Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Flawed Law School Model

I have referenced the law school "scam" and the failed/flawed law school model many times, but now I think I should discuss in further detail what exactly I mean when I reference these.  Here are my thoughts (in no pariclar order of importance). 

Law school does not prepare students to be small business owners.

At orientation, there were many speakers who described the rigors of a legal education, the stress that comes with applying to the Bar, the "many doors" that JD's open, all peppered with jokes about the fancy cars that most lawyers drive. What none of these speakers mentioned is that most attorneys, especially in the current job market, are basically on their own. They did not tell me that career services would not help those students who were ranked below the top 33% of their classes, and would instead tell them they would need to hang out their own shingles. (True story: an unfortunate classmate of mine had a 3.0 GPA, and was ranked just in the middle of the class. She was paying out-of-state tuition, and had racked up $160,000 in loans, when she went to career services for help in finding a job. She was told to hang out her own shingle, even though she had no business training and the law school did not offer a course in operating one's own practice.) I was lucky enough to find a decent-paying job upon graduation, but if I had not, I would have been in the same boat as many of my classmates, forced to run a small business with no training and no idea how to even practice law.

If you are considering law school, I implore you to first ask yourself whether you know how to run a business, and if so, do you think you can run that business successfully when you do not even know if you are competent to offer your services?

Which brings me to my next point.

Law school does not prepare students for the actual practice of law.

I completed an internship during the summer after my 2L year at the DA's office. This provided me with courtroom experience, but most of my fellow students were not as fortunate. Most law students take classes that involve listening to lectures, reading case law and statutes, and maybe conducting an exercise or two in oral argument. None of which matter when you are faced with an actual client sitting across your desk.

Even with my valuable experience of representing the State in the courtroom for a few weeks, I still had no idea how to conduct a client meeting, or how to structure a fee agreement. Or even how to go about suing someone in the state in which I practiced. All of that knowledge came later, after I had the opportunity to work with more experienced attorneys who showed me the ropes and who made me calendar deadlines properly.

This is a critical failure of the current law school model. No one knows what they're doing upon graduation. New graduates are in need of mentors, but oftentimes they end up on their own, and they end up failing or quitting or moving back in with their parents because they cannot develop enough business to support themselves.

Here is a valuable law school exercise that I will provide you at no charge: go to the Supreme Court's website and read through some of the opinions. Then go to your state legislature's website, or your city/municipality's website and read a chapter of statutes or ordinances. Pick out a topic that interests you like criminal law, or insurance regulation. Once you have finished reading your cases and statutes/ordinances, ask yourself what you would tell a client who was arrested, or who felt he had been defrauded by his insurance company. How would you tell him to proceed? What would you tell him you could do for him? How much would you charge him? What timeline would you provide for resolving his case? Do you think he will prevail?

If you feel that after reading the materials I assigned you, you could confidently answer these questions, then law school is for you. There are two reasons I say this: you are either a) a genius who will be picked up by one of the big firms and you will not have to worry about figuring things out yourself, or b) so delusional that you probably do not have the mental faculties required to complete a JD, so you will never have to worry about practicing on your own.

The study of law is nothing like actual law practice.

This flows from my previous point that law school does not prepare one for the practice of law. In law school, students partake in the Socratic method. You read a bunch of materials and the professor drills you on them, questions everything you say. You must defend your position on a topic that is almost always interesting and has vast political implications. At the end of the semester, the professor will read your essay exam and provide you with a grade that reflects how well he or she believes you have retained the lessons imparted during the past few months.

In reality, when you practice law, most of the time you will be sitting alone in a room, keeping track of billable hours, and drafting mind-numbing research memos. One after the other. Westlaw and/or Lexis will become your best friends and worst enemies. Your research topics will most likely involve issues that no one cares about, save for the client. Can Janie sue her classmate for spilling soda at prom, which caused her to slip and fall and sprain her ankle? What is Fred's recourse when his insurance company offers him less than he had anticipated for the car that he totaled? Can Pam get a restraining order on her ex-boyfriend even though he has never hit her, but her parents think he is controlling? If Pam gets that restraining order, how will that affect her ex's child support obligations or custody arrangement?

Oh, and did I mention the best part? No one will read these memos. You see, your supervising attorney does not have time to read them because he or she tees off at 3:00 sharp. He or she would simply like to know the answer to the question, in 10 seconds or less, and will then direct you to file the memo away, just in case the client ever questions the bill. That memo will serve as proof that actual work was performed for the client. But no one will grade you on it. No one will tell you how awesome your case law synthesis turned out or want to speak with you further about the greater implications of the answers to these legal questions. No one cares, you see, because no one wants to actually practice law. They just want to make enough money to afford country club dues and to pawn off research assignments on young associates, who will then turn around and do the same in a few years when it's their turn.  And you will not be one of these lucky young associates because the legal job market is steadily shrinking and most small firms will not even consider anyone not in the top half of their class (which leaves a lot of graduates with their cheese out in the wind) and the big firms will only consider the top 10-20%, depending on school ranking. 

If you are considering law school, ask yourself if you could handle working in a field in which no one will ever give you positive feedback, whether it is a supervising attorney or a client. The supervising attorneys will only gripe if there are holes in your research, but will otherwise remain silent, and clients will only complain about your bill. If you manage a favorable outcome for them, it was because their cause was just. If you do not, it is because you were incompetent. Do you want this for yourself? Or, more appropriately, would you ever wish this on anyone?

Unless you have a scholarship or a rich relative paying your tuition, your income will almost never justify the amount spent earning your JD.

Consider that the average law school debt for public school graduates is a little over $68K and over $109K for private schools (for the 2009-2010 school year). Suppose you are able to spread out $68K over 30 years. Your payments, assuming a 6% interest rate, will be $408 per month. $109K spread out over 30 years will be $654 per month. Remember, this assumes 6% interest, and that you can spread the loans out over 30 years. So that's between $4,896 and $7,848 per year spent on student loan payments, not counting undergraduate degree payments. You can only deduct $2,500 per year on your federal income taxes, and only for the first five years after you begin repaying. Considering the average attorney salary has been steadily dropping (to about $63K currently), this means you will be spending somewhere around 10% of your income on student loan payments. Considering that the average salary for a college graduate is $46K, what exactly have you gained from earning a law degree? A few thousand dollars a year? Which will be eaten away by all of the extra hours spent working in a field that will eat away at your soul and make you want to auction off your JD.

Let’s do a little math here and figure out just how well you’ll be living with a JD and an annual salary of $63K.  Would you like to buy a house? Have a car? Health insurance? Contribute to your retirement? Ok, then, let’s go!

Assuming you are single, you will be in the 25% federal tax bracket. And we’ll assume state and local taxes are 5%, give or take. And your health insurance premiums are $300 per month. And that you contribute 2.5% of your salary to your 401(k). Here are your pre-tax deductions:

$5,250 is your gross monthly pay.

After deducting $300 for health insurance premiums and $131.25 for 401(k), you are left with $4,818.75. Now comes Big Bertha, also known as the IRS. Deduct 30% for federal, state, and local taxes, which brings your monthly take-home to $3,373.13.

Now let’s say you purchase a $165,000 home with no money down and a 30-year fixed-rate mortgage at 5% interest. Your mortgage payment will be $885.76. Assume property taxes to be about 3%, which is $4,950 annually. That’s $412.50 per month. (My husband’s and my property taxes were a lot higher than this, but we are from a ridiculously expensive state). Ok, here’s your monthly budget:


-$885.76 (mortgage)
-$412.50 (property taxes)
-$150.00 (heating, cooling, and electricity, which will vary by state and climate)
-$100 (phone/cell)
-$100 (cable, internet)
-$300 (car payment)
-$100 (car insurance)
-$400 (groceries)
-$200 (gas)
$724.87 (surplus)

Now, how are you going to spend that extra $725 per month that you have lying around? Movies, clothing, furniture, meals out? Oh, wait, I forgot one of the most important deductions. Your student loan! Let’s take away $654, assuming you have $100K in student loan debt at 6% interest amortized over 30 years. That leaves you with $71. You can spend it however you want – credit card bill, clothing, dates (which you probably won’t have many of, since people with six-figure debt do not have much value on the marriage market), anything! Just be sure not to have any emergencies, like a broken down car or a molar in need of a root canal.  And absolutely no vacations or kids!  (If you really want to find some extra cushion in your budget, you can always drive a beater until you are sixty, or take on a second job.)  But remember, it is all worth it because you are a prestigious attorney.

If you are considering law school, think about whether you actually want to practice law, and are willing to mortgage your future in the hopes of successfully building a career in a field in which salaries continue to decrease, as well as demand. Do you think you will be able to later out-earn your current financial stupidity?

Law schools lie about employment statistics.

Another topic not discussed at orientation? Graduate employment statistics. The speakers did not clarify whether the 97% boasted at my school reflected the number of graduates who were actually employed in the legal field, or if that figure included graduates who were forced to find work in other lucrative fields. Nor did anyone discuss the way in which employment statistics are calculated, and whether the statistics are actually plausible.

If you are considering law school, the first thing you should do is write down a list of the schools you would like to attend.  Then pick out your top choice, and get your hands on a list containing the names of its most recent graduates.  (Try attending a graduation and obtaining a program there, or call up the school and say you had a relative who recently graduated and were wondering if you could get a copy of the program.)  Now the real fun will begin.  Wait a few months, then go to the Bar website for the state in which the school is located and start looking up the names of the graduates.  See how many you find that list an actual employer under their contact information, rather than their home address.  For the names that do not appear anywhere, begin looking those up on other Bar websites until you have exhausted all of your resources.  Now count the names of those who you did not find, or who did not list an employer in their contact information.  Take that number and subtract it from the number of total graduates you looked up.  Then divide that number by the total number of graduates you looked up and you will arrive at an accurate employment figure.  But that will all take too long or require too much effort, you say?  I say you’re right, it’s better to just go six figures into debt by relying on a brochure than to conduct any actual research yourself.  I'm sure the guy who wrote the brochure dotted his i's and crossed his t's.  I mean, what's in it for him to fudge the numbers? (I should probably warn you that your hesitation at embarking on such an involved research assignment does not bode well for your future as a practicing attorney.  Just sayin’.) 

The Bottom Line

My point in discussing the flawed law school model is not to piss on anyone's dreams of becoming the next Perry Mason. What I would like to see is transparency in advertising employment statistics, frankness when discussing job prospects with students, course offerings in how to run one's own practice, tuition rates that reflect current market demand and compensation, and more opportunities for students to observe and experience the reality of law practice.

Are you considering law school? And if so, is there anything that could convince you not to go, or do you think you have made up your mind no matter what?


  1. This is awesome. The post, that is. The reality kind of sucks.

  2. Thanks, J-Dog. If I save just one poor sucker from repeating my mistake, it will have been worth the effort.

  3. I wish I could go back in a time machine and stop myself from going to a diploma mill law school on the student lending teat.

  4. Perhaps because I went to law school later in life, I read a few books about the experience of law school and possible pitfalls of practice before enrolling at Temple in 1992.

    The most helpful was (and still is) a publication of the Young Lawyers Division of the ABA:

    While going to law school has not made me rich, it is one of the two best things I've done so far in my life.

    A mistake I think many people make in choosing a profession is that they want the identity they think is related to the profession more than they want to do the work. Some people want to be a lawyer rather than to help people. Other people want to be a doctor rather than to heal people.

  5. Thanks for the comment, Anonymous. I'm glad law school turned out to be a good decision for you. I think it's important for only those people who want to actually practice law to attend law school. Which means students need to become more familiar with the day to day practice of law while they're still in school.

    The law did not turn out to be a good choice for me, not because I didn't want to help people, but because I don't believe the American legal system helps many people (at least the criminal procedure model).

    And, I would still caution people thinking about law school to consider more factors than simply wanting to help people. I wouldn't advise taking on six-figure debt in order to help people. There are many other careers or volunteer opportunities one can go into without having to take on enormous debt.

    And I would remind those who would like to help people via a law career that those in most need of legal help are often the ones who cannot afford to pay you for your services.

  6. I thought this was very interesting. I am currently a second year law student from Scotland, and there is a noted difference in the process of becoming a lawyer in the UK. In the UK you sit an LLB degree for 4 years, then take the Diploma in legal practice for a year. That is all your schooling for law finished, but before you can qualify, you must go through a 2 year trainee-ship. This allows you to learn the profession before you go on to practice as an individual. Perhaps the US law system could incorporate something similar for law graduate training