With this in mind, a few months ago I found myself in a conversation with several prospective law students. Their eyes were bright! They knew all about this whole law school thing and just how it was going to go once they started practice! Read more about our discussion below.
As a preface, I am sure that many potential law students have good sense and have thoroughly evaluated the value proposition of law school. They have calculated out just how much they might have in loans, while ignoring the "average" numbers put forth by the law schools. They have spoken with many practicing lawyers in the field they want to enter - not just professors and law school recruiters who don't know what it is like to practice in the industry. Maybe they even took a job as a paralegal at a law firm for a summer or a year to test the waters and be sure that this life is something that they want to do. Further, they have done this due dilligence not from a standpoint of "I am going to do it anyway", but from a standpoint of "I want the best opportunity for me - if this is not it, then I am going to walk away from it and find something else. In that regard, I want the complete, unvarnished truth, about the difficulties and likelihood of failure. The fact that 1 out of 100 people get a dream job is irrelevant. I want to hear about the odds and life of someone just like me."
In contrast, the prospective law students that I spoke to were wildly, just ridiculously, over-optimistic with regard to their job prospects, potential salary, and loan repayment. They had the idea that employment after law school was pretty much a lock, that the employment was going to be at $150K+, and that all of their loans would be repaid in three years while at the same time they would be able to afford to buy cars and houses and live a high lifestyle. They also somehow thought that they would be able to have all of this while still having "work/life balance" which in their eyes seemed to mean being able to work at a leisurely pace, never past 5 or on weekends, and without too much stress - and only on work that they were really passionate about and cared deeply about.
Needless to say, their perceptions were not accurate -
- As we discuss here, even before law student hiring crashed last year, only about 56% of graduating law students were being hired by law firms. Further, during the last recession, the percentage hired by law firms declined about 15% - and that was a much, much milder recession than the current one.
- As we discuss here, here, here, and here, the starting lawyer that is lucky enough to have a job is really only making about $60-$70K on average.
- As we discuss here, the loans that you have to take out are going to be bigger than you think. Further, as we discuss here and here, they are going to take a long time of painful repayment to pay off and you are not going to have a lot left over for expensive cars.
- I haven't done a post yet on work/life balance, but let's just say that their impression of law firm life was wildly inaccurate. (An understatement so massive that just writing it causes me to laugh.)
So I discussed with them the concerns that I set forth in Part 1 of this post. I even discussed it in a more gently way, conscious that they may have a strong emotional attachment to the idea. I tried to give them a reasoned view of the relative risks and rewards as I understood them and some of my experiences over the last 10 years both going to law school school and helping lawyers find jobs in the increasingly difficult job search.
When I mentioned that I worked with a lot of young lawyers and the job search was becoming more difficult, one of the potential students interrupted me and said very loudly and bluntly "That's not true." (Wilson's outbust of saying "You lie!" during an Obama speech had happened not too long before, so I got a little sense of something like deja vu.) I assured the student that I had been working with recent graduates for several years and the task of helping them get jobs had indeed become more difficult in recent years.
They countered by saying that my comments were not in accord with what they were seeing in law school admission materials. To this I suggested that they might want to drill down a little with regard to what a "90% employment rate after graduation really meant." They also preferred to believe the numbers put out by the law schools with regard to starting salary. They did not even want to believe the NALP median numbers and started trying to suggest to me reasons why the NALP numbers must be wrong.
Then they said the part that just plain pissed me off. I recall that the response was something like "Well, you say that, but I don't believe you because someone once posted on their blog that what you are saying is not true." I tried to ask "who was this person and what experience did they have?" However, they did not know, yet the fact that someone told them that it was posted on a blog somewhere was apparently good enough for them to take the blogger's word on it - over mine.
Here's what I say to that - You want to believe the Internet as a source of information? You want to believe the Internet over an actual practicing, flesh-and-blood attorney standing in front of you that has been working in the trenches trying to help recent graduates get jobs for years? That has your best interest at heart rather than the direct financial interest that law schools have on "selling" you on the ides of a law degree?
Well buddy, I'm on the Internet now, too. You can go and read my blog. Do I have enough credibility now? This was the real kick in the butt that got me writing. That the law students would value the opinion of some anonymous blogger (who apparently has no idea what he is talking about) over me just really got my goat.
Anyway, I realized after we talked that the students had not come there looking for information or to evaluate the opportunity. Instead, they already had a very firm vision of "how it was going to be" and they were very emotionally attached to the vision. They plainly did not want to hear any information that did not support their vision of how the future was going to me. They had not come to find out the truth, but to have me re-enforce and justify what they had come to believe.
Instead of listening to the truth and gaining a deeper understanding of the risks, they attempted to explain away the risks or suggest that the risks would not apply to them. If I mentioned that only 50% will get a job in a firm, they reply with "Well, I'm very smart so I am sure that I will be one of those 50%." If I mentioned the economy, they would just ignore the impact and say that everything would be different by the time that they graduated - there would be jobs for all.
What was astounding to me was how much they vilfified and "threw under the bus" students that had not been able to get a job. Instead of sympathizing with them and realizing "that could be you," the students were quick to jump on the perceived failings of the law students, denigrate the law students, and then grandly proclaim that the failing would never happen the them. Their reasoning was varied.
Some insisted that because they had a high GPA in undergrad, that their law school GPA would certainly be just as high. They ignored the increased competition in law school and that grades in law school are actually pretty arbitrary.
Some really seemed to believe that all they had to do was get in front of a law firm recruiter and the job was as good as theirs - that no one could possibly say "no" to them. Wow. This one just stunned me. I guess this is what happens when your parents never say no to you? It also seems like the same attitude that gives a trophy to everyone who participates in a sport rather than just those that win - you get people erroneously thinking that the receipt of the trophy is guaranteed just from participating. I really could not believe the incredible ego that they thought that somehow they would be just so much better - so much more un-refusable - than a person who: 1) was only 3-4 years older than them, 2) went to the same university they did and earned the same degree with about the same GPA, and 3) had almost identical technical skills, social skills, and appearance. In reality, the undergrads were no where near as unique, perfect, and special as they had been told they were. They should look at the experience of a law student similar to them as pretty reflective of what their career will be like. In this regard, I have been working with law students for more than a decade and I can say that your experience is going to be pretty much the same as the people that went before you with your qualifications - you are NOT going to do much better.
I could tell that some had already spoken to recruiters for law schools because they gave very pat answers that an undergrad would most likely never give on their own. For example, with regard to why one law student did not get a job, one undergrad suggested that the law student "did not network enough." That's obviously a law school recruiter answer - it's just not something that would occur to undergrads and differs from the ego-based reasoning that underlied all of their other assertions. Feeling adventurous, I asked the undergrad, "OK, so what would you do different?" To which they responded "I would network more." When told the networking activities that the law student had tried (which were reasonable expansive) and asked what additional networking the student should have done, the undergrad admitted that he did not know, but was sure that there was more that could be done, would certainly find out what that was and do it, and the law student was still inadequate and failed to do adequate networking. This, of course, makes no sense at all.
One of the other strange exchanges was when one of the students mentioned that they had taken the LSAT and done well, so they were going to law school. I suggested that just because they had done well on the test was not actually a reason to go to law school and that they might want to evaluate the financial aspects of the decision more fully. They just looked at me kind of increduously and repeated "But I did well on the test!" as if that answered the issue right there. Unfortunately, it obviously does not just answer the issue. You might score well on the test for being a human cannonball, too - that doesn't mean that it is a good career choice.
One of the other aspects that missed the point was when I suggested someone might want to consider the financial aspects of law school, they countered with "Are you suggesting that I can't do it?" The implication of the answer was that any negative comments about law school were going to be taken as saying that they person could not do it - and they can do anything, so I must obviously be wrong. Alternatively, if I admit that they could do law school, then they should automatically go to law school. This of course misses the whole point. If I suggest that you might want to consider the implications of sticking your finger in the electric socket before you do it, I am not somehow interfering with your self-actualization by suggesting that you "can't do it." Instead, you might just want to consider the implications. Just because you can stick your finger in the electric socket does not mean that it is a good thing to do.
Another thing that amazed me was that the students had almost nil interaction with actual attorneys and law students. Their "research" consisted almost entirely of TV, rumour, random blog postings, and law school marketing materials. They were convinced that these reflected an entirely accurate view of what law school and the practice of law would be like. They were horribly, terrifyingly wrong. It was also absolutely astounding that they would propose to undertake such a vast life-changing decision, taking on $200,000 in non-dischargable debt, on the basis of such incredibly flimsy research. They should have been talking with practicing attorneys in the fields they were interested in. They should have been talking with present law students and recent grads with regard to opportunities and challenges. Instead, they were just ensconced behind a little computer screen convinced that they has a complete view of reality.
Two thoughts here - first, maybe this is what happens when you have been protected from loss for most of your life? When you have been made to wear a bike helmet, prohibited from engaging in risky activity, and insulated/protected from a large amount of the potential negative rammifications of your actions? Maybe they feel less of a need to investigate the matter because they believe that somehow terrible, painful loss can not happen to them. That they don't have to be careful, because they have always been protected. That they are somehow special (as they have always been told) so that a terrible outcome can never happen to them? Maybe it would have been better if they had been allowed to climb trees when they were young - and they had fallen out of the tree and broken their arm. That experience might have helped them realize that some activites are really risky and that failure to be careful and investigate can cause them great pain - and also that gravity impacts everyone and there is no escaping it. In this regard, gravity impacts everyone just like the laws of supply and demand impact everyone - and there is no escaping supply and demand either. Maybe if they had some experience with being at the mercy of forces beyond their control they would do a better job researching law school before blindly charging in.
Second, wasn't the whole point of all this "social networking" BS to bring us closer together? To make it easier to commuicate with each other? Instead, it seems to turn students into meek little keyboard punchers who are less and less able to reach out and actually talk and communicate with the lawyers and law students that they should be talking to - who put more creedence in an anonymous blogger than an actual, in-person attorney.
In general, I was pretty frustrated and disappointed with the prospective law students that I spoke to. I was reminded of the adage that "you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink." (Of course, here in the midwest in less polite company the "horse" is often replaced with "ass". I think that this might actually be how the adage originally was before it was "cleaned-up" because the recitation of the "ass" pretty much perfectly captures the inherent stubbornness - much better than the "horse".)
I was tempted to wash my hands of the entire situation - "they want to feed themselves into the grinder? No skin off my nose." However, upon reflection I had to admit that these students were the future of our country - and they were our kids. First, if you don't help the future get on the best footing, then you deserve the horrible, dystopian future that you are going to get. In this regard, the pain and loss of every unemployed law student is a terrible waste - not just for them, but for all of us. These are very bright people that could be doing great things for our country. It is a terrible tragedy how they end up when they could be so very productive if they were coached away from the dead end of law school and into more successful careers. Anything that we can do to help them doesn't only help them - it helps all of us.
Second, these are our kids and we should do what we can to help them. By this I mean that we should try to help them gain a clear understanding of the potential risks and rewards - that we should accept that they will sometimes be stubborn, and that we should try to communicate with them in a way in which they are ready to listen.
In this regard, O prospective law students, I'm on the Internet now - which is apparently how you prefer to communicate - and I tell you truly that I only have your best long-term interests at heart. I urge you to read this site and get as accurate as possible an understanding of law school and the practice of law before you commit yourself. Understand that the opportunity is not as good at the law schools make it out to be - they are looking to "sell" students. Understand that the law school value proposition has pretty drastically declined and most people (Moms, neighbors, TV, blogs) are giving you erroneous advice - even older lawyers who assume that the opportunities that were available to them at graduation will still be available to you - they are not. Realize that it would be much better to be in a marketing job making $40K/year with no debt than having a law degree, $200K in debt, and no job.
I urge you also to read the blogs of those just like you who went before you - you will most likely have the same experience that they had. Read all of the following - the links are also in the right-hand column.
- Above The Law
- JD Underground
- Big Debt Small Law
- But I did everything right!
- Law School Scam
- Third Tier Reality
- Esq. Never
Let me finish on this hopefully powerful point - although law school worked out well for me based on the supply and demand opportunity in the mid 1990s, law school would NOT be the right choice for me based on the opportunity TODAY. I am certainly not lacking in skills in any way - as my successful practice proves. However, the opportunity has become too risky, the odds of reward too remote for this it to be the right choice for me. It's not whether I would be a "good lawyer" - I am one. Instead it's based on the supply and demand equation today. Most simply, the law schools are going to graduate 45,000 lawyers for only 30,000 jobs, so there are going to be a lot of good lawyers without jobs. Period. I would not allow myself to gamble my future in such a way - and I urge you not to gamble you future either.