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.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 16, 2010.

14 Responses to “What’s Missing in All the Analysis of the Legal Employment Market and the Advisability of Entering Law School”

  1. I think aspiring doctors and actors have a more realistic view going in. I’ve never considered med school, but I know ER doctors and general practitioners don’t make a ton of money, that medical school is incredibly demanding, and you’re going to end up self-medicating to make it through 48 hour shifts.

    As for actors, I think most people going out to Hollywood know they’re going to be catering for a long time. Actors in NY though…they all seem incredibly delusional about their skill, attractiveness, career prospects, politics, the weather, train schedules, pretty much everything really.

  2. As a graduate of a top-15 law school who doesn’t practice, I agree wholeheartedly that the most important factor for those considering law school should be figuring out what they hope to get out of their law degree and how the likely outcomes will fit with their personality and ambitions. Many of my more level-headed classmates felt a fundamental disconnect with certain aspects of our adversarial litigation system and the various rationalizations behind it.

    Others found themselves more interested in the substantive
    economic, policy or business details underlying many areas of law, rather than the law itself. Perhaps they would have been happier getting a masters in a relevant policy, economics, or business program. Many felt trapped by debt and didn’t have the substantive skills to get a position working in another non-law field, so they became lawyers.

    As far as your remark about people in other programs knowing what they want to do, I don’t think that is necessarily true. I saw a statistic in 2007 that 2/3 of all electrical and computer engineering graduates do not spend any significant amount of time working in their field, despite spending 4-5 years on a degree tailored mostly just to their field. K-12 teaching also has high turnover. Many people get masters degrees in fields like psychology, sociology, english literature, and history, yet don’t work in any position requiring those degrees. The difference there is that many of those programs are shorter (e.g. 1 year) and often do not have the crushing tuition of law school. Because those degrees don’t have a reputation for great earnings potential or great prestige, people going into the programs do so without those expectations, perhaps for more intrinsic reasons.

    • Thanks very much for this very thoughtful comment. The disconnect of many of your colleagues with the adversarial world of litigation raises an important point, in my opinion. Law schools, as you well know, are very case-law intensive, one effect of which is to narrow students’ perpectives to litigation. In my own case, I found out very early on (as a summer associate after my first year of law school) that, for a lot of reasons, I didn’t love litigation. Consequently I became a corporate lawyer, specifically an M&A lawyer. I had a great time doing that but it was an initial shock to my system when I realized a few days into my new practice that law school had not prepared me, even a little, for that practice.

      In addition, as I noted in my July 10 post, law schools and others don’t adequately develop the myriad of skills that any beginning lawyer (including new litigators) will need. Law schools focus on intellectual tasks (and only some of them) but there is so much more to being a lawyer. That’s why the “deep background” of all Advise-In programs, from LSAT preparation on, is developing skills that will help our clients be better lawyers. Accordingly, I appreciate very much your efforts to open the eyes of prospective lawyers; if that means some get off the track, that’s a win for their happiness. And those who do become lawyers will be more realistic going in. That’s a win for happiness, too.

  3. I have yet to see a compelling argument for why graduating from law school is a prerequisite (in essentially every state) for practicing law. Admission to the state bar should be test-based. Setting up a bar to limit admission is intentionally selecting for kids willing to sit down, shut up, and pay up.

    • I believe every state has a method by which you can practice without a JD. It’s just that the JD is the most common process, and you’ll get less grief from the state bar that way.

    • A fair point. In the past, law school graduation wasn’t a prerequisite for admission to the bar, as you know. For better or worse and for all practical purposes, it is now, and that’s why it’s so important for future law students to improve their law school prospects (and to have a fully-considered view as to whether the practice of law and law school are right for them).

  4. […]             –have a clear understanding of how much the current weakness—and uncertain future—of the legal hiring market means to you.  That will be influenced in no small measure by what you want after law school; […]

  5. […] The first is to have a clear idea of why you want to be a lawyer and do a lot of background work to find out what lawyers do and, if you have a particular kind of legal practice in mind, what lawyers in that practice do on a day-to-day basis.  I’ve talked about this before. […]

  6. […] second implication is that you should think very carefully about why you want to attend law school.  That thinking should affect what differences in risk and reward you are willing to […]

  7. […] refine—something I’ve said before on this blog: the biggest factor in satisfaction is having realistic expectations going into the job.  And that, in turn, requires a realistic understanding of what people in the […]

  8. […] in opportunity and how much that should concern people based on who they are and what they want (here’s a link to one of those posts).  And I spend a lot of time talking about these issues on our free webinars, with those who avail […]

  9. […] does all this mean for potential law school applicants?  First, you should be clear-headed about why you want to be a lawyer—at current prices, you can’t go just because you think it would be a fun way to spend three […]

  10. […] in opportunity and how much that should concern people based on who they are and what they want (here’s a link to one of those posts). And I spend a lot of time talking about these issues on our free webinars and, on a much more […]

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