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March 03, 2013


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"And if you want to be a lawyer it does not seem that evaluating this decision solely in market terms captures all that that means."

Of course you shouldn't make any important life decision based solely in market terms, but the problem with law school is that (i) the cost is so high, and (ii) the prospects are so tenuous that market considerations are of paramount importance.

It doesn't matter how much recent grads really, really wanted to be a lawyer, there simply weren't enough jobs to go around, and the many of the jobs that were available didn't pay enough to allow for a even a comfortable middle-class life.

Tamara Piety

I hear you Dean. And I think that is more true than it used to be. But the whole scamblogger thing notwithstanding this is simply not true across the board. If you have good scores, you get a fair amount of financial aid you go to a moderately priced school, this can still be the right decision. However, the rub is, even if you get all those things right, there is still no guarantee that at the end of the experience you will want to practice law. So I guess I am saying that potential students should take into account that there is a great deal of uncertainty here.

A Librarian

The problem with some/many/most(?) young people who "really want to be lawyers" is that some/many/most(?) have no idea what "really being a lawyer" entails. Their emotional and personal values reasons are largely informed by pop cultural representations of the law, not any realistic knowledge of legal practice. If you were given a dollar for every high school student who upon completing To Kill A Mockingbird, "really wanted to be a lawyer" ... well, you'd retire a rich woman.


There are a lot of social and external pressures that go into the decision to go to law school. It is seen by parents, relatives, friends of parents, undergrad advisers, and others as at least a sign that you are moving towards real-adulthood, as opposed to the semi-adulthood of college or a few years in the the unpaid or lowly-paid workforce. In certain circles of highly educated young people it seems to be one of a very few acceptable paths out of undergrad. In my experience becoming a lawyer holds a certain emotional value that is distinct from the belief in the degree's has market value.

The decision to go to law school also gets harder and harder to walk away from the further you progress past the initial decision point- I expect in the same way it is very hard to give a child up for adoption even if the father abandons the mother midway through the pregnancy. The logical decision for many students might be to drop out if their 1L grades mean they are not competitive for the kind of jobs that will allow them to pay back their debt in a reasonable time and still live comfortably. Some might say that students are just looking at the numbers and have determined that finishing the degree still works out to a net positive investment. I think the sunk cost fallacy and the social stigma against dropping out play a larger role.

It seems that there are two questions: to what extent is student decision making driven by a cold analysis of a set of facts versus emotional or personal considerations? If students all possess perfectly accurate information and are analyzing that information properly, then maybe there isn't a problem that law schools can address. If not, then do law schools and law professors have an obligation to inform or enlighten potential students?

For example, if you met an applicant who thought "hey, I wouldn't be satisfied with the job prospects most students have from this school, especially because I am debt financing the entire cost. But I just plan to live in the library and score in the top 10% of the class and get a job as a corporate lawyer making 160K." What would you advise that student?

Unemployed Northeastern


And what if you live or wish to practice in a part of the country where there are no moderately priced schools? New England is a fine example. As most everyone knows, law firms hire locally when they aren't hiring HYSCCN grads, and even UCONN and unaccredited UMASS cost more than $100,000 in-state just from tuition and principalized interest, to say nothing of living expenses, bar expenses, and undergrad debt. Each of the SIX law schools in Boston / Cambridge cost more than $200,000 when interest is included (Harvard and Northeastern sticker closer to $250,000 with that interest). U of Maine might be nominally less expensive, but there are no jobs in Maine (it's actually one of the poorest states in the country) and their grads don't fare well in Boston. The other schools - Quinnipiac, Roger Williams, Western New England, Vermont, and Franklin Pierce nee UNH - are expensive and have generally poor outcomes. Given that Massachusetts is the fifth or sixth largest legal market in the country, depending on the metric, this is no small issue - and let's not forget that nearly four people pass the bar in Massachusetts for every legal job (it's about 2500 to 700). Throw in the other five states, and you have a small but noticeable plurality of the country. In fact, with relatively few exceptions like CUNY, one can expand this problem to encompass the entire Bos-Wash corridor, which would account for a large plurality of legal jobs in America. Just food for thought.

Edward X. Clinton

This is a good comment. Sometimes people go to law school for reasons other than pure economics. Others go to obtain a prestigious credential. That being said, most people go to school to get a job. Those who have suffered long-term unemployment or who have never gained entry into the profession have suffered greatly. This is the problem of the profession. How can we make the law school experience less costly so those who are rejected by the market are able to move on with their lives.

Edward X. Clinton, Jr.


I agree that most people attend law school to gain the credentials to obtain gainful employment, hopefully in an area they are passionate about. So, it's really an investment of time and money in exchange for the opportunity to work and debt. But there is a financial literacy problem in this country, especially among young people. Very few young people read financial, business, or labor news. Very few people read the business and law section of their local newspaper or even the scamblogs. So, they don't understand the labor market or the debt they are taking o.

So, in essence you have a bunch of financially illerate people being told by law schools that everything is rosy.

Since law school is an investment, law schools should be required to disclose the risks and downsides such as your suggestion that applicants be told "You know a lot of people find they don't like practicing law, especially in the sector in which the compensation makes it most likely for you to be able to comfortably handle your student loan debt" or "there's a strong chance you will not find a law job at all."

Because for many law students the paper their J.D. Degree is written on is backed up by nothing but the blue sky. But, nobody explicitly told them to be careful or that there are downsides.

Tamara Piety

@unemployed. You raise a good question for which I don't have any good answers while we are waiting for some relief of the debt problem or for the market to improve. But it may be that in order to get jobs people who are able to move (that is there is not some reason like caring for elderly parents or a spouse who is not mobile, etc) need to think about moving. I know when I moved from the Midwest, where I grew up, to South Florida where I spent most of my adult life, I never had any intention of leaving there. And I am a member of the Florida bar. But I knew that when I went on the teaching market I could end up anywhere. I fervently prayed it wouldn't be somewhere too cold, but certainly never imagined I'd end up in Tulsa. But aside from no ocean and still more snow than I'd like I found I love it here. I loved lots of things about practicing law and a few things I miss, but I love what I do more than I need to do it in a particular location. Still, I realize a lot of people are not in that situation. I think your region, the Northeast corridor has been the hardest hit and thus folks are suffering the most; and the fact that the cost of living is high in many of the largest cities makes it even harder. But it might be worth trying to expand the search (if you can) to other cities. Surprisingly enough we have something like that problem in Tulsa because while only about half of our students are from Oklahoma, more than half want to stay here, so our placement folks often urge people to think beyond Tulsa to Houston or Kansas City or other places they haven't considered. None of what I say with respect to addressing the immediate problem however should be construed as saying there isn't a larger structural problem which I hope can be solved or at least ameliorated for those hardest hit. It sounds like you are one of those and I sincerely hope something materializes for you soon.

Tamara Piety

@bored. I think you have a lot of great insights and are exactly right about the sunk costs problem and the very many complicated reasons people come to law school, some better than others. And those worse reasons are worse than ever. As to the last part of your post and your question, when I talk to prospective students (which I only do occasionally since that is not is really my core job) I do ask why they want to go to law school and warn them it is not for everyone. We very rarely get anyone who thinks they are going to make that kind of money out of law school and a lot of our students are looking to do small to medium, or even solo practice, or come to law school to work in the oil or energy business, not intending to practice law (those landman jobs is energy companies are some of the most highly compensated ($100,000 and up) even though they are only "JD preferred." But if anyone seemed to be thinking that law school is a ticket to riches, I try to talk them out if it. I can't do much if they don't believe me. And I do say, "This is not for everyone" (which would be true even if it were free, and is especially true since it is anything but!) Every now and then I encounter someone who is really unhappy their first year and comes to me for advice. I cou sled one young man to drop out after his first year. he has never regretted it, thanks me often and stays in touch many years later. He ended up pursuing a graduate degree in something else and I doubt he makes as much as he might have as a lawyer, but he seems happy with his choice. Another student, a young woman, wanted to do public interest, but after her first year just felt alienated by law. She felt law was not for her and she couldn't do the work she wanted to do. She took a year off, but ultimately came back and is now practicing law as a public interest lawyer. And as far as I can tell, she seems happy she decided to come back. When I talk to friends or acquaintances whose children are contemplating law school I usually tell them to take a coup,e of years off and work somewhere before attempting law school. It will give you a better perspective, and something to compare the practice of law to, as well as giving you general work-related skills that will help you in law practice. However, at the end of the day these are adults. I can't tell them what to do. And I sure don't want to talk someone out of a lifelong dream, if that is what would really make them happy. It is just so hard to know for sure in advance, for all the reasons in the post, and the additional excellent observations you make.


One relatively straightforward way to better understand what lawyers do and test the waters is to work as a paralegal for a year or so. I did it and at least a handful of my classmates at YLS had done it too, in part I think to give ourselves a reality check after a liberal arts education and little practical experience. It doesn't help convey the message that some won't get jobs, but it's a more effective way of gleaning, as you put it, "a lot of people find they don't like practicing law, especially in the sector in which the compensation makes it most likely for you to be able to comfortably handle your student loan debt." For me at least, I got a pretty solid sense of what big firm lawyers do every day and what their lives are like.

Unemployed Northeastern


Even becoming a paralegal is no easy task these days. The requirements obviously vary quite a bit from firm to firm, but I have seen listings in Boston require an Ivy League undergraduate degree for their paralegals,* and I know of several recent alums from my undergrad school (NESCAC, but not Williams or Amherst, which really stand apart from the others for job prospects) that have been completely unsuccessful at that task. Of course, the recent scuttlebutt is that my NESCAC alma mater now gets fewer on-campus recruiters than the local community college. Sign of the times.

@ Tamara,

Thanks for the kind words, but I am now quite firmly entrenched in the long-term unemployment camp, and that simply eradicates any good thing in life I may have accomplished. Whatever niggling benefit my education may have once afforded me has long since evaporated. As one of the cheekier professors on the Chronicle of Higher Education has noted, if you are in the job market these days, it is more important these days to have an 800 on your credit score than an 800 on your SAT Math or Verbal. In very broad strokes, once-promising opportunities vanished as I graduated - an event experienced by thousands of my fellow newish attorneys - and now I can get my resume ignored by retail stores as adeptly as law firms offering retail store wages. Once off the employment wagon these days, you are OFF. I recommend Wharton professor Peter Capelli's "Why Good People Can't Find Jobs" for more in this regard. Like many Millennial attorneys, I live only by the grace of my family, read too many books, haunt a few websites, and generally wait to be struck by an asteroid or something. No more money to move to another state than to retire to the Cote d'Azur or Nantucket. I believe it was Samuel Johnson who quipped something along the lines of "Sailing: all of the comforts of prison with the added prospect of drowning." I would modify that aphorism to "Non-elite law schools: all of the prospects of dropping out of high school with the added benefit of six figures of nondischargeable debt."

*Of course, I have also seen IP boutiques in Boston require their applicants to have a PhD in Biochemistry, in addition, of course, to their "top law school" and "top grades" and 8-10 years' practice experience and portable book of business, etc.

John Thompson

As you point out, no one can expect a prospective law student to be entirely rational about his choice to attend law school, any more than one can expect a prospective mother to be entirely rational about her choice to bear and raise a child.

However, one can expect a fertility specialist advising that prospective mother to walk through all the potential for trouble that he sees, in a rational and detached manner. You're forty-two. You've already had four children. You've unknowingly exposed your fetus to high doses of controlled substances during the first weeks of pregnancy. Prenatal testing for birth defects has come back positive, or ambiguous in some way. If that fertility specialist didn't go into great detail about all the issues he foresaw in going forward with that pregnancy, he would have failed in his duty as a provider of care to that prospective mother.

I leave it to you to think about how well law schools advise their prospective students by comparison to the fertility specialist in the example above.


My own view is that a lot of people go to law school because as a society we value white collar professional jobs more highly than blue collar jobs and for liberal arts graduates the choice is very much à défaut de mieux. I do agree that legal drama series and indeed portrayals of lawyers work in cinema focusses on exaggerated and rare action - from these it would seem that everyone is in court 90% of the time and cases run at a dizzying 40 minutes complain/indictment to verdict pace.

The défaut de mieux I think explains why so many lawyers are unhappy in the profession and why some, especially in BigLaw focus on the money they can earn - they are not getting any other compensation from practice in terms of a sense of fulfilment - many are bored by the work which they frequently describe as drudgery. These unhappy lawyers also seem to form the bulk of the screamers among the partners. I cannot avoid adding that the interests of many law professors in "scholarship" that is very very far from law indicates to me that a good few opted for the academic track because they found the law boring too.

I regularly find that the happiest lawyers I meet either spent time as paralegals between college and law school - or come from "legal" families where their parents were in small and medium law - they seem to have had a better idea of what they were getting into when they decided to study to become lawyers. The kids of BigLaw partners often seem to know little about real world legal practice.

One of the problems that is out there is that many law schools, including top tier schools, in order to fill seats - appear to have simply grabbed at anyone whose GPA and LSAT met their cut-off, regardless of whether this person is in fact suitable for legal practice. By contrast, at least in Europe, medical schools are starting to do more in depth psychometric testing as well as interviews to see if their candidates are suitable for the medical profession - of course these filters can also be trained for and gamed by determined applicants. Legal apprenticeships involve interviews of candidates by law firms, which also acts as a filter, while in the UK a "traineeship" will be sought from a law firm before going to the college of law.

concerned lawyer

Prospective law students make economic decisions based on the choices they have. In the late 90s, it appeared to make economic sense to attend law school (though the employment statistics were misrepresentative). A law degree then cost about 50% (in real dollars) of what it costs today. I was fortunatel to attended a T14 school, but I also applied to schools outside of the T14 on the overly-optimistic assumption that I would be able to service my loans. People in their early 20s trust institutions of higher learning not to mislead them. I did, so much so, that I only been accepted at the non-T14 "safety school" that I applied to, I would have attended. Today, that would be terrible decision. I would likely have well over $150K in debt (didn't offer me a scholarship then, and perhaps they would now, I don't know) and a 9.8% chance of getting a job at an NLJ250 firm to sevice that debt. Doing today what I would have done then would be a terrible idea. To me, the fact that students are walking into such schools is evidence to me that they are not behaving as the mythical wealth-maximizing rational people we often assume consumers to be. But this should not surprise anybody. The social science literature on cognitive biases (such as the optimism bias) is neither new nor unknown to those of us who visit this site.

The problem is that the students who apply to, and accept admission to non-T14 law schools are blissfully unaware of their biases. And they trust institutions completely as I once did.

Consider for a moment, your alma mater. We know that the sticker price of tuition at Miami is $40K per year. And we know that the placement rate in NLJ 250 firms for graduates is 4.22%. (Source: NLJ) Let's set aside the possibility of a scholarship, which obviously impacts cost. I'm not suggesting that NLJ 250 is the only way to service the $150K in debt that a student is likely to acquire in 3 years. But wouldn't a rational student want to have a firm understanding as to how most of the other 95.78% are planning to service their debt? Would a student who enrolls in such an institution be characterized as a rational actor? Do you believe that students are asking the questions that I suggest they should be asking? If a student / friend / relative / loved one asked you whether they should accept an offer of attendence, knowing these facts, what would your response be?

Tamara Piety

@concerned. I DO think students should be asking these questions. And I do think law schools should be trying to answer them as honestly as possible, with the caveat that none of us have a crystal ball as to how things will turn out 3 or 5 or 10 years hence. Had I had such a crystal ball I would have known that my chances of entering academia would have been much better had I gone to an elite law school in the first instance rather than getting an LL.M. from one later. (And I say that as no knock on Miami from which I think I got a first rate education that was second to none.) But at the time I, (a) didn't think I could afford to stop working during the day and thus couldn't go to one of those school, (b) didn't realize the significance of hierarchy to academia and thus that I might be limiting my future options, and (c) perhaps most importantly, I then rejected the notion that I would want to be an academic. I thought I wanted to be a trial lawyer. And I was for awhile and I did like some things about being a trial lawyer and I even miss some of those things to this day (for one thing you have more unambiguous measures of success like whether you win a case, however flawed those measures maybe as indication of social usefulness or contribution to the greater good). But I do like teaching and writing better and I can't honestly say that if I had it to do all over again, I would do it differently because I learned some things I wouldn't otherwise know by doing it the hard way. (It would have been a lot cheaper and faster not to do it the hard way though!). Does that mean I would advise family, friends, loved ones to do anything the hard way, to sow obstacles in their own path so that they will have a "growth experience"? No. Of course not. All i am talking about is the limitations of predictions with these tools that we have. I can tell you that whether here with prospective TU students or with the above mentioned friends, family, loved ones -- or even random acquaintances at cocktail parties - I try to offer honest advice and urge prospective students to consider all these factors and to make their decisions with their particular goals and ambitions in mind. If someone knows now that they ultimately want to be an academic I advise them to shoot for a top 5 school. It will be easier that way if you get in. That isn't the whole battle by a long shot, but it will get you over certain initial hurdles more readily. If you want to work on Wall Street the advice is probably the same with a slightly wider range of schools. If you want to join your family firm, a small to medium sized firm in the middle of the country, the prestige of the institution probably matters less. As you point out, the NLJ 250 metric is flawed, terribly flawed in many respects, for schools which don't send many students to those firms. This is a problem for those schools if a student enters one of them thinking that he or she will get into one of those firms. But I can assure you that jobs at such firms are (a) not the only way to service such debt and (b) that not everyone leaves with this level of debt. It is like the pharmaceutical ad tag line "results vary." Sometimes they vary in dramatically bad ways. Prospective students should indeed look very, very carefully at debt loads, job prospects, what types of jobs an institution's graduates are doing, do they seem happy at them (to the extent recruits can tell), etc. Very valid, rational inquiries. I guess the point of this post is simply that rationality only takes you so far - whether you are the decision-maker trying to decide what to do or you are in my position, the adviser. (Actually, that is NOT really what I am paid to do. What I'm paid to do for the most part is to teach and advise students once they are already here, but certainly these things overlap). And from the perspective of the one doing the advising it sometimes seems like the information you discuss does not always register with people until they have, as one commenter has put it, "sunk costs" in the decision, at which point it becomes harder to walk away. I am not sure what you do about that beyond trying to make all of this information available.


Unintended consequences.......

concerned lawyer

Professor Piety,

I have disagreed with you in the past, and I continue to, but I appreciate (a) that you are engaging this important issue, and (b) your thoughtful comments. But I think that here is where you and I (and many others, but few in the academy) differ.

1. The "game" has changed. Miami was not priced at $40K per year when you attended. In real dollars it was far lower (by 50%, 75%, do you want to know?). And job prospects were far better. Legal educators consistently undervalue these two facts, particularly the latter. They tend to assume that the market resembled the market that they graduated into or resort to anodyne reasoning that job market is "cyclical." The NLJ 250 industry provides a lot of work to the non-NLJ 250 (i.e. small firm) industry. It contracted severely during the recession and outsourced a great deal of dull "document review" work. Those jobs are not coming back until there is a no longer a skilled English-fluent workforce in Bangalore. The very small practitioner legal work has also been drained by online resources. These developments were, in retrospect, market corrections that deflated a bubble (did we really need document reviewers with a JD; do you really need a lawyer to sign a simple will/loan/etc?)

2. Let's stop quibbling. Too often, these discussions end with an informal "resolution" that some metric is inadequate (in this case, the NLJ 250 as a proxy for graduate success). As a consequence, the perfect becomes the enemy of the good. Sure, NLJ 250 is imperfect. But how unreliable is it? The 9.8% figure that I referenced provides a percentage of students who are capable of servicing their loans. How many of the other 90.2% students from this unamed sub-top 50 school are likely finding ways to service their loans? Yes, perhaps we missed a few. Perhaps some are working for decent salaries at smaller firms. Maybe a few work for the federal government. Maybe there are a few clerks. If they are working for state government, unless they attended CUNY or received a very substantial scholarship, they are surely struggling to pay rent. I expect that taken-together, the percentage who are "getting by" is small. Do you disagree? Yes, results do "vary." They always have. But the median has shifted dramatically in the last 10 years.

John Steele

1. It's true that for some the choice to be a lawyer may include non-economic considerations. I'm not sure what we're supposed to do with that observation. This is a difficulty I have had with all of Professor Piety's recent posts. Certainly, the presence of non-economic reasons to attend law school doesn't weigh against providing accurate statistical information to 21-year-olds who are making huge economic decisions. On that point, Law School Transparency just issued a new report showing how schools did or did not meeting the ABA's transparency standards. There is a lot of work left to do.

2. I wonder if everyone is aware of what happens when we move from discussions of the AmLaw 100 to the NLJ 250. Take a look at the firms at the bottom of the 250. They are "upside down" leverage firms that behave rather differently than the leveraged firms. They are great places for young lawyers to work because it's a mathematical necessity that most of their associates work directly with partners who are successfully managing an active book of business. It's the kind of mentoring a young lawyer really benefits from. I don't see anything inappropriate for a law student to strongly desire working in those firms. I just hope that they realize the odds of ending up there. For that reason, the new NLJ report (showing how many students from each school placed into the NLJ 250) will quickly become a very important metric for applicants, students thinking about transferring, and schools themselves. If you look closely at the schools placing 1-5% of their students in those firms, you may suspect, as I do, that many of those students had a hard science degree. For the non-STEM students at those law schools, the odds are probably half of what NLJ reported. (I based that conclusion on the predominance of IP-heavy firms listed as employers from lower ranked schools and from personal experience.)

3. Finally, I want to echo what "concerned lawyer" said. When professors, deans, and lawyers make comparisons to how things were "back in the day," we must constantly remind ourselves that law degrees were being given away for close to zero cash (e.g., I still talk to Boalt Hall grads who paid $500/semester) or rather modest amounts of cash (e.g., in my case). The real investment was the three years, not the money. Dean Mitchell's online interview with Lee Pacchia was the shining example of how not to use a personal history as if it explains today's market.

Moreover, back then the boundaries of the profession were pretty well sealed. Today we have an increasingly porous profession and that's only going to get worse (or better, if you take the consumer's point of view). The law firm guild has been undermined and it's inevitable that the law school guild will need to adjust.

Previously Anon

JD in 1991--so let's see:

In 1988, average public law school resident tuition was $2,608, and by 1991 it was $3,591.

In 1988, average public law school nonresident tuition was $6,017, and by 1991 it was $8,250.

In 1988, average private law school tuition was $9,652, and by 1991 it was $12,738.

In 2011, average public law school resident tuition was $22,116, average public nonresident tuition was $34,865, and average private tuition was $39,184.

From here:

Lance Williams

My name is Lance and I am a Tulsa Law grad, May 2007 (Professor Piety taught my Civ Pro class...She was excellent). I graduated in the bottom half of the class, for some strange reason didnt take it seriously at the time(thought that graduating would be enough). I had my mind set from day one that I would return to the Great State of Texas upon graduation in which I did. Little did I know it was more than tough to find legal employment in Texas coming from an out of state, lower ranked law school. Fortunately, I found work in the Oil and Gas industry as a landman making pretty good money. I then worked for a Law firm as an Oil & Gas Attorney drafting title opinions and I hated it. I went back to work as a landman, now have ended up working for a major oil/gas company as a staff land specialist. Technically, I am not practicing law, but I love my job and it came with a nice, cozy six figure salary that will allow me to pay down my student loan debt. I still have in the back of my mind the idea of being some hero in the courtroom, but that was not knocking at my door. I had to compromise in order to meet my responsibilities which is the point of this entire response. A job is out there. It might not be what you want, but its out there. My job may not have required a J.D. in order to get the position, but I am sure it made my resume standout even though I did not meet the "years of experience" criteria. Law school was the best decision of my life. Chances are, I wouldnt be making a third of my salary with my bachelor of Arts undergrad degree. If I could go back in change anything I would probably attend a law school in Texas, then bust my butt to get the best grades possible. This does matter, and it takes a little credibility from your argument when your fussing about not having your "Dream Legal Career", and how your law school has failed you when you were not an exceptional law student. Suck it up, make the best of what you got, be willing to compromise, and eventually it will all work itself out. Good Luck!

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