Investing in rims is a safer bet than investing in law school.

Occasionally, people will tell me that the calculus for attending law school is different for African-Americans than it is for any other kind of American. The proponents of this theory (and people who believe this come from all races) start with the objective fact that African-Americans are underrepresented as members of the bar. They view that as a social injustice that contributes to the fact that African-American clients are underserved by the legal community.

From those two appropriate concerns, these guys then see that the obvious solution is that more black people should apply to law school. And so they then make up reasons for why applying to law schools is somehow an especially good idea for black people. As if the fact that there’s a laudable social end magically changes the math of the law school decision.

But the social ends do not justify the economic means. Poor black people need lawyers, they don’t need more poor black people who became poor by going to law school.

Now, I’m all for racial diversity, but I fail to see the social good of encouraging black people to make ruinous financial decisions just because they are underrepresented in the group of people making this particular stupid purchase. I wouldn’t say to a bunch of white people, “You know, you really need to buy expensive rims for your car on credit. No money down!”

Sorry, that might be an inapposite analogy: rims are at least shiny and accomplish their stated goal of providing bling for your ride. A J.D. can’t even be used to adorn a car.

As I said, I’ve heard this terrible argument before, but rarely as boldly as from the associate dean for academic affairs at Penn State Law. Her version of the argument seems more like an attempt to cause active harm to the black community by taking advantage of those who don’t have enough information.

This falsehood that law school is somehow a “better” bet for African-Americans must be stopped, right here, right now….

Writing in the National Law Journal, associate dean Carla D. Pratt of Penn State Dickinson argues that law school is “still” a good investment for African-American students. Her article makes a number of strange or simply wrong assumptions, ignores key facts, and generally paints a scenario for going to law school that will be shared by only the smallest percentage of the African-American community.

Shooting holes in this argument will only be challenging because it’s made entirely of Swiss cheese:

African-Americans should not be dissuaded from attending law school by published law school tuition rates. What prospective students should know is that many students with solid academic credentials or financial need actually do not pay full freight to attend law school. Many law schools award financial aid to students based on their LSAT score and undergraduate grade-point average. This type of aid is called “merit”-based aid, and black applicants with solid academic credentials should seek it once they are admitted to a law school.

Yes, if you are an African-American busting a 170 or higher on the LSAT, everybody is going to be after your ass. I can speak from some (ahem) experience that the top schools will admit you, and the good schools just a cut below will offer you a very generous scholarship.

Do you know how many African-Americans out there are nailing 170s on the LSAT? You’ll find more black athletes married to black women than black college graduates sitting on 170 LSAT scores wondering what to do with their lives. Let’s just say that this elite group of students doesn’t need the advice about “merit”-based aid.

Penn State’s 75% LSAT number is 161. Let’s assume that Pratt thinks breaking 160 counts as a “strong” LSAT score, since that’s the kind of student her school admits. The thing is, with a 160+ LSAT score, law school is already a questionable bet. But instead of going to the very best school you can with a 160, Pratt is suggesting that students take the hit of going to a lower-ranked school that’s willing to give them money. Sure, it reduces the cost of going to school, but it also reduces the likelihood of ever getting a job.

And remember that she’s telling this to black students — black students who will be fighting an uphill battle to be respected by their peers in this prestige-conscious world of law. Nothing is free, especially not free money.

After discussing merit scholarships, Pratt moves on to the crack pipe of the entire legal education industry: need-based financial aid. I say “crack pipe” because telling people who can’t get merit scholarships that there’s need-based aid as a backup is a little like saying, “Can’t afford cocaine? Don’t worry, have some crack.” Cocaine and merit aid make you feel like a champion. Crack and need-based aid just make you feel like you want more.

Anyway, let me just emphasize that most need-based aid must be paid back. It’s a LOAN. If you don’t pay it back, it’ll screw up your credit. Do you know how annoying it is to be the stereotypical black man with bad credit? I can tell you from (AHEM) experience that it freaking blows.

Having glossed over the difference between merit and need-based aid, Pratt moves onto making completely uninformed statements:

Working the summer before law school and saving the money earned can afford students a nice nest egg for small expenses like food and books that will reduce the amount of money they need to borrow. Likewise, working the summer after the first and second year of law school can do the same thing for the last two years of attending law school. Of course, students should not work during the first year of law school because most law schools prohibit even part-time employment during this year due to the rigor of the academic program. But after the first year, students are permitted by ABA regulations to work part time (up to 20 hours per week), and doing so can significantly lower the amount of funds students need to borrow to cover living expenses.

I don’t even know where to begin with this misleading paragraph, so I’ll have to resort to bullet points:

  • Yes, black person who has managed to save money, I was going to suggest that you go to the roulette wheel and put it all on black, but law school is a better bet. The last thing you should do is continue down the path of financial prudence that allowed you to save money in the first place.
  • Very few people work a paying legal job over their first summer, and even fewer earn enough over that first summer to make any significant dent in their debt load. Really all you are going for your first summer is to not have to take out more debt just to get through the summer.
  • Does Pratt want to tell us how Penn State students, white or black, did with 2L summer jobs this year? If getting a good paying job over the summer was easy, then law school really would be a good idea for everybody. Unfortunately, the job market for 2Ls isn’t very good right now. JUST SAYING.
  • Yes, work your 20 hours a week, then sit in an interview and explain why you finished outside of the top ten percent because you were limiting your debt load. But don’t worry, the 20 hours you’re putting in at the McDonald’s will put in you a great position to be Fry Cook, Esquire when you graduate.

The key issue I have with Dean Pratt here is that telling people to limit their debts by working is great advice… in a market where there are jobs. In a market where jobs are hard to come by, it’s a little bit like telling people not to fly too close to the sun: good advice if you are in the position to benefit from it.

It keeps getting worse. Pratt has already essentially told people with middling LSAT scores that they shouldn’t go to the best school they can get into. Then she told them to take jobs that don’t exist over their summers. Now she’s going to tell them not to worry about the post-graduate employment market:

With respect to the shrinking market for the services of lawyers, prospective law students should remember that post-law school job statistics do not tell the whole story. They do not account for the growing percentage of students who attend law school with the intent to apply their legal skills in business or government administration and who never intend to practice law in the traditional sense. Employment statistics also ignore entrepreneurs who start their own practices and serve individual clients whose legal needs otherwise might go unmet.

/pours alcohol on self, sets “Love the Way You Lie” on repeat, lights match

First of all, post-law-school job statistics DO IN FACT ACCOUNT for people in government jobs and business. STOP LYING TO PEOPLE who don’t know any better! Nobody has ever accused a law school of under-reporting the amount of employed graduates. Meanwhile, “entrepreneurs who start their own practices” is another way of saying UNEMPLOYED GRADUATES!

Remember, Pratt’s agenda is to get more lawyers for underserved clients — clients who generally can’t afford to pay a lot for legal services, or pay at all. How are these young black lawyers supposed to make a living and pay back their loans with “entrepreneurial” practices focusing on clients who can’t pay? It makes no sense. Pratt is making no freaking sense. She might as well be pointing to a Wookie at this point.

The whole thing comes together in one horrifyingly circular paragraph:

Because most African-Americans who have a legal problem cannot afford to hire a lawyer, they are among the most underserved group when it comes to legal services. If more African-Americans attending law school are mindful of keeping their debt load low, they would have the option of creating their own law practices that charge lower fees, thereby satisfying the unmet need for legal representation of individuals and small businesses in the black community.

Shorter Pratt: If more African-Americans put themselves in a position where they have no way to get a decent legal job, they may end up taking on poor black clients out of sheer desperation.

Let me be clear, the answer for getting better legal services to poor black people cannot be hobbling different black people with unpayable debts from crappy schools.

The reason black people are underrepresented in law is because they can’t afford it. They disproportionately have low family wealth, they lack the money to take necessary test-prep courses, and they lack role models and people in their lives to tell them the best way to jump through all the hoops necessary to get into law school. It’s all pretty standard stuff. White people are more likely to have access to all those things, and thus they are more likely to go into the law.

Of course, not all white people have that kind of access, and yet they go anyway. They go with crappy LSAT scores and no money and no mentors. And for a lot of white people in that position, the decision to go to law school turns out to be a terrible one from which they’ll spend decades trying to recover. They ignore advice, refuse to research employment statistics, and they go in waves and waves. Just because a bunch of white people are doing it doesn’t mean black people should do it too. As my mom used to say, “If your friends jumped off the Empire State Building, would you follow them?”

Someday, somebody will have to explain to me the intrinsic virtue of encouraging more poor black people to make the same ruinous decisions that poor white people make in this arena. Until that happens, I’ll be telling black people the same thing that I tell everybody else: going to law school is probably not worth it.

Law School: still a good investment for African-Americans [National Law Journal]


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