Monday, January 10, 2011
The Chronicle of Higher Ed has published this editorial in response to the much-discussed New York Times article "Is Law School a Losing Game?" In case you've been off the grid for the past 24 hours - the NYT's article argues that law school is a high priced lottery played by students who borrow hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition money hoping for a shot at a high-paying, BigLaw job. According to the article, students have been duped into playing this lottery through misleading employment stats disseminated by law schools.
The CHE editorial takes the contrary position that law school is much more of a meritocracy where, through dint of hard work, the cream rises to the top:
Law school isn’t a game of chance. It’s a tournament. My wife, for example, entered the law-school tournament in 2001. The first stage was getting into a good law school, which she managed with stellar grades from a Big Ten university and very good (but not quite stellar) LSAT’s. That was enough for the night program at Georgetown Law, which sits near the bottom of the top tier at number 14. Then she spent the next four years working really, really hard. She attended every class, five days a week, 5:30 to 8:30 PM, and spent every Sunday, morning to night, in the law library. And unlike Spendthrift McGee, the lead character in Segal’s article, who borrowed $250,000 to attend a fourth-tier law school because it was in a warm climate, with long debt-financed European vacations thrown in for good measure, she didn’t want to be overwhelmed by loans. So she took a difficult four-fifths-time job as a law-firm analyst during the day to help pay the bills. Four years later, she graduated Magna Cum Laude, entered the federal clerkship tournament, and won that too. Now she works for the federal government as an appellate litigator.
The point being, there was nothing random about it. She want to class and other people didn’t. She spent Sundays studying while others were watching football. Everyone applying to law school takes the same standardized test. Classes are graded on a curve and class rank is relative to other students who took the same classes. It’s not perfect—nothing is—but law school is about as close to a fully transparent pure meritocracy as you’ll find in American education.
Both articles are correct - law schools haven't been forthright enough in providing prospective students with sufficient information about employment stats, the kinds of jobs grads are getting and accurate salary distributions. And certainly when the author's wife of the CHE piece graduated from law school in 2005, it was true - even at 4th tier schools - that the top students who really applied themselves could reap the benefits of their hard work. Today, though, in the "new normal" job market, it may indeed look more like the lottery described in the NYT's article than the CHE circa 2001-05 tournament.
You can read the rest of the CHE article here.