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Is Law School “Worth” The Money? A Reply To Dean Mitchell

bbhgggIn a November 28th editorial in the NY Times, Case Western Reserve University Law School Dean Lawrence E. Mitchell defends the investment in a law school education. He writes:

“I’m a law dean, and I’m proud. And I think it’s time to stop the nonsense. After two years of almost relentless attacks on law schools, a bit of perspective would be nice.”

The gist of Dean Mitchell’s well-crafted apology is that the strongest criticisms are wrongly premised on a prospective lawyer’s first job, i.e., whether there will be an entry-level law job available and how much a first year lawyer will earn, compared with the heavy blanket of debt lawyers will carry into their chosen careers. He argues:

“[T]he focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. . . . Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.the focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.”

Mitchell makes good points, but I don’t think he goes far enough–in either direction. On the one hand, while he acknowledges that the average graduate of a private law school comes away with $125,000 in debt, I don’t get the sense that Mitchell has any clue what a mountain of debt that heavy feels like. As one who finished school and passed the bar in 1993 owing roughly $80,000, I can tell you it sucked. While I found employment, and got the opportunity to don a suit and tie, hone my skills and learn from a really terrific mentor, the loan payments dug heavily into my $57,600 first year lawyer salary. The drag of “servicing” this debt for the first 10-15 years (or more) should not be lightly brushed aside as a mere inconvenience.

On the other hand, for some (few!), our profession is truly a calling. If someone asked me to honestly answer whether law school is worth the investment of time and A LOT of money, I would answer in the way many successful artists, writers, musicians answer when asked if sacrificing everything to draw, paint, write, cook, etc. is “worth” it: if you honestly can’t imagine living out your life without the experience of practicing law–not just “applying the skills to a career in government or business”–but you literally can’t imagine doing anything else–then law school is absolutely worth it. If you come from means and an extra $50k is waiting to be put to good use, then the law school investment is absolutely worth it.

But if you are like many of us, from middle-class families, who are taking the last few classes needed for your Poli Sci or English (in my case, Philosophy) degree, and you think a career in law “is as good as anything else,” then perhaps you should save your time, (borrowed) money and psyche. Maybe do something else instead.

Dean Mitchell worries that all the “hysteria” (his term) has effectively turned off talented prospective students from law schools that really should go ahead and apply, notwithstanding the cost and dismal job market. He trots out the following example:

“Last spring we accepted an excellent student with a generous financial-aid package that left her with the need to borrow only $5,000 a year. She told us that she thought it would be “irresponsible” to borrow the money. She didn’t attend any law school. I think that was extremely shortsighted, but this prevailing attitude discourages bright students from attending law school.”

Aw, what a shame! Here’s the truth: if that “excellent student” really felt the need to be a lawyer deep enough in her bones, she would have borrowed the $5,000 a year, or panhandled or done something else and found the money. Like a musician who wants to make music–who needs to make music like she needs to breathe–bad enough to starve as a street busker* for a few years, someone who can’t imagine not practicing law will find a way–some way–to make it work.

For everyone else, me included, there’s no harm in doing what Dean Mitchell’s “excellent student” actually did (turns out she was pretty smart): rationally weigh the costs and benefits of borrowing $15,000, or $125,000 and spending 3 years of your life pursuing a dream that might not be the rosy path to success it once was.

I’m glad I struggled through law school and struggled through paying off my law school loans. I’m doing pretty okay now, and I generally like what I do (some parts MUCH MORE than others). But, if you can rationally weigh the alternatives, and can reasonably picture spending the next 30-40 years doing something other than practicing law, then don’t be too quick to rush in. Go ahead, take some time, weigh the alternatives.

*Joe Strummer, for example, who was a street busker for years before he found fame and fortune.


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