Thursday, September 9, 2010

Greed and Horse Gambling

There's an interesting post over at The People's Therapist (via AboveTheLaw) entitled "The Cart and The Horse" that presents a different take on the question that we have recently been addressing about going to law school here and here.  The author worked in big law for multiple years and then decided to become a therapist focusing on lawyers.

The author notes an aspect that I have seen recurring with greater frequency more recently - that students go to law school without knowing and appreciating what they are getting in to.  I think that the author is dead on on some points, but maybe a little off on others.

Here's a quote from the post that I think is dead on:

The problem here is proverbial and involves carts and horses. In a perfect world, you would explore a career and make sure it is right for you first, then head off to get a degree.
Instead, we have the situation I see every day in my office: young people in their mid-twenties, who grind through law school, then face not only a moribund job market, but the deeper horror of realizing they don’t enjoy the work. They end up fighting to find a job in a profession they don’t like simply because they have to pay off debts.
It would be great if the law schools seemed to care – if they insisted that prospective students work as paralegals for a while and make sure they know what they’re getting into. But law schools are money-making concerns and they’re raking in cash the way things are. They’re not about to start telling the truth about their massive profits on law student tuition or the feeble job market. As they see it, that’s not their problem.
I have seen a lot of this as well - and the strange thing is that it has increased over the last decade.  10 years ago, if you ran into someone doing this, you would think to yourself that this person was not too bright - and fewer than 10% of law students seemed to have gotten to law school with these notions.  Now it seems like about 50% of the law school classes may qualify.  They haven't explored the career to know what it is really like (they seem to get most of their info from TV and their own personal hopes/dreams of what it would be like).  They jumped into law school without committing that they really wanted to do legal work - and they are being crushed by debt.  I also think that the characterization of law schools is pretty fair.

The author then identifies what he believes to be the primary motivating factor as fear:
What sent you off to law school, more than any other factor? Probably fear – specifically fear of being a disappointment to mom and dad. When you decided to go to law school, you saw only two options – graduate school or loser-dom. In law school, you would be doing what you’d done your entire life – going to school, which always kept your parents happy in the past. It seemed like a no-brainer. And in your early 20′s, things that happen a few years from now (like paying off student loans) seem far away – they take place in another universe with another person cleaning up. Hey, plenty of people go to law school and they do whatever, and it works out, right?
It seems reasonable that some people go to law school for this reason, and it seems especially reasonable when I realize that the author's practice must consist of those who are wealthy enough to pay for therapy without a job or health insurance.

However, the thing that I see most often that seems to motivate people to go to law school is greed rather than fear.  Law students think that law school will be a ticket to rapid monetary wealth and prestige that will impress others and get respect.  However, even if you are lucky enough to land a top job, you are going to be working like a dog for years and years before you are "wealthy" in most cases.  It just takes a very, very long time to pay back your loans (with interest!), even with top earnings and a modest lifestyle - much less build up your savings to a level that one could call "wealthy."  Depending on your definition, it is going to take at least 10 years - 5 to pay off the loans, and 5 to accumulate wealth - and that's for a very modest definition of wealth and a modest lifestyle. 

Also, the prestige really isn't there in day-to-day life.  Think about a CPA - very educated, had to pass a tough exam, etc - are CPAs prestigious?  They are a step up from regular accountants, but that's really about it.  That's about the same level of prestige that you will get as a lawyer - at least for 99% of all lawyers - and about all that a prospective law student should expect.

At one point I had been thinking that the students going to law school today were kind of like people with a gambling problem - they know the odds are against them in general, but somehow they think that if they themselves throw the dice, then they are sure to win - regardless of what statistics say and everyone else's experience was - because, "hey!  It's them".  The greed just simply gets the best of them and blinds them to all of the potential negative aspects.

Wow.  That seemed to parallel what I have seen in people with a gambling problem.  They think that if they just keep at it, their luck will turn - that the laws of statistics will somehow bend for them, personally.  Their greed to win outweighs the intelligence of actually calculating the odds and then not gambling when the odds are not in their favor.  The law schools certainly are to blame as well, but there are just too many law students who are putting the cart before the horse - and then gambling on it - out of greed.


  1. Both authors are correct, but as someone who finished their 1l year then dropped out, I can say that the percentage of people who go to law school simply out of fear (Placating their parents), no idea what they want to do with their lives, and greed, is really more like 75% of the students. The reason my statement is that 75% of the students are either straight from college or one year out. No one that young can have the level of appreciation for the legal profession that is required once you start practicing. These individuals are simply there because they have no idea what to really do with themselves and law school seemed like a good place to postpone adulthood while also placating your parents. Keep up the good work managing partner

  2. Another problem I see is that once someone graduates college in this climate with a liberal arts degree, it is not as if their other options are great.

    Now add in the marketing issue. Compare the amount of marketing Higher Ed institutions (specifically law schools) do vs. entry level employers (sales, retail, insurance, etc.). It's not even close.

    In my opinion, it is unfair and short sighted to blame liberal arts grads for not appreciating the risk in this economic climate and the amount of marketing + indoctrination-based pressure.

    The real way to attack the issue is to have undergrad institutions spend more time with kids planning majors vis a vis the job market.

    I would think with all the easy federal money flowing into schools the people in career services, planning, and teaching could help out in this respect.

  3. 4:49 - Thanks! I certainly agree that both fear and greed are big factors. Your percentage of 75% of law students going to school based on one or both of these factors is disappointing, but I'll take your first-hand view as a former 1L. One other thing that someone mentioned to me recently - we tell our children that the way to have the best life is to "stay in school" as long as they can. Someone suggested that this blanket assertion that is being told to students for literally, what, 16 years before they graduate from college?, is unfotrunately pre-programming them to not consider the pros and cons of the situation.

  4. Dan - I really agree with you with regard to the amount of marketing that law schools do and I really like your idea of requiring undergrad institutions to spend more time on career planning with students. It seems like this could quite legally be made a requirement by making it a condition of extending federal student loan dollars to the students at the school. I am concerned, however, that the people helping the students would be academics - it would seem to be a direct conflict of interest because the educational institution would like to sell more services and might choose to co-opt the program to provide even more indoctrination. Maybe an alternative is to require that the program be performed by a third party or non-profit?