Law School Deans, Law Schools, New York Times, Student Loans

Law Dean Takes to the New York Times Op-Ed Page to Blame Media for Declining Law School Applications

This law dean is hoping you’re wearing Bad Idea Jeans when you read his NYT op-ed.

You know that you are selling a substandard product when you start trying to blame “bloggers” as the reason people are refusing purchase your bill of goods.

Lawrence E. Mitchell, the dean of Case Western Reserve University School of Law, took to the Op-Ed page of the New York Times to defend the value proposition of going to law school. Mitchell would have you believe that the media — which only recently started asking law schools to provide evidence that legal education was worth the exorbitant prices schools charge for it — has unfairly and “irrationally” dissuaded the brightest students from attending law school. He writes: “The hysteria has masked some important realities and created an environment in which some of the brightest potential lawyers are, largely irrationally, forgoing the possibility of a rich, rewarding and, yes, profitable, career.”

To be clear, the argument here is that some of the BRIGHTEST potential lawyers are acting “irrationally” by not going to law school, which I suppose leaves only some of the not-brightest potential lawyers as the ones who still believe op-eds from law school deans touting the value of law school.

Mitchell’s problem is actually quite common among law school deans. In fact, Mitchell unintentionally captures the basic disconnect between law students and the deans that take their money: the facts Mitchell wants people to focus on when they are considering going to law school are not the facts that matter to people when they graduate from law school.

And the reason law school applications are on the way down is that the brightest potential lawyers are starting to understand the difference….

I could probably spend 10,000 words eviscerating the argument put forth in Dean Mitchell’s piece. Just look through our archives, and I’m sure you’ll find a counter to every single point he makes. For brevity’s sake, I’m going to focus on the biggest whoppers that law deans use to confuse or mislead readers and prospective law students. I’m going to quote an argument from the Mitchell piece and then just give you some bullet points about why that argument makes no sense. Feel free to cut and paste and send to friends and family who decided to get off the turnip truck and apply to law school:

[T]he focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.

  • Any time you see the word “many,” you should hear, “I have no figures to back up my claim in statistically significant way.” I’m still waiting for the law dean to tell us what percentage of their graduates in any year do in fact have “rich and rewarding” lives outside of the law. He can pick the class. PICK ANY CLASS, and then tell us the percentage breakdown. My guess is that for most classes it’s “less than 20%,” which isn’t exactly my idea of “many.”
  • Planning for an unpredictable world involves, you know, PLANNING. Not blindly taking the word of some dude who wants your government-backed tuition dollars. If you have a real, actual plan about how your law degree is going pay off in a “new normal” world of decreasing partnership track opportunities, more outsourcing, and more insourcing, then by all means, you should still go to law school. But if you don’t have a plan, if you haven’t made an educated guess about how your degree is going to have value in the marketplace of the future, if you’re just thinking, “I’m sure everything will work out,” then THAT’S NOT A PLAN. That’s you buying a Powerball ticket because, “Hey, you never know.” It does work out for some people, but planning to win the Powerball is not how educated people develop financial security over the next 40 years of their lives.

Law deans are, of course, compelled to make the “40 or 50 years” argument because their “upon graduation” argument has been completely blown to shreds by reality. It’s amazing that these people still have the heart to ask you to spend three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in something that doesn’t immediately result in a job, but law deans have to eat, too.

But this next argument isn’t based on “making the best case out of bad facts.” This next argument involves hoping prospective law students are really ignorant and bad at math.

Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets. And the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports projected growth in lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent, “about as fast as the average for all occupations.”

  • If you are looking at “averages” and “means” when it comes to salary, you are an idiot. I don’t know how else to put that. You are a mouth-breathing, drooling, Honey Boo Boo idiot if you think the average starting salary has any relevance to what you are likely to make as a first year lawyer.
  • If you quote “averages” and “means” as a way to make your “purely economic” argument, you are a cynical man who thinks his audience is comprised of, again, idiots who can’t see the truth behind the numbers.
  • No discussion of lawyer salary makes any sense without reference to the bi-modal salary distribution curve. Here it is. Here it is again.
  • Don’t think for a second that Lawrence Mitchell or any other law dean is unaware of the bi-modal salary distribution curve, or that they don’t know what it means and why it’s so important. When they speak of averages as opposed to talking realistically about the two bumps, they are just trying to pull a fast one on you.

Mitchell goes on and on with bad argument after bad argument. He glosses over the debt issue with, “Debt, too, is a problem.” (YOU THINK!!???) He charges people $42,450 a year to go to law school at Case Western. That should be a consumer protection violation, but whatever.

Michell also makes a frankly hilarious argument that somehow baby boomers are going to retire and leave a bunch of law job opportunities in their wake. By the end of the piece, I felt like he was a carney was trying to get me to pay five dollars for the opportunity to throw a ball through a hole that was clearly too small.

But his closing anecdote was somehow more insulting than all the rest:

Last spring we accepted an excellent student with a generous financial-aid package that left her with the need to borrow only $5,000 a year. She told us that she thought it would be “irresponsible” to borrow the money. She didn’t attend any law school. I think that was extremely shortsighted, but this prevailing attitude discourages bright students from attending law school.

Shortsighted? Why? Is Case Western Reserve GOING SOMEWHERE so that she won’t be able to apply next year? Or the year after that, when she’s saved up the extra $5,000 she needs?

This is literally how sketchy used-car salesmen try to close the deal: “BUY NOW, these prices aren’t going to last forever, this car will drive itself off of the lot.” Give me a freaking break. How dumb does Mitchell want people to be?

How can Mitchell, out of one side of his mouth, talk about a career that’s going to last for 40 or 50 years, and then, in the very same article, catechize a person for not going to law school AS SOON AS POSSIBLE?! Maybe in a year, the economy will look better, maybe prices will come down, maybe a better school will give her a full scholarship as institutions get more and more desperate. Waiting a year and thinking about it more is taking the long view before signing over the next three years of her life. Plunging in because “OMG, this deal might not be available next year,” is the panicky, shortsighted response. She loses NOTHING by spending another year doing whatever it was she was doing to make her such an attractive candidate in the first place.

I mean, the man put the word “irresponsible” in scare quotes, as if to suggest that being worried about borrowing money is the height of irrationality and hysteria.

The reality is that law schools need people to make “irresponsible,” “panicked,” “uninformed,” and altogether “stupid” decisions in order to fill all their seats. As long as their business model rests on the bad decisions of others, the “brightest potential lawyers” will continue to put law school on hold.

UPDATE (11/30/2012, 3:30 PM): Here are some thoughts from law students and recent graduates about Dean Mitchell’s op-ed.

Law School Is Worth the Money [New York Law School]

Earlier: Fun Fact of the Day: The Incredible, Shrinking Law Schools
Starting Salaries Are Swirling Down The Drain

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