Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Financial Value of a Law Degree

DJM (of ITLSS fame) got in touch recently about a piece she had written, analyzing the financial value of a law degree.  It can be read - and should be read - here.

I've always been a little uncomfortable looking at education from a purely financial standpoint.  Yes, a degree costs money and will boost earnings (hopefully), but does education not have a value that cannot be quantified?  The incalculable cost of a broader understanding of the world, an interest in a subject, and becoming a better human being than before?

For an undergraduate degree, one that is reasonably priced at least, I still believe that it cannot be looked at solely by potential income against costs of attendance.  Higher education, to a point, is valuable beyond the figures.  I have my doubts about some high-cost liberal arts programs at fancy private schools, which are becoming nothing more than four year luxury vacations, but a good undergrad degree from a good state or private college is a worthwhile investment, assuming the debt can be kept under control.

I used to think this about a law degree too, before I went to law school.  Coming from a science background, I fell for the "math" (like that which DJM so expertly discredits in her post).  Way back when, I looked at the figures and worked some equations and formulas, made spreadsheets, and came to the conclusion that law school would be a good investment for me.  (Of course, I missed out on the bimodal distribution of salaries, the fact that the figures published by law schools were lies, etc.  All of that was long before the scam movement came into play, and before the economy collapsed.  Like many readers of this blog, I fell for the scam, not because I was blind, but because I was blindfolded.)

And as DJM shows, the financial value of a law degree is dubious at best.  We need strong analysis like that to counter the incessant drivel that glorifies the JD and keeps the kids flocking to LSAT testing centers and beyond.

But part of me, way back when, would have asked, "Well, DJM, surely you're not considering the intangible benefits of a law degree?  The knowledge?  The insight?  The prestige and career satisfaction?"  And there may be readers here who are still thinking that even though a law degree doesn't make sense from a financial perspective, that it makes sense when factoring in all those other intangibles.

Wrong.  For two reasons.

First, few people go to law school for any reason other than wanting a well paid job waiting at the end of the tunnel.  We know this, law schools know it too (why else would they thrust salary data down our throats every single day, something that few other degrees place so much emphasis on?)  So looking at the value of a law degree in any context other than financial makes no sense.  You're going to law school to get a good job, so that should be the primary - nay, the only - measurement that you base your decision on.  Can this law school get me a good job?  The answer is no, unless you're looking at one of a handful of top schools.

But second, I've come to understand that a law degree has none of the other intangible value that other degrees have.  A BS or BA, for example, has value in helping you develop as a thinker, gaining exposure to areas of important knowledge, learning where you belong in the world, expanding your horizons, growing as a person, etc.  The list goes on and on.  Someone who works hard in undergrad really does come out a better person than before, and that cannot be undervalued.  But with a law degree, there are no such benefits.  A JD is a series of timewasting courses, little content, outdated content, it narrows the mind, destroys broad critical thinking, and destroys creativity, all taught by a faculty that is disinterested, uneducated, and unqualified (in most cases, at least).  It makes you a less attractive potential employee than before, not more attractive.  It closes minds, and closes doors (and the one door it sometimes opens - practicing law - is one that few people never regret ever opening).

Law school is the opposite of college.


  1. First- and I agree with this opinion. Law school teaches you to issue-spot and to make equivocal arguments. I was stunned in one of my first year courses to see an example exam, which represented an A. It was horrendous to read, the grammar was terrible despite being typed on a laptop, and the only thing that mattered was regurgitating federal case names and facts in the right order. When was the last time any of you filed a motion that turned on the interpretation of a federal case?

  2. I like the idea that law school destroys what benefit you have received from your bachelors degree. The fact that a JD harms an education needs to be pushed harder.

  3. I'm the guy running a tech start-up as a reformed attorney. The value of a law degree is... not much. I am looking for engineers and can't find enough of them. Right now, we have enough financials for 10-16 engineers, everything from junior guys to seniors. I need them to code on jvms and bare-metal, MVVM, websockets, pub-sub, etc. I have clients who want to enable mobile apps and all these wonderful things ("need to do this yesterday")... and I can't find enough people. We keep pushing up salaries and compensation packages, and still can't find the right people. JDs... don't really need.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments on my calculations. I agree with everything you say here. It seems wrong that education has come to be valued in such financial terms. I also agree with your comparison between college and law school. A sad point, that I'm sure you know, is that so many law profs thing that they are giving great value in terms of critical thinking, writing, problem solving etc. That whole world is upside down.