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November 30, 2012 / Jake Seliger

The specious reasoning in Lawrence M. Mitchell’s “Law School Is Worth the Money”

Lawrence M. Mitchell’s “Law School Is Worth the Money” is one of the best examples of specious writing I’ve seen outside of writing produced by the federal government. It seems appropriate for me to comment Mitchell’s ideas, given how I praised Paul Campos’s book Don’t Go To Law School (Unless): A Law Professor’s Inside Guide to Maximizing Opportunity and Minimizing Risk. I’m going to respond to Mitchell’s major points:

The starting point is the job market. It’s bad. It’s bad in many industries. “Bad,” in law, means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially at law firms. But a little historical perspective will reveal that the law job market has been bad — very bad — before. To take the most recent low before this era, in 1998, 55 percent of law graduates started in law firms. In 2011, that number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic. And this statistic ignores the other jobs lawyers do.

Most other jobs don’t require the assumption of tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt to get a legally-mandated piece of paper that lets them perform those jobs. That’s the real catastrophe. Law school only has one purpose: to prepare people to be lawyers. If half aren’t able to become lawyers, that’s a catastrophe for those with the debt burdens that deans like Mitchell aren’t lining up to forgive.

Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets.

Notice the weasel words: “the median starting salary for practicing lawyers.” What about the 50% of graduates who can’t find law work? The same is true in the second half of the sentence: “the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490.” People who get law degrees and then can’t practice are screwed. This is a classic example of How to Lie with Statistics. Mitchell is fishing for the credulous.

Thirty years ago, getting a law degree made a lot more economic sense: the tuition was much lower, and so low that people who got law degrees but didn’t practice weren’t effectively signing up for a decade if not decades of perpetual student loan payments.

The average student at a private law school graduates with $125,000 in debt. But the average lawyer’s annual salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.

Again, notice the bit about “the average lawyer’s annual salary,” which ignores how many lawyers, and especially recently graduate lawyers, are unemployed. It also ignores the misery of being an associate at a big firm, and the fact that not all or even most big-firm associates are going to make partner. Some of those average lawyers aren’t going to be lawyers for their entire careers.

The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy.

People have been saying this about professors since at least the early 90s, and it’s been untrue for professors for at least that long. As Paul Campos points out, there are about twice as many J.D.s being graduated as there are jobs. That means an excess of lawyers and potential lawyers that’s only growing with time.

In the meantime, the one-sided analysis is inflicting significant damage, not only on law schools but also on a society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers.

Mitchell’s analysis could only make sense to someone arguing a legal case; it makes no sense to someone trying to assess the truth. He says, “For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks.” That’s apt, because his essay reads like an investment banker making an idealized case for investment banking, despite the evidence all around us.

8 Comments

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  1. Grimstad / Nov 30 2012 3:00 pm

    I also think that the salary/law school debt ratio being ‘sweet’ when compared to a mortgage argument doesn’t work. With a mortgage you get a house. With law school debt, you don’t necessarily get the much higher salary. He goes on to talk about a student who refused to attend his law school despite having to only pay 5,000 in tuition per year – however, he totally ignored cost of living loans when sharing that little anecdote. The entire piece seemed completely self-serving.

  2. Jeff / Nov 30 2012 3:40 pm

    “The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy.”

    As recently as the mid-1990s, humanities profs (who hadn’t been on the job market in decades) were telling aspiring grad students that the same thing was going to happen in their fields. Needless to say, the professor shortage in the humanities never materialized.

    (On another note, D.C. has a sizable population of unemployed or underemployed lawyers who are walking around in nice suits to “‘pass” as fully employed lawyers even though they’re doing document review, minor freelance gigs, or nothing at all. No one talks about it, because it’s shameful, but I’ll bet everyone here knows someone in this sad shadow inventory of underemployed, deeply indebted attorneys…)

    • Jake Seliger / Dec 2 2012 6:18 pm

      The only good news is that the news is spreading.

      Still, I think the deeper lessen of this post is really the second half, which is about the utility of bloggers and others to call bullshit, even when that bullshit is published in a prominent, well-regarded venue. The weirdest thing to me might actually be the way the NYT is letting itself being used a PR forum for the law school industry.

  3. Jason / Dec 3 2012 10:34 am

    Good post, Jake. I would add that the same specious arguments have been made in other disciplines. Any advanced degree really, from medicine to a PhD in, say, 20th Century American Lit. :)

    It’s like saying that it’s perfectly reasonable to take on $100,000 in debt for a PhD when the average fully tenured professor makes more than that at many universities. Sure, that’s true, but most of today’s PhD candidates are never going to get that job. In fact, most of them are going to end up either pushed out of the field entirely or working as an adjunct for ridiculously low wages. Ridiculous as compared to their educational debt load, anyway. Even the ones who do finally reach the promised land will do so after a hard scrabble that can last decades.

    And that reminds me. There’s something analogous in law to this shift in the teaching labor force to adjuncts. I have friends who are lawyers and they tell me that more and more of the day-to-day work is being done by paralegals or junior lawyers than ever before, more or less “law adjuncts”. And fewer and fewer new lawyers ever make partner (analogous to tenure). They just truck along as perpetual juniors doing most of the work.

  4. Robert Nagle / Dec 3 2012 4:51 pm

    Ultimately the amount of unemployed lawyers will have an impact upon mean and median salaries for working attorneys. Personally I have some regret about not attending law school because it would have helped me with the publishing business (copyright, contracts, etc). I’m not sure whether the time and money investment would have justified it though — you can learn a lot about law from Nolo books….

    • john@gmail.com / Dec 4 2012 9:50 pm

      Robert, as an IP attorney, I can assure you that law school would NOT have been worth the time and money. At most, you would have taken three or four courses related to your job in publishing over the three years of law school. And all of these courses would have been heavy on theory (including the teacher’s pet theories) and light on practical knowledge.

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  1. The followup to Lawrence Mitchell’s specious law school editorial « The Story's Story

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