Student Loans

People ask me all the time, “Should I go to law school?” And I say “no,” and stare at them as if they just asked me if they should douse themselves with gasoline and light themselves on fire. Then they tell me all the things they’ve done to research their decisions — which invariably devolves into a discussion about whether they should be dousing themselves with premium or regular unleaded gasoline (or diesel if I’m talking to somebody who wants to go to Cooley). Then I say “please, don’t go,” and then I look away because I don’t want to be around when they light the match.

Everybody has their own specific situation, and I think that when people are trying to talk themselves into going to law school, especially a low-ranked or poorly regarded law school, they get very invested in the unique particularities of their situation. “Oh, I know it’s a bad idea for [everybody else], but I’m [a special snowflake] and it makes a lot of sense for me.”

Not everybody can get into Yale, or Duke, or Berkeley. I understand that. Therefore, as a public service, let me tell you how to choose an unheralded school in a way that makes sense. Or at least how to do it in a way that isn’t ridiculously dumb. If you are really thinking of going to a lower-ranking law school (and I’ll let the community determine what “lower-ranking” means), here is a checklist of five things you should do before you decide to roll the dice….

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A law professor’s reaction to the post-graduate employment market.

You learn a lot about people and institutions when they are desperate. You learn a lot about people by the way they respond to adversity. You learn a lot about people when they are backed into a corner, staring into an abyss, as the walls are crumbling around them. Some people rise to the occasion: England during the blitz, Ali in the jungle, that one time I needed to do a shot at the Cancun airport to complete my “100 drinks during Spring Break” pledge.

When faced with real adversity, most people, most of the time, soil themselves and end up a bloviating mess of hypocrisy and protectionism: McCain picking Palin, The French, me begging for a ‘C’ in French even though my wife did all my homework.

I think the vanguard of the American legal academy has reached that sad, embarrassing stage where they are willing to say anything, to anybody, in a desperate attempt to prop up the notion that law school is a good idea. Today we’ve got video of a guy, an associate dean, “defending” the current system of legal education with a full assault on reason.

And I think it’s sad. A people should know when they’re beaten. Instead of fighting for an old way that hurts students, you just wish people like this could seize this opportunity to talk about a new system that isn’t based on taking advantage of people. Instead, it’s just another law professor who is still hoping that prospective law students are “too stupid” to understand math and logic…

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To accompany Noam Scheiber’s big article on Biglaw — which I discussed yesterday, and Anonymous Partner analyzed this morning — the New Republic asked six prominent observers of the legal profession (including yours truly) for their ideas on how to fix law school. For all of the blame that Biglaw gets for the profession’s problems, some of the difficulties can be traced back to the legal academy and how it teaches and trains lawyers (or fails to do so).

Let’s check out the various reform proposals. Which ones do you agree with?

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Last week, we focused a lot on a controversial study about the economic value of going to law school. Today, I want to look at some more useful approaches to the question.

Looking at the lifetime earnings of of J.D. holders compared to people with undergraduate-only education based on historical data about J.D. earnings couldn’t have less to do with the current decisions facing prospective law students. Prospective law students are looking at a shifting market for legal employment, and they are dealing with skyrocketing tuition. Are there any studies that are looking at the economic value for them?

In fact, there are… and while the outlook doesn’t paint the rosy picture some law professors seem really invested in, there are rational arguments available for those who want to convince people to go to law school…

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* Though she be but little, she is fierce! Under Mary Jo White’s guidance, the Securities and Exchange Committee is now cracking down on financial fraud with a vengeance. [DealBook / New York Times]

* When a Biglaw firm’s chairman skeptically says, “Uh, OK, I mean, maybe,” with regard to a future increased demand for legal work, you know things are bad. We’ll have more on this later today. [New Republic]

* With Detroit’s downfall, vultures are swooping in left and right to snag clients. Firms retained thus far include Weil Gosthal, Arent Fox, Kirkland & Ellis, Winston & Strawn, and Sidley Austin. [Reuters]

* “I’m not a 100% sure this is legal.” Two law professors have come up with a revolutionary way for law students to finance legal education that sounds like it just might work. [WSJ Law Blog (sub. req.)]

* Normally when Biglaw firms and legal departments go to court over contested litigation, something’s gone wrong, but this summer, they’re trying to do some good in the world. [National Law Journal]

* Soon, it’ll be known as Western Michigan University Thomas M. Cooley Law School, but even with a new name, you’re still going to be Cooley, and there’s no recovery from that. [Lansing State Journal]

* In Greenwich, Connecticut, the fact that people buy homes where they want their kids to go to school isn’t a “complicated concept.” The schools’ racial diversity, on the other hand, is. [New York Times]

In fairness, only one legal story dominated the week. The Zimmerman verdict provided a new twist daily. It even got Kim Kardashian involved, which was a relief to the unwashed masses waiting to hear how a spoiled sex-tape star would react to a verdict at the intersection of race and gun policy.

But the most newsworthy verdict in years was not the only thing happening this week, regardless of what CNN would like you to believe…

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* J.K. Rowling’s outing as The Cuckoo’s Calling (affiliate link) author Robert Galbraith has rendered print copies of the book scarce and a hot collector’s item. Now Rowling is hurling Cruciatus curses at her lawyers as the source of the revelation. [The Guardian]

* The New York Times weighs in on the worth of a law degree debate and makes Elie’s day by labeling him “indomitable.” [DealBook / New York Times]

* After the Ninth Circuit struck a tone of sanity, federal bankruptcy judges in Michigan and Tennessee remind us that law school debt is forever. [The National Law Journal]

* The hottest barristers in London. Meh. Holding out for the hottest solicitors countdown. [Legal Cheek]

* A lawyer should get suspended for smuggling stuff out of prison for a client. But shouldn’t the punishment be a tad more severe for smuggling a HIT LIST out of prison for a client? [Mercury News]

* The Ten Competencies that law schools should teach. I’d add “understanding how to order from Seamless at 4AM,” but otherwise it’s a solid list. [Associate's Mind]

* Penn State has approved a $60 million settlement in the Sandusky cases. Which is less than the football program makes in a year. [Deadspin]

* Apparently, the laws and other conditions surrounding America’s oil industry make it only the fifth friendliest place to extract petroleum in the world. Thanks a bunch you granola-eating socialists. [Breaking Energy]

* It’s not over yet, but the current projection for law school applicants this year is 59,200. My response to those fresh young go-getters after the jump…

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This study isn’t throwing darts at a dartboard, this study is going up to the dartboard, placing the darts where you want, and then hoping nobody notices.

I don’t know how the intellectually dishonest people who try to trick people into going to law school based on misleading statistics sleep at night. It’s one thing to see economic drivel rerouted through the admissions mouthpieces who are just looking to make a sale to keep their jobs. But when it comes from law deans or law professors — people who are supposed to be educators and apply a modicum of rigorous intellectual thought to their writings — it’s just sad.

We’ve got another one of these “studies” that purports to show that a law degree is actually quite valuable, while blatantly ignoring all of the things that have led to ruinous financial consequences for so many students drawn into the clutches of law school. I was going to ignore it: partially because I’ve knocked down all these terrible arguments before when looking at the intellectual drivel emanating from the Denver Sturm College of Law, partially because I wonder sometimes if giving these smoke and mirror studies the light of day does more harm than good.

But, tipsters are emailing in and the ridiculous claim is the lead story on other websites, so whatever, let’s address the claim that a law degree is worth $1 million dollars over the course of a lifetime…

Please note the UPDATE at the end of this post, with commentary from Professor Michael Simkovic.

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I see debt relief, just over that hill.

Any time the punishment for going to your law school involves a graduate essentially “taking the black” and joining the U.S. Army to escape his crushing debt burdens, you have to be really proud of the value offered by your institution.

The quote from University of St. Thomas Law School graduate Thomas McGregor neatly sums up everything that recent law graduates are facing in this legal economy: “I paid off $108,000 of law school loan debt. All I had to do was put my life on the line.”

Parents, take note of such stories the next time you pressure your kids to go to law school and “get a real job”…

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A happily employed NYU grad?

Those are real, serious challenges. Stated, those extremes are not representative of what’s going on at NYU or, in my sense, at any other of its immediate peers. I think a question for all leading law schools to answer is to what extent do they feel a need to respond to any of the changing dynamics and challenges in the legal profession.

Trevor Morrison, the newly appointed dean of NYU School of Law, commenting on the problems currently affecting the legal academy, and the elite law schools that he believes have overcome them.

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