Will Prospective Law Students Listen to the Hard Truth?

September 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Fools of Finance

law_schoolToo many unemployed (or under-employed) college graduates) choose graduate school as a default option.  I have been consistent in this message, particularly as to those who aspire to earn MBA or law degrees. For many who earn these degrees, the return on investment is poor or non-existent. The burdens of student loans far outweigh the short or long term benefit.

The question is:  Are prospective law students paying attention?

When I say that law school applicants should  “pay attention”, I don’t mean listening to the lies and obfuscations that emanate from law schools and the Law School Admissions Council. They want that tuition and testing cash, consequences for students and graduates be damned. Their self-interest and delusional thoughts about the future of the legal profession is more than sad, it’s damaging to those who believe in them.

Here is someone you should listen to – the chairman of one of the largest law firms in the country – who was asked by the Wall Street Journal whether college grads should reconsider law school plans:

Yes. The business model of the U.S. law school doesn’t quite make sense to me. Law schools will bring you in from college and educate you, but they will encumber you with six-figure indebtedness at a tender age.

The assumption was that there was no problem, because law firms like K&L Gates would pay that off for you. And that is where the wheels are falling off.

I’ve heard that law school applications are actually increasing. We will be pouring tens of thousands of young people into a market that I suspect is not going to be able to absorb them at the remuneration levels that would have justified them taking on that debt.

That’s a diplomatic way of saying to those who are considering borrowing their way through law school: “Are you insane?”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that our little stock market rally has altered the landscape for law school grads. Here is yet another story about large firm revoking its employment offers to some 2009 law school graduates. These eager grads – fired from their first job before they even started – are being payed off with $20k.  Try living on that and paying down six-figure student loans at the same time. Many other law firms have pulled similar bait-and-switch job revocations on their newest almost-lawyers.

There are societal costs involved here as well. No right-thinking person can believe that we need more attorneys, particularly those who are desperate for fees to repay student loans. We also have a surplus of MBAs. Instead, we need more folks who can design and build things other than financial derivatives.

If you are thinking of law school as an unemployment remediation strategy, listen to Mr. ToughMoneyLove.  Stop.  Now.

Photo credit: Blmurch


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12 Responses to “Will Prospective Law Students Listen to the Hard Truth?”
  1. My Journey says:

    TML,

    Maybe it is because I am younger, maybe it is because I didn’t leave law school with 6 digits debt, but I can’t agree with you. While I completely agree with you that public should understand that only the top 5% of all law graduates (I made up that number, but I am sure you have the real one) are going to start at a white shoe firm making a $180K a year. I did not, but on the flipside I decided to stay home and not act like a lawyer while in law school and so I left law school with the minimum amount of loans.

    I never want to be that old angry attorney that were supposed to be mentors telling kids not to go to law school because being a lawyer is miserable. I love that I made the decision to get my J.D. even though I graduated from a 4th Tier.

  2. Rick Beagle says:

    TML,

    I can not agree or disagree with this post as it is outside my calling, however if we are going to tell people what NOT to do, let’s take a moment and say a bit more on what to do.

    Go GREEN! Get your butts into environmental (pick a subject). There is a huge need for entrepreneurs, engineers, and just people with the right stuff. Oh and that rhetoric from the Right about how Green is expensive and not practical?

    Paul Krugman:

    “It’s true that last spring the Heritage Foundation put out a report claiming that Waxman-Markey would lead to huge job losses, but the study seems to have been so obviously absurd that I’ve hardly seen anyone cite it. (you did TML and we laughed)

    Instead, the campaign against saving the planet rests mainly on lies.

    Thus, last week Glenn Beck — who seems to be challenging Rush Limbaugh for the role of de facto leader of the G.O.P. — informed his audience of a “buried” Obama administration study showing that Waxman-Markey would actually cost the average family $1,787 per year. Needless to say, no such study exists.

    But we shouldn’t be too hard on Mr. Beck. Similar — and similarly false — claims about the cost of Waxman-Markey have been circulated by many supposed experts.

    A year ago I would have been shocked by this behavior. But as we’ve already seen in the health care debate, the polarization of our political discourse has forced self-proclaimed “centrists” to choose sides — and many of them have apparently decided that partisan opposition to President Obama trumps any concerns about intellectual honesty.

    So here’s the bottom line: The claim that climate legislation will kill the economy deserves the same disdain as the claim that global warming is a hoax. The truth about the economics of climate change is that it’s relatively easy being green.”

    In conclusion, go GREEN and make a ton of GREEN (oh and save the planet).

    Full article here.

    Related to this conversation and the one one about the vegetable garden is this from Popular Mechanics.

    Peace.
    Rick Beagle

  3. lurker carl says:

    My thinking is that a significant percentage of college students should not even be in college. I’d prefer to see the high school diploma return to it’s former place of honor. Too many public school systems have dumped the blue collar trades from their curriculums and focused entirely on a college track. Not all students are actually college material or have the smarts required for book learning, many would be better off learning a trade.

    Teenagers entering adulthood should have the basic skills and knowledge to enter the workforce as productive members of society without having to pay a university to take remedial classes in subjects they should have already mastered.

    Another trend that concerns me, many youngsters feel they are able to start at the top of their chosen field. Thought they think experience counts for little, most don’t know the first clue about how anything actually works.

    Maybe we need to reinstate the draft again. A healthy dose of life experience and reality early in adulthood would be a good thing for future generations. Especially for politicians.

  4. Rick Beagle says:

    I actually agree with you Lurker Carl with the exception of the draft. I do however agree that politicians should serve. And not in some parade role. Too many seem to have too little regard for the lives they send into harms way imho.

    The PeaceCorp is a good choice too. A civilian oriented version per se, but you have to convince the right wingnuts that it isnt some sort of return to the brown shirts. There are a LOT of things that need fixing around the country, and we could let these kids get a bit of experience while fixing them (bridges, damns, levees, etc.).

    Peace.
    Rick Beagle

  5. kitty says:

    I think the first question students should ask themselves is what they are good at. It’s easy to say everyone should be an engineer, but not everyone is good at that. I don’t know much about law, but I’d imagine it has some requirements too.

    The second question is which one of the things they are reasonably good at they like to do.

    The third question would be whether they can earn a living doing what they like, what are the chances of them being able to earn a living and if the chances are small whether they still want to give it a shot. Sometimes one needs to compromise a bit, at other times it makes sense to try it and see so as not to live one’s life thinking “what if”.

    I agree that some people shouldn’t even go to college. I’ve never really understood American system of going to college to learn some general things most people in other countries learn in schools and then deciding what they want to be. I believe – and I could be wrong here – that in most European countries young people first decide what they want to be when they grow up and then choose to go to college – and to which college – or not go to college. There are also different requirements for different majors. What is the point of someone with zero aptitude for math trying to study computer science or somebody with no talent trying to study music? As a hobby – sure, I had piano lessons too as a child as well as classical voice lessons as an adult, but my parents made sure I knew the limits of my rather modest abilities. American parents, on the other hand, are often unwilling to disillusion their kids. What about someone with no special writing ability or mediocre writing ability to major in English? OK, maybe some people want to go on to law school, this is fair. But I read posts saying they choose to major in English to learn how to write. Where I grew up you’d not be accepted into any college if you couldn’t write in your native language reasonably well. To me majoring in English means you want to be a writer or a journalist and you better have some talent for it. Or if you want to go to law school, think about what you want to do with your degree too. For those who study English to learn how to write or who study humanities to become an educated person – go to a library and read books in your spare time, take a couple of extra courses for fun or make whatever you like your minor. I had minor in Itaian literature.

    Additionally, in many countries students aren’t accepted just to college, they are accepted directly to a specific field of study with the number of openings being limited for each field roughly based on need. I.e. more engineering schools than liberal arts colleges.

    Now, I don’t know much about law, but if there is no need for so many lawyers why are there so many law schools?

    In terms of PeaceCorp or doing other stuff between school and college is that 1) if you do it by the time you go to college you’ll forget much of what you learn in school and will have to spend time remembering it or even take extra courses 2) as we grow older we lose some of our abilities such as memory and maybe even creativity, the younger we are the better we learn 3) in some fields, it already takes too long to get out of school e.g. doctors are already almost 30 by the time they are done with school and residency 4) in some fields, you lose your skills if you take a break 5) in some fields, especially in performing arts, the time is of the essense 6) physical labor is accident-prone and if it may be not a big deal for most people, for a surgeon or a pianist damaging one’s hand is disastrous. I don’t discount the idea, but in some cases it makes sense to do community service type work after college and related to one’s field – e.g. a doctor’s education can be subsidized on a condition that he or she does some community work thereafter; a performing arts major can perform. In many countries where there is a draft, there are postponements if one is accepted to specific (or all) colleges.

    • Rick Beagle says:

      “In terms of PeaceCorp or doing other stuff between school and college is that 1) if you do it by the time you go to college you’ll forget much of what you learn in school and will have to spend time remembering it or even take extra courses 2) as we grow older we lose some of our abilities such as memory and maybe even creativity, the younger we are the better we learn 3) in some fields, it already takes too long to get out of school e.g. doctors are already almost 30 by the time they are done with school and residency 4) in some fields, you lose your skills if you take a break 5) in some fields, especially in performing arts, the time is of the essense 6) physical labor is accident-prone and if it may be not a big deal for most people, for a surgeon or a pianist damaging one’s hand is disastrous. I don’t discount the idea, but in some cases it makes sense to do community service type work after college and related to one’s field – e.g. a doctor’s education can be subsidized on a condition that he or she does some community work thereafter; a performing arts major can perform. In many countries where there is a draft, there are postponements if one is accepted to specific (or all) colleges.”

      Kitty, I think we need to take a step back. I am not suggesting that a person with a desire to become a surgeon head off the side of the Hoover Dam with some caulking in his hands. Rather, I am suggesting that there are a large number of things that need to be done around the country and that the Job Corp and organizations like it, could provide a conduit between those desiring a skill set and actually obtaining said skill while helping out our communities and our nation.

      In an effort to illustrate this point, a person desiring medical training could obtain some of it by working in a hospital as an intern, or something akin to that sort of arrangement. I think it offers another avenue to pursue their goals, provides them with real world experience, and helps encourage a generation of youth to give back to their communities.

      Peace.
      Rick Beagle

  6. MasterPo says:

    Lurker is correct in that too many are in college that shouldn’t be there in so far as they just don’t have the “talent” for spending 4 more years in school, *really* gaining useful information (as oppose to partying all the time), and then apply it for the long haul in a real-career field.

    As I’ve said here before (though I don’tlike repeating myself) the public education system has screwed students for the last 50 years at least with the concept that ALL children *deserve* (the right?) to go to college. This as opposed to tracking those who just don’t have the academic abilities into a more vocational training path where they COULD earn a good wage doing REAL services any society needs, if not the most glamorous jobs out there.

    TML – I’m not going to debate Law School costs per se, but you (and others) have made the same cost/benefit analysis about going to college altogether and I just can’t buy that. Even at TWICE the current cost, the value of college – and even more gradute or post-graduate school – simply can not be evaluted in simple cash flow analysis terms. The very opportinities just to *apply* to some jobs while others w/o a degree couldn’t even try is sometimes worth the cost IMO. And historically throughout human civilization those with education, as a group, ALWAYS do better than those without.

    ps- My sister-in-law started her law career making about $80k right out of school. She didn’t go to an Ivy League school and IMO isn’t the most competent legal advisor out there (yes my wife knows my opinion of her sister’s professional skills 😉 ).

    pps- TML – Why not try the same cost/benefit analyis of going to medical school? Especially in light of Obama’s desire to greatly restrict the earnings of doctors!

  7. Kay says:

    Having young family members in both law and medical school, I am amazed at the tuition. But is it any worse than the cost of a degree from a university that there is not chance of getting a decent paying job to cover educational loans. There are majors at universities that will let a student graduate with a piece of paper, but not prepare them into a field that will be effective in getting a decent paycheck for the what they committed, both time and money. In other words, it’s not just law school.
    I agree that our high schools have become what our community colleges were, our community colleges are becoming what our four year college were, and our four year colleges have expanded to be five or six years incorperating what used to be covered in a graduate program. It may be the pace of education, but it also is asking young student to select career tracks very early on.
    We also have many scholarship programs in place that reward students to go into fields of study with “least resistance”. Many scholarships require students to maintain a grade point average that is higher than passing “C”. A student on scholarship learns quickly if they drop their grade point average to below a “B” in many cases, they loose the scholarship funds. This happens with no regards to majors. So a student who is in a technical field such as science and math area (as we all say we need more of), getting a combination of B and C grades, will change majors to a field that is less technical in order to keep the scholarship in place.

  8. MasterPo says:

    Kay – Regarding graduates in fields with poor job prospects, while I totally agree, that isn’t necessarily the function of a college/university per se. That is, college isn’t always about vocational training. There are many fields of study I totally agree that there is little practical job-call for (other than teaching, maybe). But the offering of a field of study in college shouldn’t necessarily be taken as an indication there is a job market for it.

    Much is up to the student to look into the field and decide “What happens after I get this degree? What do I do then?”, which unfortunatel not many students do. But I don’t blame the schools for it.

    Then again, many moons ago I did read a newspaper article about a girl who sued here college for having awarded her a degree in a subject (don’t recall what) that didn’t have a field at all!

    But then too, recently I saw an ad for a Masters degree in International Negotiation. The ad gave examples of negotiating government treaties, anti-terrorist activities, negotiation of U.N. type functions etc. Just how many jobs like that *really* exist??

  9. I agree with you. I’ve personally tried to deter people from going to law school – unless they can get into a top 10 school or so. There’s room in every profession for people that are the very best. The legal profession has become over crowded.

    In my experience, though, you can’t talk someone out of going to law school. Everyone assumes that things are different for them.

  10. Young people need to consider exactly what law school prepares you to do and then decide if anything in that spectrum of opportunities (and pay range) is what they really want to do.

    Not all law school graduates walk into $80,000-plus jobs. Most starting jobs in law firms are surprisingly ill paid. A good firm expects you to show up around 7:00 a.m. and be there until midnight. Your performance is, to a large extent, assessed according to the number of billable hours you file. Then, if you’re lucky, you make partner…

    My ex- was a corporate lawyer. He worked six days a week at one of the most prestigious firms in the Southwest. He didn’t show up at the office much before 8:00 a.m. and he left around 5:30 or 6:00 p.m. This branded him as a “nine-to-five lawyer,” about the worst thing a high-powered lawyer can imagine to say about a colleague. He was shoehorned out because, one of his former partners remarked at an event where he thought he wasn’t being overheard, “he just didn’t want to do the work.”

    “Doing the work” entailed following the model set by one of the partners who was hired in the same year the ex- joined the firm. This guy got up at 4:00 a.m. to run for 40 minutes or an hour. Showered, threw on a suit and tie, left for work no later than 5:30 a.m. Bolted a miserable breakfast on the way in; arrived at the office by 6:00. He never, ever left the office before 10:00 p.m. He went to work seven days a week. He and his wife took “separate vacations” (meaning she had a vacation with the kids and without her husband; he kept on working).

    You wanna work like that? By all means, go to law school.

    You could start your own practice as a dirty-shirt lawyer. To do that, you’ll need a few years of experience at a firm (see above) or as a county prosecutor or defender (check the pay range).

    You could try an environmental or legal aid practice (see above, under “pay range”).

    As a college professor, I have met 30-ish lawyers who so loved the practice of law that they came back to college to pick up a teaching certificate, qualifying them for a job with a starting pay of $24,000. That should tell you something.

  11. Attorney desperately seeking employment says:

    WE NEED AN ORGANIZATION THAT UNITES ATTORNEYS AGAINST ABA. If med schools can limit their number to 131 and Dentists can limit dental schools to about 58, then we can surely keep the number of law schools under control. The whole thing is a scam. I graduated from Texas Southern University law school – some of my professors were barely literate. Except for a few good professors, most did nothing for me. They have a mysterious double grading system that undercuts students who secure good grades on their merit. There are other terrible law schools out there and plenty of terrible lawyers because of it. The law schools, including mine, inflate their post-graduation employment figures by hiring graduates from menial temporary jobs or by outright lying. ABA leadership is heavily composed of law school administrators and Big Law attorneys, while majority of Attorneys in america dont fall into the big-law category and these are the people who are struggling to find jobs. The average lawyer is severely unpaid, her/his pay undercut by the huge numbers of graduates being churned out of diploma mill law schools every year. On top of that , ABA has allowed outsourcing, this has severely cut the basic work unemployed attorneys depended on – document review. The average attorney is squeezed from all sides with ABA doing more to hurt her/him. The medical field takes care of its own. The dental field takes care of its own. But the only people the ABA takes care of are 1. the deans of trashy law schools like mine who make a million or more a year and 2. the Big law firms that benefit from getting their document work done by ridiculously underpaid attorneys in the US or abroad. ABA, please stop this madness! stop this corruption! You have destroyed not only our livelihood but the prestige we worked so hard to get.

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