Over the weekend, you may have noticed that the New York Times suddenly figured out that law schools are cash cows despite offering dubious value to the students attending law school. We pulled out a fun quote from the article on Sunday.
You know the game: we talk about the danger of going to law school a lot, but because the New York Times is talking about it now we all have to talk about it again.
If you haven’t been paying attention to how law schools operate, the Times article is very, very good. It should be required reading that they send to you when you sign up with LSAC. But even if you have been paying attention, you should still read it. The article, by David Segal, contains a brilliant case study of just how New York Law School goes about generating cash. It’ll make good people sick to their stomachs.
But while the Times takes a critical look at law school deans and university presidents and even U.S. News, one constituency escapes the NYT’s glare: law students themselves…
Again, most of the piece is a case study of NYLS and its dean, Richard Matasar. Matasar comes off equal parts reformer and hypocrite in the article. But as we recently reported, Matasar will be leaving NYLS and the legal education game, so hopefully he’ll be able to sleep at night soon enough.
While Matasar gets roughed up a bit in the article, the students that blindly matriculate to his law school every year are treated with kid gloves. Here’s as close as the Times comes to critically examining the motives of the American law student:
For years, it made economic sense for smart, ambitious 22-year-olds to pay the escalating price for a legal diploma. Law schools have had a monopolist’s hold on the keys to corporate lawyerdom, which pays graduates six-figure salaries.
But borrowing $150,000 or more is now a vastly riskier proposition given the scarcity of Big Law jobs. Of course, that scarcity hasn’t been priced into the cost of law school. How come? In part, it’s because schools have managed to convey the impression that those jobs aren’t very scarce.
It’s the common defense of the law students. Whaa, law schools lie, U.S. News reports the lies, but still the only way to be a lawyer is to go to law school.
That’s all true, of course. And if we had a professional organization that felt it had a duty to protect current and future attorneys (imagine an American Bar Association that evolved a backbone and teeth), maybe things would be different.
But I don’t see how you fill a five-page article about the law school business model without looking critically at the fact that kids will go to law school regardless of facts. Let’s ask the question this way: armed with the New York Times article, will many potential law students choose to do something else? Will New York Law School see a matriculation dip now that they’ve been exposed by the paper of record? Will anybody actually change their behavior based on the information contained in this piece?
The answer is “probably not.” And that’s a huge part of the problem the Times is looking at. In fact, an Above the Law commenter identified the 800-pound gorilla in the room better than the Times did:
Since when does “most graduates” = ME?
Every f****** mouth breathing retard who gets a hard on telling slams, their parents, their grandparents, et al. that they’re “prepping for the LSAT” or already admitted (to a non-pier program)
That’s where it’s at, folks. That’s why New York Law School gets away with doing New York Law School kinds of things. That’s why the ABA can look the other way with impunity. That’s why the New York Times article won’t actually prevent one
lemming law student from jumping off the cliff. Their mothers told them they are God’s special little snowflake and that means they can go to a poorly ranked law school and succeed even though most of their classmates will fail.
It’s not even that most of these prospective law students want to be lawyers: it turns out very few people actually want to have the attention to detail and organizational skills required to spend one’s life in the service of the business concerns of more important people. But they all want to say they are lawyers. They want to tell their parents that, and tell their dates that — and they most definitely want to delay the terrifying reality of having a job for another three years.
And as long as nobody is going to stop them, as long as nobody is going to hold law schools accountable for the outcomes of their graduates, things are going to keep happening as they have been. As long as — and it pains me to say this — but as long as the federal government makes educational loans easy to obtain regardless of the borrower’s likelihood of default, then law schools are going to keep doing what law schools do.
Which is why perhaps the most interesting part of the article was this section:
Like business schools and some high-profile athletic programs, law schools subsidize other fields in universities that can’t pay their own way.
“If my president were to say ‘We’ll never take more than 10 percent of your revenue,’ I’d say ‘God bless you,’ and we’d never have to talk again,” says Lawrence E. Mitchell, the incoming dean of the Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland. “But having just come from a two-day meeting of new and current deans organized by the American Bar Association, I can tell you that some law schools pay 25 or even 30 percent.”
Among deans, the money surrendered to the administration is known informally as “the tax.” Even in the midst of a merciless legal downturn, the tax still pumps huge sums into universities, in part because the price of a law degree continues to climb.
Think about that for a second. The system of American education churns out thousands of people with totally useless liberal arts degrees every year. English, Romance Languages, Philosophy — these are all things that provide the backdrop for a fascinating life of the mind, but they hardly pay the bills. In fact, to make any of these degrees pay off, you usually have to find employment teaching these “skills” to others. And that requires you to get additional education.
But nobody in their right mind would pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to get additional education in some of this crap, because they know they’ll never make enough to justify the cost. The university needs to subsidize that education in some way — and so they turn to law schools.
Universities pay for advanced useless degrees by fleecing the kids who decided four years was enough time wasted in the pursuit of knowledge that would not lead to dollars. And thus the law students resign themselves to a life of paying back debts doing something they don’t really like, while the kids who stayed the “I’m going to become an expert in this totally useless field” course end up with cushy professorial jobs teaching “Thinking in the Digital Multiverse” to the next group of university students.
How do you like them apples?
It’s all in the game, I guess.
UPDATE: I just wanted to point you to some of the other excellent coverage of this NYT piece. Both Larry Ribstein at Truth on the Market and Bruce MacEwen at Adam Smith Esq. point out something else the Times seems to miss: that the law school market is broken. You can’t just gloss over the fact that law schools have a total monopoly on entry into the legal profession and then wonder why the industry behaves so differently than other industries.
Law School Economics: Ka-Ching! [New York Times]