As we mentioned in Morning Docket, there was a brilliant piece in Am Law Daily the other day about the “versatility” of a J.D. — or lack thereof. Matt Leichter argues that if you believe your J.D. is a utilitarian degree, you are living in an illogical dreamworld.
Of course, nobody ever accused prospective law students of being logical. Many people justify time and treasure expended on going to law school on the supposed versatility of the J.D., and like most things involving the decision to go to law school, the students have done little research to back up the claim.
That thought about the degree is so ingrained that you regularly see vast numbers of students heading off to law school who say they don’t want to be lawyers. Think about that. You don’t hear med students say, “I don’t want to be a doctor, I just thought it would be good to know how to save a life.” Heck, you don’t hear plumbers say, “I didn’t really want to be a plumber, but you never know when being able to make raw sewage flow freely will come in handy.”
Make no mistake, going to law school in order to do non-law stuff is stupid….
People say to me all the time: “Elie, your J.D. helped you get your job at Above the Law, so clearly it was versatile in your case.” Usually I say, “Don’t be a f**king idiot,” and order another drink, but let me expound on why my career should not be viewed as a “You Can Do Anything With A Law Degree” success story:
- Do you really think any person would go over $100,000 into debt to be an internet blogger? Christ with a calculator, I’m not that dumb.
- The fact that my J.D. helped me get my current job doesn’t ex post facto turn the decision to get a J.D. into a wise one.
- Once I decided to move into writing, it was actually more likely that my J.D. limited my options to law-related blogs and columns, as opposed to opening up journalistic options. You think I’m here by choice? Have you read the comments? I don’t even like lawyers. Please free me.
- People always ignore the opportunity cost. Even if you are in a non-lawyer job where your J.D. is helpful, you’ve got to think of what other experiences and credentials you might have gotten with three years of your life back and an extra $100,000 in your pocket. In my case, if I wasn’t busy learning about interesting things you can do with Good Samaritans, I might have learned to spell. Think of the possibilities!
- Oh, and did I mention that I walk around with two Harvard degrees dangling from my crotch like Crimson nuts? A Harvard J.D. is a freaking Transformer compared to the “versatility” of a random J.D. from a non-prestigious school. That’s not fair, but I’m walking around with Optimus Prime, and other people are trying to glue legs onto a hot wheel.
In all seriousness, I’m lucky that I’ve been able to do something that doesn’t involve being a lawyer where my J.D. is still occasionally useful. I’m lucky and I have the fairly random talent of making people read my inane ravings on the internet. But Leichter’s article explains that most people aren’t nearly as fortunate as I am:
The versatility argument also equivocates law graduates’ circumstances and career outcomes, most frequently in terms of the difference between lawyers who chose to move into a different career because of luck or burnout versus a graduate who never had much hope of working gainfully as a lawyer. Along with their recent predecessors, the 4,042 class of 2011 graduates who reported to the ABA that they were still seeking employment (to say nothing of those who didn’t return their surveys, an admittedly small number of graduates disproportionately from less-prestigious law schools) will easily be overlooked by legal employers filling their positions with fresher, more recent graduates. Lists of famous people such as Geraldo Rivera or Paul Robeson who studied law and then moved on neglect to mention that those people had significantly less student loan debt and changed their careers when wages were more egalitarian generally and opportunities more plentiful. Few law school graduates can sing as well as Paul Robeson.
For most people, the reality of not getting a law job with their law degree doesn’t involve people using their J.D. to do something even more awesome:
Many forces cause law graduates to enter “nontraditional” work, but the two most significant factors today are the sputtering economic recovery and law school overenrollment. …
[M]any of those who miss the opportunity to use their law degree as lawyers now won’t be able to use them for much else ever, and they will be flung into the gutted, paycheck economy with little hope of using their degrees as professionals. In short, the “bottleneck” of underemployed graduates today is significantly less likely to be cleared than the one from the early 1990s was, but until then it isn’t accurate to say that their law degrees helped them land the positions they are in.
Yes, there are people who don’t get legal jobs, yet still manage to find gainful employment elsewhere — but that’s not an argument for the strength of the degree. It’s an argument that poverty is a bitch and people will fight against it to the last.
There are always exceptions. One thing I’ve learned about the mind of a would-be law student is that they all think they are exceptional. They all think that the law of averages does not apply to them.
But the next time somebody who works for a law school tells you that there are a lot of non-legal jobs you can do with a law degree, try to remember that you can also do those jobs without a law degree, three years of your life lost, and thousands of dollars of debt.