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Thursday, May 15, 2014

'You Can Do Anything With a Law Degree'

Slate:  “You Can Do Anything With a Law Degree”:  That’s What Everyone Says. Turns Out Everyone’s Wrong, by Jim Saska (J.D., Georgetown):

When I was considering going to law school, I asked my dad for some advice. What if I don’t like being an attorney? What if I don’t end up like The West Wing’s Sam Seaborn, jumping between a lucrative private practice and rewarding government work? “Don’t worry,” said my usually sagacious father, “you can do anything with a law degree.”

My dad isn’t an attorney. But now I am, and let me assure you: My dad didn’t know what he was talking about.

Everyone who has ever considered law school has heard some variant of “you can do anything with a law degree.” Of course, this statement isn’t technically true. You can’t practice medicine with it, for example, unless you also have a medical degree (which, to the delight of Sallie Mae, some J.D.s also have). But the more general sentiment, that a law degree will afford you a wide range of opportunities, is also total BS.

Getting a J.D. means you can call yourself a lawyer. That’s it. Besides the approval of Jewish mothers (who prefer doctors anyway) and a drinking problem, it won’t give you anything else. And it sure as hell won’t help you get a nonlegal job. ...

In the last few months, I’ve interviewed for jobs at a nonprofit, a think tank, and a PR firm among other places of business. I know from personal experience that the first question a lawyer will hear in a nonlegal job interview is, “Why don’t you want to practice law?” My answer to that question always elicits, “Well, you know we don’t pay as much as a law firm, right?” A law degree makes an otherwise qualified candidate look expensive, and often carries a rotten whiff of failure. And other than the New York Mets, no employer wants to hire an expensive failure.

Legal Education | Permalink


"A law degree makes an otherwise qualified candidate look expensive, and often carries a rotten whiff of failure."
Truer words have never been spoken.

Posted by: Lawyer@accountingfirm | May 15, 2014 5:39:18 AM

I have a feeling that Georgetown grads are going to lead the charge against the law school scam. The majority of these grads will fail to obtain Biglaw or government jobs, and will suffer in unemployment or underemployment with extremely heavy debt. The difference between them and the other legions of unemployed law grads is that they are, for the most part, quite smart. Smart enough to articulate their circumstances and resentment in a much more persuasive fashion than we are accustom to seeing so far. And smart enough that many of them likely gave up some sort of decent alternative career option prior to enrolling.

There might be a few schools that join this category – UCLA comes to mind first – but, for the most part, I think the rest of the T14 schools will continue to place the large majority of their grads into good jobs, so there will be no reason for resentment.

Posted by: JM | May 15, 2014 7:30:18 AM

Common HR reactions to the JD applying to the non-JD job:

1. You are obviously some manner of failure or burnout for applying to this job consulting/folding sweaters/pushing paperwork instead of working for the DOJ or Cravath, so why would we hire you?

2. OK, the economy is bad right now, but you will rabbit quickly and easily to the DOJ or Cravath when it gets better, so why would we hire you?

3. You will have more education than your boss, your boss's boss, and his/her boss, which will cause condescension in the ranks, so why would we hire you?

4. You are an attorney. Attorneys are a******s. So you are an a******. Why would we hire you?

5. You have seven years of college, so you will want (and need) more money than other applicants to cover that lost income and law school loans, so why would we hire you?

6. More commonly in the 21st century: the HR software package - Taleo, BrassRing, etc - sees that you are a humanities grad and a lawyer and not, say, a business major/MBA or Comp Sci major, and auto-rejects your resume before anyone at the company even has a chance to see it.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 15, 2014 8:47:53 AM

Sad. Such defeatist attitudes. Pathetic actually. I have made more in non legal jobs than I did practicing law. But hey, I guess its because I didn't whine, got off my ass and made it happen.

Posted by: ki | May 15, 2014 5:26:18 PM

The idea that "You can do anything with a law degree" doesn't refer to the degree as a mere credential, but as education. If you don't learn anything in law school, then the JD is indeed not worth much. Our problem is that the idea of going to a university for an education has largely disappeared. Most people would rather pay their money, get the degree, and skip the years of learning stuff. That would indeed get them their first job, especially if they could buy A's, but it wouldn't help with the rest of their life.

Posted by: Eric Rasmusen | May 16, 2014 6:47:24 AM

Eric, I always find it amazing just how much you know about law school, given that you never attended one and don't teach in one. In fact, given that you don't teach in a law school, you should be more aware than most of the prawfs about just how much of a joke the traditional Langdellian pedagogy is considered by those in the liberal arts and (especially) in the hard sciences.

And of course, you completely evade the truism that hiring managers don't like JDs applying for non-JD jobs - and not all of us have the networking capabilities afforded by, for instance, Yale/Yale/MIT.

Posted by: Unemployed Northeastern | May 16, 2014 8:31:44 AM


Two points. First, the value in education for the sake of education really is the benefit of a liberal arts undergraduate degree. The argument carries far less water at the grad school level, and even less, in my humble opinion, at the professional school level. Professional school is not education for education's sake or for edification. Professional school is a trade school.

Second, at current prices, it is difficult to justify higher education for moral, personal, social, and liberal (in the freeing sense) reasons alone. Those are important goals, but they alone will not put bacon in the pan. And there are cheaper ways to become well rounded and free thinking. For $150,000 you can do a lot of travel and buy a great number of books.

Posted by: Jojo | May 16, 2014 8:54:31 AM

I disagree that what they are actually saying is you can do anything with a legal education. The saying specifically refers to a law degree. Who does not know that you can accomplish more things when you obtain more knowledge, which is what you are twisting the phrase to mean. The specific words of the phrase do not merely reference education or knowledge, but a very specific degree. This degree costs significant amounts of money that then has real world implications for an individual when they apply for a job.

In my current job, part of the interview process was convincing several people that I would not be an expensive blowhard attorney, but be an amicable tax guy. They had that reservation because of my degree. If I merely had an accounting degree and CPA designation they would not have thought that. My personality won them over, not my degree which caused them concern.

Posted by: Daniel | May 16, 2014 9:11:31 AM


“Most people would rather pay their money, get the degree, and skip the years of learning stuff.”

In that case, why do you continue to teach?

Posted by: D++ | May 16, 2014 9:20:21 AM

Have you considered teaching a course on victim blaming?

Posted by: D++ | May 16, 2014 9:41:57 AM

There were a few people who strongly discouraged me from attending law school. They generally graduated low in their respective classes and from third tier programs and they never found law jobs. I went to law school anyway and it was the best professional decision I ever made. In addition to landing jobs at law firms, my law degree helped me to: (i) land multiple job offers with big four accounting firms (something I was unable to do with just my undergraduate accounting degree), (ii) land a job as a successful entrepreneur (which required me to be able to convince investors to put in start-up funding), and, most recently, (iii) land a job as a professor in a business school. There is no question that the 10-15% of law graduates who are not able to attain employment of any kind following law school are in a difficult position, but it is my personal experience that the reasoning in this article is deeply flawed.

Rather than conflating the experience of the few completely unemployed graduates across the entire spectrum of law graduates, this point could have been made by comparing where the graduates of undergrad programs ended up over the course of their entire careers based on whether they did or did not attend law school, but I suspect such a study would refute the "findings" in this article. I know a lot of executives (Presidents, CFOs, CEOs, Deans, etc.) who graduated from law school and many of them never even practiced law for a single day. Someone must have run a statistical analysis of law graduates against their counterparts from their undergraduate programs that spans a sufficient number of years to reasonably estimate the return on investment (and I'm not talking about the ridiculously short term economic model pushed by Paul Campos). I recognize my experiences are solely anecdotal, but anecdotal evidence appears to be the only support for this article and I trust my own experience more than that of a disgruntled law graduate.

P.S. I am not a law professor and I really don't have a dog in this fight as I teach in a business school, but the misinformation about law school is getting ridiculous. The truth when considering employment data is bad enough to give anyone pause before going to law school, but gross exaggerations about how supposedly useless a law degree is is simply not helpful for people considering whether to attend.

Posted by: John Treu | May 17, 2014 9:15:04 AM

There are many jobs for which JDs are preferred, as supported by the disproportionate representation of law degree holders in leadership positions in business and government, and the higher earnings of JDs vs. similar BAs, even excluding those practicing law.

BLS and Census data show that at every level of education, those with higher levels of education than "required" for their occupation earn more than those with less, and are less exposed to unemployment risk.

When employers tell you they won't hire you because you're over-educated, what they really mean is, they won't hire you for a reason they would rather not articulate, likely because:

(1) It will bruise your fragile ego
(2) It will open them up to litigation

"You're over-educated" is the job-market equivalent of "I'm washing my hair", or "It's not you, it's me."

Notice the snarky attitude, lack of basic social skills, and refusal to take responsibility for their own lives of so many of the scam bloggers?

It's not hard to imagine why employers would steer clear of these trouble makers.

Posted by: Anon | May 18, 2014 5:50:28 PM