Unrealistic Self-Assessments a Factor in Rise in Law School Applications?

There’s been a lot of press, some of it here and on our website, about the continuing rise in law school applications at a time when the economy and the legal market are troubled.  There’s always been a mismatch in linking current applications and the current legal market; after all, for entering law students, the first key benchmark for the state of the legal employment market is their second year of law school.  The current economy isn’t necessarily a great proxy for that future market, it’s just the basis on which one makes reasonable assessments of what that future might hold.

But the underlying concern of the legal press still seems to be the right one—if I can be allowed to read the subtext, it’s that prospective law students may not be thinking through the implications of their decision to go to law school now and have expectations that are unrealistic about their prospects once they graduate from law school.

In the category of unrealistic expectations, a recent survey of 330 prelaw students found that while 53% were very confident they would land a legal job after graduation, only 16% had the same confidence level that fellow graduates would do so.  Now, that’s a very small survey and may be completely unreliable and just plain misleading, so I don’t want to focus on the size of the gap.  But it’s a pretty well-know social-scientific principle that people tend to overestimate their own prospects while underestimating those of similarly-situated persons.  That helps to explain (along with a lot of other factors) why people stay in markets too long, underestimate the risks of unhealthy behaviors, and so on.

Needless to say, if you have a median of any group, half are above the median and half below it.  We are not living in a Lake Wobegon world in which everyone is above average (let’s not be picky about the difference between a median and an average).  If most people are overestimating their prospects relative to the legal market, the result will be, eventually and inevitably, a lot of disappointed, unhappy and indebted people who will feel blindsided when reality finally arrives.

One problem for prospective law students is finding people who can help them arrive at an honest, accurate judgment of where they stand relative to their peers and, therefore, what their likely prospects are.  Law schools generally don’t do this.  They tell a truth if the admissions answer is “no” but any law school that says “yes” isn’t likely to emphasize limitations on the value of the degree they’re asking that student to pay six figures to receive.  Parents and friends?  Often, they just aren’t that well-informed.  Other advisors?  It depends on the advisor.  It’s a crucial component of my job to give clients an assessment of probabilities and realistic prospects at each point along the way, from law school admissions through to initial employment out of law school. Those assessments aren’t just the right thing to do; where a client is situated changes every element of our approach and strategy.  I know some pre-law advisors who feel exactly the same way.  I know other institutional and private advisors who don’t.

Absent an advisor whose knowledge of you and the market you trust, there’s a lot of information on this blog and in the legal press generally that can help you as an entering law student or a current law student assessing your likely employment prospects.  But it is crucial that you accurately assess the hard data—your scores, GPA, past experience, strength of references, etc., on your side of the ledger, and external market forces (including your peers), on the other side of the ledger.  Don’t assume you’re special in any way; as a first step, just look at where the hard data most likely put you.  It’s overestimating the “intangibles” or using them as an escape hatch that frequently leads to inaccurate assessments of personal prospects.  After you’ve located yourself on a spectrum of hard data, then ask yourself if there are factors that differentiate you—both positively and negatively—from the general statistical group you’re in.  And be very cautious about how much weight you give to those intangibles, unless you have very specific reasons for weighting them heavily.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 20, 2010.

One Response to “Unrealistic Self-Assessments a Factor in Rise in Law School Applications?”

  1. […] at a bottom-tier law school as at a top 5 law school), the fact that most prospective law students believe they’ll beat the odds of a bad legal employment market and law schools’ polyannish view of that market, to say […]

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