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The Real Reason Law Schools Are Raking in Cash

The profession's in crisis, but the schools don't care. They're steeped in a toxic, hyper-capitalist worldview

Since at least 1985, the American Bar Association’s Section on Legal Education has published annual statistics about the rates of enrollment at American law schools, the costs of attendance, and the eventual employment of law graduates. Looking at how these numbers have changed since the financial crisis of 2008, one thing is clear: Law schools are doing quite well for themselves. Tuition at private law schools has steadily increased, climbing from a mean of $34,298 in 2008 to a mean of $40,634 today – an increase that, by my calculations, outpaces inflation by about $3,000. And although enrollment has declined slightly from its all-time peak of 52,488 new students in 2010, the general trend has been unmistakably positive.

But if you sought information about how law schools weathered the financial storm in the pages of the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal or the Atlantic, I would not have faulted you for coming to the conclusion that they must be undergoing a major crisis. As these publications have tirelessly (and accurately) reported, the picture for law graduates is rather bleak. Student debt is astronomical, with some law students borrowing upwards of $200,000 to finance their educations, and employment prospects are dismal, with even well-established, “white-shoe” law firms being forced to make massive cuts and layoffs.

As a straight value proposition, it seems, it is no longer clear that going to law school makes any sense. So, law schools, one might reasonably expect, surely must be feeling the pressure. College students, one could not be blamed for thinking, surely must be considering other careers. But it has not been thus.

Why? How, in other words, can we explain the fact that young people are still going to law school in droves? How are we to make sense of the fact that so many intelligent college graduates are, to all appearances, deciding to commit financial suicide? The accounting just does not add up.


A couple of answers suggest themselves. First, there is the fact that law school is uniquely positioned to exploit the ambitions of students whose majors do not lead obviously to a particular career. Economic choices, in other words, are not made in a vacuum; we can select only among the finite alternatives that precipitate from our actual pasts. For the upper-middle-class junior at Amherst whose parents are doctors or professors or – say – lawyers, but who always found herself more interested in 19th-century French painting than in computer programming or corporate accounting, law school may be the only way out. The other choices are to move home (obviously shameful) or (gasp!) get a PhD in art history or some equally esoteric field, which – every sensible person she knows will tell her – is thoroughly useless and not very likely to get her a job. Yes, it is true – the various influences in her life will whisper – sadly in our society everyone must become a technician, but becoming a lawyer is becoming a technician with a heart.  Justice, fairness, equality – certainly these are worth caring about? And don’t you want to  make something of yourself?

Next, there is the fact that the sorts of people who want to go to law school tend to be exactly the sorts of people who think they can beat the odds. There are, in fact, many books on the market warning prospective students  not to go to law school. These books bear such ominous titles as “Law School Confidential” and (more simply) “Don’t Go to Law School.” They describe in gory detail the veritable intellectual, emotional and spiritual wringer into which students are about to voluntarily insert their heads. There is, for instance, the Socratic method – a mode of instruction whose sole discernible purpose is to torture students through the elaborate belaboring of obvious points. And there is, for another, the end-of-semester exam, a three-hour rite of passage that is graded anonymously, covers an entire semester’s worth of material, and counts for 100% of one’s grade. But for a certain kind of person – the kind who found the coddling atmosphere at his private schools stultifying, the kind who positively  lusts for real competition – it is difficult to imagine a better advertisement for law school. Indeed, the tacit message of these cautionary books might be paraphrased: Don’t go to law school… unless you are just the sort of exceptionally talented smart person who can succeed in a ruthless competition with other smart people.

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