Career Alternatives, Career Center, Law School Deans, Law Schools

An Open Letter to Law School Deans

Dear Law School Deans:

How’s the media boycott going? Oh wait… you’re not doing that? So it must feel a bit like a digital mob is baying at your walls. Apparently, any attempt to defend the “value proposition” of a legal education will be met with instant scorn and mockery (and not just here on ATL.)

Now, deep down, we all know that no serious person can actually believe that law school deans are venal and sinister characters looking to simply con students. You entered your profession in the hope of helping students get the best legal education possible. And you find yourself in a world where your motives are being impugned. And we all know the parade of horribles that is the legal job market: only about half of all law school graduates will find a job requiring bar passage, and at least half of those who do find legal jobs don’t make enough money to service their debt.

When law schools are put on the defensive about employment numbers, we often hear about how the J.D. is so incredibly versatile and will serve its holder well in any context: banking, consulting, business, and what have you. There is some skepticism about this.

On the one hand, there are too may lawyers and too few jobs. On the other, a law degree can be used in a variety of ways. There is a mountain of data proving the former assertion, there is little data to support or refute the latter. So let’s try to settle this….

We are interested in conducting our own study in order to add some empirical research to the J.D. versatility discussion. We are looking to partner with law schools, so that we can reach out to your alumni, and conduct a longitudinal study on their career paths. Obviously, this is a brand new project for us, and we’re very open to working with you on parameters that accommodate all parties. For instance, we will of course anonymize the results of our research to whatever degree you ask. Interested law school deans or your minions, please email me and let’s start talking about the particulars. (Yes, this research project superficially resembles NALP’s After the JD study. But NALP’s excellent monographs based on their research are thus far concerned with the role of gender, race, and debt in shaping legal career paths; our focus is limited to career/employment outcomes.)

In related news, check out a preview of the results of the ATL Lapsed Lawyer Survey we conducted a couple weeks back. Some of our findings lend support to utility of a law degree outside the practice of law.

We had nearly 400 responses to the ATL Lapsed Lawyer Survey (fielded in partnership with our friends at AdamSmithEsq.) The respondents represented a wide range of alternative career paths: teachers, journalists, consultants, as well as stay-at-home parents and the unwillingly unemployed. The vast majority (82%) told us that they left the practice of law voluntarily, while 12% were “nudged out,” and only 6% were fired or laid off. We asked these former lawyers how, looking back on it, they would characterize their time practicing law. Respondents were permitted to choose as many options as applied to them:

A majority of ex-lawyers described their time practicing law as a “terrific learning experience,” and nearly as many told us that legal work “set [them] up nicely for [their] subsequent career.” Perhaps the notion of the versatile J.D. shouldn’t be dismissed so easily.

We also asked the lapsed lawyers, “Did you recall the moment, or epiphany, when you realized the practice of law wasn’t for you?” Broadly speaking, the responses fell into two groups. One group “jumped” out of the law and related to us tales of anxiety, stress, and the Biglaw grind:

My husband and I were fighting about who would get to work on Memorial day.

It got to the point where every time my phone would ring, tears came to my eyes. It was that bad.

My husband was hospitalized (briefly) and I was told that it was no excuse for asking for an extension on a minor assignment.

A very pleasant woman who had just made income partner told me that you couldn’t ever show weakness. Obvious enough, but that was what made it click for me: not the way I want to be.

I realized that a life that involved worrying about whether you could see your family for Christmas wasn’t for me.

The other group was “pushed” (or never got in), so their “epiphanies” are of the blunter sort (e.g., “When I never found a job”; “The evening before I got fired”). And there are some in the “pushed” group pining for exactly that which the “jumpers” willingly left behind (e.g., “I eagerly await the time when I can (hopefully) return to the practice of law.”)

By the way, if you haven’t taken our brief ATL School & Firm Insider Survey yet, you can do so here.

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