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The Value of a Law School Degree

Larry Mitchell, the dean at Case Western Law School, set off a bit of a firestorm by writing an editorial in the New York Times discussing the benefit of a law degree.  In confronting the statistics that it was difficult to find work in the legal field, he noted that "[m]any 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."

His editorial generated a response and, at least from the letters published at the NYT, a negative response.  As one letter noted, for example:  "Yes, the top 10 percent from good schools will always find work, but that excludes the vast majority of law school graduates. While a very small number of people with J.D.’s flourish in other fields, I have yet to hear any significant number of them credit their legal education for that success." 

Another had this to say:  "People do not need to spend more than $100,000 studying law for other 'problem solving' careers. Their money and time would be better spent learning skills more directly relevant to their future occupations."

So how does one respond to this?  First, there are plenty of people who want to advance their careers through additional education.  Certainly everyone who receives an MBA does not expect to be CEO or run a significant division of a company.  Yet education is often perceived as a benefit in rising through the ranks.  In a number of professions, law is perceived as an asset in career advancement.  Law enforcement and human resources are two probable examples. 

Second, law opens other avenues.  Politics is an example.  Obviously law is not a precondition for a political career but it certainly seems to help.   Barak Obama and Mitt Romney have law degrees (both from Harvard).  Mitt Romney by the way did not practice, falling into the category of lawyers who took non-legal jobs. 

Nor was the election an entirely Ivy League affair.  Joe Biden, for example, graduated from Syracuse Law School.  Moreover, there are 200 lawyers in Congress.  Interestingly, the percentage of lawyers in the 112th Congress was almost exactly the same as the percentage in the 1st Congress (slightly lower, actually).  Moreover, a list of the lawyers in the 111th Congress shows that they are not predominately from Ivy League law schools.  One suspects that lawyers also predominate in state legislatures and that attending local law schools is a good way to build contacts in that profession.

How about diversity?  With law schools having proliferated, so have the number of women and people of color.  The number of lawyers of color have increased from 7.7% in 1993 to almost 13% by 2009.  Women now hold one-third of all legal jobs.  This is not an attempt to make the case that diversity in the legal profession is adequate (certainly the number of partners of color and women partners is woefully inadequate).  But in the waive of increased law school admissions, there have been a considerable number of people of color and women.

There is no question that an investment of $100,000 or more over a three year period ought to be weighed carefully.  All law schools know that some students go because they simply don't know what to do after graduation.  At least some have suggested that this model is becoming less common and, if true, this it is a long term benefit to the current controversy.  But carefully weighing the decision is not simply looking at the number of law jobs relative to the number of law students. 

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