Friday, January 29, 2010

This Lemming Knows What He's Talking About...

I ran across this gem in my morning surf.  It's a somewhat realistic critique of law school, as put forth by a 3L.  My points are in red.

Law School Rewarding, But Tough
January 29, 2010 - 2:27am
By Benjamin Keep

As the recession lingers and law school applications skyrocket, applicants should pause to consider just what sort of beast law school is. Out of all graduate school options, law school seems like the cheap and effective one. Most Ph.D. programs require significant years of work that result in a modest salary in research, administration or private practice; medical school offers a significant salary at roughly the same time investment, but at a considerably higher cost; but law school offers both a short time investment with a high earning potential (though usually at the cost of significant student loans). Perhaps the law school J.D. competes only with the MBA in its perceived payoff. Yet both have come under attack as being ineffective and superfluous as investment banks and large law firms continue to hemorrhage employees.  But I say, why must one go to graduate school at all? Plumbers, Electricians, HVAC installers all seem to earn a good living.  And I think, as far as graduate degrees go, that it's probably more expensive than many more practical graduate degrees--such as Masters of Social Work or Physician's Assistant School. However, he claims, the distinction lies in that you have higher earning potential. This is arguable at best. Many attorneys never get out of the high 5 figure salary.  And many lawyers these days cannot even land a job and are working for free (i.e. for the experience). 

Law school is an easy target, in part because it pursues ambiguous goals. Law school promises both to be undergraduate-plus — a teaching environment that emphasizes analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and intellectual rigor — and a professional school, where students learn the suite of researching, writing and advocacy skills that effective lawyers use. The J.D. is somewhat of an anomaly: academics disagree as to whether the degree is doctorate-level or not. Law School is a refuge for those that are not ready to enter the real world.  Why wouldn't someone be ready, you ask?  Perhaps because they picked the wrong undergrad degree, 'wrong' being defined as a degree based on curiosity rather than practicality.  Others are not ready to work because they need more or a different college experience.  This is where Law School comes in handy.  People get wasted and act stupid for an additional three years, under the guise of obtaining a questionable doctorate level degree. 

Members of journals are generally required to write a small, thesis-length piece (called a note) during their second year, but the length and depth cannot compare to a dissertation, and students write most notes without significant faculty supervision. The vast majority of these notes are dropped after they have been written, left unpublished and unpursued. In addition, a significant number of students decline the journal application process in the first place.  I don't think that anyone LOVES the journal experience, but it's a necessity if you want to land a BigLaw job right after law school--if there are any jobs to be had.  Generally, it's a hamster wheel for law students. You don't know enough about anything as a law student to write a legitimate note--that will be recognized in any field.  But I think that BigLaw values the fact that you can produce high volumes of writing under the pressue of a deadline.  To that end, it is necessary to show you are up for it.  The people that decline to write on are too busy with the college experience to be bothered, or did not have sufficient attorney influence to realize that it's something they should be doing. 

Law school doesn’t strictly impart attorney skills either. Only one required course teaches the fundamentals of legal practice (“lawyering” or “legal research and writing”); the vast majority of other classes are substantive or exploratory in nature. Law School fails miserably at preparing one to practice the law.  This is definitely true.  And I'm sure that legal research and writing could be taught on the job--so it's arguable that the entire 3 years is a worthless waste of time if you actually want to practice law.  If you really want to be a lawyer, after high school--take BARBRI and sit for the Cali Bar. You will owe nearly nothing and be in the same place as most Law School Grads in terms of having NO IDEA what the hell you're doing.

However valuable the Socratic method is as a teaching tool, its justification as preparation for judicial inquiry can fall flat, particularly when most lawyers, even those practicing litigation, never see the inside of a courtroom. Law school graduates exit with principles, not rules. No law student leaves school knowing what the law is, rather, they all leave with a toolbox for thinking about legal questions. It's funny that this is mentioned. I thought that appearing before a judge would be like the Socratic Method--but it wasn't.  Generally, no one was harder on me with questioning than my Civ Pro Professor.  She was a royal bitch. I've argued cases at the Appellate Division, I've argued motions in Supreme Court, Superior  Court, Civil Court, I've had trials. I've never had any issues answering the Judge's questions to his satisfaction. I find Judges to be agreeable people.  Maybe the Socratic Method helped, but I think I would be just as good on my feet had I went straight to court after college. I think you either have it or you don't. 

After passing the bar, lawyers specialize and largely ignore the law in the areas they don’t practice. Students learn the most about law at their firms, in their clinics and at their internships.

Law school is schizophrenic in a more abstract way as well. The rigor that makes law school appealing also burdens the experience with an insistent linearity. Most law students are over-achieving type-A personalities, helping to make the environment one that cultivates lawyerly attributes: an exhaustive work ethic, a detail-oriented approach and an obsessive nature. The timeline and pace of the lifestyle leaves little time for exploration, and less for reflection.

The popular conception that law students go on to pursue a diverse range of different jobs is true. But it’s not true in the way most think. The law touches a lot of things: governance, business, social relations, international relations, technology — but despite the diverse contexts, the purpose of law schools is to create prestigious lawyers. How would this kid know? He's completely wrong.  People have a very hard time entering other fields, even fields they know that they can master or have daily contact with through the law, because non-legal employers are reluctant to hire lawyers.  They think you will leave them for more pay.  The reason why the pay is so low, is because they don't hire you and put you in upper management.  Non-legal employers hire you for entry level positions earning 40K+.  Essentially, they hire you for jobs you could have gotten three years prior--right out of college.  That makes Law School worth it, right?  And with all of the loans you have pulled out, you need to earn more than $40K to survive.  I find it funny that a 3L can speak to this when he has yet to hunt for a non-lawyer job. I speak from experience.  I got this very same offer two weeks ago from company.  Mind you, I'm nearly a decade out.

To pursue a career in public interest, teaching, management, policy or administration requires considerable job search fortitude. You will be swimming against a tide of processes created to transition law students into lawyers.  I don't understand what the "tide of processes," but I will say that these jobs are the most sought after in the age of deferrment. As you know, entire first year classes of BigLaw have been deferred indefinitely and given stipends conditioned upon practicing public interest.  So, these jobs--which are low paying--are hard to get unless you're in the top 5% at Harvard or Yale.  Prestige has become the new form of currency.

The popular perception of legal work can also be quite different from the reality. Very few legal jobs require covert investigations, in-court turnabouts, and flashes of genius. Most require patient document review, extensive computer research and copious editing. Law students must keep their career goals in mind throughout the training process to effectively transition into a successful, happy career.  Doc Review!!! Don't I know it!

To those who are applying to law school this season: good luck.

Benjamin Keep, a third-year law student at Cornell, administers Barely Legal, a column featuring a rotating cast of law students that appears alternate Fridays this semester. He may be reached at

Well, as far as lemmings go, he is extremely enlightened.  Good luck out there, in the wasteland!


  1. A J.D. does NOTNOTNOT reflect a "doctoral level" education, no matter what pretentious law professors writing useless, never-to-be-read, non-peer-reviewed "scholarship" might say. I don't know of any Ph.D. program where the writing requirement tops out at 25 pages (which is the case for most J.D. programs), or where "graduate" students are graded on the basis of multiple-choice tests. My undergraduate education (at a notoriously sweatshoppy college, but whatevs) was FAR more rigorous than my law school. Bring back the LLB!

  2. He goes to Cornell. He has NO IDEA what the job prospects are for people in the lower-tier schools.

    This guy is simply selling prospective law students on the "benefits" of law school. If he did not get a large scholarship from Cornell, he should know better! The profs and administrators are effective enough in selling the system to unsuspecting kids.

  3. I went to law school after earning a PhD in the humanties, seven years of working as a journalist for one of America's top five newspapers, working as an adjunct professor for seven years, and I still ended up at the bottom 10% of my class--and was "culled" out of the school.

    Law school is a bizarre beast that has nothing to do with your upcomming professional careers or academia. It is regulated by outside pressures and rules that sometimes the professors don't even understand.

    Imagine taking a "legal writing" course, using the word "charlatan" in an assignment, and then having the teacher scold you in front of class because she doesn't know what the word "charlatan" means.

    Step into law school and step out of the planet earth for three years (or one year, as in my case).

    And the only thing Socratic about the "Socratic method" is that it eventually induces you to drink hemlock.



Blog Template by - Header Image by Arpi