When The Media Talks About Law School, They Only Tell Half The Story


[I'm biased, I admit it.  I loved law school, so if that means you want to call BS on everything I say after this sentence, I'll understand.]

Three weeks ago, The New Republic made a big splash in the legal community with this article examining the death of Big Law (huge multi-national firms with thousands of attorneys making over $150K per year).  The article describes how the old model of legal hiring is no longer applicable in a world of downsizing and economic uncertainty.  In the past decade, at least twelve major law firms have collapsed and the job market for lawyers has all but dried up.  And while the article never says the words "law school is a bad investment", it can't help but point out that

The odds are increasingly long that a recent law-school grad will find a job... In addition to the emotional toll unemployment exacts, it is often financially ruinous. The average law student graduates $100,000 in debt.

Even though the New Republic won't say it, every other mainstream media outlet already has.  Over the past three years, The New York Times, The Washington PostGawker Media and countless others have piled onto the "law school is a bad investment" bandwagon.  And whenever those stories get passed around between my friends and colleagues, I get annoyed.  "How can they paint with such a broad brush? Is what's good for the goose good for the gander?"

The premise is always the same: Law school is expensive  → since most people can't afford the tuition, they have to take out loans → the job market has shrunk for legal work, so there are fewer jobs for too many lawyers  → when lawyers can't get work, they drown in loan debt.  The New Republic article even quotes a lawyer who was let go from her Big Law job and believes she's facing bankruptcy as a result.

These arguments are all correct, and it seems like these stories are having the desired effect.  Law school enrollments in 2013 were down 13% from 2012 which were already down 7% from 2011.  I can't argue that law school is for everyone.  Law school is worth it for one group of people only: those who want to practice law.  No one else should consider it.

The media isn't wrong to point out these facts.  The media also isn't wrong to question the current model and to search for better options for long term sustainability.  The media IS wrong, however, to paint the choice to go to law school as a purely societal issue.  Yes, there are too many lawyers.  Yes there aren't enough jobs for them.  Yes it's contributing to the education loan debt crisis.  But you can't look at this issue solely through a macro lens.  These are individual people making a monumentally personal decision.  How will I pay my tuition?  How will I pay my bills for the next three years?  What are my job prospects after law school as opposed to now?  I can say from personal experience that my long-term job prospects in the entertainment industry weren't promising, so incurring all that law school debt seemed like a worthwhile gamble if there was a chance I could get a stable job after school.

By leaving out the human element, the issue turns into a binary Law School Is For Everyone vs. Law School Is For No One battle royal.  Even the articles defending law school education like this one build their case on the fact that lawyers will earn more money over their lifetimes than those without law degrees.  I understand that tactic.  As a lawyer, you want to use credible, citable evidence to prove your case - figures from the American Bar Association on enrollments, or a Seton Hall study on the economic value of a law degree.  Anecdotal evidence is less compelling if you're trying to convince an entire generation of people that something is or isn't for them.  If you want to justify something at the aggregate level, you need hard data.  That's how policy is made.

I lament the absence of the human element because I think we lose a real teaching moment.  People are drawn to law school for a variety of complex reasons (we weren't all wooed by promises of big paydays at firm jobs).  Reducing the entire argument to a numbers game diminishes the legitimacy of an entire profession.

There are certainly a lot of problems with the current law school educational system, but this isn't just a social issue.  It's a deeply personal one.  And the media hasn't done a good enough job telling THAT story.