Addressing the questions I'm dealing with in the way I'm dealing with them is, from a professional standpoint, a somewhat alienating experience. Believe me, I'd much rather write about what a great job we're all doing in the legal academy, and what wonderful educational benefits we're conferring on our students, and how our scholarship is improving the legal system and the world as a whole one insightful law review article at a time, and how prosperity is just around the corner. I don't actually like being that guy: the rabble-rouser who refuses to criticize the flaws of our business in the modulated and polite and constructive way which will supposedly help convince fence-sitters to consider possible reforms instead of continuing to defend the status quo tooth and nail. Being that guy leads, shall we say, to a certain degree of social awkwardness that can at times become genuinely uncomfortable.
It's rather sad that choosing to subject oneself to a certain degree of social awkwardness is what passes for "courage" in university life in these decadent days, as we bask in the sunset light at the end of a golden age of higher education that has paid off handsomely for so many academics and administrators. Still it would be pointless to deny that very few law professors are willing to consider even doing that much. All of which is to say there are evenings when I half-wish I had left well enough alone, and had never started looking into any of this stuff in the first place (Again, I'm ashamed to admit that just two years ago I was still allowing myself to remain blind to the economics of legal education, the job situation for our graduates, the gaming of the placement stats, the gathering student loan catastrophe . . . In the end, living is easy with eyes closed, which is the biggest reason so many people never open theirs.)
But then I read something like this (h/t to a commentator in the thread to yesterday's post):
Harold Krent, dean and professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, said large law firms hire 50 percent fewer graduates than four years ago. That makes a huge difference for students who hope to a get a "$165,000 payday," he said.Seriously? I've never met Harold Krent, I know nothing about the man, and I really don't want to be rude here -- again, I don't like to be that guy -- but are you kidding me? What Krent is saying is, to put the best possible face on it, so outrageously clueless that it almost defies description (a less forgiving interpretation is that he's well aware that what he's saying is dangerously deceptive nonsense, but he has decided that "men are as the time is").
But, Krent said, hyped attention on the loss of jobs in large law firms glosses over the fact that many students go to law school not for that $165,000 payday, but for the chance to make a difference. "I think that there's been a significant distortion in terms of the drying up of the legal market in the media," he said. "It's actually true at large firms in the last couple of years. But there has not been a commensurate drop off in smaller firm and government practice.
"Many people do wonderfully creative and interesting things with a law degree other than practice law, including being a journalist or being an investor or being a counselor."
First, what is it about law school administrators that compels them to keep repeating this malarkey about how there are still lots of jobs for students who "want to make a difference," i.e., aren't greedy little bastards with dollar signs in their eyes, dreaming of $165K starting salaries? Do these people not realize that the entire public interest sector -- particularly DA, PD, and other government jobs -- has gotten absolutely crushed in the last three years, and that it's often harder to get a a job of that type than it is to hook on with a fancy law firm? (Let's not even get into the fact that these jobs don't pay anywhere close to enough to justify the cost of going to law school in straightforward ROI terms). Here's just one example from round these parts that came to my attention recently: the Boulder DA advertised for a part-time assistant DA position that pays the princely sum of $27,000 -- this in a town where the average price of a house is about 25 times that. Not surprisingly, they got slammed with applications from wildly overqualified candidates. Yes anecdotes are not data, but where's Dean Krent's data for his claim that thing are much rosier in the world of public interest law and small law firms than they are in the big law firm salary stratosphere? Note that the latest NALP data indicates the number of 2010 graduates who went into private practice was 20% lower than it's been at any other point in the last 30 years, which certainly doesn't seem to support the idea that there are lots of small firm jobs out there.
But that part of the dean's comments is a model of data-driven coherence in comparison to his remarks about the "wonderfully creative and interesting things" people do with law degrees besides practice law. What would be a good analogy to spending, at this particular moment in economic history, $55,000 a year to go to a second-tier law school to prepare for a career in, of all things, journalism? Getting a PhD in Marxist-Leninist political theory in order to become a travel agent? Acquiring a doctorate in phrenology on the road to becoming a blacksmith? The mind reels . . .
Then there's his suggestion that one could use one's law degree to become an" investor." How is this supposed to work exactly? (Old joke: How do you make a small fortune racing thoroughbreds? Step one: Start with a large fortune). Even weirder is the notion of going to law school to become a "counselor." In every jurisdiction I know anything about, a law degree no more qualifies you to engage in personal counseling than does winning a beauty pageant, or having been an an honorable mention all conference defensive back in high school. Indeed, I'm sincerely and somewhat morbidly curious about precisely what Dean Krent imagines students learn in law school that prepares them in any way to be journalists, or investors, or psychologists, or anything but attorneys (let's not depress ourselves further at this moment by pursuing the question of the extent to which law school does even that).
I submit that if this kind of thing, coming as it does from from an actual dean of an actual ABA-accredited law school, doesn't appall those of us in legal education, then we have lost all capacity for righteous indignation. To any prospective law student reading this blog, there is one reason and one reason only to even consider going to law school (assuming as always that you're not just lighting someone's money on fire while killing time): to practice law. Yes, it's quite true that there are a thousand things you can do with a law degree besides practice law. The problem is that you can do 999 of those things without a law degree, and that acquiring a law degree does nothing to prepare you to do any of them. (Fred Smith makes the excellent point in comments that in many instances having a JD makes it harder, not easier, to get a non-law job).
I think the most charitable explanation that can be put on the dean's remarks is that perhaps he's old enough and detached enough and privileged enough to have lost any real sense of how expensive law school has become, and therefore how bizarre it is to advise students that they might consider going to law school to round off of the educational portion of their resumes, so that their law degrees could then in some mysterious and inexplicable fashion serve as entrees to various careers completely unrelated to law . After all 30 years ago it cost $1000 per year to attend the University of Colorado Law School, which is equivalent to about $2400 in current dollars. Indeed a generation ago residents of Michigan and California could attend the elite national law schools located in their states for practically nothing (In 1970 an entire semester's tuition at Michigan cost $340). When it was possible to go to law school for the current equivalent of $200 per month, people could quite literally afford to entertain ridiculous notions about all the things a law degree was supposedly good for. Today, the relevant calculations are a bit different.
When I read things like the dean's comments, it puts me back in full contact with the anger and frustration and indignation that jolted me out of my comfortably numb complacency when I first began to comprehend the full extent of the disaster that has entangled so many of the people who have paid our salaries and supported our careers. But of course my anger and frustration and indignation are as nothing compared to that felt by those who are truly suffering the consequences of everything that's wrong with American legal education. For them, the consequences of this mess go far beyond having to endure some awkward moments in the faculty lounge.