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.
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.