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

Students and Recent Graduates Speak Out About Dean Mitchell’s Defense of Law School

Law students react to op-ed in the New York Times.

Yesterday, we discussed a New York Times op-ed, “Law School Is Worth the Money,” by Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell of Case Western Reserve University School of Law.

Mitchell has been slammed — by me, by Professor Paul Campos, by Alison Monahan, and by many others. If you’ve been looking seriously at the state of legal education, it wasn’t hard to eviscerate Mitchell’s arguments.

But Mitchell seems to believe that looking critically at the value proposition of legal education is a media-driven phenomenon. As he wrote in his op-ed, “For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks.”

It seems that Mitchell has forgotten about the students. Bloggers and law professors don’t really have any skin in this game. But actual students feel like law school deans have taken advantage of them, and telling them “everything is okay here” isn’t a winning argument.

These kids are tired of law deans, like Mitchell, who continue to act like law schools can keep doing what they’re doing while recent graduates don’t have jobs and are crushed under a mountain of debt. They’re really sick of the subtle implication that they only reason the “great deal” of law school didn’t work out for them was that they were “lazy” or somehow undeserving.

In short, they are sick and tired of the very kind of arguments Mitchell made in the New York Times — and yesterday they spoke out about it, loudly….

We received some reaction from students and recent graduates of Case Western Law. Some people who didn’t go to Case also took umbrage at the dean’s general arguments.

The students were annoyed with Mitchell before I wrote a single word. I received this email before I even finished reading Mitchell’s piece:

As a Case student (3L) I think Dean Mitchell is playing fast and loose with his numbers here. Obviously the overall BLS numbers for people actually employed as lawyers are not going to be bad. It’s the recent graduates employed as lawyers, or even in ‘jd preferred’ that we care about.

And to be clear, these are not personal attacks on Mitchell. He’s probably a very nice man. He’s just “playing fast and loose with his numbers.” And he’s not talking about statistics that actual students and recent graduates care about. That said, this particular student still had nice things to say about Mitchell.

I should add that, overall, I like our Dean a great deal. He’s a savvy guy and he’s making a lot out of a little. He’s not wrong about the long term — but he’s ignoring that over the short term, people need jobs and may have to drop out of the law entirely, and for good, to make that happen.

Of course, that kid is still in school. Arguably, reality hasn’t full set in. Another reader, a recent Case Western graduate, had a slightly different take on the dean’s message:

As a recent Case Western Law graduate who is drowning is student loan debt, Mitchell’s article angered me and made me feel sick to my stomach.

Has any one of these law deans ever just emailed a recent graduate and said “sorry”? You know, just a simple, “I’m sorry things haven’t worked out for you to this point, please know that we’re doing everything we can here at the law school to make sure you have the alumni career services you need to find success.” Does that ever happen? Or is it all, “It’s not my job to get you a job”?

In any event, Mitchell didn’t just make the Case Western community angry. We received notes from all sorts of students and graduates. And some people didn’t just email Above the Law, they also emailed Mitchell directly. Here was one well written letter sent to Mitchell from a Columbia Law student:

Dear Dean Mitchell,

I enjoyed your NY Times op-ed, but you conveniently ignored or dismissed several key points. First of all, let me introduce myself: I am a Columbia Law 3L who is lucky enough to have a job next year at a “Biglaw” firm in New York. However, many of my peers at Columbia and even more of my peers at other law schools are not so fortunate.

Primarily, your piece ignored the constant manipulation of employment numbers by many law schools. From my experience at Columbia and other students’ experiences at their schools, law schools have shown a willingness to create fellowships and other “employment” opportunities in order to inflate their hiring percentages, which are in turn used to attract prospective students with the promise of a prestigious “Biglaw” job.

I think the biggest problem with law schools, however, is the unexplainable recent hikes in tuition…. Personally, I find it unjustifiable for schools to implement these tuition hikes without any explanation to students or any apology to affected students. I find it even more problematic that a person in your position is completely deaf to these concerns and is asking commentators to quit discussing these facts and bringing them to the attention of your prospective classes of students who have an important financial decision to make. I understand your concern with the hyperbole in many editorials criticizing law schools, but your efforts should be directed toward engaging in the debate and correcting misstatements rather than toward silencing critics and ending the discussion.

Has there been any law dean who has even tried to explain why it’s okay that law school tuition has skyrocketed while lawyer salaries have remained flat and legal job opportunities have tightened? Because look, nobody would be screaming about the value proposition of law school if law school cost $5,000.

I think it’s instructive that Mitchell’s piece didn’t just bother recent graduates who don’t have jobs, it also struck a nerve with students at top law schools with Biglaw jobs lined up.

In any event, it doesn’t appear that Mitchell responded to this letter. I don’t think he responded to this next one either, but I did want to publish it in full. Dean Mitchell seems to think that the media is driving the current focus on the value of legal education. But really, it’s students like this next one who are trying to tell Mitchell that the law school business model isn’t working out for the students who are being educated….

(hidden for your protection)

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