Recently I offered a post that tried to clarify some important misunderstandings of my earlier June 20 post. The June 20 post had remarked on how the graduate academy in the liberal arts had fallen prey to the same motivated perception to which some in the legal academy have also succumbed—namely, that the tens of thousands of recent law grads unable to get a genuinely law-related job were just not making proper use of their law degrees (or alternatively really were making proper use of their degrees but didn’t know it). The moral of the story, I suppose, is self-interest’s insidious power to quietly overwhelm any bulwark we try to erect against it, not least reason, good intentions, education, and most if not all of the Ten Commandments.
I explained in my last post that there are essentially three ways to think about the relationship between a course of graduate or professional study and any employment the prospective student may obtain after graduation. One way is to posit that, for you, there is no relationship, and you are pursuing the course of study for its own sake without expectation of any practical benefit when you’re done beyond whatever enlightenment the education may confer. This is perfectly valid, but highly personal and idiosyncratic, and not typical of the ordinary person. The second way of thinking about the relationship between professional study and postgraduate employment is that there must be a relationship between the two such that the education is justified by the worldly benefits that it creates. I suggested (based on analysis in my forthcoming empirical study of the job market for new lawyers) that this Practical Justification Test is met if either the postgraduate position requires the degree as a condition of employment, or the course of study provides dramatic and substantial advantages in obtaining or performing the job not more easily obtainable or substitutable (whether in nature or extent) another way. If the job doesn’t meet this test, then there is a quicker or easier way to achieve the same or equivalent benefits, and the course of study wasn’t worth it.
The third way of thinking about the relationship between graduate or professional study and postgraduate employment is, as I put it yesterday, that the course of study transforms you into such a Smokin’ Bucketful of Awesome that the degree alone routinely opens doors to countless jobs unrelated to the course of study that would otherwise be closed to you, or that you will be so much better at whatever you do that the degree is a Rocket to Success at almost anything. That is a palpably unrealistic description of a law degree (or pretty much any other graduate or professional degree) that nevertheless can be heard among some law deans and admissions officers today.
In response to the post, I received a comment from an admissions officer at a good Midwestern law school that deserves serious consideration and a detailed response. The admissions officer suggests, in addition to the three ways I advanced, “a fourth way to think about the relationship between seeking an advanced degree and the employment a student may obtain afterward”:
I think many students see the versatility of the law degree as a form of risk insurance. Their intent in attending law school may be to practice law and they'd be disappointed not to. But if they don't find “traditional” legal employment, they still might be able to make use of their law degree. It's common to run into law graduates who have ended up outside of traditional legal practice, but in a field for which the JD has some benefit. Is it wrong to point to such outcomes? I think this could be valid in the PhD realm too. I think for most people it would be foolish to pursue a history PhD if their primary goal was to become a high school history teacher. But is it helpful for the candidate to know that if they can't find a tenure track position at a university, that PhD may still be useful for a high school teacher to land a position at a higher paying school district, or become department head ahead of other faculty? So while it may be overselling to say that a PhD is perfect for someone seeking to become a high school teacher, or a JD is perfect for someone looking to do compliance, I think it's fair to point out to prospective students that these degrees might be beneficial in ways that are not obvious. [Paragraph breaks omitted.]
Because this comment cogently describes a view not uncommon in the legal academy today, it deserves careful assessment. Is this “fourth way” a constructive perspective on whether to pursue a law degree? With all respect to everyone involved, as proposed above and typically presented it is an unacceptably incomplete and often misleading portrayal.
Let me explain why. In broadest (dare I say philosophical) perspective, the path you walk from where you stand right now can go any number of different ways. Having gone a ways down whatever path you choose, you will gain a perspective that you didn’t have at the time you chose the path that got you there. Sometimes that perspective will be one you anticipated when you chose the path; sometimes it won’t. This is really just another way of saying that most of us get wiser as we get older simply because we have the benefit of more experience over time.
To be sure, some of us make better use of our experience than others, but pretty much no matter what path you choose, you will reach a vantage point for which you will discover uses that you might not have enjoyed if you had chosen a different path. And this is true even if you make bad choices. Our prisons contain fair numbers of people who, having made very bad choices, will tell you quite genuinely that they have learned a lot as a result (and I don’t mean this in any ironic or cynical sense; sometimes the lessons we are forced to learn the hard way are the ones that teach us the most). This is not, of course, a reason for anyone to start committing felonies; it’s simply an illustration of the fact that it is quintessentially human to learn and grow. Thus, for anyone open to the benefits of experience—and that describes most of us much of the time—even the worst life choices we make usually teach us lessons with real value. Or as some of my older Yiddish-speaking relatives were prone to remark in times of failure or disappointment, “It shouldn’t be a total loss.”
Let’s apply this insight (assuming you can dignify it with that title) to the decision whether to buy a particular car, a decision many of us have faced at one time or another. The used-car salesman is touting the value and utility of the car, assuring you it has everything you need to take you where you want to go. You are understandably worried that the car may not live up to your needs. One thing that the used-car salesman does not say is, “No worries, pal. You should buy this car because, even if the engine implodes the minute you drive off the lot, the smoking pile of scrap that’s left will have measurable salvage value.” We generally don’t buy cars for their salvage value, especially when any car you buy will have salvage value if it can’t serve the purpose you actually bought it for.
I’m hoping an analogy to the decision whether to attend law school is emerging. If you have your wits about you, you consider whether to go to law school taking into account the likelihood that the degree will take you where you want to go—at the very least, a job that justifies that course of study under the Practical Justification Test set out above (and that includes both Bar Passage Required and, properly defined, JD Advantaged jobs as far as I’m concerned). But what if the car (degree) blows up the minute you drive it off the lot (graduate)? And what if the car costs $150,000, and there’s a 50-50 chance (or worse) that’s it’s going to blow up as soon as you hit the open road? What’s the value of what’s left? Should you buy a law degree for its salvage value? (And to anticipate an objection to the car-buying analogy, yes, we sometimes do consider resale rather than salvage value when we buy cars. But when we do, we are assuming that the car under consideration, like the other cars we might buy instead, will serve its intended purpose and take us where we want to go for as long as we want to keep it, thus assuring that it actually has resale value. When a law degree fails to get us a job that really meets the Practical Justification Test, that’s a car-wreck, and salvage value is all that’s available. Put slightly differently, you can’t resell your law degree, though some have tried; if it fails of its essential purpose, all you can do is salvage your career.)
The more subtle student of the dismal science would point out that whether you buy a law degree for its salvage value should ultimately depend on (a) the likelihood the car will actually blow up when you leave the lot; and (b) what that salvage value is relative to the return you could get from investments of your time and money other than buying the car. Fair enough. There are some serious uncertainty and measurement problems in addressing these questions, but we do know something.
Considering first the odds of an immediate car-wreck: Based on the empirical analysis in my forthcoming article, the average student starting law school last fall has perhaps a 60% chance of getting any job upon graduation that meets the Practical Justification Test described above. Of course, that chance varies quite substantially depending on the student: A highly qualified student attending a highly prestigious institution has more than a 90% chance of getting a job that justifies the course of study. A marginally qualified student at an unranked law school in a saturated market might have a 30% chance or less. So a realistic assessment of your prospects—based on hard, objective evidence like the placement statistics at the school you’re considering, your LSAT, and your undergraduate GPA—is essential. Law school is a much better bet for some than it is for others.
What about salvage value? Here is where the wish is all too often father to the thought. Law-school apologists assume very high salvage value for a law degree. They express this assumption by positing both a broad range of non-law-related jobs for which the degree provides access not available without it, and a broad range of invaluable practical and performance-related benefits that the critical reasoning skills we teach in law school provide in almost any job. Unfortunately, there is simply no empirical evidence that either of these assumed benefits exists for the typical person in any measure substantially greater than could be achieved by paths other than law school that require much less time and money. If you’re going to be unemployed (as a double-digit percentage of recent law graduates are), you’re probably better off unemployed without three wasted years and $150,000 in debt. If you get a job you could pretty much as likely have gotten without the law degree (high-school civics teacher; paralegal), you need to think about the difference between what you would learn in three years on that job without any education expense compared to where you are just starting that same job after a very expensive three years.
So does a law degree have any salvage value? Undoubtedly. Is that salvage value materially greater than what you could get (and the costs you could avoid) doing something else for three years instead of law school? There’s no evidence that it is for many if not most people. And to make things worse, it stands to reason that precisely those law graduates who are most likely to find their law degree failing its essential purpose (which is getting them genuinely law-related jobs) are least likely to achieve good salvage values.
But the key point here is that it’s not enough to say that a law degree has some salvage value. You need to compare that salvage value with how well off you might be if you did something else, or nothing. And that’s where the serious problem with our Midwestern admission officer’s justification emerges in high relief. Slip a generic law-school admissions officer into our hypothetical in place of the used-car salesman. One thing you won’t hear the admissions officer say is:
No worries, pal. It’s true that, considering our school and your credentials, you have less than a 50% chance of obtaining a job for which your law degree will be a necessary or a very important and directly applicable qualification. But you will learn things, and from time to time you’ll find some of those things relevant or even useful in some job unrelated to your education. Of course, I can’t promise you that what you might learn doing something other than law school—something for which an employer might pay you instead of you paying us tuition—wouldn’t prove to be roughly as relevant or useful. So are you in?
In other words, touting the salvage value of a law degree as “a form of risk insurance” without offering a clear-eyed assessment of how likely it is that the risk insurance will be needed, what its coverage limits are, and how cheaply you could get the same benefit another way is inexcusably incomplete. It’s a failure to accept the difference between a Smokin’ Bucketful of Awesome and smoking pile of scrap.