Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Know when to walk away, and know when to run

The primary purpose of this blog isn’t evangelization; nevertheless I suppose it was inevitable that both current and prospective law students would end up asking me for advice about what, given my take on the situation, I think they should do now.

Giving advice is always tricky, especially when you’re dealing with something as potentially complex as the decision to go to, or to stay in, law school.  For one thing such a decision always involves personal factors that someone who doesn’t know the person well can’t take into account properly. So I don’t try to tell people who ask for this kind of advice what to do, but I do try to give them the straight story as I see it (from my unavoidably limited perspective etc etc etc).

Still, these exchanges make me want to emphasize a couple of general points.  First, people who have no real idea what lawyers do and what various forms of the practice of law are actually like have no business going to law school at present (As always none of this applies to the small but significant percentage of law students who are engaging in consumption rather than investment, and who aren’t really worried about whether law school makes sense in ROI terms).

Of course a huge percentage – perhaps the large majority – of law students have traditionally belonged to this category, but the risk-return calculus has changed dramatically enough over the course of the last 10-15 years that what was once a moderately imprudent decision has become a wildly reckless one.  It was one thing to go to law school on something of a lark when, as was the case for most public law school students until about 15 years ago, the cost of law school was mostly opportunity cost.  Under those circumstances, if you found yourself stuck in a job that you hated, or couldn’t get a legal job at all, you could bail out without doing major damage to the rest of your life.

What’s happened in the interim is that bailing out of the law game has changed from the equivalent of breaking up with the person you dated all through college and moved in with for a year afterwards into more like getting divorced to someone with whom you’ve had three kids who are all under eight years old.   It’s not that the former experience isn’t painful and expensive; it’s that the latter event is going to be qualitatively more disastrous, in both economic and emotional terms. 

Second, a more remarkable subgroup of people are those who do have some decent idea of what the practice of law tends to be like,  and who as a consequence don’t want to practice law, but who end up in law school anyway.   That there are such people – and my anecdotal experience suggests they’re far from rare – suggests how a combination of factors pull people who ought to know better into the law school orbit. Those factors include the remarkably tenacious “you can do lots of things other than practice law with a law degree” myth, the cultural cachet that’s still attached to calling yourself a lawyer, and the psychological tendency to ignore relatively solid evidence when it conflicts with relatively vague but compelling desires.


(1)    Don’t go to law school if you don’t know much of anything about what the actual practice of law is actually like.

(2)    Don’t go to law school if you do know what the actual practice of law is actually like, and think that on the whole you would prefer to do something else.

Of course this advice gets trickier to follow when you’re already in law school.  Still, there can be no real doubt that, under present circumstances, a lot of people currently in law school ought to drop out.  If you finish your first semester, or your first year, and you have no strong sense of why you’re in law school, or of how you’re going to pay off the debt you’re acquiring without going into IBR, quit while you’re (relatively) ahead.  If you’re in your second year and have become fairly sure you don’t want to practice law – same conclusion.   

Don’t throw good money after bad. Those chips in the pot no longer belong to you:  don’t try to draw to an inside straight, in either law school or life.


  1. The time to drop out of law school is when you start thinking that essentially it's a scam, when you can see very clearly that the money spent is not worth the opportunities offered. Unfortunately for many this only seems to happen late in the game, that's why transparency is important.

  2. At least with the inside straight, you have about a 16% chance to make it by the river. There's probably close to 150 law schools offering a skinnier draw to success than that.

  3. One additional point worth making is you that you should probably not go to law school if, by the measured already in place by the Law School Admissions Complex, you are not likely to do well. The reality is that most law students with an LSAT at or below 160 will struggle more than the administrators of this exam realize. Law school rewards a native talent for logical reasoning which the LSAT, say what you will of it, accurately gauges. If you lack this native talent, you will be provided neither the skills nor the resources necessary to develop it in law school. The one exam/one grade model all but guarantees that. And as long as a semester sounds in law school, as a law student (particularly as a first year) you are engaged in a game of hand-to-hand combat with the material on a scale of hours, not of days or weeks. If you are unable to get a firm grasp of this material from the first, you will likely skate to, at best, a B/B- average in your first semester, with the likelihood of an improvement in the second only marginal.

    Law school does not exist to teach you anything you don't already know about yourself. All prospective law students must know that a lot of this information is already communicated to you by your LSAT score.

  4. I agree with FOARP. Unfortunately, technology has so changed, and will contine to change, the practice of law that looking at employment figures may be misleading. Many assume the legal market will improve when the recession ends. That is probably so but not for lawyers who will face ever increasing competition from other professionals and businesses who are leveraging technology to do what lawyers used to. My advice to those finishing their first year is if you don't love it, leave it. Life is too short. As I have suggested before I would offer a degree of some kind at the end of the 1st year that would serve in some way the desire to monetize the time, effort and expense.



  5. how is law school success defined? Getting a job that covers your student loans plus 11000 so you can live above poverty line (after taxes) or is law school success is something more?

  6. No one should go to law school until they have spoken with at least 20 randomly selected members of their state's bar.

  7. Excellent points made by LawProf and commenters.

    Re how to define law school success: I would define it as getting a job that (1) you don't hate, (2) you could not have gotten had you not attended law school, and (3) pays you enough to service your debt and have a middle-class lifestyle.

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  9. Don’t throw good money after bad. Those chips in the pot no longer belong to you: don’t try to draw to inside straight, in either law school or life.


    On a somewhat unrelated note: in the financial industry there is the concept of "suitability." That a fiduciary, generally a registered representative, must ensure that an investment's risk profile is suitable for a customer. If law schools owed a fiduciary duty to their students, they would be guilty of convincing their students (customers) that penny stocks have a safe return similar to Treasury Bills.

  10. Terry-
    Why don't they have that duty? One would think they have at least an ethical duty that is similar.

  11. The specific fiduciary duty regarding "suitability" is embedded within the Self-Regulatory Organization rule-sets (e.g., FINRA, NYSE).

    Ethical duty, Ha. That would require uncomfortable self-analysis regarding the victims of the law school scam.

    I can see it now.

    John Q. Law Professor: "can I cash this paycheck knowing that a majority of it comes from the debt slavery of unwitting 22 year olds?"

    The civil war was about "states rights," and law schools are paragons of ethical virtue.

  12. I encourage prospective students, not only to take a hard look at the realities of the legal market, but to think again about alternative careers they would love but may have too quickly dismissed. In the new economy, some creative careers actually stack up rather well against law. At the same time that law has declined in income and security, jobs in stage design, lighting design, computer game design, etc. have gained some traction. These jobs lack the income and security that law had 20 years ago--and they still carry many risks--but the question for today's college grads is: How do these jobs compare with the present and future of law practice? If a creative job is one you will love, and that you can undertake with no loans, maybe it is a better prospect.

    I've also known students who decided that elementary or secondary teaching was a better choice today than law. Twenty years ago, some of these students would have regretfully given up teaching because a law degree promised much more income and prestige. But for students who find a passion for teaching, the choice is different today. We don't pay elementary/secondary teachers nearly as much as we should, but the loans stop after college and the pay matches what some law grads are finding.

    For many, I recommend Steven Pink's book, "A Whole New Mind." Pink explores the difference between information jobs, which are declining due to automation and outsourcing, and conceptual jobs--which are more likely to remain. There's also an interesting series running on Slate right now, "Will Robots Steal Your Job," http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/robot_invasion/2011/09/will_robots_steal_your_job.html. It includes a segment specifically on lawyers.

    I believe that there will be conceptual level jobs for lawyers in the emerging economy, but there won't be nearly as many of them as there were for knowledge level lawyering at the end of the twentieth century. And we'll need to completely revamp our law schools to address those conceptual jobs. Meanwhile, these are interesting reads--and very helpful, I think, for people considering law school.

  13. I think it's useful to add a specific grade criterion to the 'do you love it' equation. Even if you love it, if you're not in the upper percentiles, think hard about your options. Is the education as it's actually unfolding going to get you where you want to go? If not, do something else.

  14. Terry--
    I am being serious here. Could you fashion a claim that would withstand a motion to dismiss based up the claim that the law school has an ethical duty to disclose what it knows, as well as what it does not know, to a purchaser of its product. Would the law school file a Motion to Dismiss that claimed as a matter of law there is no ethical duty of disclosure?

  15. Unfortunately, I suspect some law schools might claim no ethical obligation. The academy these days (and not just law schools) seems to vacillate widely between invoking market principles (caveat emptor!) and resisting them (we shouldn't pander to students!).

    But for law schools, I would look by analogy at MPRC 7.1 (Communications Concerning a Lawyer's Services). A lawyer's duty, when communicating with potential clients, is much deeper than caveat emptor. The lawyer cannot "omit[] a fact necessary to make the statement considered as a whole not materially misleading." Comments, cases, and ethical opinions elaborate on that.

    I'm not sure if a textualist (Justice Scalia, anyone?) would apply this rule to law schools. Schools sell legal education, which may not be a "legal service." But law schools are part of the legal profession, and education might be one of our services. More important, it seems to me that the policies and ethical principles of this rule translate directly. Lawyers hold a privileged, trade protected spot in the market; they do so in part because they promise *not* to follow the most aggressive market techniques. One important example is disclosing material information to potential clients--even though another type of businessperson could rely on caveat emptor.

    Law schools benefit from the same privileged, market protected positions. And potential law students are *not* lawyers. Their position seems analogous to that of potential clients--many of whom are actually quite sophisticated. I think the analogy is pretty strong.

    Not to mention, of course, ethical obligations that law profs and administrators should feel to people who will soon be colleagues in the legal profession...And then there's always MRPC 8.4. PS I tried adopting the hipper ID of "DJM" but an earlier comment must have gone into spam. So I'll go back to my unwieldy full ID until "DJM" gets approved.

  16. @vbp

    As someone with an eight-year career in teaching test prep*, I disagree about your assertions about the LSAT. Like almost all other standardized admissions tests**, it exists as a measure of socialization and conditioning toward a very specific problem set that is not really representative of professional practice in whatever field it serves as a gatekeeper for.

    Sure, if you struggle to get a 140, law school is not for you; but it's possible to do less perfectly than is required for admission to the top 3 law schools and still have perfectly fine critical- and logical-thinking abilities.

    * another kind of scam. What improves your scores is not the teacher or the seekrit techniques but the consistent practice at the narrow skillset used by the test.

    ** I would include the MCAT, though it's one of the better oens; it's mainly about basic sciences stuff that isn't directly involved with a lot of medical practice.

  17. You all have the power to do something about it, one step at a time.

    1. Prepare a website listing every professor and whether they have responded to the request to sign the petition. (Easy to do by creating a public excel document in hotmail).

    2. Every time you get upset about the law school scam, contact one professor and talk with him or her about the petition.

    3. Update whoever administers the spreadsheet (Lawprof I imagine) on your progress.

  18. @2.12 - And have you signed up to do this?

  19. The first step is to create the spreadsheet. Isn't there a list somewhere of all the professors with their school and contact information? I recall Brian Leiter referring to it.

  20. 1:51 I would hardly call law students sophisticated consumers.

  21. Look, all you need is to get past the Motion to Dismiss in order to undertake discovery. As a trial lawyer that is the first and most important step. Remember, the good faith factual allegations of the complaint are taken as true for purposes of Rule 12. I think that if you can win a Rule 12(b) motion you have won the case. No law school wants to have to say in a document filed in court that they are not bound by the ethical rules. The publicity would kill them! The ABA would go nuts! You win!!

  22. I'm sorry DJM, prospective law students are not in the same relationship as a lawyer is to a client. The lawyer-client relationship gives rise to a whole host of duties, responsibilities, and privileges. You can't pick the ones you want and have them apply to an inapposite (why is that in red, that's how you spell it?) circumstances.

  23. Okay it didn't appear in red when posted.

  24. @4:16 p.m.:

    prospective law students are not in the same relationship as a lawyer is to a client

    Why aren't they? Law schools are staffed by lawyers rendering a service to paying clients. Is there something I missed in the MRPC that says a lawyer is answerable for all ethical failures while providing legal counsel, but is free to screw whomever he likes if he's got his professor hat on?

  25. Interesting post: http://persephonemagazine.com/2011/10/dont-even-get-me-started-mythical-bootstraps-college-student/

  26. "Giving advice is always tricky, especially when you’re dealing with something as potentially complex as the decision to go to, or to stay in, law school."

    This shows the bubble in which law professors live (no offense, it seems you've already admitted as much). Professors should think about giving advice, on a daily basis, to people who might go to jail, who might lose their life's savings in a lawsuit, or who might lose millions if a deal falls through. Advice in these situations is tricky. Advice on a decision to take on over $100K in debt and spend 3 more years in school is not so tricky.

  27. Mr/Ms Ooi, taking on $100K in debt and spending three more years in school is no big deal. But only if you are guaranteed (more or less) a 160k per annum job upon graduation, and not when most law graduates struggle to find decent employment - the definition of which is no longer the 160k typical of quoted figures, but closer to that of 40-60k, which is really just a middle-class wage with little room for family or debt repayment.
    There is a difference between law professors writing responsa to legal issues - what they say isn't the law. They don't determine the lives of clients. It's up to judges and juries. But judges and juries do not provide the advice prospective law students need when considering whether to go to law school. Law professors are perhaps the best placed to offer advice - provided they are actually telling the truth, which according to LawProf does seem to be a rare occurrence.
    I wish you wouldn't be quite so cavalier about debt, Mr/Ms Ooi.

  28. I think Ooi's point is that the answer should be fairly obvious - is it worth going into a large amount of debt and taking three years out of your life unless there is a good (75%+) chance of getting a job which will repay both the money borrowed, and compensate for opportunities lost during those three years? The answer is a very obvious no.

  29. So how does this impact law future students?

  30. It doesn't really. It's IBR with slightly lower numbers; if you're not able to pay back your loans you can make lower payments but you'll be in debt for a long time - meanwhile you'll still have large loans with interest piling up on top of them.

  31. "Don’t go to law school if you don’t know much of anything about what the actual practice of law is actually like."

    Amen. BTW, many firms will hire recent BA grads as paralegals. It is a good way to see the practice from the inside and get to know some lawyers. I have persuaded a couple of kids to do that. They both rethought the law school gig.

    "Those factors include ... the cultural cache that’s still attached to calling yourself a lawyer"

    A cache is a hiding place. You meant "cachet" a sign of superior status or prestige.

  32. A friend of mine went to law school for 2 years, hated it, dropped out, and moved to Wyoming to study natural resources. She now runs a Yoga studio and couldn't be happier. I think her only regret is waiting until the second year to drop out.


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