'Is Law School Worth It?' It Depends!

Choose wisely, my friend.
05/22/2017 04:58 pm ET Updated May 24, 2017
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I hate hyperbole. And that’s no exaggeration. It’s likely a consequence of my profession: I teach law. So my business is training advocates, and, contrary to cartoon caricatures, you are more persuasive in a court governed by rules by emphasizing reason over rhetoric.

The debate over legal education nonetheless tends toward extremes. So-called scam bloggers allege legal education is worthless and ruins lives. Their opponents, whom they note rightly are not free of self-interest, insist on its abundant merit for the individual and doubtless necessity for our society. These claims are extravagant. They do not hold up.

There are more accurate understandings. Here is an alternative framing. 1L students learn the question asked influences the answer so much that it is an art to draft the “question presented” in a Supreme Court brief — done well, it practically determines the answer. It is as important to offer the best question as it is to provide the best answer. Almost all of the challenging “hypotheticals” posed in Socratic dialogue lead to the conclusion “it depends,” not to a black-and-white “yes” or “no.” The follow up is: what does it depend on?

Three major factors should be considered. They might produce a more complex picture.  That corresponds to a complex reality.

First, the question is not whether legal education is ideal in the abstract. It is whether it is the right choice for the specific individual who is considering it as an option in reality. That means looking at what school has offered admission. Seats at law schools are not all the same even if the tuition is set similarly. Furthermore, it includes appropriate weighing of the opportunity cost. A college senior with attractive job offers in hand is not in the same situation as a peer with no prospects.

Second, the question essentially is about cost. There may be professors who still object to the calculation of “return on investment” for legal education as somehow crass, but from behind the podium they are not billed for the privilege of being in the room. A scholarship, which is common now as it was not even a decade ago, alters the balance significantly. For some people, legal education can be virtually free, and at that price it can be recommended with enthusiasm. (Everyone should have a bit of legal education, to be a responsible citizen within a diverse democracy. That’s why we require a civics primer in high school. Legal education need not be reduced to the J.D. Increasingly, in business school there is an elective on business law; in medical school, on health law; and so on.)

Third, the question also contains, as all questions of this nature, an assessment of risk. The person who is looking at law school has to wonder how she will do. That involves a prediction that, since she is a human being, will be distorted by optimism bias. Without that tendency to hope most people would not rise from bed in the morning. The disappointment, sliding into embitterment, of so many recent graduates has to do with the deviation between expectations and outcomes. The truth is most law school graduates are employed. Yet they may well be underemployed relative to their credentials.  Their grievances are well founded. They cannot but be heeded. They reflect the anxieties about the hard edge of global competition.

The individual who already has an accounting degree, STEM degree, or relevant work experience will be fine; the demand remains high and will be for the foreseeable future for lawyers who blend another technical skill with their legal analysis (unless they do not wish to take advantage of their advantage). A person who was a marginal applicant for the lucrative roles she sought before law school might well discover herself a marginally better candidate after law school, except she also will have taken on a significant debt burden.

All that said, law school is not unique. It’s similar to anything else you buy. You have to need it or at least want it with a plan to use it. If you neither need it nor want it (with a plan to use it), you shouldn’t make the purchase. Even the rich regret consuming some luxury goods, especially if there cannot be any refund. Liberal arts education, except at the most prestigious institutions — which are selling much more than the content of courses — is subject to the same concerns. A diploma can be displayed, but if it has not paid off then it turns into an embarrassment.

The trouble is that law school somehow became a default, a fallback. People who in fact had no great wish for it were told it would enable them to do everything. Since that shibboleth was repeated by members of the bar who had developed a modicum of eloquence, too many were enticed into an occupation that was not for them.

For someone who wants to be a lawyer, who is given financial support, and who is realistic about what being an attorney involves, law school is a fine choice. But for someone who has doubts, they should be directed to expend their energies on other pursuits.

Choose wisely, my friend.