Monday, December 26, 2011

Adventures in lemming psychology

It seems the belief that lemmings periodically commit mass suicide as an instinctual response to overpopulation is, in the strict sense, a myth.  Lemmings reproduce so quickly that they are prone to chaotic oscillations in their population: every few years the sheer number of lemmings in an area will overwhelm the area's ecological carrying capacity, and the population will crash to near extinction.  One common result of this pattern is that lemmings will suddenly disperse in a frantic mass migration in search of food and water, leading many to drown when they try to swim across rivers and lakes.

The myth that they hurl themselves off cliffs in the equivalent of a recurrent Jonestown for Norwegian rodentia is apparently a product of the following great moment in the history of American corporate infotainment:

The 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, [featured] staged footage [showing] lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration.[12] A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found that the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.[13]
A turntable?

Leaving the world of rodent biology and returning to that of human social metaphor, "lemming" has become a term for  "Law school applicants who  remain impervious to the growing evidence that law school might not be a good idea for them right now, given that they will have to have to borrow enormous amounts of money to get a degree which has, on average, a 50% chance of  being worse than useless, and a 48% chance of landing them in a series of legal jobs they'll really hate, most of which won't allow them to pay back their educational debt at the legally amortized rate."

Anyway,a term search turns up dozens of sobering internet threads, including the following hilarious series of graphics from our very own BL1Y.  (As Homer Simpson would say, it's funny because it's true).

What's interesting is that even former founts of purblind optimism, such as the forums at Top Law Schools.com, have, in the course of the last year or so, begun to take on a far more realistic tone, with numerous warnings that for most people law school is a bad gamble unless you get into a T-14 or a T-6 or HYS, or if you can go for free to a decent school in an area you want to work in eventually etc. etc.  And there's already some evidence that this change in the mainstream discourse is starting to have an effect: at least a couple of lower-tier schools shrunk their incoming class sizes this fall, while the number of LSAT takers was down 16% in June and 18% in October.

Still it remains the case that 50,000 people will enroll in ABA-accredited law schools next fall, even though it seems inevitable that, for the large majority of them, this will turn out to be somewhere between a serious mistake and a life-altering catastrophe.  What drives these decisions? Leaving aside the small percentage of admits for whom the decision to attend law school at present makes sense from what the economists call an ex ante perspective, what are we to make of the tens of thousands for whom, from that same perspective, it clearly doesn't?  Some possible explanations:

(1)   Innocent ignorance

Much of this ignorance remains quite understandable and excusable at the individual level.  Most law schools still don't publish anything resembling accurate employment and salary data.  Law schools trade on the cultural prestige of the legal profession to mislead naive applicants and their often even more naive families into not looking at the official statistics with the cynical eye of, for example, a good litigator examining the products of a discovery request,  Ironically, anyone who already thinks like a (competent) lawyer is unlikely to go to law school after doing the appropriate level of due diligence.  But people don't, because they're understandably fooled by the whole Potemkin Village that is contemporary American legal education: the fancy big new buildings, the "official" statistics published under the aegis of august bodies such as the ABA (surely those people wouldn't let law schools just lie, would they?), the plentiful success stories (drawn from a pool of thousands of graduates, many of whom paid 1/10th current tuition and entered a completely different legal market), the ever-more glossy brochures, etc.

(2) Culpable blindness

Most people don't read the fine print.  Heck, most people don't read the big print.  Homo Economicus, Rational Maximizer of his Utility, has turned out to be pretty much as big a myth as the suicidal tribe of lemmings, hurling themselves over a cliff (with a major assist from the fine folks at the Disney Corporation).  As the cultural conversation about whether or not law school is really worth it gets louder and more fractious, the ratio between people in the first and second group changes.  2011 may well be remembered as the year in which an important tipping point was reached in regard to that ratio.  It turns out that there's nothing like -- another irony! -- a few front page stories in the New York Times plus a class action lawsuit or three to suddenly get a bunch of law schools to start "voluntarily" publishing much more candid (although still far from fully transparent) employment and salary data.   And as more schools do this, the pressure on the ancien regime holdouts increases.  It's not 1789 yet -- as a certain pharmacologically-enhanced  poster on this site pointed out a few hundred times, no one is yet storming the Bastille -- but Louis XV is already gone.

(3)   Psychological exceptionalism

The averages don't apply to me because I am not average.  I am the exception that proves the rule.  I will not make the mistakes that the average student at the law school I am going to attend makes. These include: not finishing in the top 10%  top 5%  top five graduates of the class, being socially awkward (Irony #3: the worst possible judge of whether one has a propensity for social awkwardness is a socially awkward person, i.e., the Rupert Pupkin Syndrome), insisting on interviewing only for Big Law jobs instead of, for example, taking one of the many excellent $105,000 per year positions available with smaller firms,  or settling for an assistant district attorney position in the Manhattan DA's office, not studying hard enough, spending too much time on Facebook in class, and so forth.

(4)  It's not like the federal government is going to loan me $200,000 to start a new Asian fusion restaurant or to send my band on a 16-city small venue tour.

This is more or less self-explanatory.  Seriously, I grow increasingly convinced that many of the people now going to law school, especially lower-tier law schools, are doing so because, in the short-term, it seems obviously preferable to:

(a) Working retail

(b)  Flat-out unemployment

(c) Moving back in with Mom and Dad while negotiating the financial challenges of (a) or (b).

Especially given the prestige of being a lawyer.  Oh we cynical ones, we enlightened, love to make fun of the "prestige" factor, but the fact remains that, in its own twisted way, an unemployed lawyer is something to be.  If it weren't, half the law schools in the country would have to close tomorrow, despite the federal loan pipeline and the phony stats, and everything else that makes our game the only game in town for enough people to keep this thing of ours going.

30 comments:

  1. So many lawyers, so little justice...

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  2. As a recent JD graduate this is a great thing to read every day before I begin another day of looking for a job.

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  3. #4 most definitely. For a generation that applauds itself more and more for being "plugged in", its harder and harder to buy the innocent/ignorant card. I went to law school a decade ago and knew the hazards going in and that was before all of this really exploded.

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  4. IBR changed the rules of the game. I don't think any law school will have trouble filling seats as long as the government is picking up the tab.

    Once transparency is fully implemented, no student will be able to claim to be going to law school for a job. They'll be exposed for what they are - people taking advantage of the taxpayers.

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  5. 1, 2, and 3 also help explain why people overeat, don't exercise, smoke, run up credit card debt, and engage in other behaviors contrary to their long-term interest. Not comparing going to law school with those things, just saying people - of all ages - often do things without thinking them through. Even transparency won't stop that (see cigarette labels) but at least it'll reduce it and make everyone else feel better. Loan reform would have to be higher-education-wide and would kill the current university business model; hard to see the political incentive.

    Depressing.

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  6. Have those cigarette label warnings had any effect on cigarette sales (per capita)?

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  7. There are still plenty of opportunities for those who are willing to play the game with some finesse and jump through the necessary hoops.

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  8. We know which category nyc falls into.

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  9. Most people tend to think of "plenty" as meaning a full or adequate amount or supply of something.

    "Plenty" of something for five of every hundred would probably not meet most people's standards of "plenty."

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  10. As nyc well knows, there are not plenty of opportunities, and a great deal of luck is required along with playing the GAME with some finesse and jumping through seemingly endless hoops to arrive at some modest measure of success. nyc also knows that past performance is not very predictive of what others can expect in the current lawyering business as it is today. The data clearly demonstrate that less than half of the most recent new graduates for whom data is available (2010) got any permanent job requiring a JD degree within 9 months of graduation. The data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics also clearly demonstrates that about 769K lawyers are working in lawyering jobs in the US, the majority of whom are working in small firms for highly variable, volatile, insecure and difficult to verify sums of money. The best data available also demonstrates that about 575K holders of a JD degree are not working in lawyering jobs in the US. nyc reminds me of someone I knew years ago who as an unemployed law graduate continued to vehemently defend the value of a JD and the lawyering business just because his grandfather and father had been and were lawyers respectively. I suppose this individual's own meritless rhetoric that was contrary to the experiences of the majority and contrary to the data soothed his own ego. To my knowledge this individual never ever had a single lawyering job.

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  11. dood, nyc is a known troll. why get yourself all worked up over him?

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  12. While agreeing that student loans are a taxpayer funded subsidy for 20-somethings with decent (meaning not awful) academic abilities, I would absolutely fight anyone trying to take them away.

    So many other constituencies get so much more in subsidies (the old, corn farmers . . . I could go on and on) that it's not fair to focus the attention on this particular subsidy. Young people are being ridden badly as it is. Let them have something.

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  13. P.S. I am still in favor of transparency. If graduate school is a taxpayer funded vacation, then at least let it be a fun one. If a law degree is going to be no more valuable than a fun degree like history or french literature, then go with the latter! Stop suffering in the hell known as law school - with its astonomically high rate of depression, 40% in 3Ls - because you thought such suffering would lead to a job.

    Take that student loan money and have fun studying what you want to study.

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  14. I used to teach criminal law to criminal justice majors at the University of Phoenix online. In a typical class of say 17 students, three would have excellent written skills. Three would have horrible written skills and shouldn't have been in college, and the rest could write "report" English.

    Invariably at least one person in class would mention in their self introduction, that they wanted to go to law school. In almost every case, their writing automatically indicated that they did not have the skills to gain admittance to even Thomas Cooley.*

    This comes down to point (#3) sometimes people are just self delusional about their own academic skills and T3 and T4 law schools will always be able to lower their standards enough to fill up their classes as long as federal funding is available.

    *I did not tell students my honest opinion of their skills because I wanted to avoid complaints and bad teacher evaluations. Being an adjunct at the UOP, one was expected to be very encouraging of students. Since I was already handing out enough richly earned bad grades, I decided that it was not in my interest to pick this battle with my students when it was unrelated to the main goal of the class which was to train future CJ workers.

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  15. "honest opinion of their chances to be admitted into law school and succeed there".

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  16. "Oh we cynical ones, we enlightened, love to make fun of the "prestige" factor, but the fact remains that, in its own twisted way, an unemployed lawyer is something to be."

    I disagree with this. There is no value to being an unemployed lawyer, and I believe if many unemployed law graduates could do graduate school over again they would have chosen another major. I know I would have. I went to law school for a job, not "prestige." The "prestige" doesn't exist any way, outside of legal circles. Society hates lawyers, viewing them as parasites who lie, cheat and steal.

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  17. Mark Zuckerberg was a total prick and founded Facebook.

    You can do anything as a total prick!

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  18. Speaking of zuckerberg, how hard is it to get into a computer programming graduate program, and what are the career prospects?

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  19. http://www.top-law-schools.com/forums/viewtopic.php?f=2&t=164476

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  20. From that thread . . ., quoting a TLSer:

    Yes, law schools don't have to say what percentage of their classes their salary information refers to.

    Yes, it would appear fraudulent to someone not familiar with this.

    Yes, a lot of people will be screwed by it.

    No, no one cares.

    No, not even the ABA.

    Hopefully this post helped.

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  21. 7:07,
    Grad isn't very useful for computer programmers. You either do it well or you don't and it's very easy for prospective employers to test that.

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  22. Why do recently unemployed grads continue to look for legal jobs after 1,2, 3, or more years of futility? Why aren't these people giving up? Why don't they realize that it was a bunk decision and then change careers?

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  23. "Grad isn't very useful for computer programmers. You either do it well or you don't and it's very easy for prospective employers to test that."

    Wow, an industry immunized from the higher education scam. That's truly amazing.

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  24. "Why do recently unemployed grads continue to look for legal jobs after 1,2, 3, or more years of futility? Why aren't these people giving up? Why don't they realize that it was a bunk decision and then change careers?"

    If I were them I would focus my efforts on attacking the law school scam, ala a Nando, and otherwise moving on with my life.

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  25. I know plenty of people who are going to grad school specifically because the options are either that or working retail. I can't say I blame them, either... take a minimum wage job, or do something that is at bare minimum personally enriching?

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  26. @7:07, it's not easy if you don't have any programming background, although I've seen it done. Unlike law, grad school for software engineering generally expects you already know how to code reasonably well. I've seen people make the jump from other science and engineering disciplines, but those fields generally require a modicum of programming, anyway, so they were already partially exposed.

    As for prospects, there is currently no recession in the software engineering field. Full stop. If you have a master's degree and a little experience, recruiters will sacrifice all dignity to talk to you. I don't have a master's but my resume is pretty solid, and I had zero problem changing jobs this last summer when I was ready to make more money closer to home.

    I would pity recent law school graduates, but there are too many arrogant and useless lawyers for me to avoid feeling that this is high time for a housecleaning. Good luck to those of you with brain cells and a sense of decency.

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  27. Good for you 2:01.

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