession has more to do with factors that law schools can do little about (Although the invidious socialization effects of traditional legal education certainly haven't helped: whether law school is more of an asshole magnet or factory is a question worthy of more intense study than it has yet received). And while 99.5% of lawyers never got rich, even loosely speaking, the cost-benefit ratio was positive enough -- especially if you ignored or distorted the psychic costs and benefits -- that the whole thing continued to make sense for enough people at the grittiest level of individual economic choice.
Some of this may actually be changing, although of course no one knows the extent to which things will go back to the way they used to be, i..e, pretty awful but mostly impervious to criticism or reform, when the present recession finally recedes. Some of the structural changes taking place in the practice of law may be so fundamental that things may never go back to resembling the golden age. Or perhaps they will go back, but for a smaller cadre of law schools and law professors than before. We'll see.
Which brings us back to the question of why there has, of yet, been not much change in the market for law school admissions. Possible explanations, besides the overarching one that law schools remain exceptionally well inoculated against the risk of learning anything from the professional and life experiences of their graduates:
(1) At some level, people want to be lied to. Sure, an intellectually curious person with a tendency to distrust authority figures will look at the placement stats put out by law schools, and even now realize the stats are a bad joke. The other X percentage of potential law students want to believe what they're told. As the singer said, a man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. (True story: A few years ago I was walking down Seventh Avenue in the rain without an umbrella, to meet some people at a restaurant. It was cold and I was under-dressed for the weather, especially given the sudden rainstorm. Naturally under these conditions of extreme urban and climactic alienation I start humming The Boxer to myself, specifically the part about the whores on Seventh Avenue. I get to the restaurant early, get seated, and one minute later Paul Simon sits down at the table right next to me.) Anyway, what percentage to you suppose X is?
(2) Our culture combines statistical innumeracy with the ideology of the Protestant work ethic in a way that makes people tend to be extremely risk-seeking when they hear that the top 10% to 20% of the class at Pretty Good Law School are getting BIGLAW jobs (of course the real number right now is more like 3%- 5%. See point #1 above). People believe that if they just "work hard" everything will work out, because they have been told this from a very young age, and also because they want desperately to believe it's true (again, see point #1, supra).
(3) Some law students are just engaging in conspicuous consumption. These are people who come from money and want an advanced degree that (absurdly) confers an air of intellectual accomplishment and (more realistically) signals a certain social status. These students go to law school for the same reason that young men of good family went to Ivy League schools a couple of generations ago, to collect their Gentleman's Cs and polish their social connections. (The same year George W. Bush arrived in New Haven, Kingman Brewster announced his intention to make Yale something more than "a finishing school on Long Island Sound.") Luckily for law schools, the vast wealth that has been shoved up to the top of the social pyramid over the past 30 years means there are now a lot more Tom Buchanans out there, and a good number are going to law school in something of the same way Andover boys used to go to Yale (better yet, now Daisy Buchanan is going to law finishing school as well).
(4) For those from less exalted backgrounds, law school gives them a chance to in effect buy a government-subsidized lottery ticket, while delaying a confrontation with how dire their economic circumstances actually are for another three years. As people point out constantly, what are all these Poli Sci majors with degrees from Directional State and $45,000 in school loans supposed to do instead? (Of course the answer "go to law school" is increasingly looking about as sensible as advising somebody in a terrible marriage to have a baby in order to turn things around).
This last group will be most strongly affected by a general economic recovery (in fact, some of the stories about the decline in law school applications earlier this year misinterpreted that decline as an early sign of a recovering economy).
As for the rest, it's going to be interesting to see what effect the information revolution has over the next few years on the willingness of people to continue to play the law school game. But of course the law school game is embedded in a larger social game (nothing on this blog should be interpreted as any sort of downplaying of the fact that a serious crisis is brewing throughout higher education). And as a great philosopher once put it: "The game is out there. And it's play -- or get played."
(c/p at LGM)
Further thoughts from Adam Smith, Esq