This is of course very encouraging, and especially good to hear given some of the quotes coming out of the conference from various long-time celebrants of the status quo. Consider the wit and wisdom of former Georgetown dean and AALS president Judith Areen:
Most strikingly, some law professors, administrators and lawyers took a position more frequently put forward by faculty in the liberal arts: that even if students with law degrees do not practice law (and an increasing number of students are indeed taking jobs that do not require a J.D.), a legal education provides a strong foundation for work in a variety of fields through encouraging writing and critical thinking.
“It’s law graduates who don’t practice law who are often most complimentary about their legal education and the analytic skills they received,” said Judith Areen, a professor at the Georgetown University Law Center. [If you're wondering about the likely analytic and empirical bases for this claim, see this]I suspect that, as the pressure for genuine reform grows, this is going to be one of the most popular fallback defensive positions taken by those opposed to it. Its essential absurdity should be self-evident, but since "it is difficult to get a man (or woman) to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it," I don't doubt Areen's statement seems plausible deep within the comfortable recesses of many a faculty lounge.
First, the economic value of a law degree is a product of the fact that, with rare exceptions, it is a prerequisite to fulfilling a licensing requirement that creates a significant barrier to entry to a specific field of employment. As law school cheerleaders love to point out, there are a thousand and one jobs a graduate can do with a law degree. What they neglect to mention is that one thousand of those jobs can also be done without a law degree.
It isn't the case, of course, that a law degree never adds value to a graduate's career prospects that don't involve the practice of law. Rather, the problem is twofold:
(1) How much value do law degrees add for non-JD required employment; and, most crucially,
(2) How much value do law degrees subtract in regard to such career opportunities?
I suspect it would come as something of a shock to Professor Areen to learn how often law school graduates -- even graduates of her elite institution -- discover that a law degree seriously interferes with getting non-legal jobs, or legal jobs that don't require law licenses. Consider that only 201 out of more than 44,000 2010 law school -- that is, less than one in every 200 -- reported working as paralegals nine months after graduation. There are surely several thousand people in the class of 2010 who would have loved to have taken a job as a paralegal, as opposed to what they ended up doing (especially considering that what nearly 4000 of them ended up doing was being completely unemployed nine months after graduation). But most paralegal positions aren't even open to applicants with J.D. degrees, for a variety of reasons, the most darkly humorous being that employers are afraid law graduates will dump paralegal positions as soon as they get hired by Sullivan and Cromwell or the DOJ.
Second, consider that the whole you can do so many things with a law degree argument turns on the claim that "a legal education provides a strong foundation for work in a variety of fields through encouraging writing and critical thinking," and, as Areen argues, improves students' analytic skills. To deal with the less preposterous claim first, I don't deny that law school encourages (a type of) critical thinking, but the key questions are, in comparison to what and at what cost? Do legal academics want to seriously maintain that law school encourages critical thinking and develops analytic skills more effectively than, say, the typical graduate school program? (And graduate school, unlike law school, is often literally free, if one isn't counting opportunity costs). Leaving aside post-graduate alternatives for developing critical and analytic thinking, potential law students have already had at least 17 years of formal education, during which we can hope they have acquired some facility in critical thought and analysis. How much value does law school really add in this regard? I more than suspect the answer isn't $150,000 worth.
As for the claim that law school turns people into better writers, really what can one say? How is it that people who have actually gone to law school can make these kinds of statements? Do they consider issue spotting exams, first-year LRW canned brief exercises, and perhaps an upper level seminar paper, effective ways of turning people into better writers? People who do seem to belie the extent to which their own legal educations actually encouraged critical thinking.
The fact remains that, with rare exceptions, the only sensible reason to go to law school is to be a lawyer. This is so obvious for so many reasons that the increasing willingness of legal educators to argue otherwise can be taken as a sign of their growing desperation in the face of various unpleasant economic realities.