Episode 177: February 22, 2013
by Adam Freedman
Today’s Topic: Is Law School Worth It?
And now, your daily dose of legalese: This article does not create an attorney-client relationship with any reader. In other words, although I am a lawyer, I’m not your lawyer. In fact, we barely know each other. If you need personalized legal advice, contact an attorney in your community.
Thinking of Law School?
If you’re thinking of applying to law school, please lie down until the feeling passes. Well, actually, I don’t want to discourage you – law is a great profession – but there is a growing controversy about the value of a law degree. In fact, some lawyers charge that law schools are fraudulently luring unsuspecting students with rosy promises of guaranteed employment. In today’s episode, I’ll discuss the case against law school and why, despite it all, you might want to become a lawyer anyhow.
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An Expensive Proposition
First, let’s agree that law school is an expensive proposition. It takes three years of your life – three years when you might be earning money, hiking the Appalachian Trail, or any number of interesting things. Tuition alone can top $42,000 a year. Throw in room-and-board, and you’re paying $60,000 a year for three years.
Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’ll only want to invest that kind of time and money if it leads to a good job. That’s the problem. Last year, it was reported that, nationwide, there are two aspiring lawyers with passing bar-exam scores for every one open job. With the continuing sluggish economy, it seems reasonable to expect that the nation will continue to have a glut of lawyers for some time.
Are Law Schools Telling the Truth?
But if you ask a law school admissions officer, you’ll tend to hear about the bright future that awaits law school graduates. That’s not surprising – after all, they’re in the business of attracting students – but some say that the law schools have gone too far in stretching the truth.
In late 2011, Senators Barbara Boxer and Tom Coburn called upon the Department of Education to investigate why law schools seem to be enrolling more students at ever higher tuitions, while their job placement success was allegedly sluggish. And then, in 2012, a team of enterprising young lawyers launched a wave of class action lawsuits charging more than a dozen law schools with consumer fraud. Specifically, the fraud involved alleged manipulation of post-employment statistics to deceive prospective students into believing that they were sure to get a job if only they had a JD from the law school.
Let the Buyer Beware
So far, however, the legal campaign against law schools has not been successful. Lawsuits against three law schools – DePaul, Thomas Cooley, and New York Law School – have been dismissed by the courts. These results, however, do not necessarily mean a “clean bill of health” for law schools. In the case of Thomas Cooley law school, for example, the judge held that there was no fraud because no reasonable student could have relied on the school’s post-graduation employment statistics which were – and I quote, “so vague and incomplete as to be meaningless.” For example, the law school had reported that 76% of its graduates were “employed.” On closer inspection, it turned out that only 43% of the graduates were working in jobs that required a law degree – and that included graduates who had simply decided to hang up their own shingle.
So the ultimate lesson here is not that you should swallow all the law school marketing material; rather, it is the ancient lesson of caveat emptor: let the buyer beware. Courts assume that college graduates contemplating a legal career are reasonably intelligent adults who can make their own assessment of law school claims.
Passion and Persistence
Where does that leave you? The important thing to remember is that, for most of us, going to law school makes sense only if you’re willing to make a long-term commitment to practicing law. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme, and in today’s economy, some law grads may have to make do with a few years of non-legal work. But if you have a passion for the law, and if you’re persistent, you will eventually succeed in the law.
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