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Exploding Some Law School Myths

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?

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Comments

  1. Excellent article!

  2. I must vehemently disagree that that the second bullet point you list (re tuition) is a “myth.” You fail to consider that students from lower-income families might feel more trepidation at the prospect of incurring a large debt with uncertain employment prospects. This will produce a “chilling effect” on applications to law school. Secondly, the assertion that rising tuition makes law school prohibitively expensive also comes from concerns about accessibility of justice. If lawyers have large debts from law school, they are less likely to enter fields that are genuinely in the public interest (as opposed to say, corporate law or practising law to serve large corporations, which is CONTRARY to public interest). Also, in order to make the salaries you list lawyers charge fees that make justice inaccessible to the middle class. Lower tuition, and maybe lawyers might feel that they can offer their services at lower rates. Finally, I would like to point out that a legal education has always been considered valuable “as an education” for people interested in public affairs, the good of society, etc. If tuition were lower, more people could go to law school with the hope of putting their education to use in some endavour other than a legal career. High tuition prohibits individuals from doing so.

  3. When I saw this article, I thought it was going to be in praise of law school and the job it does churning out young lawyers. I am glad that you actually accurately addressed what law school does and what it prepares students for after graduation.

  4. Law Students for a Fair Profession

    Dear Mr. Furlong: I’ve posted a response to this article on my blog if you’re interested. Peace, lsffp.

  5. LSFFP — thanks for the heads-up; I’m on the road but will respond this weekend or early next week.

  6. Chris Davidson made all of the points I wanted to make, so I’ll just say: ditto!

  7. When I was in law school (in the US, 35 years ago) we were taught what the law was (substantive law), and how to find out what the law was (legal research). We were taught how to analyze a set of facts and apply that law to the facts. We were not taught what to do with that information to solve client problems. This, it was apparently assumed, we would learn later once we joined “a firm.” That was the model.

    One of my professors, a person who had practiced law for decades before accepting a post at the law school, wanted his students to understand this. One day he told this story: It’s 4:00 PM on a Friday. Your client bursts into your office and tells you that a logging company has crossed onto his land with the declared intention of cutting down several hundred of his most valuable oak trees. By Monday, they’ll all be gone if the loggers aren’t stopped. That’s the situation. Now what? You know the facts. Check. You know the law. Check. You apply the law to the facts and see clearly that the loggers are in the legal wrong. Check. All good, but what do you actually do, right now, before the courthouse closes, to stop the loggers? We don’t get into that.

  8. Susan Cartier Liebel

    Jordan,

    As you state, the American experience is slightly different ;-) As for law schools de facto making you fit for practice, I grudgingly agree that it does not necessarily do so. Law school will give you what you need to get out of it IF you select the right school for your mission and you navigate properly through law school in a way best suited for the goal – then you can very well come out fit for practice.

    I’m a big fan of doing a cost-benefit analysis and allowing for additional weight being given for burning passion (which isn’t always quantifiable.) If it is a cold and calculated analysis without any real passion, most will find in this economy it may very well not be a good investment to go to law school. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either (except for the law schools!)

    As far as salaries providing payback over time – when I went to law school my total indebtedness was $60,000. It was easy to justify the expense because if I didn’t earn that, I had no business being a lawyer. However, topping $100,000 and lawyers’ services becoming commoditized, fewer jobs to be spread over a far greater number of lawyers, the scales are not balanced, they are grossly disproportionate. I’m not sure I would compare 1993 (or 1994/5) when I graduated to today for this analysis. Not even the longevity of 30 years you propose as more than half of all lawyers leave the profession never making the 30 year mark.

    Just some more food for thought in your ‘myth-busting.’ ;-)

  9. The 3rd myth, regarding the teaching objective of the law shcool is very important, and it needs immediate attention. And I agree that the main reason for such type of education is “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”.

  10. Mr. Rai,

    The “thinking like a lawyer” shtick was meaningless before there were law schools. It’s even less now.

    You must have had remarkably bad luck with professors, and for that you have my condolences (if it matters.)

    In my case? I’d take it as a compliment if I was accused of thinking like any one of most of my professors.

    At least 6 of my professors are now or were judges, some on appellate courts. At least two wrote text books that practitioners use and swear by (not at) so they must some idea of how to think like a lawyer.

    Another is now the chief villain behind this place.

    I’m reasonably sure that most of the lawyers I associate with could say much the same, but perhaps we’re more fortunate than where ever it is you are.

    I’d go on but I trust you get my point. If you don’t, try Shakespeare, “Julius Caesar”, Act I, Scene II, lines 134 through the first 3 words of line 135.

    DC