Tipping the Scales

Why Do So Many People Despise Law School?

by Maya Itah on

John Marshall Law School image law school hateYou know law schools are deeply troubled when you ask a dean what it feels like to be under constant fire and he answers the question with a question of his own.

“When you say ‘coming under fire,’ what are we really talking about?” asks John Corkery, dean of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “Which fire are we talking about?”

You can’t blame him for seeking clarity. Truth is, law schools have not merely fallen out of favor in recent years, as jobs have become scarce and unemployment among freshly minted JD graduates has soared. Law schools have become the most despised part of the academy.

FLOODING THE MARKET WITH TOO MANY LAWYERS

Most people associate lawyers with misery: an unfair lawsuit, a divorce. But at least previous attacks had come from outside of the profession. In recent years, plenty of criticism has come from insiders, mostly law school professors who acknowledge that schools have supplied far too many lawyers than the market can absorb, and from graduates who now carry six-figure debt loads and can’t get jobs in law.

Corkery’s school has been sued by its graduates for embellishing employment prospects. When asked if he considers his position difficult, though, he deflects: “The fire I’m thinking of is that there are a lot less people going to law school,” he says.

It’s telling that Corkery first lists a problem that afflicts the schools rather than the graduates. He’s on the mark about one thing, though: Law schools are trying to put out fires from all directions.

LAW SCHOOL: A WASTE OF MY LIFE

For the past three years, the media has picked up the attacks with relish. The New York Times,in an article on a graduate with $250,000 in loans, put it this way: “Is Law School a Losing Game?” Referring to the graduate, the Times wrote“His secret, if that’s the right word, is to pretty much ignore all the calls and letters that he receives every day from the dozen or so creditors now hounding him for cash,” writes the author. Or consider this blunt headline from a recent Business Insider article: “‘I Consider Law School A Waste Of My Life And An Extraordinary Waste Of Money.'” Even though the graduate profiled in the piece had a degree from a Top 20 law school, he’s now bitterly mired in debt. “Because I went to law school, I don’t see myself having a family, earning a comfortable wage, or having an enjoyable lifestyle,” he writes. “I wouldn’t wish my law school experience on my enemy.”

Why are law schools being singled out? After all, the recent recession left Americans with an endless supply of things to complain about. (Corkery casually noted that journalism school graduates aren’t doing that well, either.)

One theory is simple: everyone’s jealous. Bryant Garth, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who helped author a study on buyers’ remorse among law school graduates, suggests that law school haters just want to see the frontrunners fail.

A DEGREE FOR THE OUTWARDLY AMBITIOUS

“The law degree has always been, in this country, the default degree for ambitious and talented people, who’ve then gone into business, have gone into politics, gone into law practice, gone into a whole range of areas,” Garth says. “And basically everybody who is ambitious thinks about whether or not they want to go to law school.” Perhaps it’s satisfying to proclaim that those know-it-alls have been making the wrong choice all along.

But while there’s some merit to that theory, it doesn’t explain the fact that plenty of law school graduates have spoken out against the system. Statements like “I consider law school a waste of my life” don’t exactly save face.

A 28-year-old civil litigator and graduate of Boston College has a different theory. “It’s sort of cathartic — someone finally said it,” Benjamin Winterhalter says. Winterhalter, who’s written for Salon about the law school crisis, describes longstanding resentment among graduates — resentment that has exploded in the face of economic conditions that no longer favor lawyers.

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