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 justify, people 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 lawyer. At 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 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 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 semester. When 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)? I figure that, by this point, you’re 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 where. from less than a handful of schools (these are, in total, Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and ) 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 , Virginia, 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 anyways. What 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 you? If 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 thresholds? Very 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. But understand 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 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 lawyer. The 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.