Wednesday, September 10, 2014

What if the Chaff Remains?

I addressed this article from the Connecticut Law Tribute on my own blog, but whereas there I focused on the "unfortunate" side of a decline in law school enrollments, here I would like to address the "good" side of law school enrollment decline:
Is this drop in law school enrollment a good or bad thing? One part is arguably good: many young people applied to law school because they had good grades and board scores and wanted to keep their options open, rather than truly thinking through that a legal career was right for them. Now, in contrast, anyone applying to law school has likely given serious thought to the decision.
We have seen this type of argument repeatedly over the last few years.  "With applications declining, the good thing is that the wheat is being separated from the chaff!" or some such argument coming from the law dean and law school-sympathetic news outlets.  Today's law students are more sure they want to be lawyers, not like yesterday's vagrant liberal artist!

Here's my question:  How the hell do you know this?

Here's another:  Even if you're right, are these really the type of people we want going to law schools?

Here's a third:  Have you considered that you might be wrong?

In determining what type of personality and drive we want in prospective law students, let's first consider what traits make for good lawyers.  Virtually regardless of what type of law one practices, lawyers need to be smart, good networkers, good communicators, and have patience and perseverance.  They need to be able to evaluate strengths and weaknesses of both their position or goal and those of others in a changing environment.  Above all else, they must understand the legal system (sometimes simple, sometimes complex) and be able to navigate it to achieve a good (or best possible) result for the client.  Really, that's what we are; we're navigators on a muddy river of semantics and procedure.  Cleverness might be useful to that end; it might not.

From this, we can derive certain traits that are less likely in good lawyers:  dumber, antisocial, poor communicators, impatient, headstrong, stubborn, dismissive of others' positions, etc.  Paramount among the negative traits would be an inability to come to rational conclusions based on reasonable perceptions of reality or an inability to navigate the legal system.  Many lay people believe that "argumentative" people make good law school candidates or that someone is ripe for the law if he is a "good writer."  Silly lay people.

In any event, contrast that with many of the people are still applying to post-bubble law school:
  • Those who downplay negatives more than others and are dismissive of skepticism;
  • Those who are less likely to be great networkers than other potential applicants;
  • Those who are more likely to be stubborn and headstrong in their beliefs;
  • Those who fall for arguments from authority and other logical fallacies.
Don't believe me?  Take an hour and read Law School Lemmings.

More to the point, does it matter if you don't believe me?  The people who spout the belief that the we are separating the wheat from the chaff appear to be basing their claims on nothing but conjecture.

How do you know people who applied in 2008 - who all went through a fairly lengthy process and took the LSAT - weren't serious?  Have there been surveys done of applicants and non-applicants?  How do we know that the leftovers are the ones who most want to be attorneys?  What if they are just the people who couldn't find anything better to do?  Do we have any way of knowing our best members of the bar all desperately wanted to be attorneys when they were 22?  What good is giving serious thought to law school if the serious thoughts are ill-formed?  What if the people who had options turned out to be the best law student and lawyer candidates?

Right now, the people going to law school are functionally indistinguishable from the people who buy assets while the majority is selling.  It's a contrarian move.  Those can pay off in the investing sphere, but you have to time it well and I don't see anyone sane making a contrarian investing move with six figures of nondischargable personal debt and three years of opportunity cost.

In the end, going to law school now is a big risk, and in many cases not much of a calculated one.  I omitted "risk averse" from my "good lawyer" criteria above, but often caution comes with the territory.  After all, many of us play the game with other peoples' money or freedom.

Inherent in the job description, we have to safeguard property and act with prudence and competence.  Now we have a generation of people going to law school who appear to be less prudent with their own financial futures than their peers who found other livelihoods.  Why are certain parties so eager to conclude that this is a positive development, exactly?

It's good that the market is more critical of the claims of law schools, but I find this new claim - that applicants today are more focused/serious and that's good - particularly pernicious.  For one, it's a con man's ploy to build trust with the applicant; the applicant - no matter how good of a candidate in reality - hears that people still applying are more focused than the ones from five years ago and it serves as a justification for their decision.  Secondly, it shows a complete lack of concern for the future of the bar and the type of people the still-too-expensive law schools may be encouraging to become lawyers.  Not that I would be so presumptuous to speak on behalf of the entire bar, but we don't need more stubborn, irrational asswipes.

And of course, to the person who really wants to be a lawyer at all costs, the law schools have no problem saddling on the debt.  Thus the line can serve as a justification for keeping tuition sky-high ("well, the right people are still enrolling, and they understand that a law degree is worth $230k").

I'll admit, my own speculation and conjecture may miss the mark.  The crop of current applicants may be the wheat among the chaff.  The bathwater may have been discarded while the baby is still in the tub.  The froth is gone.  Pick your metaphor, and know that we may be ushering in a legal golden age of people who were super-duper-serious about going to law school.

But I - the one willing to admit the inconclusiveness of my own speculation - am also not the one selling you a six-figure ticket to professional dreamland.  Ask yourself when you see a claim like this where the evidence is and whether it really makes sense or is a good thing.  Because to  me, this argument seems little better than those pertaining to "JD Advantage" jobs or the 98% employment statistics of yore.


  1. Sorry to post off topic but you have to look at this post on legal education It makes a total fool of all the law schools.

    1. One of the commenters on that post, a professor named Osborn, writes a lot of good stuff in a rather lengthy comment. He's the kind of guy you'd want providing real-world instruction, since he spent ~ 15 years as a litigator before deciding to teach.

      The problem is, he teaches at Charlotte. Where under 30% get real law jobs. Which refuses (as near as I can tell) to release ANY salary data.

      Where fully 70% of those supposedly getting real law jobs were in firms of 2-10 members - how many of those are in actuality newly launched firms of >= 2 newgrads huddled together for warmth against the cold?

      (I tried the NC Bar membership portal to see if I could find this out, but could not because it doesn't permit sorting by school. A few years ago I ran this exercise on the FL bar website (which does let you pull members by school) to show that at tanks like FCSL, over half of the purported small firm jobs were actually just newgrads co-launching new practices. I.e., effectively, they also count as solos.)

  2. I generally agree. Given the plummeting LSAT scores and GPAs of incoming 1Ls across the country, I think the average law student is unquestionably less intelligent now than five or ten years ago.
    The very high scoring students who get into HYS are still there but they are a tiny, tiny proportion of total law students. I think law school lemmings prove that the bottom of the barrel applicants, the dumb and the oblivious, are still going to law school. What the industry is losing are people in the middle, the applicants who don't get into a T14 school but are still intelligent and well informed enough to carefully analyze the decision of whether to go to law school.

  3. The critical issue that I've encountered with law students and OLs is that the concept of $200K just isn't real to them. Their sentiment seems to be that If they are going to borrow $150K, they might as well borrow $200K. I couldn't tell you if they have really "given serious thought to [going to law school]" but they have not and, in most cases cannot, give serious thought to financing law school and what it will cost to pay back the debt. Most of them have never had work experience, even at fast food, and when I asked them if they've ever had any experience paying back a debt, I just get blink-blink. They maybe they'll say "how else am I supposed to pay for law school?" They seem to be comforted by the fact that everyone else is taking out the same huge non-dischargeable sums. A lemming never goes over the cliff alone.

    1. That's right. There are far too many financially illiterate people in this country, buoyed up by easy credit. Far too many people who have never held a job at an early age and never understood the value of hard-earned money.

      I guess I have to chalk it up partly to age and lack of life experience. I suspect a lot of the Lemmings applying now are the first in their family to attend college, have never had to worry about making large investments like law school, and do not have anyone to tell them the hard facts about law school, jobs and debt. I can't blame them for wanting to make themselves better and I know they want that TTT prestige. The law school brand is still pretty strong in a lot of communities. They don't realize they're like pigs being led to the slaughterhouse.

      I started working at the age of 15 and have been working ever since. I've 41 now. I hate paying for anything with credit and graduated law school without any debt. But I find my attitudes are not that common among my socioeconomic group. I drive the crappiest car in the parking lot, do most of my home maintenance and upgrades, mow my own lawn, clean my own house, fix my cars myself. I don't have toys and am desperately trying to save enough so that I don't have to work into my 70s. But all around my I see people driving late model BMWs, buying ATVs, guns, motorcycles, etc. Do these people think social security is going to be around to help them? I don't get it.
      Jesus, I sound like a cranky old man.

    2. Hear hear, 8:55. I'm in the same boat as you on all counts, except that I have the law school debt.

      You're not a crankly old man, just a "once bitten, twice shy" member of the "modern economy" that preys on people with lack of experience/information assymetry. I'm guessing the other folks you mention either haven't been bitten yet, don't care, or are independently wealthy.

    3. Everyone who is above average wants to swing big when they are young. To be fair, it's this way with all professions. I wanted to go to Med School, but the prospect of being poor (due to being 250 to 500k in debt) until I reached 40 didn't appeal to me.

      This is a totally different economy from what people 35 and up assume it to be. I have friends with a Masters in Chemistry, undergrad in Mechanical engineering, and a nurse practitioner all approaching their mid to late twenties with huge debt, and no conceivable way of having a family until they are in their late thirties. Their salaries will increase, but the cost of living and loan debt will eat away at that growth until another decade.

      If you want to be realistic about life, I suggest being minimalistic and avoiding debt altogether or just picking a career with a lower barrier of entry.

      Or, get your degree incrementally while working. Which means you will have no life in your late teens to mid twenties.

    4. I'm 3:47 above. All the check out people at the whole food store where I shop have liberal arts degrees. While it's not a horrible gig, it's not a job where you can realistically service any sizable debt.

    5. Ding ding ding. It's also truly shocking how ignorant people are about the state of higher ed costs.

      I looked up, right from government stats, that 1981-82 college tuition (in 2012 dollars) for a private school was around $15K. By 2011-12, it was $33K, so well over double. Law school is an even more extreme version of the travesty.

      But these kids (I say kids liberally, as I'm only 28) see these huge costs as either
      1) Evidence of a need for socialized, "free" education (puke)
      2) Just the way things have always been.

      As recently as 1985, according to Paul Campos, you could've attended a public law school for under $4K a year in 2011 dollars. The amazing part is, the students / prospective students seem to beg for "help" from the very institutions that are screwing them (the law schools and the US treasury/government). Get rid of federal loans, make loans dischargeable in bankruptcy court, and you'd see this "problem" immediately begin to dissipate.

  4. Great post. A small number of the delusional or reckless optimists whose tweets are featured on Law School Lemmings will actually succeed, through contacts or dumb luck, in getting lawyer jobs. And clients who are in trouble or distress will rely on their research, judgment, and guidance. It is not a happy thought-- like knowing that med schools will graduate kids who believe in faith healing.

    1. That's an excellent analogy, Dybbuk.

  5. Actually, there is a simpler and more precise way to counteract the argument that only the more serious students are attending law school today. Given that tuition has increased as well as awareness of the difficulties the average law graduate has in paying off his or her student debt, the only ones left going to law school are either those individuals for whom it is not important whether they pay back their debt or those who are wealthy and don't need to.

    Whenever I hear that good ole' argument, I remind the speaker that the ability to pay for law school or a lack of concern for paying back one's law school debt does not indicate a 'more serious student.' It indicates a rich or unconcerned student and nothing more. The ability to pay for something should never be conflated with wanting something more or being more serious in obtaining it.

  6. Just more of the usual bullshit flattery of lemmings. Keep telling them that they're brilliant, thoughtful, creative, dedicated, shrewd, ambitious, farsighted, destined for leadership. They'll eat that shit up.

    Old Guy

    1. Exactly. Look at lawlemmings. Some of them seem to think law school will make them rich. The majority though want to go to law school because its their "DREEAAM!" and they Don't Care About the Money.

      Writing crap like "Now, in contrast, anyone applying to law school has likely given serious thought to the decision" is deliberately playing up to these poor deluded souls.

    2. I ate it up when I was a 0L in 2005. I thought I was entering a prestigious profession. At my Toilet, we had a judge come in during orientation and sternly tell us that there were only two "real" professions; law and medicine. Engineering, Finance, etc were just "jobs" and were inferior.
      I ate that sh*t up! I thought I was going to be better than my former engineering comrades. I thought I was going to be arguing at trials, was going to drive a S Class Mercedes within a few years, would join a large firm and make partner, etc.
      I had no idea it was all carefully planned as a propaganda campaign to distract and blind you from the truth about the profession. I didn't see it at the time, so part of my understands why Lemmings are still so eager.
      How the scales have fallen from my eyes.

    3. "How the scales have fallen from my eyes."

      9:00AM, back when I was a 0L in 2002, I got the same treatment. From a "religious university" no less. Suffice it to say I now hold law schools from religious universities in special contempt.

      Looks like you can't serve both God and Mammon after all, kids, just like the Good Book says.

    4. As an engineer sitting in the orientation and hearing the same crap about only law & medicine being professions, because they alone had professional societies that vetted and monitored their members, I remember thinking the speaker must not know much about engineering and how much more difficult it is to become a registered professional engineer than it is a lawyer.

    5. My grandfather was an engineer, when he was in school in the 40s and 50s law was a harder discipline to get into, more prestigious, and much higher paying than engineering.

      Contrast that to today and the utter contempt most of us non lawyers have for attorneys. Engineers today definitely have a higher iq and income.

      When did this occur?

    6. I even remember the judges name: Wolfson.

    7. Well Jon, as someone who's both, I can definitely say law school was a breeze compared to chemical engineering coursework. There's nothing conceptually difficult in any law school course.

      However, I did jump to law after a few years in research/engineering specifically because I wanted to jack the earning potential.

      The funny thing about the contempt you mention is, it runs both ways. Generalists often refer to patent attorneys derisively as "lawyers with pocket protectors" and "engineers who happen to have law degrees".

      I don't really mind, either way.

  7. What's funny here is that the ScamDeans and the law-apologists are saying, "look, law school is basically such a terrible deal, now, that all the rational actors have fled and only the ones who rlly, rlly, want to be lawyers are signing up!!11!11!!eleven"

    I call that an "admission against interest."

  8. So, if I am to understand this correctly, the popularity of law school is not waning. Its appeal has just become more selective. When did Ian Faith become a law school dean?

  9. A few nights ago, I watched Gideon's Army, a documentary about public defenders. A pretty good work overall. One thing about the struggling, young lawyers that they profiled struck me especially hard: they almost seemed proud of their student loans. They talked about how hard it was to repay them, of course, but when they threw around the term "six figures of educational debt," something in their tone of voice sounded almost like they were bragging. As if, even if the debt was hard to repay, they thought it was ballerific to have paid six figures for their degrees, regardless of their actual value.

  10. "Right now, the people going to law school are functionally indistinguishable from the people who buy assets while the majority is selling."

    Best analogy out there. However, law school is more of a liability than an asset these days.

  11. Hofstra is still accepting chaff. The median LSAT of 2014 entering students is 152 compared with 154 last year and 157 in 2012.

    1. I mentioned Charlotte in a reply up near the top. Charlotte's 2013 entering LSAT @ 50th has dropped 5 points to 144 since 2010, and its LSAT @ 25th has dropped 7 points (to 141 !) since 2010.

      My general understanding (from other blog posts, not personal research) is that outside the elites, most schools are cutting their standards.

    2. Your understanding is correct. Spend an hour on LST and see for yourself. Even many semi-elite schools have significantly lowered their standards, especially LSAT medians, which can't be masked. GW is a prime example of this trend.

  12. This is just more confirmation bias. That, and a hedge against the implied promise that lawyer=upper middle class.

    The reality is that law school admissions are basically open-admissions. The (not so) silver lining of the current situation is that the market is brutally culling out the graduates by not hiring them.

    The current crop of new hires will probably not be any less qualified than previous generations, but only because 47% of the graduates are not being hired AT ALL (of course, meaning 9 months after graduation in a job requiring a JD). That's brutal, folks. It's brutal because the 43% who don't get hired probably have the highest amount of debt.

  13. Normally, the idea behind separating the wheat from the chaff is to keep the wheat. What's happening at law schools is precisely the opposite.

  14. Meanwhile over at Vermont Law...

    They are patting their backs over boosting their enrolment. How hard did they have to cut their standards to achieve this?

    '"We're not lavish anymore," said Marc Mihaly, president and dean' - but have they actually lowered their tuition?

    How many openings are there in "environmental law" anyhow?

    1. VT has lowered their standards some, similar to the others. LST has their 2010 LSATs (25% / 50%) at 153/156 and 2013 at 147/151.

      At least they manage to graduate somewhat over half their class (well, barely) to real law jobs.

      And you're correct, there aren't many jobs in environmental law. And a lot of those who I know who do any environmental law, do it about half time, with patent law being the other half. Except one guy who did it full time for about 5 years (corporate defense side) before becoming so disillusioned he had to jump back to patent law.

    2. That's not just "some"; it's a hell of a lot lower. From 156 to 151 represents a fall from the 67th percentile to the 48th percentile.

    3. 8:52, thanks for the correction. I guess I tend to forget how very steep are the sides of that bell curve.