Monday, June 10, 2013

So, when all is said and done, who *should* go to law school?

The Law School Scam trains its sights primarily on those institutions (and their leaders) that perpetuate the systematic impoverishment of thousands of would-be lawyers in a rapidly shrinking market for legal services. At the same time, not quite as much attention is paid to those students who put themselves in this position to begin with by continuing to apply. Sure, we may derisively refer to this cohort as “lemmings”, no doubt with a measure of self-loathing; after all we were once like they are now, to lift a line from Cat Stevens (Yusuf Islam, whoever).  But while the profession has a responsibly (willfully abandoned, it seems) to see to it that there aren’t more lawyers than the identifiable demand for legal services can ever justifypeople will continue inevitably to apply in larger numbers than what is probably necessary. For these and other reasons, this blog - and countless others - has expounded at length about why you shouldn’t consider applying to law school, but it may also be an equally useful exercise to consider who should be applying to law school 

Should, of course, is really a terrible word, thoroughly larded with definitive presumptions and unfounded certainties. Nobody should do anything where advanced higher education is concerned. Legal prodigies of such startling genius as Ronan Farrow and the young Judge Posner were by no means predestined for careers in law simply because they were really, really smart. But it no doubt also helps to understand the particular kind of smart you have to be to succeed both in law school and as a lawyerAt the conclusion of a characteristically unchallenging 4-6 years of college you ought to have a clear understanding of whether or not you are, in fact, possessed of this brand of smart. And if there is any doubt in your mind, the folks at the Law School Admissions Counsel offer up a wonderfully time-consuming and tedious diagnostic administered a couple of times a year that should provide you with a much clearer idea.   

Before heading down this path, I would begin by asking yourself if you really understand the difference between summary and analysis. More critically, does your major area of study call for one, or the other (perhaps a tantalizing combination of both)? Analysis comes from the Greek word for breaking up or loosening, while summary is derived from the Latin for “of or pertaining to the sum.” We use the term analysis a lot in undergrad in place of the word summary. In the myriad blue books you have written (or typed, perhaps I’m showing my age here) for courses in PoliSci or Sociology or English, there isn’t much analysis, but there’s an awful lot of summary. Look at the exams you are taking; what are the questions being asked? Do they involve an analytical framework? Or do they involve mere recitation, with perhaps a spot of comparison? Are you called upon to identify the discrete patterns undergirding complicating systems, or is it merely enough to do the reading, summarize what was said in lecture, and maybe add a little bracketing at the front and the end of the essay to affect the appearance of argumentation and conclusion? These are important distinctions to make that in the normal university environment may not be altogether apparent, and if you’ve majored in areas like Linguistics, Mathematics, Psychology, Economics, or even any STEM field then it is likely the case that you have been tested almost exclusively in analysis.  

Secondly, you need to ask yourself how good are you at teaching yourself new material. I say this because in the university setting you have very likely had little exposure to Socratic Method and, if you have, it probably bears little resemblance to the form of it used in law school. Socratic Method, as applied in law school, has little to do with pedagogy as you’ve previously encountered it and more to do with the performance of a native talent. That native talent (which may well not be native to you) is, again, the ability to tease out the discrete rules governing an ambiguous system of facts where a significant amount of information about these facts is left unsaid. Most case law, for example, has little to do with the facts of the case itself. Simply having read the case, and understood what it “said” is not the level of analysis you will be expected to bring to a law school lecture, or to an exam. If you have viewed The Paper Chase, you may remember the scene where the hapless Mr. Brooks erroneously believes his photographic recollection of the casebook would help him understand an in-class hypothetical. It’s easy to state from the outset that one need simply to know the difference between understanding the rule and understanding the case, but the reason why this distinction cannot be emphasized enough is simply because cases are not presented in such a way where the rule is altogether clear and easily digestible into discreet parts (which dovetails with my earlier point about analysis). Much of bar review revolves around the spoon-feeding to you of black letter law into digestible parts, but it is important to note (again, from the outset), that 1) you need only pass the bar exam, not get an A and 2) passing the bar does not, by itself, get you quite as far in the job market as your 1L grades will.   

The third question to ask yourself is how reliant are you on professor feedback? Your grade as a 1L rests almost entirely on your performance on one exam. How accustomed are you to evaluation? An undergraduate in PoliSci or English may well be drawing the bulk of their upper level course grades from research papers and essays, which are often written in stages over the course of the semesterWhen was the last you had to sit for an exam where you didn’t necessarily know what was going to be covered and, more importantly, what kind of curve you were going to be graded on? As a 1L, you will have the opportunity to take practice exams and, perhaps, solicit feedback from your professors, but you won’t have very much time to do this while keeping up with material covered in class and, moreover, it will have to be done entirely on your own ambit while dozens of your classmates seek to employ the same strategy as yourself. You can't all get A's. Hell, a lot of you won't even be able to get B's. If you’ve experienced this system first-hand enough times to find it simpatico with your style of learning then that’s wonderful news, because otherwise you will not be given the time or resources to learn it out on your own as a 1L.  

Fourth, and I hate to sound crass here, where did you get in (presuming that you’ve even applied)figure that, by this point, youre 90% of the way to committing yourself to law school, so anything I say will sound like needless gainsaying at this point. But believe you me when I tell you there’s never been a better time not to become a lawyer (there was, by the by, a widely circulated blog piece stating precisely the opposite that perhaps you’ve read, but believe you me again when I tell you that much of it is self-referential, counter-intuitive nonsense that, in all statistical probability, won't apply to you or to most people with a J.D.). You know the rankings very well by now; they no doubt have played a critical role in your decision on where to apply. You have probably been given substantial indication of how the rankings figure as far as likely job outcomes. That being said, it’s often more helpful (and clarifying) to frame these rankings in the context of who gets hired from which schools, in what volume, and from whereMatriculants from less than a handful of schools (these are, in total, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and UChicago) can expect the attention of just about any legal employer regardless of class rank or grades. After that point (and yes, this includes NYU and Columbia), you will probably have to finish in the top quarter to expect the same result (along with places like UPennVirginia, Georgetown, Cornell, Northwestern, etc.) Below the Top 15 of law schools, your opportunities narrow significantly, usually to state, regional, and local positions. Even if you attend a lower-ranked law school that happens to be the best in its state, you will still have to finish towards the top of your class (even as high as the top 5%) to attract the best legal employers within said jurisdiction. If my first three points were any indication, it is extraordinarily easy to fall outside of this range in law school, and not for want of any effort on your part.  

The final consideration goes one step further, assuming everything has broken your way up to the point of graduation and, hopefully, bar exam passage. Do you know and understand what work in the legal profession actually entails? Do you have even a general sense of law firm billing models and what effect this will have on your life as an associate? Have you worked as a paralegal in a big law firm? If so, is there anything about the billable hour that would encourage you to invite substantially more of it into your life? The pay is enticing, no doubt, but it is beyond the scope of this article to explain how the money is rarely ever equal to the frustration that comes with it, and that most of your income will  go towards debt repayment anywaysWhat about bi-modal income distribution? If you’re unable to get a six-figure position with a big law firm, are you prepared for your next best outcome to be a middle five-figure position with few opportunities for advancement or transfer? Do you understand the challenges facing the profession now and that we are looking at a possible future in which every position at our biggest law firms - short of janitorial, tech support, and (perhaps) conference services positions - will be treated as revenue centers also subject to billable hour thresholds? Do you understand that alternative career paths for JD’s are largely anecdotal or illusory? Does solo practice interest you? Are you prepared for the tremendous financial burden of supporting your own practice in a rapidly shrinking market for legal services pursuing clients who very often cannot pay afford to pay youIf BIGLAW is where you see yourself headed, are you interested in working in what is, in most instances, an affiliated profession of finance? Do you have an eye for term sheets? How about liquidity, capitalization, and disclosure thresholdsVery few of these issues are discussed in extraordinary detail in law school, and I suspect most law professors have had little significant exposure to them. Sure, you may want to do none of these things with your JD. You may even want genuinely to become the prototypical Legal Aid, County Defender, or DA’s office level of public interest attorney. Buunderstand from the outset that, in a lot of jurisdictions, these positions are not much easier to obtain than a summer associate’s gig at a big law firm.  

These are not, by any means, the only factors to consider if you’re considering law school. They are, however, ones that non-lawyers and legal academics tend not offer up when asked if you should consider applying. Understand that, at this point in human history, if you choose to enter law school you are committing yourself to a high risk, incredibly costly endeavor with rapidly diminishing returns in order to gain access to a profession that is experiencing substantial, permanent downward compression at every single level.  Somebody either unfamiliar with the legal profession, or academically siloed from it, isn’t going to have an experience of it relevant enough to be able to say much of value about working as a lawyerThe Law School Scam movement will continue to do its job shining a light on the institutional myopia of the legal academy. But these problems will only persist so long as law schools believe they have an inexhaustible supply of potential applicants. As you consider entering the profession, you need to take the time right now to make a critical inventory of your skills and interests and whether or not they will be best-served by a legal education.  The answer for you just might be a resounding “Yes”, but I wouldn’t bet money on it.  


  1. V Dark -

    Thank you. An excellent, ah, is that analysis or summary?

    (I couldn't agree more as to the importance of the distinction, and am officially an old fart as I am constantly struck by the need of students for specific instructions. Anything out of the ordinary, or simply requiring a self-generated analysis--or summary--seems to catch a significant percentage off guard, possibly and likely because of our depressingly fill-in-the-blank and dumbed-down education. Even bright students are not truly challenged in ways that mirror what might have molded Lincoln, Posner, and others.)

    The points you make are notable for many reasons. Chief among them is the notation that most future law students (myself included, way back when) do not "decide" to go to law school. We fall into it. We decide by not deciding, or by falling out of some other field. To the extent that this relative lack of internal drive makes students even more passive, we see generation after generation simply entering a field that is wrong for them.

    In the past this wasn't horrible, usually. Even someone who never intended to practice law, or who found that they hated it, could usually find something else. And, as we've discussed many times, the costs were low enough that it wasn't a fatal error.

    I hate to keep bringing other sources into this, but I must, I must. Professor "X," author of Law School Undercover, goes into detail about these connections (or lack of them), and in particular what makes for a biglaw personality. His work is a must-read for anyone even thinking that biglaw is in their future, even and perhaps especially if they're accepted into a top school.

    Chances are relatively higher that such a student will have the personality traits that are, coincidentally, rewarded in biglaw; one's alma mater is a useful proxy for determining that. One who has an obsessive attention to detail, heaping quantities of perseverance, and severe focus . . . this person is likely to do well on the LSAT, and, maybe, in biglaw. This bridge is narrowed, however, to a single-file path, so that even those who do have these traits are not assured of such a position (or of much of anything, now). The fatal error, for many, is that law school grades are not reflective of inherent quality. They *are* reflective of how well a student is able to break past the conventional "wisdom" of law school.

    There's another book, coming from a completely different angle, that supports your discussion. This is The Slacker's Guide to Law School, by Juan Doria. Deliciously titled, and very funny, Doria goes through this psychological terrain better than possibly any other book (including mine). In short, the assumed connections between gunning and performance, which students assume and *know* to be true, are quite false, and false in ways that most will disbelieve even *after* they've fallen. Thus the perilous journey for nearly all, including those who might have been stars in an alternate universe.

    There are many reasons for the (dismal) state of the Legal-Education Industrial Complex, but perhaps the most important is for students to understand just what an industry it is, and how small and expendable a cog they are. One can look at professors, or advisors, or students, or LSAC officials, or anyone in this world; each operates according to a clear (to them) set of commands, and each world makes perfect sense . . . until we break up or loosen those assumptions.

    Anyone who goes into biglaw (or any other type of law) thinking they're going to be fighting for the little guy, well . . . no. Just, no. [And many of the "little guys" who do get representation . . . don't deserve it. The true little guys and gals don't get much of anything.]

    Broken? You bet. Fixable? Of course. Likely? We'll leave that to your analysis.


    1. You are truly brilliant.

  2. For anyone even thinking about continuing on to law school, please read:

    Planet Law School, by "Atticus Falcon" [critical before critical was cool] [its author and I have had a falling out, so take this as you will] [PLS will be going out of print soon]


    . . . or, ahem . . .

    Law School: Getting In, Getting Good, Getting the Gold, by Thane Messinger


    Law School Undercover, by Professor "X" [especially as to (1) admissions and (2) character traits of big law]


    The Slacker's Guide to Law School, by Juan Doria [witty and an excellent section on "Should I go?" Also good to maintain a mental balance, if one goes.]


    Law School Fast Track, by Derrick HIbbard [the best discussion on practical *habits* of successful people, including top-performing law students. While these might be filed under "Duh!", they are nevertheless ignored by most. Essential to anyone who goes. He also has a version for college students, which is also very good.]


    Note: I did edit or write forewords for many of these.

    I understand if some are critical of what might be seen as commercial pushiness. 'Tis not in my nature, trust me. [I do get riled, however, if the objection is as to commerce itself. Our lack of appreciation for free-market economics--with the emphasis rarely but properly on "*free*"--is both dangerous and deeply anti-intellectual. The hostility of postmodern academics, especially, to capitalism is, perhaps, testament as to why we have fallen so far. As least prior generations understood these truths.] So, please take these as you will.

    I'm reminded of a passage in another author's book: these from Morten Lund, an exceptional colleague. In one part of one of his Jagged Rocks of Wisdom books, he states point-blank a truth that I'd bet 97% of law students will never have considered: "Whom do you think you're working for?"

    A sentence to contemplate if ever there was one.


  3. What big paragraphs.

    1. Some guys have bigger paragraphs than others.

  4. Law School isn't a great intellectual experience. First, it’s not truly academic. It doesn't do a good job teaching substantive law of a jurisdiction (most law schools look down on this) and it doesn't much concern itself with the history/context of our laws today.

    Ahh. But doesn’t it sharpen the intellect? No. The vaunted 'Socratic' method is a misnomer and almost never applied in anything remotely approaching its true form. It’s almost never used in a tutorial setting, but rather in large lecture classes where it's sprung on random recipients in order to cow all into 'being prepared' and introduce them to the concept of being bullied by an experienced authority figure who’s short on time and patience. It's great training for appearing before judges and for serving partners. It's great skin toughening.

    That’s because 'Law School' is designed to produce lawyers. Nothing more. In an era when firms and companies hired many lawyers, law school produced many candidates and employers used law school grades and school prestige as measuring yardsticks. But no rational person took seriously the unlikely notion that select law schools produced ‘smarter’ grads because their teaching quality was better. Instead, law school is inevitably (unhealthily) obsessed with ranking because it's is a proxy for quality. Yesterday's lengthy discussion of school rankings is a perfect example. Even scambloggers eagerly buy into the prestige game. The use of 1st-year grades as a yardstick is another prime example.

    Again, law school was intended to produce regimented armies of pre-ranked young lawyers for rank-obsessed firms ... not create intellectuals. Hence, it's focused on hierarchy ... not intellectual development.

    In your youth, you don't have a realistic idea of the legal profession, you don't understand its financial realities, and you can’t possibly have anything approaching an understanding of its trajectory. You have a snapshot, not a moving picture and you can't know whether you'll fit in.

    Even if you're committed to being a lawyer for the right reasons and have never entertained grandiose notions of salary, you still don't fully appreciate all the forces now at work in the practice. You can’t. There’s no way for you to appreciate the ongoing downward trajectory the profession is now in.

    The Market controls the need for lawyers --not you or your school. Fewer are needed now and this is likely to continue for the decade. The saddest thing of all would be for you to attend law school for all the right reasons and do well, yet end up severely unemployed within a few years of graduation.

    Yes, it used to be nice and grand. That was then, this is now.

    Play it safe. Don't go. Find something else to do.

    1. @ 7:31
      Excellent reply. Right on the money.

      I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self something along the lines of what you just said. If someone had told me that, I might have listened. Instead, my T14 law professor brother-in-law congratulated me on getting in to a Toilet. He never said anything about job prospects or the false employment data that TTTs spewed out.
      I wasted three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I have to live with that every day.

      I just hope at least some of the lemmings listen.

    2. Anon 7:31: Excellent post. It's funny (in an unfunny way) that we continue to talk about the "Socratic Method," but even if it was more-or-less useful in the past, it doesn't exist anymore, and hasn't for some time. Professors aren't up to it, and neither are distracted, bored, and confused students.

      Anon 8:16: Sorry to read that. The false praise--which is harmful to all students--stems as much from ignorance and a willful hope ("willful" as in "insistent despite indications to the contrary") as from negligence. We might assume that professors understand these issues, but . . . they do not. They literally do not think about the bulk of the student body, except as an amorphous and annoying drain on their time. (This isn't to say that they're mean, as most are not; they simply aren't focused on students' *professional* futures, and especially not for those in the bottom xx%. "xx" being anywhere from 50 at Yale to 98 at nearly anywhere else.) We might assume that advisors and others wrapped up in this system understand, but they do not. Instead we have a faithful clinging to the image of the profession as it was (and mythically, at that).