The Wall Street Journal Law Blog recently noted an academic paper by Sherman Clark on the value of law school as a “liberal arts” style degree, that is, finding worth in its potential contribution to helping one “live a full and satisfying and meaningful life,” as Clark put it.
Professor Clark acknowledges that “talk about liberal education in the face of concrete realities…warrants skepticism.” But I am not sure why he feels the need to reframe the question in the first place. The problem, it seems to me, has never been coming up with reasons why a legal education has value, but whether it has value—for each student—sufficient to justify its substantial financial cost and continuing debt obligation.
Being a lawyer may be a vocation for some, but it is an investment for all. Every potential “investor” must undertake their own analysis to decide whether law school is a good investment for him/her. This means: gathering information (which as we’ve learned, means not just buying into what the school brochures are selling, but doing your own due diligence and asking questions), preparing for the LSAT and getting your best score, putting together your strongest law school admissions package, and undertaking your own analysis of your options, your personal economic realities, and realistic career opportunities after graduation.
I spend a lot of time with my clients in my admissions and application program poring over employment information that we have extracted from law schools and working to maximize the possibilities of post-law school employment. That work is part of the admissions package, but doesn’t involve an additional charge, so if I thought I could do a responsible job for clients while skipping that step, I would—more time at the beach! I’m grateful that Professor Clark gives me a reason to spend more time in the sun, but I will decline it.
I am the first to say that a vital part of that analysis is considering your motivations, your goals, and the grander questions of why you want to be a lawyer, or at least, why you believe getting a legal education will enrich your life. This is the area where Clark’s argument might be useful. However, it should not, on its own, distract from a potential law student’s larger analysis. Nor should it deter the law school industry from its much-needed search for answers to the more important values to current law students, law graduates, and prospective law students: employability and affordability. After all, graduates with crushing debt might feel their investment detracts (in more ways than one) from, rather than enriches, their lives.
The danger, of course, in justifying a legal education as a philosophical quest alone is similar to that in justifying the liberal arts undergraduate degree as such, only perhaps more distilled: finding leisure time to explore the “meaning in life,” through much of history, has largely been the province of the well-to-do. Arts & sciences tend to advance when civilizations have abundance (and free time), and individually, leisure accrues most to those who have more. The danger in valuing such arguments at the expense of others —i.e., that law school should make one employable, or that law school should be practically affordable—is that the majority of people who can take advantage might be the wealthy and privileged. Even today, those who might be able to afford four years (on scholarship or with work study and financial aid) toward earning a liberal arts undergraduate degree may be hard-pressed to fund 3 more years at equal, or likely much higher, tuition to further that quest for its own sake. Unless, of course, cost (and employment) is not a significant concern.
That is not to say that those from a higher tax bracket make bad lawyers! Far from it. But for the legal profession to function as it should in our society, it must encompass diverse perspectives and a range of interests and talents. And if only a small percentage of students can afford to pursue a degree without reference to its cost or future debt obligation, that goal slides further away.
So it is useful for potential law students to consider the value of law school as a liberal arts degree, but like everything else, it must be considered in context. And for most of us, that includes its ability to help you make a living without crushing you under the relentless gears of debt.