Why People Go To Law School

I read with interest Daniel Luzer’s post at College Guide today about the status of class-action suits against law schools for misprepresenting their post-graduate placement and earnings statistics. Apparently, the attorney spearheading the effort eventually plans to haul a sizable number of schools into the suit, claiming a systemic pattern of lying to applicants about how likely they are to get work and pull down big bux as a legal beagle.

Will this cut down on the number of folks entering the shark tank? I dunno; as someone with a law degree who never actually practiced the sinful craft, I’m a little out of touch with expectations. Most of my law school classmates were there because they watched a lot of Perry Mason or decided in the fifth grade that they were going to be president some day. Quite a few of the women (this was back in the late 1970s when women were just beginning to enter law schools in nearly proportionate numbers) were former legal secretaries who had grown tired of doing the work of hotshot junior associates getting paid a lot more money than they were. And some students were like me, pursuing a legal education (as the old saying went) as “the last refuge of the unimaginative.”

Only about half my classmates had jobs upon graduation (and it was a pretty good law school, actually), though most found something within the next year. Some (again, like me) used the degree as a credential to do something else in a field with lower alcoholism levels, and where no one would ever again ask your class standing. Only a small percentage landed jobs with big law firms in Atlanta, Washington or New York.

Those were simpler days at a public university with low tuition and much lower student indebtedness, so it’s probably not analogous to today’s situation. I’m all for transparency in higher education, and do think it’s terrible that people make life-changing decisions based on false assurances of big fat jobs at big fat salaries. But I do wonder when it’s all over if far too many people will continue to enter the Paper Chase for the imagined glory, and because they just can’t think of anything else to do.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.