How a Responsible Law School Should Act: Yale Law Director of Admissions Fires Friendly “Warning Shots” to Applicants

As the last installment in her entertaining and informative “P.S. Boot Camp” blog series, Asha Rangappa, Associate Dean at Yale Law School, did something that representatives of every credible law school should do.  It’s not that Yale is the only school to have done it, and it’s not just that I’m proud of my alma mater for doing it (though I am).  Rangappa asks applicants to hesitate for a moment before hitting “send” on their applications, to reflect on whether they’re sure that law school and—for most—the law are the paths they want to pursue.

Others, including a few law schools, publications such as Above the Law, Steven Harper’s Belly of the Beast blog, Advise-In’s blog, and a lot of news media have made similar points.  (There’s also a lot of fiery anti-law school rhetoric that is more heat than light.)

But it’s hard for honest brokers to emphasize too much that an investment in law school is serious business—so I’ll say it again.  And it’s nice to see that some law schools, too, don’t think that the motto of the law schools should be “student beware, thanks for the cash, and good luck to you.”

There are basic principles here.  Law school is an investment of time and money in your future.  I know that there are a lot of terrible (and often well-paid) investment advisors out there whose advice never seems to change (Jim Cramer seems to always be upbeat, and Fidelity always says to invest for the long-term but, at all times, send some money to us).  Ditto with the public perception of law schools and, sad to say, a lot of consultants to pre-law students.

But this is a fundamentally different time.  Shouldn’t the advice you’re getting now be different now than it would have been in 2005?  Here are some reasons why the answer is yes.

1.  Jobs are scarcer than they were a few years ago.  The number of legal jobs may or may not increase in the next few years but it’s very unlikely that the easy transition to a career that was possible for many during most of the last 20 years will return anytime soon.

2.  There are more law school applicants, and that trend is expected to continue.  That means that your LSAT score, GPA and law school application package have to be better now than they needed to be even a few years ago if you want to secure comparable opportunities (even without accounting for the reduction in those opportunities).  Selectivity has increased.

3.  Law school graduates have significantly different opportunities depending on their school and class rank, but except at the very elite positions on the scale, everyone’s opportunities are (and will probably continue to be) fewer and harder to find than they were for graduates in the first part of the last decade.  But the institution granting your J.D. matters even more than it used to (and it always mattered).

4.  The debt that law students incur will be virtually identical irrespective of which law school they attend, on average.  Combined with the significantly different average career trajectories that law schools offer, that means that there are some law school investments that are very likely to pay off, some very unlikely, and some that are harder to judge in advance.

5.  Tuitions continue to rise.

6.  Law schools are not universally forthcoming about these changes.  My clients often attend one or more of the many law fairs around the country.  Some of the preliminary questions we often decide my client will ask are a few general questions about the impact of the downturn in the economy and the legal market.  They’re usually soft questions—we’ll ask the harder ones later.  So far this year, the answers have been disappointing, although not surprising—no law school so far has been willing to face or admit to any impact of the economic crash.  That law schools (even elite ones) have not seen any impact simply isn’t and can’t be true.  For example, highly-ranked Georgetown Law’s extension of its program (which is a worthy one, and not common enough) to help its recent graduates through a difficult time simply wasn’t necessary 5 years ago.  It is now.  The law fair lesson is pretty straightforward: law school is a business and most won’t admit that the world has changed.  So law school applicants will have to look harder and dig deeper than they might otherwise, simply because the impact of a bad law school investment is more devastating than it might have been a few years ago.  A few things that prospective law students might do to help their own inquiries can be found here.

7.  Finally, even if you can get some comfort that you’ll have a financially secure career after law school, you have to know that you want to be a lawyer.  That’s always been the best advice but the current economic situation makes it at least a little more important.  You may well have less job security than you would have 10 years ago, and because of increases in tuition and likely corresponding increases in debt level, you may have less career flexibility (translated as, gee, I really didn’t like this as much as I thought I would, so I’ll change gears).

Rangappa is clear: she wants people applying to Yale.  I’ll be equally honest: I like clients.  But what I really like is happy clients, and I’m pretty sure that what Yale Law really likes is happy graduates.  So, the desire to have applicants and clients isn’t “regardless of consequences.”  It’s worth pausing before you hit “send” to decide whether you’ve thought enough about who you are, what you want, and what your realistic prospects are.  It’s even better—together with advisors who have been through the process, who know what the practice of law is actually like and who can help you carefully analyze the current legal market—to have thought about these things for a lot longer.

The effect of all this hand-wringing isn’t to say that law school is a scam, that schools are ripping off students, that the investment is a terrible one and you should do something else.  It is to say that the latter two are true for some students attending some schools.  (Yes, it’s a “warning shot,” to warn that a minefield may be ahead.)  For others, law school (at least some law schools) remains a good investment in a satisfying career.  It’s a good idea to be confident that you’re in the second group before you press the button.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on October 30, 2010.

One Response to “How a Responsible Law School Should Act: Yale Law Director of Admissions Fires Friendly “Warning Shots” to Applicants”

  1. […] until someone makes them, there’s no economic reason for them to do so.  Indeed, it’s even difficult to get law schools to acknowledge that their graduates have had any trouble at all getting high-quality jobs in the last several […]

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