Yesterday we received a fairly provocative question in the Above the Law inbox. A reader asked us to assess the role that parents play — or should play — in their children’s decision to go to law school:
With all the talk about the perils of going to [law school], I wonder what role people’s parents play (or should play) in the decision…. While there are some older, more independent law students, I think the vast majority of matriculating students have had or still receive some form of parental support. How could a parent tell their child not to follow their dreams? Seems like that would never happen in my generation of helicopter-parented children. Yet that discouragement is exactly what could prevent a lot of poor decisions to go to low-ranked schools.
I think it cuts the other way. I don’t think that parents are allowing their kids to go to law school because they want to be supportive of their kids’ dreams. I think that more parents are forcing their kids to go to law school, especially lower-ranked law schools, as they vicariously relive their lives through their children.
Absent parental meddling, there wouldn’t be nearly as many people applying to law school….
First of all, let’s make an arbitrary cutoff and say that by age 27 — when you’ve been out of college for five years — parental guidance and expectations should have little impact on your decision making process. I know that statement is not true for many; I’ve proposed a legal fiction. But we need some cutoff to distinguish between (1) people who are being unduly influenced by helicopter parents and (2) stunted individuals who lack the courage to make their own decisions. If you can’t stand up to your parents by the time you hit 27, you’ve got bigger problems than whether they want you to go to law school.
Our tipster’s message supposes that many parents are willing to help their children out financially to follow their dreams. I posit that many more parents are willing to help their children out so long as what the children are doing conforms to the dreams the parents have for these children. Raise your hand if your parents helped you out to go to law school. Keep your hands raised if your parents would have also supported you while you tried to start a rock band for three years. Or if they would have given you around six figures to start a restaurant.
You get the point. Parents often use their “help” to force their kids into a decision, as opposed to freeing the children to make their own decisions. Many kids get help to go to law school because it was the only thing that their parents would help pay for.
It seems to me that the problem of strings-attached money is more prevalent and heartbreaking at lower-ranked law schools. At the best schools, you get kids that have truly wanted to be lawyers all their lives and have worked extremely hard to get there. You’ve got kids who don’t want to be lawyers but who have always “succeeded,” who end up in law school as the next best indication of success. And you’ve got kids who are so used to doing what Mommy and Daddy expect of them that they don’t even realize their entire lives have been about what Mommy and Daddy want. Those kids honestly think they want to be in law school, even though they’ve never really had an independent thought in their lives.
Either way, at the best schools you’ve got a lot of people who want to be there at some level because they’ve worked really hard to get there.
At schools that are not as highly ranked, you also have a lot of kids who are there because they want to be there and they’ve worked hard to get there. You’ve got kids from the same categories I listed above. But you also have kids who haven’t worked particularly hard. Kids who haven’t been particularly directed — about getting into law school, studying in college or for the LSAT, or anything else. You’ve got kids who never really took to “school” in the first place, kids who don’t like taking tests, and kids who have other interests and passions in their lives that have at critical times distracted them from the educational task at hand.
At some of our low-end diploma mills, you’ve got students who are really only there because Mommy and Daddy told them to “stop being a screw-up” and go to law school. And that’s a problem. In general, parents who are not lawyers have no clue what being a lawyer actually entails. But, ye Gods, they sure like saying “my daughter’s in law school” at parties. It makes their freaking day to say, “Oh, yeah, my son is a lawyer now; he works on Wall Street.” They don’t know and, more importantly, they don’t care whether or not that is a job that their kids wanted. They think it’s a “good job” (and become horrified when the New York Times tells them it isn’t), and they’ll help pay tuition at the worst law school you can think of if it means that their kid can be a lawyer someday.
This problem affects lower-income parents most of all. The parents least able to afford the ridiculous tuition charged by lower-ranked law schools are the ones most susceptible to thinking that a law degree — any law degree — is a good thing for their children. They’ll pay any amount, and they’ll encourage their children to borrow any amount, in order to get a precious J.D. from the Rocco Globbo School for Women if need be. Being a lawyer is something that screams “upward mobility.” Starting your own business screams, “I’m gonna be unemployed for a while, Dad.”
What are the kids supposed to do? Tell Daddy to keep his $50K because the legal economy is soft and the cost of the degree has far outstripped its value? Tell Mommy that just because you “like to argue” doesn’t mean you have a single skill necessary to perform high-level legal tasks? Daddy is going to tell you that you need to invest money to earn money, and Mommy is going to tell you that you are a special snowflake who already figures things out, and they’re both going to tell you: “Well, you’ve got to do something, unless you are going to move back in here after college.”
I don’t believe that the unyielding supply of fresh law students can be explained solely by the autonomous choices of thousands of students too stupid to act in their own economic best interests. I think that parents are pushing their kids towards these ruinous financial decisions because the parents themselves are uneducated about the legal market and the practice of law. Parents have dreams, too, and one of their dreams is to have kids who grow up to be lawyers, not plumbers — even if plumbers are happier, have less debt, and aren’t hated by most of the rest of society.
Of course, setting 27 as the age when kids should no longer be susceptible to this kind of influence was arbitrary. A smart kid might stop listening to the ravings of their parents by 22, or even earlier. Parents might be part of the problem, but you can’t blame the parents. They don’t know any better.
Ultimately, it is the individual student who needs to grow up and assert control over his or her own life.