Angry Law Students and the Economy

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

Yesterday, Professor Lisa McElroy wrote a thoughtful guest post on this blog about the controversy over alleged bait-and-switch tactics by U.S. law schools. A piece in Sunday's New York Times described how some law schools (including my own) use merit-based scholarships to entice students to enroll in their J.D. programs, only to take away the scholarships from the students who fail to maintain a sufficient (usually 3.0) grade-point average. The effect of losing a scholarship amounts to making the scholarship worth one-third of its apparent value ex ante. As Professor McElroy points out, the story has been accompanied by much commentary, and by an outpouring of angry on-line comments by current and former law students, who claim that the merit scholarship "game" is merely one small part of a larger scam that law schools are perpetrating on unsuspecting applicants.

Professor McElroy helpfully analyzes this flood of angry comments from the perspective of law school transparency, suggesting that we in the legal academy are failing to make students understand the fascinating and even joyful nature of studying law. If our students (current and former) are so angry about things like merit scholarships (as well as other matters of recent controversy, especially job placement statistics), and if that anger is based on an apparent belief that law schools are simply out to cheat them, then we professors and administrators have profoundly failed to make ourselves clear. Students should like law school because it is great to study law, and we should do a better job of showing them why this is so.

I found myself nodding in agreement with Professor McElroy's description of what makes the study of law important and fulfilling. This is not especially meaningful, however, because my own experience with law school was quite different from that of most law students. Having entered law school in middle age, as a career academic, I was immediately drawn to the intellectual joys of studying law. Deciding almost immediately that I would become a law professor (and knowing that I could do so without spending years in a large law firm), I could treat the three years of my J.D. program as a smorgasbord of intellectual delights. That, even more than the age difference, made me a true outsider to the standard law student experience.

Nonetheless, I was a law student, which meant that I received the same flow of information that my classmates received. One of the first things I noticed was that law students seem never to listen to advice from institutional sources. When I started law school, the dot-com bubble was going strong, which meant that 2L's considered themselves a failure if they did not have at least five offers (that really was the number I heard repeatedly) for summer jobs. On-campus recruiting was a game, and the winner was the one who could stockpile the most offers from Covington, Sullivan & Cromwell, Cravath, and so on.

Our Career Services Office, meanwhile, had been receiving anguished feedback from recent graduates, complaining of the debilitating conditions at big law firms. The office thus engaged in a major effort to tell my classmates the truth about life in BigLaw World. Every wall in the law school was covered with posters containing information about the realities of big firm life. For example, we were told how many people quit after one year, two years, and so on. The numbers were staggering (with, as I recall, a drop-out rate of well over 50% within five years).

This informational campaign had no impact on my classmates. When I asked various classmates about it, they scoffed and said that the Career Services Office was a bunch of do-gooders who just wanted them to take low-paying public service jobs. In any case, the students felt no need to change their plans just because of some data that could not possibly be relevant to them.

The point of this anecdote is not -- I repeat, NOT -- to say that it does not matter what we tell students, because they do not listen, anyway. Indeed, if anything, my experience suggests that law schools (at least as a group) might have little to fear from sharing even bad news with their students and potential students. In any case, I agree with Professor McElroy that more transparency is inherently a good thing. Some students (maybe even a large majority) refuse to become informed, but providing information is both ethical and at least potentially useful to those who care to think more carefully about their career choices.

What I think is missing from the discussion, however, is the economic context within which we are seeing the current outpouring of anger. While there might be some unfortunate long-term changes in students' attitudes about law as a career, and about law school as a non-intellectual means to an end, I suspect that law professors have been forever unhappy that our students do not love the study of law as much as we think they should. What is different today is the fury that disappointed students are directing back at their law schools.

Part of this, of course, is the expansion of outlets for expressing anger. Whereas an article in The New York Times once might have led to five published Letters to the Editor, we can now read hundreds of unedited comments on every story. Entire blogs can be devoted to venting anger about law school, which then creates an echo chamber effect.

Still, the reductionist in me (and the economist in me) cannot help but say that this is all about the economy. Law students have, as a group, probably always been alienated by the experience. That is a good argument to continue to try to improve the law school experience, to update pedagogy, etc. It is instructive, however, to remember the difference between a young lawyer who hated law school but has a job, and a young lawyer who hated law school and is unemployed. Every negative aspect of the law school experience is intensified for the unemployed (highly-indebted) young lawyer. Someone is to blame for their plight, and one strong candidate is the law school that took their money but left them without a job.

As easy as it is to put this in economic perspective, that is no reason to feel confident that this, too, shall pass. We cannot be sure that the current anger over legal education will not result in cataclysmic, damaging changes to the legal academy. As I have discussed on this blog (most recently here), the scariest aspect of the ongoing economic crisis is that it threatens to lead to truly ugly outcomes. While complaints about inadequate disclosure of relevant information in choosing law schools should be taken seriously on their own terms, it is essential to think about the implications of the current, seething anger. People who are this angry are capable of becoming captive to a cult of self-reinforcing anger, with potentially society-changing results. Getting them back to work is the only way to defuse that time bomb.