What’s Missing in All the Analysis of the Legal Employment Market and the Advisability of Entering Law School
A few days ago, Above the Law blogger David Lat, taking on critics of the wisdom of attending law school in the current market for legal hiring (including other Above the Law bloggers), gave a fairly full-throated defense of the continued value of attending law school.
This is exactly the kind of debate that should appear more often, in my view. It is respectful, dignified and without rancor. Would that our political debates regularly featured such restraint and reasonableness.
Both Lat and law school detractors point to most of the factors that prospective law students should consider in making their decisions, which we’ve also discussed on this blog and on our website: a shrinking lawyer hiring market that still contains opportunities (especially for graduates of certain schools), the importance of choosing the right law school, the uncertainty of the legal employment market a few years from now (whether better, worse or about the same as the current market), general economic uncertainty, the cost of law school, likely debt and other opportunity cost incurred to attend, and the flexibility of a law degree.
One difference between what I’ve said on this blog and what many others say is that I’ve never concluded that you’d have to crazy to go to law school or, alternatively, that you should go to law school (Lat doesn’t do that, either, though many do). I can’t imagine that I would ever say either of those things on a blog.
Why is that? What you can say on a good blog (or a magazine or book) is abstract—it’s careful analysis of statistics, trends, etc. Now if you’re a reader of this blog, you know that I’m hardly averse to analyzing statistics and trends, or making certain recommendations on the basis of those analyses. To make good decisions about law school, prospective students people need to have, analyze and understand as much available data as they can from several different angles. And you need to look at the data (to use a philosophically discredited but nonetheless useful term) objectively, that is, good decisions require that you not look only at the data you like or explain away the data you don’t (like those who persisted in thinking credit derivatives were not risky because, well, conceptually they couldn’t be).
But no collection of the type of data bandied about on the net and in newspapers, books, or any other media will get you to your best decision, about law school or virtually anything else. Why not? Because the “data” that’s missing from all this is—you. To reach your best decision, you and your advisors need to apply the available data to your situation.
One application is straightforward. You and/or your law school admission advisor can create spreadsheets of your financial situation, likely admissions profile, best and worst case (and in-between) analyses of where you’re likely to be in 3 or more years if you attend w school (as opposed to an alternative career path), obtain x grade point average, incur y debt to do it, and the legal employment market (or other relevant market) is in z condition. Doing that work is necessary, time-consuming and sometimes a little complicated—but mostly it’s quantifiable.
What isn’t quantifiable is desire—even less quantifiable is that your desires change over time. What do you want from law school? I find that this is the thing most ignored by entering law students. But it’s the most important thing, not necessarily to have made a final decision about, but to know what the likely outcomes are and how they are likely to fit with your personality and ambitions.
I don’t know of another area into which so many people enter—and spend a great deal of money to do so—with so little consideration of what they want and the match between what they want and what the degree offers. Most people who go to engineering school or divinity school have a pretty good idea of what they want to be when they grow up. Less so with law school, though there are many who are very clear.
That’s not because people going to law school are particularly unconscious or know themselves less well than your average software designer. It’s not a moral problem or intellectual problem. Paradoxically, I think a lot of it comes back to a lack of data. It’s hard to think about whether you and a future profession are a good fit if you don’t know what being that kind of professional involves.
If there’s any profession in which misinformation and false romanticism are as rampant as in law, I don’t know what it is (maybe doctors or actors would disagree). The bottom line is that most people going to law school simply don’t know what lawyers do—their information is from the media or people trying to sell them on law school and law, including very well-intentioned family and friends. And you can’t make a well-informed decision, whatever the economic and career-potential cost/benefit analyses say, about whether a career is right for you without understanding what practitioners of that career actually do on a day-in, day-out basis.
All of the data and analysis, whether from Lat, me, or others is very important. No question about that. But it doesn’t help you get to your best decision until you’ve done hard work of self-reflection and hard data analysis and, most important, made some headway in determining whether you and the law (or other career that a top-flight law degree can facilitate) are a good match. And that requires not only self-knowledge but realistic knowledge of what professionals actually do, not what a romanticized image of them tells you they do. The best way to find that out: talk to first-rate professionals who do or did the kind of job you think you might want to do and who know you (or will take the time to get to know you) well.