Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Internet versus Dean Mitchell - Round 2

I'm not aware of any prominent legal bloggers who have defended Dean Mitchell's recent editorial in the New York Times "Law School Is Worth the Money." That doesn't mean defenders aren't out there; perhaps there's even a "silent majority" who agree with him and it's merely the critics get the most press (i.e. blog hits).

For those who disagree, however, the Tax Prof Blog has compiled here a list of links to many prominent blogs and bloggers who took issue with the NYT piece.  You can now add to that list Steven J. Harper, a former Kirkland & Ellis partner who authors the terrific blog Belly of the Beast where he often writes from an insider's perspective on BigLaw and the financial issues ailing the profession. His response piece to Dean Mitchell is called "The Lawyer Bubble" and here's an excerpt:

Mitchell’s spirited defense in “Law School Is Worth the Money” concludes that the “overwrought atmosphere has created irrationalities that prevent talented students from realizing their ambitions.” Apparently, he thinks everyone should just calm down, ignore facts, and keep pushing naive undergraduates into law schools, without regard to what will happen to them thereafter. He’s wrong.


Mitchell argues that a legal career is no worse choice than any other because the job market is bad in many industries. He notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects growth in the number of lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent — about as fast as the average for all occupations.

Here’s the thing: that 10 percent growth is for the entire ten years from 2010 to 2020 – a total net increase in the number of lawyer jobs of 73,600. And that number is down from a 2008 BLS estimate of 98,500. As 44,000 new law graduates hit the market each year, law schools are pumping out enough new attorneys for a decade every two years.

. . . .

Excessive tuition

. . . .

It should cost far less to train a lawyer than a doctor — as it did in 1985. But today it doesn’t. Why not? Because law schools have become cash cows, returning as much as 30 percent of tuition revenues to their universities. Moreover, pandering to U.S. News ranking criteria encourages law school expenditures without regard to value added. Federally guaranteed student loans fuel the system in ways that relieve law schools from meaningful accountability as they glut the market.


Mitchell dismisses the fact that average law school debt exceeds $125,000 with the cavalier assertion that “the average lawyer’s salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.” He notes that attorneys’ average starting salaries have increased 125 percent since 1985.

Unfortunately, the average includes only those who actually have lawyer jobs, and it doesn’t consider the fact that, as Above the Law’s Elie Mystal emphasizes often, the average masks the bimodal distribution of attorney income. Thanks to the skewing effect of big law firm compensation (where only 15 percent of lawyers practice), most lawyers earn far less than the industry average. Moreover, median starting salaries for new attorneys have been dropping like a rock — from $72,000 to $60,000 since 2009. Meanwhile, law school tuition keeps going the other way.

Mr. Harper's bottom line, which even Paul Campos and Elie Mystal would concede, is that for "the best and brightest" (or for those who don't have to pay full freight), law school can be a wonderful choice.  But for others, it may be a financial mistake they won't fully comprehend until it's too late.

You can read Mr. Harper's full comments here.


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