Over the last couple of years, numerous writers–on blogs and in the media–have been expressing concern about the state of the legal job market and asserting that there is an overproduction of lawyers. Comes now Lawrence Mitchell, who is Dean at Case Western’s law school, with an article titled Law School is Worth the Money. He denounces the “hysteria” of the critics and argues, basically, that those who are interested in going to law school should be encouraged to go ahead and do so.
I’m not very impressed with Dean Mitchell’s reasoning, and there are quite a few other people–many of them lawyers and law professors–who are similarly unimpressed.
One thing that particularly struck me in Mitchell’s article, and not in a good way, was this:
What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers, nor should they.
Has the entire universe of careers that exists outside of law/medicine/investment banking…many of them very lucrative, many very challenging and satisfying…completely escaped Dean Mitchell’s notice? Or is he perhaps a follower of what I call the conveyor-belt view of life and of careers? The conveyor-belt view, in this context, is the idea that no one could have a truly successful career unless they have been trained for it in a way that provides a one-to-one mapping between their university coursework and their careers…lawyers, in particular, often seem to find it confusing that someone could be, say, a Director of Product Management or a Regional Sales Manager without ever having taken any university courses in Product Management or regional sales-managing, and I think this view is increasingly common among credentialists of all types. (Mitchell does depart from the conveyor-belt view a bit when he says “Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving”…but he provides no evidence or logic to support the view that a law-school education teaches “leadership” better than, say, a spell as a military officer, or that it teaches “creative problem solving” better than, for example, an engineering degree or a truly serious liberal arts program.)
Nowhere in Dean Mitchell’s article do I see seriously addressed an issue that seems to be fundamental to his topic: how many lawyers can/should the U.S. economy usefully and productively support? Maybe the decline from 55% of law graduates starting in law firms to 50% in 2011 is a temporary cyclic downturn, as he suggests. But maybe it is a secular change. Someone giving advice to young people who are making major educational and career decisions should at least attempt to seriously address this market-sizing issue. Citing a Bureau of Labor Statistics projection, without looking more deeply at the dynamics of the market, isn’t in my view sufficient.
For most people, the cost of college and professional-school education…which encompasses not only direct costs incurred but also the opportunity costs of their time–is probably several times greater than the amount they will ever invest in any particular stock or bond. Those who are considering these investments should look very carefully at the claims of those who are selling such program–whether they represent for-profit or “nonprofit” institutions.
There’s an old saying: “Never ask a barber if you need a haircut”
I’d say it’s okay to ask the barber…but if the haircut is an expensive and time-consuming one, you should get other views–and do your own research and analysis–as well.