Law and (Bad) Economics

April 16, 2010 1:15 am0 comments
Francis Sohn

The yearly ritual of the law school admissions cycle took another step this week, as the US News Law School Rankings were leaked —  which will have legal bloggers and law forum trolls arguing about their authenticity in the coming weeks. To be sure, admitted students want their bragging rights after months of toil preparing for the LSAT and awkwardly asking professors for letters of recommendation. But a bigger question looms in the background: Why are so many people applying to law school?

As The Sun reported earlier in January, Cornell Law School saw application records broken, with over 5,000 applicants, representing an increase of more than 50 percent. Other schools have seen double digit application growth as well. 

And what are those eager undergrads applying for? At Cornell Law School, for the privilege of paying nearly $70,000 for a year of legal education. Costs at peer schools are no better, and often worse. Costs of borrowing drive the price tag even higher.

It is no surprise, then, that Professor Herwig Schlunk of Vanderbilt Law School concluded in a paper posted to SSRN last year that law school is a bad investment for most students at private law schools. The paper is not without its faults, but its central thesis should be on the mind of every would-be law student in the country as high-paying legal jobs continue to be replaced with sweatshop-style document review and legal outsourcing services. 

One would expect students to be aware of this, and wait to see if legal hiring will recover before committing three years and $200,000 to get a degree not worth the paper its printed on.  Instead, we see evidence pointing in exactly the opposite direction. In a survey published this week by Kaplan Test Prep, nearly 40 percent of students cited the recent economic downturn as a reason for going to law school. Stranger yet, 52 percent of students were “very confident” they would find legal employment, while only 16 percent had similar beliefs about the future employment prospects of their soon-to-be classmates.

Jeff Thomas, the Kaplan executive responsible for the study, explained these results by referring to the combination of youthful optimism and competitiveness that typifies the law school applicant; one would expect no less from an executive whose company’s financial well-being depends on the continuing irrational exuberance of would-be law students. 

When William Blackstone, the famed English legal commentator, wrote more than 200 years ago that law is the perfection of reason, he certainly did not have this state of things in mind. Indeed, he would probably look upon the system of American legal education aghast at the transformation that it has engineered in the practice of law, changing it from a learned profession into a group of hucksters busy either helping Wall Street create ever more inventive ways to gamble, or offering you the BIG settlement for your personal injury lawsuit. 

My best advice to the would-be law student is this: Think twice, think three, four or five times before you send in that seat deposit. Take a hard look at the reality of a quarter million dollars of debt before you sign on the dotted line. Consider graduate school, the Peace Corps or Teach For America — consider anything else, really — before you dive headlong into the three year slog that is law school, because no matter how high your future law school is in the US News rankings, a ranking doesn’t pay the bills.

Francis Sohn is a second year law student. He can be contacted at fs258@cornell.edu. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.