Guest post by Aaron N. Taylor.
Prior to becoming a law professor, I spent almost 10 years working in law school admissions. Those experiences gave me first-hand insights into the hopes and dreams of some amazing people. I was often struck by the intelligence, drive, and confidence displayed by many of the aspiring lawyers with whom I interacted. These were people who had already experienced wide-ranging success, and law school was the next step in what was for many of them a long-planned progression.
As an admissions officer, my job was to aid that progression through the provision of information about my school and about the profession. I was part salesman, part counselor, with the latter being the role I readily embraced. Expectations management was a major part of my counseling role—and it was often the most difficult. How do you tell people who have been excellent students their entire lives that they will likely be average students in law school? How do you tell them that their first job out will likely not pay six-figures? And how do you tell them these things without them removing your school from their shortlists? Well, you just do. My philosophy was always, I rather not get a student than have him walking around my school feeling as if I lied to him.
The nature of law school and the type of students it attracts make it a breeding ground for unrealized expectations. You have a disproportionately high number of high achievers assembled in an environment where good grades do not come easily and getting off to a fast start is very important. Throw in inadequate information from law schools and misinformation from all sorts of sources, and lofty expectations will sometimes lose out to pedestrian realities. Knowing this, I sought to err on the side of understatements when discussing the potential payoff of attending schools I represented. I know I lost some great people, but I slept well at night.
The heightened scrutiny on law schools was hastened by a legal job market that saw a contraction of jobs and salaries. As a result, more people experienced realities that looked nothing like their expectations. Feeling duped, they looked for targets of blame and found shortcomings in the manners in which law schools presented employment data. Law schools will now report nuanced employment data that will be more useful, and of course admissions officers will play major roles in communicating this information and ensuring that it is understood. In other words, the admissions officers’ counselor role will be very important to ensuring that people considering legal education fashion realistic expectations.
Also important to ensuring that students enter law school with realistic expectations is students informing themselves. The president of the American Bar Association recently stated that disgruntled law students and graduates are blameful for their own unrealized expectations. He found it “inconceivable” that they were unaware of the looming downturn in the legal job market. Unsurprisingly, he has taken much heat for those comments. But he is right.
I used to be amazed by how little research students did before deciding to go to law school. Thousands of hours and thousands of dollars are invested based on a school’s marketing materials, US News ranking, and a hunch. But there is a wealth of useful, and underused, data available online from sources other than law schools. The federal government compiles national, regional, and local employment and salary data for lawyers (and hundreds of other occupations). This data is distinct from that which is published by law schools and provides a different perspective. Student loan payment calculators estimate the actual costs of borrowing for law school, including interest, making after-the-fact sticker shock unnecessary and avoidable. These resources (and others) are readily available, and failure to utilize them before deciding to attend law school is, well, inconceivable.
I am an unapologetic advocate of legal education. I think it is one of the best educational investments possible. But like any investment, it is not without risks. As such, the decision to attend law school and the formation of realistic expectations requires good information to be imparted and understood. Law schools have a responsibility to publish information in its most useful form. Law school admissions officers have a responsibility to always put their role as counselors before their role as salespeople. And law students have a responsibility to exercise due diligence in researching the wisdom of attending law school—before deciding to do so. Managing expectations is a joint endeavor.
Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. Follow him on Twitter @TheEdLawProf