Dean Takes on Students in New Jersey Employment Food Fight

This week, The Newark Star-Ledger became a battleground in the tension between law students and their administrations.  First, the Star-Ledger reported on Sunday the identity of “irate” former law student bloggers as graduates of Seton Hall Law School.  By Tuesday, the dean of Rutgers-Newark, John Farmer, had weighed in with a response.

The bloggers are upset, understandably, that their law school debt is crushing in comparison with their slim job prospects.  Dean Farmer responded that legal education, even in this difficult market, has value, and that it is not, “as the comments of some would suggest, an entitlement program.”

Well, first, why is New Jersey the location of this kerfuffle?  It doesn’t have top-ranked law schools, and graduates of mid-tier law schools are among the hardest-hit in this recession, as Ellen Branch, a graduate of a similar school, has pointed out on this blog.  New Jersey is also near several major markets—New York, Philadelphia, DC—and I think it’s likely that students at non-top-tier-but-near-major-market schools most easily misunderstand their employment prospects, even in the best of times (not everyone finishes in the top 5% of their class).  That said, there are similar stories nationwide, from the “hunger strike” graduate in Colorado to the posting of a job for a driver at UCLA law school.

In addition, as we’ve pointed out on the Advise-In website, the average student debt at law schools of every rank is nearly identical, largely because law school tuition is shockingly similar, regardless of the employment prospects that these schools provide.  You don’t pay that much more to go to a top 5 law school than an unranked law school, on average and omitting the possibility of paying in-state tuition.

So, what do we make of Dean Farmer’s assertion of the continuing value of legal education and his comment that law school isn’t an entitlement program?  Well, yes, ok, but those really aren’t the questions.  The issue isn’t whether law school has value but whether it has value—for each student—that justifies its substantial financial cost and continuing debt obligation.  I don’t want to pick a fight with Dean Farmer, but it does seem to me that his rhapsodizing about the virtues of legal service suggest, in the end, that being focused on economics is somehow tawdry.

Maybe it is—for someone with a steady income.  I couldn’t agree more that economics shouldn’t be the only reason to attend law school.  In this market, it’s more important than ever to want to be a lawyer for non-economic reasons.  But that isn’t the same as—at least in the dean’s tone—diminishing the need to pay your bills, including your loans.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, that the dean of an important law school gives little more shrift to students facing a very difficult future than to say, essentially, “we’re trying but you should still come; law school applications are up and all those applicants can’t be wrong.”  Many can be wrong, actually, and that’s the point of the Seton Hall graduate blog.  They think they were wrong.

None of this means law school is a bad investment.  But it is an investment.  And it’s your investment, which is to say that just because it’s a good or bad investment for someone else doesn’t make it the same quality of investment for you.  If you’re considering law school, you should be conscientious in your analysis of what law schools are likely to yield which opportunities, and what opportunities are likely to await you.  You should also be realistic about where you will be likely to finish in your law school class.  And you should do everything you can, within reason, to improve your admissions prospects.  Investing in the best LSAT preparation and law school admission advising you can find is a front-end investment that can pay off in many multiples in just 3 years.  In short, make an investment decision that includes the economics of various likely outcomes, the purposes Dean Farmer emphasizes, why you want to be a lawyer, possible alternative careers, and so on.

I make my living when people decide to go to law school.  On the other hand, I also try to be very deliberate and truthful with prospective clients and I give opinions that are hard for them to hear if their profile makes me think that their view of their prospects is unrealistically rosy.  That’s against my business interest, I guess, but only in the short-term.  For clients, I do the detailed risk/reward/probability analyses that are necessary foundations for any high-quality decision about whether law school is the right option, and the right option now.  There’s simply too much at stake (your future) to be cavalier.  If you have an advisor who is painstaking, great.  If you don’t, you can do the necessary work yourself.  But it’s imperative that it be done.

I don’t fault Dean Farmer for trying to run a law school.  I do wish his response had been more sensitive to the real difficulties that recent graduates of law schools are facing, and hadn’t tried to set off the higher purpose of legal education against the need to put food on the table and cover your obligations.  Those needs and obligations may not be entitlements but when you take out the amount of debt that students do, and pay a whole lot of money to law schools, you do have a right to expect them to feel your pain and maybe—just maybe—be more open about where their graduates (of all class ranks) have landed in the last several years.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on August 26, 2010.

3 Responses to “Dean Takes on Students in New Jersey Employment Food Fight”

  1. […] students believe they’ll beat the odds of a bad legal employment market and law schools’ polyannish view of that market, to say nothing of continued monitoring of the employment market […]

  2. […] ran a close second).  “Entitlement” is the same term that the dean of Rutgers-Newark used last year in a similar statement.  Do law schools share insult your students talking […]

  3. […] 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 […]

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