My Advice to Law Students: Don't Believe the Hype

-- Posted by Neil H. Buchanan

This month, across our great land, law schools are welcoming the annual wave of new students. I teach at a law school, and I write on a blog. I am pretty sure that there is a rule somewhere that requires me to write a post offering unsolicited advice to law students near and far. I have failed in this duty in previous years, but this year, I offer this simple advice: Don't believe the hype. If it is not self-evident what I mean (and I would be shocked if it were), please read on.

Here at GW, this week was orientation week for new students, and we offered the usual run of welcoming events and informational activities for our entering first-year students (1L's), transfer students, and LL.M. students. Yesterday, students were able to select from a menu of one-hour informational seminars, mostly regarding career advice and programmatic information. In addition, however, we included some sessions that were more about substantive course content than about career-building. Therefore, at 3:45 yesterday, students had a choice of attending sessions about clerking, advocacy competitions, and externships -- and one with the following title and description:

Do You Really Need to Know Economics To Do Well in Today's Law Schools? Exploring the Realities and Exploding the Myths, Professor Neil Buchanan

Many entering law students are led to believe that current law school courses are laden with economic theory, giving those who majored in economics as undergraduates a distinct advantage over those who did not. Professor Buchanan, who was an economics professor before becoming a law professor, will show you that this is not true; and he will explain the simple concepts that will allow you to see past the overstated claims that economics is the golden ticket to understanding law in the 21st Century.
In a way, it is good news that (in the fourth-largest law school in the United States) only six students showed up for my session. Honestly, I think that each of the other three events was more important and useful to 1L's than mine could possibly be. GW continues to admit students who exhibit very good judgment.

In addition, I realized after writing my course description that my premise might simply have been incorrect. It is, in other words, possible that incoming students have not heard claims (overstated or otherwise) "that economics is the golden ticket to understanding law in the 21st Century." Among my six attendees, three said that -- until reading my course description -- they had never heard any such thing. If anything, therefore, I might have added to the hype, rather than calming nerves.

Even so, I did go through with my presentation. As I was preparing my remarks, I consulted with my new research assistants (a rising 3L, and a rising evening 4L) about what I should say. In the course of the conversation, we discussed various economic ideas that I might want to include on the "debunk" list and the "useful" list (since I am not sure what the antonym for debunk is: "rebunk"? definitely not "bunk"). The range of possible topics broadened beyond economics pretty quickly.

Still, it is true that economics is given far more emphasis in legal curricula (including many 1L courses) than I think is wise or appropriate. I thus warned my listeners about how to understand a few of the most popular economics buzzwords, with one prominent example being the Coase Theorem. The truth is that, the vast majority of the time, when a lawyer or law professor uses the word "Coasean" or any variant thereof, he is really just describing a bargaining situation. It is also true that "The Coase Theorem is Tautological, Incoherent, or Wrong," but most of the time, the invocation of Coase in a law school class does not even get that far. When a person says "Coasean," he generally means: "I could just say, 'People are negotiating,' but if I say, 'This will lead to Coasean bargaining,' I'll sound like I'm in the know."

In that sense, my message was: "Don't believe the hype, when your classmates all start to believe that the so-called Coase Theorem is essential to understanding the law." But my message to law students is far more broad: You will hear a gajillion things during your law school careers that are reverently stated as if they are the unquestioned truth, but they are often dead wrong, and they are usually half-truths, at best.

Some examples:

-- "You have to take Trusts and Estates." (For Trusts and Estates, substitute any of the following: Corporations, Evidence, Crim Pro, Fed Courts, Administrative Law, and Roman Law. Just kidding on that last one. I was checking to see who was paying attention.) There are no elective courses that everyone MUST take, de jure or de facto. One of the best things about law school is that there are so many great courses available -- far more than anyone could take in only three years. If you do not want to take an elective, do not take it! No matter what everyone else says or does.

-- "Clerkships are only for people who make Law Review." Nonsense. Clerkships are a fantastic learning experience for everyone. Plenty of people who are not at the top of the class in terms of GPA become judicial clerks, and their careers are defined by the experience.

-- "You have to try to get on Law Review." No, you do not. Everyone who has been on a law review will tell you that it is drudgery, and that it is generally a thankless job. Some people still think that it looks good on a resume, but each student needs to think about the tradeoffs involved. Sure, if one could be Editor-in-Chief of the flagship law review, without doing any work and without suffering deep anxiety every day for a full year, then everyone should try to get that job. But that is not the reality.

-- "Law Review is better than any of the specialty journals." For resume purposes, maybe, not not definitely. If your school has a tech-related journal, and you are aiming for a tech-related job, then the "rule" obviously does not apply to you. More generally, why not serve on the staff of a journal that actually publishes articles on subjects that you find interesting? (Or, why not do something other than serving on any law journal staff?) I know that this sounds like obvious advice, but the hype in law school is so loud, so insistent, and so unreasoning that it is necessary to take reality breaks on a constant basis.

-- "Tax Law is for numbers-oriented people." Not true AT ALL. I know tax professors across the country who are bad at math, and who do not prepare their own taxes. Tax law is about law, with numbers there for illustrative purposes. I frequently have students take my course who are CPA's (accountants). Their grades have ranged from C- to A. None of my A+'s have ever gone to a CPA. It is, quite simply, a different set of skills.

-- "You have to study all the time." Only if you want to go insane. Find a diversion, and commit yourself to indulging in that diversion at least a few hours each week. For me, it was going to the movies. The only time it makes sense to spend money on some of the bad movies that are out there is when one needs to simply clear out the cobwebs. "Ice Age: Continental Drift" is not "A Streetcar Named Desire," but it is better than re-reading Marbury v. Madison for the third time.

OK, so a lot of this advice is available elsewhere. Who knows how many law professors have tried to warn incoming students about these hoary myths? If I can add something, however, I think it is this: Don't believe ANY of the hype. This boils down to being skeptical about everything, which is a habit that we want students (and citizens) to develop, anyway. Law school, however, brings with it so much hype that any mere mortal is likely to succumb.

Currently, probably the most overheated hype has to do with legal education itself. Whatever else one might say about the screaming matches about the future of law schools that we have been seeing in the blogosphere over the past few years, we can at least say that the incoming crop of law students did not believe that particular hype. If anything, they have at least implicitly engaged in a contrarian investment strategy. Good for them!

My warning is even broader, however, than being a skeptic of the hype about law school. Most incoming students are in their mid-20's. They are being bombarded with hype about what they should be doing at this point in their lives. They SHOULD get married soon. They SHOULD have babies. They SHOULD buy a house. Regular readers of this blog know that I am especially skeptical of that last claim (see, e.g., here), but all of these "shoulds" deserve to be treated skeptically.

Note, however, that this is not the same as saying that people SHOULD NOT do these things. Marriage is right for some people in some situations, but not for others. Same for having children. Same for buying a house (although the likelihood that buying a house is a good financial investment is less than 50%, on average, all things considered). If any of these things are right for you in your current circumstances, then that is wonderful. If not, however, do not let the hype force you into a bad decision.

I feel for law students. They -- quite understandably -- want to know what they should do. Plenty of people try to satisfy that desire with advice that is often wrong. In law school, even more than in almost any other situation in life, the most important acquired skill is learning how to keep one's wits when everyone else is losing theirs. Listening to the hype is sure to mislead. Gather evidence, and think skeptically. Do not default into doing what everyone says you should do. You are better than that.