Law Dean: Law School is Worth the Money

Yesterday the New York Times published an editorial by Lawrence Mitchell, Dean of Case Western Reserve University’s law school. The piece can be seen alternatively as a plea to stop the law-school bashing, or as an exegesis on just how wrong everyone has gotten their assessment of the jobs crisis for lawyers. Regardless of your take on Mitchell’s editorial, it is still an open question whether law school is a sound financial investment at this point.

Perhaps Mitchell’s most emphasized point is that law school is not intended to be preparation for a first job, but rather “a career likely to span 40 to 50 years.” This seems a bit long-sighted to me. And relying solely on statistics rather than addressing the real problems hitting law grads misses the mark:

What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers, nor should they. Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets.

The dean goes on to address debt—albeit briefly, and with no consideration for day-to-day consequences of that debt burden upon leaving school:

Debt, too, is a problem. The average student at a private law school graduates with $125,000 in debt. But the average lawyer’s annual salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.

As much as I would like to believe Mr. Mitchell, I’m not at all clear given what I have seen and experienced that investment in law school is worth as much as he would like. I liked law school and appreciate the skills and knowledge I gained during my three years. But if someone had told me ahead of time what type of life course I was choosing, I may have reconsidered my choice, and I don’t feel it is at all responsible to hide the reality of the situation from prospective law students.

Read Law School Is Worth The Money at The New York Times.

(photo: Shutterstock: 113809330)

  • http://lawyerist.com/author/samglover/ Sam Glover

    Averages!

    NALP salary distribution curve

  • Stephen

    What exactly do you mean by “if someone had told me ahead of time what type of life course I was choosing, I may have reconsidered my choice, and I don’t feel it is at all responsible to hide the reality of the situation from prospective law students.”? Are you talking about the “quality of life” associated with firm practice, the amount of debt a young attorney gets into or something else?

    • Graham Martin

      Stephen,

      I was mainly referring to the debt burden imposed by going the route of full-time law school. If I had been able to get one of those jobs making $160k/year right out of law school, my loan payments wouldn’t be so bad. Unfortunately, that’s not the reality for many law school grads.

      I understand that not everyone can get the high-paying positions, so I’m not in a sour grapes place. I just think that if there was any inkling at the time I started law school that this would be an issue, I may have chosen differently.

  • http://www.leyeslawblog.com/ old yeller

    “What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers… ”

    This statement is all that is wrong with the legal education today. As much as this essay by this dean is a plea to stop law school bashing this is also a plea to get people to apply to law school again. I want to emphasize how much this latter interpretation of his article brings to light everything that is wrong with the ‘business’ of legal education today. At this moment, the legal markets are changing and adapting to a shrunken pool of spendthrift clients and a saturated market of lawyers.

    Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending how you look at it) not all current lawyers and law firms will remain competitive as the market shrinks and changes, and we cannot keep churning out individuals with diplomas who only got into law in the first place because they thought it would make them a lot of money in a big city, or because they could not become i bankers and doctors. That’s what leads to the so many miserable people in the legal market that we see today. If I had a dime for every time I told lawyers I wanted to go to law school and how many of them said , “why do you want to do that” or “talk to me before you leave so I can change your mind” I would be Warren Buffett.

    To give people admissions into law school simply because they cannot become doctors and investment bankers is a scary point to make and it is only a defense mechanism of this dean because he is worried that as applications decrease, student bodies decrease, alumni gifts to the school diminish, and then so too does the revenue of some of these schools that, as the market changes, will either adapt or disappear like today’s law firms and lawyers are having to.

    Law is changing. It is a GOOD thing, and some law schools will die out because of this.
    Law is becoming more innovative (MoFo, S&C, Cravath, L&W, Kirkland, Cleary are some that were recently mentioned in FT’s innovative lawyers special report 2013)- these law firms will reap the pay-offs because of this.

    However, this ‘natural selection’ of the legal market is GOOD! For those who really want to become lawyers, then they will do what they must, despite the risk, to become lawyers, and to become competitive and valuable ones at that, not just another mushy middle lawyer in the over-saturated market. Lawyers came out somewhat unscratched from the recession in terms of ethics and trustworthiness, and many business chairs are turning to their lawyers sooner than to their bankers.

    But, with adaptations comes natural selection, and as some things survive for the better, others will unfortunately go extinct. I have my own ideas as to how to not go extinct in today’s legal market, but that will be for another article.

    -O.Y.