We’ve spent the last few decades building up a series of myths about legal education. I’d like to take a moment to deconstruct a few of them.
1. The law school from which a lawyer graduated is a relevant and reliable indicator of his or her quality.
This is the pedigree myth. Law firms for years have used “law school reputation” as a handy shortcut to avoid the hassle and expense of actual hard-nosed assessments of a candidate’s qualifications and potential. I’ve met lawyers from schools at the “top” and the “bottom” of the traditional rankings, and I’ve not seen any demonstrable difference among them in terms of intelligence or aptitude (though I’d be open to an argument that lawyers from less-regarded schools might work harder to overcome perceived shortcomings).
Why is there no real difference among the graduates of schools at different points on the pedigree pole? The reason, at least in part, is that there’s very little difference among law schools in how they teach law: the same basic template is applied and delivered at almost every school. This is not a fact that law schools, especially those in the upper half of the rankings, want advertised: their reputations (and their concomitant financial benefits) rest on the unspoken assumption that the quality of their degree is better. I think it’s time we spoke about, and questioned, that assumption.
2. Thanks to ever-increasing tuition, law school is now a prohibitively expensive investment.
There’s no denying the increase: tuition in my last year at Queen’s Law School in 1993 was $2,300; today, it’s closer to $15,000. And while tuition has risen sharply in most of Canada (Quebec mostly excluded) over the past 20 years, it’s as nothing compared to the American experience, as detailed by this now-infamous New York Times article in January that profiled law graduates with a quarter of a million dollars in debt and no immediate prospect of work. It’s popular to blame high tuition for a variety of ills, especially the inability of new graduates to work anywhere but in a large law firm to pay down their debts.
But let’s look at this a little more closely. Canadian Lawyer’s 2010 compensation survey found that the median annual salary of associates ranged from $62,000 to $100,000 over a lawyer’s first seven years. Partners, of course, report much higher annual income: 22% make between $50,000 and $100,000, another 22% earn from $100,000 to $150,000 and more than 46% make more than $150,000 a year (including 7% above $450,000). Even $100,000 to $150,000 a year will keep a roof over your head and food on the table in most parts of the country, and many lawyers will surpass those numbers eventually. Given that most legal careers run at least 30 years, even a student emerging from law school with $100,000 in total debt (not an uncommon occurrence) who pursues a private law career can expect to be debt-free within the first third of that career; that’s a pretty decent return on investment. Government lawyers don’t do badly in the long run either.
Absolutely, if you run up $100,000 in debt to get a law degree and either can’t get or don’t want a legal career, you’ll find yourself questioning the wisdom of the investment. If you’re going to law school to “find out if you want to be a lawyer,” don’t. But compared to other professional fields, which often require longer and more demanding matriculation periods at equal or higher rates, law is a pretty good bet. Past performance is no guarantee of future prospects, of course, and the legal profession will see a profitability hit over the next decade or so. But we shouldn’t talk ourselves into believing that the price of admission to the legal profession clearly outweighs the financial benefits thereof.
3. Law schools are failing in their mission to prepare graduates for the practice of law.
The purpose of law school is not to prepare graduates for a legal career. The purpose of law school is to grant law degrees, which are essentially undergraduate primers on legal principles, legislation and case law. Law schools don’t teach their students to “think like lawyers,” which is their standard promise; they teach students to think like law professors, which is hardly surprising given that law professors, not lawyers, determine the curriculum and do most of the teaching. Moreover, law professors are not even employed primarily to teach: their main job is to write and publish, and teaching is an afterthought. This is not a terrible new truth recently revealed by Wikileaks; this has been standard operating procedure in the legal education system for many decades. The only mystery is the profession’s continued refusal to see and acknowledge these obvious facts.
If you want a law degree to focus exclusively on legal career preparation, that can be arranged. Several US law schools have changed their curricula to cater primarily to future lawyers, and the UK’s two leading private schools, BPP and the College of Law, have introduced two-year practice-focused degrees. Such degrees likely will fail to deliver in jurisprudential philosophy what the standard law degree fails to deliver in practical career preparation, but at least they will be closer to what the market says it wants.
The main thing is to dispense with the notion that a law degree guarantees fitness for a legal career simply because the legal profession has chosen to make it a de facto entrance qualification. Law degrees are not business degrees. “Business schools are massively more innovative [than law schools] because no one has to go to business school,” Benjamin Barton, associate professor of law at the University of Tennessee, once pointed out. “They're more interested in showing that they're giving you something of value. … At a business school, corporate executives pay $10,000 a week to talk to a professor. Law firm leaders would never go to a law school for advice."
Those are my three law school myths overdue for demolition. What are yours?