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The Debate Over the Value of Law School Goes On

The New York Times recently raised the question “Is Law School A Losing Game?” and suggested that, for many recent law grads, the answer apparently is yes.  First, there is widespread recognition that the job market for lawyers, particularly young lawyers, is terrible.  Little debate there.  Second, tuition is soaring at the nation’s law schools.  Hardly a stretch either. So what’s driving the discussion lately?  The continued disconnect between this gloomy job picture, on the one hand, and the students lining up in droves to take the LSAT, the steady stream of applicants to law school, and the continued proliferation of new law schools, on the other.

The recent Times article suggests that part of the reason for this disconnect is the way that law schools market themselves, the skewed “Enron-type accounting standards” they present in the form of their employed-at-graduation numbers (does it count if a grad is employed at Applebee’s and Home Depot?), and “the gasoline that fuels this system — federally backed student loans — [which are] still widely available.”   

Vault.com’s editors weighed in this week on the topic, with different views.  Vault.com’s Law Editor, Mary Kate Sheridan, posted the story Law School Isn’t a Game – It’s a Serious Investment.  Vault’s Sheridan says prospective students have to consider carefully the return on their investment:

“I think too much blame is being placed on schools. Law school provides an education, not a golden ticket to a corner office and six-figure salary. Ignorance is not an excuse, but it seems to be the central theme for Michael Wallerstein, the main subject of Segal’s [NY Times] article. Wallerstein “knew little about the Thomas Jefferson School of Law” and “assumed that the very scale of law school . . . implied that pots of gold awaited anyone with smarts, charm and a willingness to work hard.” When it comes to a hundred-thousand-dollar-plus investment, it seems irresponsible to rely on assumptions rather than arming oneself with all information available…Individuals entering law school are (hopefully) intelligent, analytical adults, who should leave naivety at the door and fully inform themselves before moving forward. When it comes to employment, there are no guarantees one will get a job, and there are no guarantees one will keep that job regardless of the economy.”

Vault.com’s Education Editor, David Limm, offers a different take in his post, Law Schools Entice Naïve Students Onto Campus With Rosy, Misleading Data.  Limm had this to say about the NY Times story:

“As the article notes, rankings, US News in particular, are at the center of the issue. Only students from top-tier schools can normally get the lucrative BigLaw jobs, and it’s the rankings which control the perception of which programs are at the top. From the schools’ perspectives, it’s an arms race and the ethical implications of skewing data and fudging the numbers are secondary to the impulse for self-preservation. For the second-tier (and maybe third-tier) schools, the rosy view of the legal job market provided by US News, when combined with an ignorance of the actual distribution of average starting salaries, helps get them enormous amounts of tuition money from prospective students, many of whom should have done more research before applying.”

So, the debate goes on.  Perhaps what is most noteworthy here is the attention of major media outlets, like the New York Times, to this topic.  As many well know, the discussion has been raging in the legal blogosphere for a while now.  In December 2009, we posted Due Diligence and Reasonable Expectations Before You Go To Law School, sharing what Law School Podcaster guests have said in recent shows about the debt crisis facing law grads, the value of a law degree and how to treat law school like an investment.  You can also read a post from preLaw Magazine, Is Law School A Wise Investment?

Check out our full shows “The Current Economic Environment: What It Means for Law School Applicants and Students,” and “”Financing Your JD” to hear more on this topic.

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