A Tip for Students Interested in Law School

By Sean Carroll | September 1, 2009 2:07 pm

A new study looks at the average LSAT scores of students with different undergraduate majors, sometimes grouping related fields together to gather a statistically significant sample. (Via.) And the best scores were attained by students studying:

  1. Physics/Math (160.0)
  2. Economics (157.4)
  3. Philosophy/Theology (157.4)
  4. International Relations (156.5)
  5. Engineering (156.2)

At the bottom of the list? Prelaw (148.3) and Criminal Justice (146.0).

I’m not one to crow about the superiority of physics with respect to other fields, so I found this more amusing than anything else. Still, that’s a pretty substantial gap between #1 and #2, if you compare to the differences between the lower scores. The obvious explanation: physics and math students get to be really good at taking tests like the LSAT. I don’t imagine this correlates very strongly with “being a good lawyer.” Then again, I don’t think that good scores on the physics GRE correlate very strongly with “being a good physicist,” over and above a certain useful aptitude at being quick-minded.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Academia
  • Oded

    Nice timing on this post – tomorrow I’m (maybe) going to my university to switch my undergraduate major – from computer science, to, Physics+math…

    I’m a first year student (as in, just finished my first year) and I’ve been pondering switching to physics for half a year already. Tomorrow is truly my last day to decide if I plan to do it before next year. And I’m still not sure. :(

    I work full time, and computer science, while being very easy for me, was still quite hard to manage and took quite a lot of my time.. And I know physics will be that much harder, and I’m still not sure if it will interest me more.

    I’m thinking that if I ever go into academia, it will be for physics.. Since I don’t need my degree for my job (I like to brag – I’m 22 years old, and making $5700 a month as a programmer! :) ), I think going to physics will leave more options open for me – if I ever decide I do want to go into academia…

    Sean, you are my hero.. I hope one day to be doing what you do

  • Nameless

    LSAT is essentially an IQ test, just like SAT, similar to GRE general. It does not test any specific knowledge of law.

  • Michael

    “The obvious explanation: physics and math students get to be really good at taking tests like the LSAT.”

    The other obvious explanation is that students who major in physics were already the smartest/best at taking tests in their class before they did the physics, which has a reputation for difficulty.

  • curious

    what michael said. self-selection seems like a natural fit here.

  • MartyM

    The Math GRE really kicked my butt. It was a long time ago, but I probably should have prepared more for it.

  • DW

    For the love of god, please don’t push law school as an option. If you know anything about it these days, you know the industry is collapsing in on itself. Although patent work seems to be quite immune to the current troubles, that’s all you’re going to find. And even that, in my humble opinion, is a bubble waiting to pop (patent is not the productive, good-for-society area it used to be, once again in my opinion, having studied a bit of it). Here are a few links:

    http://lawshucks.com/layoff-tracker/
    http://www.abovethelaw.com/

    As of right now, the class of ’11 is facing almost a completely uninterested cadre of large lawfirms. And yes, those are the “big law” jobs, not the smaller firms, but can you guess who gets jobs in smaller firms when big law is shedding them? Add into that the fact that law has been headed towards a client base becoming historically more and more resistant to traditional rate setting and you have one unhappy industry.

    Bottom line: stick with the physics. You won’t regret it. And if you do, you’re just fooling yourself.

  • Joe

    As a lawyer (at “Big Law”)who scored a 173 on the LSAT and is generally happy with his life-

    First, let me offer qualified support for DW. You should probably wait a year or two before going to law school unless you’ve got a job already lined up. The recession is driving people into school, and many firms are cutting back on hiring or deferring their incoming class for a year, so there will probably be a glut of talent for three years or so.

    BigLaw isn’t collapsing, its going through the same pains as everyone else. [Excluding the New York firms with large capital markets practices, who are truly in the toilet for the moment.] I’d imagine the economic crunch is hurting the availability of research, teaching and post-doc opportunities in physics as well – they just don’t (to my knowledge) have a collective griping apparatus like Abovethelaw.

    Second, there are a couple reasons that physics and math-heads do so well at the LSAT.

    (1) Self-Selection #1 – generally, you have to be pretty sharp to want to major in physics or math in the first place. Its much harder to BS your way through than, say, criminal justice.

    (2) Self-Selection #2 – if you’ve got a physics degree, you have other options – and law school is expensive. Presumably, only the physics students who will do particularly well on the test will take it (or who really suck at physics, but even then, they shouldn’t be too bad – see rule 1).

    (3) Sample Issue – As Volokh noted, pre-law and criminal justice are generally offered at lower tier schools and not higher tier ones. Similarly, most lower-tier schools are not going to have large physics departments.

    (4) Logic games. There is, if I recall correctly, some fairly convincing research that people with a math background do particularly well at the logic games section (“Eight people around a table, using a set of rules, who is sitting next to whom?”), which is generally the hardest part of the test.

    Does this correlate with better lawyering? Somewhat. The point of the LSAT is to see if you can (1) pick up data from reading efficiently, (2) identify logical flaws, and (3) anticipate the logical results of your actions. If you have that, its definitely a good start. It doesn’t mean that you’ll have the social or written advocacy skills needed.

  • Nameless

    “Bottom line: stick with the physics. You won’t regret it. ”

    I have to disagree.

    Don’t get me wrong – physics is nice and all – but you will never get paid near as well as if you go to a top 14 law school. Even with the industry “collapsing on itself”, there are always jobs for good lawyers.

    Sticking with physics or math means that your lifetime salary cap is somewhere around 100k. Maybe 120-150 if you’re one of the lucky few who manage to become full professors. Computer science means similar salary caps unless you move into management. Many people who go into physics/math/CS are nerds whose capacity for being managers is rather limited.

    On the other hand, if you graduate from a good law school and actually manage to find a job, you’ll be making 200k by the time you’re 30. Full partners can sometimes make 400-500k.

    Money isn’t everything … but sad reality is that 100k does not cut it in this world any more. Especially in high-cost coastal areas like SF or LA, which is where all physics and CS jobs are, you can’t buy a house in an area with good schools on a single 100k income.

    It is a decision one has to make for himself or herself, taking one’s preferences and capabilities into account.

  • Brian

    This is a list for nerds and the status-driven. The scores are tightly clustered and while possibly meanful on a population level, completely meaningless on the personal level. I’ve seen more misuse of statistics in academia (measuring itself) than nearly anywhere else, enough to make me very leery of any academic with a self-interest to find themselves in the 90% percentile of anything.

    If that’s not enough, how about those allegedly top scorers in Physics and Math? They are being nipped at by the Philosophy/Theology majors, and close enough that they are likely within the confidence bands of measurement. That’s quite a conjunction of polar opposite fields you’ve got going there.

  • http://faculty.inverhills.edu/jkaufma Jason

    Sean,

    Although these number are potentially interesting, they are not of much use unless we also know the standard deviation around the mean.

  • http://lablemming.blogspot.com/ Lab Lemming

    Where do the other sciences fall?

  • King Cynic

    Re: Nameless. I don’t want to live in a universe in which $100K isn’t enough to live comfortably on.

    Fortunately that universe doesn’t exist.

  • Nameless

    “I don’t want to live in a universe in which $100K isn’t enough to live comfortably on.

    Fortunately that universe doesn’t exist.”

    100K is enough to live comfortably on as long as you’re single.

    Try to support a stay-at-home wife and raise two kids on 100K in any major coastal city, and you’ll quickly realize how little that is.

    If you want to live in a good neighborhood with good public schools and a 15 minute commute to your job, you’re looking at 3000-4000/month in mortgage payments. Easily half of your monthly paycheck, spent just on housing. That’s taking recent home price declines into account.

    And good public schools are paramount because private schools are out of the question at 100K – good non-brainwashing (i.e. non-religious) private schools start at 1500/kid/month.

    To live “comfortably”, you probably want to put money into 401k, save for college for your kids, maybe go on vacation from time to time …

  • DW

    Maybe my perspective is off because of the whole recession thing, but it feels almost like I was scammed by my law school. I graduated from a school ranked in the top half of tier 1 of US News. Granted it’s not top 14, but it’s no chopped liver, either. I’m pretty much in the middle of my graduating class. I’ve applied for a ridiculous number of jobs, many of which, to be perfectly honest, are below me. I’m not exaggerating. They just are below me. I’m not that haughty about it either; I’m talking about legal assistant jobs in the middle of Saskatchewan with some extremely obscure federal agency or temp positions with firms doing document review that apparently existed at some point but I see zero evidence of today. Nothing is biting, and no non-legal employer wants to hire a juris doctor, either because they see you as “overqualified” or as a potential troublemaker (yeah, apparently HR departments like their employees to be unaware of their “rights”, as if I would have any or know about such things anyways, lol). It’s not a fun place to be.

    I’m not an unattractive candidate as law students go. I’m pretty average. If I’m having trouble finding the most basic kind of employment, and if a number of my friends are also an indication, then there’s something deeply wrong with the way this country educates and employs its lawyers.

  • Jason Dick

    An alternative explanation might be that the fields higher in the list are perceived as being more “smart” fields, and so students who do well are more drawn to them.

  • Nameless

    DW, I feel your pain … but recessions come and go, and low earning potential due to being a physicist is forever.

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  • http://fac-staff.seattleu.edu/dohertyd Davis

    As someone who just left a career as a math professor to pursue a law degree (I started as a 1L today), I’d like to emphasize Joe’s point about the logic games on the LSAT. Having a PhD in math going into that exam almost felt like cheating — even the parts of the LSAT that were not the logic games were still heavily logical.

    DW,

    I’m not an unattractive candidate as law students go. I’m pretty average. If I’m having trouble finding the most basic kind of employment, and if a number of my friends are also an indication, then there’s something deeply wrong with the way this country educates and employs its lawyers.

    I know this doesn’t make you feel any better, but many people who pursue advanced degrees in math and science experience something similar, even when the economy is doing well. My experiences seeking employment in academia have led me to view that path as a pyramid scheme — we train far, far more people for academic positions than we can possibly employ.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    My Physics professor wife and I expected our son to go into Math or Physics or Engineering after he got his double B.S. in Math and Computer Science at age 18, having started full-time at university at 13 (thirteen). But he studied for the LSAT with Dr. George Hockney (PhD Physics, FermiLab, JPL) and did better than 99.5th percentile. He’s started his 3rd (final) year at USC Law School, now that he’s 20. He is usually one of the 3 top students in any course, far above the dweebs who started in Pre-Law of Criminal Justice. The top students in the advanced Patent Law course usually have PhD in biotechnology (or related) and/or run a start-up or lab.

    In my other life (besides Astronomy and Math Adjunct professor gigs) I was a part-time paralegal specializing in Appellate and Supreme Court briefs and writs. What we call “The Law” is a chaotic attractor in the space of all possible laws. I keep meaning to explain this in copiously footnoted dense theoretical prose of the Law Review variety. Math and Physics
    rarely, but sometimes, sneak into such theoretical legal publications, and sometimes indirectly affect the Supreme Court. Although, anecdotally, the current Supremes read Law Review articles FAR less often that was the case some decades ago.

    The Superior – Appeals – Supreme – Legislature hierarchy, and the precedent-based logic, make the laws at a given time evolve sensitively to initial conditions.

    The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written in plain English. BUT…

    Isaac Asimov wrote about complicated issues of Science, Math, History, and Literature in Plain English — intentionally, and superbly. That doesn’t make the underlying Science, Math, History, and Literature simple.

    In American Law, there is a 3-level hierarchy of interpreting “plain English.”

    (1) If neither part disputes what the language means, then it is taken to mean what they agree it means, on the surface.

    (2) If the dispute what the language means (often at the Appellate level) then the analysis proceeds by related laws, by court precedents in that state, by precedents in other stares, and by Federal precedents.

    (3) If that still doesn’t decide things, then (usually at the State Supreme Court or US Supreme Court level) then one goes to INTENT of the framers of the language, as established by transcripts of legislative debates, analyses by other authorities, even memoranda of legislative aides and the like.

    I Am Not A Lawyer, and it is a Felony in my state to practice law without a license. So this is
    only my informed opinion as someone who has, over 15+ years, been a paralegal from time to time researching, writing, serving, and even arguing (in pro per) Superior Court, Appellate Court, and State Supreme Court motions and Writs.

    “The Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are written in plain English.” Yet that does not make the meaning simple. English has changed in 220+ years. The culture has changed. What is “free speech” in the context of the web and Terahertz waves that allow law enforcement to literally look through walls, and satellite photos of people and cars on the ground, and so forth. Ben Franklin could not have predicted these. And the laws of other countries have changed on, for instance, death penalties, and the UN exists and the EU, and there is an influence of foreign laws on US laws — that influence itself debated.

    Hence even documents in Plain English can simultaneously be “written in code.” For geniuses such as Franklin, Madison, Hamilton, Jefferson, and John Jay, this is often important.

    Also, drafts change. For instance, earlier drafts read: “Life, Liberty, and Property.”

    Then the phrase “pursuit of happiness” was used to replace “property”, probably as a compromise between delegates representing states with differing percentages of property-owners and non-property-owners, or the like.

    Does anyone strongly agree or disagree?

    There is much debate as to what “pursuit of happiness” really means. But is seems clear to me that we can pursue happiness better if we are not diseased from pollutants. And I’m suffering from smoke inhalation, having been stuck for a week in a non-airconditioned hom in West Altadena, 3 blocks from the mandatory fire evactuation zone.

    A lot of these things were debated first in other venues.

    So no surprise that trained analytical thinkers do well in Law.

  • J.J.E.

    @Nameless,

    You have constructed a fantasy land out of your own aspirations. If that keeps you on track for your goals or helps your rationalize your own decisions, that’s fine, but stop pretending that your view of how “adequate” $100k is represents anything remotely representative of reality.

    For example, I can name off the top of my head many places where $50k would be adequate to raise a family with a stay at home spouse, own a large house, and work as a tenure-track professor at a world class academic institution. They happen not to be in Manhattan or in the Bay area, but that little condition was imposed by you to make your little statement start to seem remotely plausible.

  • Haelfix

    I believe this is also true for students taking the MCAT, where physics degrees tend to score better on average.

    There’s the obvious and controversial IQ specter somewhere in this, but I like to think its merely a matter of being versed and a little quicker in problem solving aptitude. Some of these tests are really like cross word puzzles. If you do them a lot, you get fast.

  • J.J.E.

    @10. Jason

    I think the standard errors would be more illuminating if you are willing to talk about groups instead of individuals. For example, the smallest sample size is N = 484, which gives a sqrt(N) = 22 (in this case, coincidentally, this is exact). So, the standard error of the mean is at least 22 fold smaller than the standard deviation, and is often much smaller. I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of those top groups were substantially different than groups only a little bit lower. When you sample so deeply, your ability to discriminate between groups is quite strong.

    If those standard deviations are on the order of 50 or less, I guess you can distinguish physicists from biologists. If it is much higher, then the list might not actually be that useful. But the linked pdf doesn’t really give much hope, as they state:

    “[…] because standard deviations by majors are not provided by the
    LSAC, no multiple comparisons of means can be made.”

    Here’s the full list:

    http://taxprof.typepad.com/.a/6a00d8341c4eab53ef0120a592d8eb970c-350wi

  • Nameless

    @ J.J.E.

    I have no doubt that you can live like a king on 100k in Boise or Knoxville. Problem is, there are no jobs paying 100k for people with physics or math degrees in either. If you want to work in Boise, and you have a physics degree, the best job you can expect is a high school teacher, paying, optimistically, 35-40k.

    Personally, I’d love to be a tenure-track professor at a world class academic institution in a remote place like that. That’s probably the best job in the world. But there are far fewer tenure track jobs in the United States than there are Ph.D.s. If I recall correctly, the ratio is 1 to 4 in physics. What happens to the other 3? They get industry jobs, which are in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles, San Diego, Manhattan, Boston. Not in Boise. And then they either marry someone of their own trade (so that they can afford a decent place to live) and send their kids to full-time day care, or they resign themselves to commuting 30-60 minutes one way.

  • J.J.E.

    How about Taipei, Melbourne, Porto, Toronto, Brisbane, rural central Texas (20-30 minute drive to UT), any national laboratory, NASA, UC Davis, the Research Triangle, Ithaca, Iowa City, quite a lot of liberal arts colleges, large state schools, etc.? (Ohio State, UIUC, ad nauseum).

    From my perspective (not that you necessarily believe this), a “requirement” for a high salary is a post hoc justification that is a mental defense against being branded as a sell-out. But then again, I grew up in a single parent home with an annual salary of less than $20k, so those that complain about $100k and sacrifice can cry me a river while listening to the world’s smallest violin. I thought that doing a PhD on a grad student stipend in a major U.S. city was luxury, and I ate well and lived well (albeit without supporting a family).

    I guess when you’re considering as insufficient a salary that already puts you in the upper percentiles of incomes in the world, it isn’t a big leap to think it necessary to live a lifestyle that puts you in the top 1.5% of even American incomes.

  • Nameless

    Also, remember that 2 out of 3 of these “world class academic institutions” are in high-cost areas anyway, so, if you’re lucky enough to get a tenure track job at NYU or Stanford, you’ll have to live in a condo or commute 1-1.5 hours one way from Holmdel or Livermore, because all decent places closer to your job are occupied by doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists, you name it.

    And let’s not forget all people with B.S. and M.S. degrees, for whom industry is the only option, because you can’t get a tenure track job without a Ph.D. (and 2-3 years of post-doc experience at the slave wage), no matter how brilliant you are … If you’re smart enough to get into a top 14 law school on a merit scholarship, you can spend 3 years after B.S. to get a J.D. and then get a six figure job anywhere in the United States, including Boise and Knoxville; or you can spend 2 years get a M.S. in physics and get … what exactly? I’m not sure. Most likely, no discernible benefit for your career at all.

  • Nameless

    “Taipei, Melbourne, Porto, Toronto, Brisbane, rural central Texas (20-30 minute drive to UT), any national laboratory, NASA, UC Davis, the Research Triangle, Ithaca, Iowa City, quite a lot of liberal arts colleges, large state schools, etc.? (Ohio State, UIUC, ad nauseum).”

    Neither UT, nor UC Davis, nor certainly Iowa City, qualify as world class institutions. Even though you have to fight tooth and nail to get a tenure track job in any of those. As for Melbourne and Taipei, not only will you compete with locals for any tenure track jobs, but there are certainly worker permit / visa issues involved.

    “salary that already puts you in the upper percentiles of incomes in the world”

    100k family income puts you around 75th percentile nationwide. Which wouldn’t be so bad if high-income jobs weren’t concentrated in a few high cost places. In Santa Clara County (heart of Silicon Valley), 100k is barely above median. Even though that median includes retirees and illegal immigrants in ghettos.

    “I grew up in a single parent home with an annual salary of less than $20k”

    I’m actually a foreigner. Back in high school I almost made the cut for an International Olympiad. I lived on $100/month for a few years while in college. I have a M.S. degree in physics from a top 40 U.S. university, which I consider practically worthless. And, as much as I like physics, I don’t see any prospects for myself in the area. My current job as a programmer pays more than I’d get as a tenured professor if – IF – I could become one, which I can’t, because I don’t have a Ph.D. degree and I can’t afford to waste 5 years getting one. I’ve been considering a law career if I can get into a good law school on a merit scholarship…

  • J.J.E.

    - 100K puts you at 84%-ile in the U.S. $200K: 97%; $250K: 98.5%;
    – UT and UC Davis are most certainly world-class institutions, unless your definition only admits the likes of Harvard and Oxford or is tied in with such measures as US News top 10. In my field, UC Davis is preferable to all Ivies save Cornell combined, though Berkeley and Cornell are on par with Davis. I’m sure similar dynamics are at work for other specialties at other “unworthy” institutions;
    – I specifically picked Melbourne and Taipei because through personal experience, I know both are inexpensive, good cities with great institutions that actively hire foreign talent.

    In the end, if your world is biased towards the U.S.’s upwardly-mobile class as a model, you are exactly right. And it does so happen to overlap quite often with professional science. This is quite a happy circumstance for many professional scientists who get to have their cake and eat it too. But if your world is biased towards building a career as a professional scientist, the landscape is quite different indeed, and is much richer than you are representing it.

  • Nameless

    http://factfinder.census.gov/servlet/ADPTable?_bm=y&-geo_id=01000US&-qr_name=ACS_2007_3YR_G00_DP3YR3&-ds_name=&-_lang=en&-redoLog=false&-format=

    Nationwide, 100K is 76’th, 200K is 95’th. In San Diego county, which is where I am, 100K is 67’th, 200 is 93’rd. In Silicon Valley, it’s worse.

    Personally I’d define “world class” as top 40, which includes UCSD but certainly excludes Davis.

    Again, “world class”ness is irrelevant, because of an absurdly high ratio of tenure track positions to Ph.D.s, which makes it very difficult for a fresh Ph.D. to get a tenured job ANYWHERE, not just in a world class institution. If U.S. universities would just cut their Ph.D. output to a third of what it is today, all problems would be solved.

  • J.J.E.

    Well, with the obvious caveats involving Wiki, they differ: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Household_income_in_the_United_States

    Your definition of world class is clearly not widely shared by faculty members looking for jobs. I know faculty who turned down a “better” university (University of Chicago) for UC Davis (with both offers in hand) because they considered them to be equally world class and liked mountains and wine better than the city.

    I don’t know what to do with the last bit, though. I’d love to discuss it, but I’m in a hurry and it is tangential (albeit interesting to me). But when it is all said and done, wanting to be a lawyer is a fine goal, wanting upward mobility is a fine goal, but I very seriously doubt that many formerly aspiring academics forced into law out of economic NECESSITY. Out of economic desire, out of disillusionment with academia, out of failure to find a job, certainly. But I doubt that going into debt to the tune of 5 figures for 3 years of law school immediately after 3-6 years of advanced graduate education because it is necessary to maintain a lifestyle in the Bay Area or Silicone Valley is a common path.

  • Nameless

    “But I doubt that going into debt to the tune of 5 figures for 3 years of law school immediately after 3-6 years of advanced graduate education because it is necessary to maintain a lifestyle in the Bay Area or Silicone Valley is a common path.”

    I’m suggesting to forego advanced graduate education altogether, because 1 in 4 Ph.D.’s will get a job that, while attractive and secure, does not pay all that well compared to industry, and the other 3 will get exactly the same jobs and exactly the same salaries they could have gotten if they went looking for jobs after getting their B.S. degrees, without wasting 5 years of their youth on Ph.D’s, followed by 3 more years working as post-docs. If you don’t have the confidence that you’ll become a good professor, or you don’t have the drive to be one, it may be better to go to law school when you’re 22 than to wait till all your job applications are declined when you’re 30.

    Also, I’m suggesting to try and get scholarships whenever possible. Many law students get scholarships. If you’re smart enough to get a Ph.D., you may be smart enough to get 175 on your LSAT and, if you have a good GPA, that may be sufficient to get you a free ride in a decent law school.

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  • onymous

    if you’re lucky enough to get a tenure track job at NYU or Stanford, you’ll have to live in a condo or commute 1-1.5 hours one way from Holmdel or Livermore, because all decent places closer to your job are occupied by doctors, lawyers, venture capitalists, you name it.

    Because no one can live in New York on less than $100k! Oh wait, what’s that, median household income in Manhattan is $47k? That can’t be right! It would contradict a blog comment. Every NYU professor lives outside the city, I’m sure.

    And those rumors about how schools like NYU offer housing assistance to their faculty? Clearly lies spread to try to convince more people to get academic jobs.

  • Eugene

    Ah, Sean, but you don’t have a Physics degree either!

    (Neither do I as it turns out.)

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  • Casey

    This is very misleading as a “tip” for getting into law school.

    #1 – There’s no proof it isn’t self-selection. Those who already would score highly on the LSAT choose physics more often than criminal justice – this is a plausible theory.

    #2 – Law schools generally don’t care what major you took in college other than avoiding things like pre-law, french horn, basket weaving, etc.

    #3 – Your GPA weighs heavily into a law school’s decision on admission.

    #4 – It is substantially easier to receive a high GPA in criminal justice, poli sci, etc than it is in physics.

    Given the above – telling pre-law students to become physics majors, especially if they have no driven interest, is very bad advice.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Another tip: some lawyers don’t have much of a sense of humor. Also some physicists, for that matter. Probably best to stick with chemistry.

  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Lawyers’ sense of humor may be exponentially degraded by intense bombardment from lawyer jokes. Affects their billable hours, via an Invoice Scattering Problem.

  • Nameless

    Because no one can live in New York on less than $100k! Oh wait, what’s that, median household income in Manhattan is $47k? That can’t be right! It would contradict a blog comment. Every NYU professor lives outside the city, I’m sure.

    Far more telling than the median household income in Manhattan is the median condo price. I’ll let you look that up with your mad Google skillz. Also look up median house prices in Rye and Greenwich (both popular locations from which people commute to Manhattan, 45 min – 1 hr one way).

    For now, an anecdote. Paul Krugman recently bought a 3 bedroom condo within walking distance of Columbia University, using his Nobel money. Price paid: 1.7 million. What kind of housing assistance would I need to afford a place like that on a starting professor salary at Columbia (80k)?

  • bob

    For what it is worth (and he was an intelligent man as well as an exceptionally kind and interested professor of English), see Wayne Booth’s book The Vocation of a Teacher. On page 264 he confesses that “the most startling debasements of character I have ever observed … have taken place during the three years of law school… On average, when our English majors graduate, you can count on their feeling and expressing some response to human suffering, whether in literature or in what we call life. On average, three years later, those who transfer to law school have had all that trained out of them. Of course they may be just putting on a show, at both ends of those three years — the show they think their superiors expect of them. But even as a show, the change distresses me.”

  • hackenkaus

    “Then again, I don’t think that good scores on the physics GRE correlate very strongly with “being a good physicist,””

    Spoken like someone who scored lower than he would like to admit on the physics GRE.

    While I can imagine someone doing well on the physics GRE and not being a successful physicist, it’s hard to imagine the other way around. Well, come to think of it I do know of a example, but he’s an experimentalist.

  • onymous

    Far more telling than the median household income in Manhattan is the median condo price.

    What’s telling is that you seem to think that the median condo price, or the amount Krugman paid for a 3-bedroom condo, is telling. Millions of people manage to live their lives in New York without owning condos. You aren’t complaining that coastal areas are too expensive to live in; you’re complaining that you can’t live in dense and expensive coastal areas while owning any significant amount of real estate. If living a particular, property-ownership-centric variation of the upper-middle-class lifestyle is that important to you, then yes, academia is probably a bad choice. But there are other viable ways to live.

  • Nameless

    Millions of people manage to live their lives in New York without owning condos.

    These millions of people include meth-heads, single people, and people living in $300/month rent controlled aparments continuously since 1970.

    You aren’t complaining that coastal areas are too expensive to live in; you’re complaining that you can’t live in dense and expensive coastal areas while owning any significant amount of real estate. If living a particular, property-ownership-centric variation of the upper-middle-class lifestyle is that important to you, then yes, academia is probably a bad choice. But there are other viable ways to live.

    My expectation of lifestyle is fairly simple. I’d like to have two kids, I’d like to live in a safe place with enough bedrooms and bathrooms for everyone (so, at least 3 bedrooms and 3 bathrooms), I’d like to keep my commute under 30 minutes, and I’d like to send my kids to a good school. For the purposes of this discussion, define “good” as <20% free/reduced lunches. Not property-ownership-centric (although I'd prefer to own than to rent) and not even particularly upper-middle-class.

    This can't be done on 100k in Manhattan and it's very difficult, bordering on impossible, to do on 100k in Silicon Valley. This can be done on 100k in Boise, but, like I said previously, there are no jobs for people with physics/math degrees paying 100k there. There are only enough tenure track jobs and national lab jobs and NASA jobs in such backwater places to accommodate a small fraction of people with physics/math degrees.

    Which brings us back to my original point. If you get a physics or math degree, and you're not lucky enough to get one of those "good" jobs", you'll end up in industry, in Manhattan or in Silicon Valley. And, if your expectations are similar to mine, you'll suffer. If you don't want to suffer, go and take LSAT, that may be the best move of your life.

  • King Cynic

    Seems that Nameless might want to readjust his expectations about what’s realistic. Considering a 3BR/3bath house in a neighborhood where few poor people send children to school as a god-given right necessary for happiness just makes him sound like a tool.

    -King Cynic, who makes ~$100K as a professor at a major university in a major West coast city, supports a family exclusively on said salary, owns a home, commutes less than 30 minutes, and in no way ever worries that he doesn’t have enough money because he’s not a lawyer

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    This discussion has wandered a bit far from the post, so let’s reign it in.

  • gopher65

    DW says:

    “I’m talking about legal assistant jobs in the middle of Saskatchewan with some extremely obscure federal agency”

    Ahem. I live in Saskatchewan thank you very much;). Flaaaaaaaaaaaat.

  • steeleweed

    Saw a study once to that documented that undergrad physics majors did than biology majors when moving into biophysics. They also found it easier to learn the bio side than the biologits did to learn the physics side.
    Suspect math/physics requires more rigorous habits of thought Biology.
    (Yes, any biologists out there are welcome to be offended – but it’s a fact).

  • DW

    Just to add a little spin to your arguments of physics student superiority (not that I genuinely care, but I’m playing devil’s advocate like any good law student / fresh lawyer should), what do you make of this?

    “Average LSAT scores have been highest for Caucasian and Asian American test takers. African American test takers and Puerto Rican test takers have had the lowest mean LSAT scores.”

    From: http://www.lsacnet.org/research/tr/LSAT-performance-regional-gender-racial-ethnic-breakdowns-1993-1994-through-1999-2000.htm

    So, if physicists maintain “more rigorous habits of thought”, can we extend the analogy to the example above? Or is there some reason you would be less comfortable with that one? If so, why?

  • J.J.E.

    @DW

    Before you ask Sean to answer that one, let me pose a few questions of you.

    1) Do African Americans and Peurto Rican test takers on average have equal access to financial and educational resources as Asian American and Caucasian test takers?;
    2) Does access to financial and educational resources influence performance on standardized tests?

    But please take my questions seriously. I’m not trying to challenge your devil’s advocacy, but like any good scientist, I’m trying to look at this from all angles and consequently must perform my own devil’s advocacy. Oh, and ignore the apparent disingenuousness of my disclaimer. It is illusory. </snark>

    Anyway, I imagine the influence of various factors such as income, class, and major could be untangled with multiple regression analysis. I imagine that most of the effect Sean sees is from having extensive experience with problem solving tasks more difficult than present in the relatively easy LSAT tests. If you’ve done enough of the particular problem-solving tasks to be a good physicist or philosopher, you probably only need to practice test taking skills and get familiar with the format. You probably don’t need to spend much time honing those skills actually tested. But for someone who spends more time on memory intensive majors (biology, criminal justice), you’ve probably been training other aspects of the brain that aren’t as relevant to the LSAT.

  • A Physics Grad Student

    I’m following this discussion with some interest because I’m a physics grad student who has decided to take the LSAT and transition to law school after graduating. I’m not particularly interested in the money argument that Nameless is putting forth; I just don’t have enough information to know if it’s good or not. What I do agree with in his posts is that the prospects for a tenure track position anywhere are pretty dim. Basically, you have to have graduated with lots of publications from a prestigious institution to even have a shot at a tenure track position, and even then you’re basically going to be moving to wherever that position is; that place is more likely to be Sticksville, Kansas than New York City, and some of us want to live in New York City (or at least another urban area). Even if the money angle were irrelevant, this alone would be enough to seriously consider switching.

    In my view, the prospects for a physics Ph.D. to actually do the kind of thing you get a Ph.D. for are not particularly good. So why kill myself pretending I want to live in undesirable places and slave away for the dubious honor of possibly getting tenure at 40 when I can do something that will give me many more options?

    Also, I’d like to disagree with a point made by Casey at #35 above. I’ve been told by people in the know that both major and institution are considered for law school applications.

  • Kaleberg

    Manhattan may be a bit pricey, but real New Yorkers quickly learn about the other four boroughs. I grew up in Queens where you could get a two bedroom apartment not far from the Flushing line for less than $250K, and that was at the peak of the boom.

    If you are going into law for the money, be warned that starting salaries are bi-modal. Most lawyers cluster around $35K. Others cluster around $135K, but the air gets very thin very quickly up there. I’m not sure how many make the jump from one cluster to another other their careers. (For a reference http://www.adamsmithesq.com/archives/2008/07/the-bimodal-starting-sala.html)

  • Nameless

    “I grew up in Queens where you could get a two bedroom apartment not far from the Flushing line for less than $250K, and that was at the peak of the boom.”

    No doubt you could and maybe you still can. There’s just one problem. Here’s a typical school in the area you mentioned

    http://nces.ed.gov/ccd/schoolsearch/school_detail.asp?Search=1&DistrictID=3600102&SchoolPageNum=2&ID=360010202352

    You can call me classist or racist, but I won’t send my children there … Maybe things were better back when you were in school. Certainly not today.

    Most lawyers cluster around $35K. Others cluster around $135K, but the air gets very thin very quickly up there.

    Your article seems to imply that graduates from T14 and those who graduate at the top 10% of their class stand a far better chance to be in the second cluster, that’s a key component of “Cravath System”. T14 schools produce less then one tenth of all lawyers in the system. The other mode includes people who graduate at the 50th percentile from University of Tulsa.

    Back on the topic of LSAT scores vs. majors, I found some data on SAT vs. intended majors. It appears that LSATs and SATs are well correlated:

    http://professionals.collegeboard.com/profdownload/Total_Group_Report.pdf

  • WC

    I agree with nameless@30.

    If you are considering getting a Ph.d in physics – go to a top ten instituition – graduate degree from anywhere else will be worthless for a later research faculty position. Graduate degree in physics is also completely useless if you have to work in the industry. Better use that time to get a degree in something that will give you some “job-skill” or start working after B.S.

  • J.J.E.

    @52 WC

    I agree that law is an attractive alternative, regardless of your level (BS, MS, PhD). But I know plenty of PhDs (and several in Physics) who have gotten very lucrative jobs in consulting. Of course I also know of exceptions, too, but hey, I think many industries appreciate people who have spent 5 years learning how to solve problems that nobody has solved before.

  • jb

    ” and the other 3 [Physics PhDs] will get exactly the same jobs and exactly the same salaries they could have gotten if they went looking for jobs after getting their B.S. degrees”

    Sorry, but this is flat wrong. There are lots of good jobs where you come in ahead of where you’d be with a B.S. and 6 years experience, and having an advanced degree often gives you a much higher ceiling. Maybe your experience is colored because you have an M.S. and that is truly worthless. All you do for an M.S. is retake all your undergrad classes from slightly harder books, while doing a PhD you learn many very valuable skills (especially if you’re an experimentalist).

    To break well past the 100K ceiling on a normal career path you should probably get one of the following degrees:
    -PhD in Physics, Math, Chemistry, Geology, or any Engineering
    -MD
    -JD
    -MBA

    True the PhD (and the MD) take much longer than the others, but the PhD they pay you to get and it’s much more fun while you’re there. Being dept free is worth what, 5–10K a year for 30 years?

    Industry jobs with a science PhD look particularly good to me if you measure by salary/hr rather than just yearly salary as highly paid law associates work insane hours.

  • A self-employed lawyer

    DW —

    Why go get a job? Why not throw out your own shingle in the city you want to practice in and work for yourself? One of the advantages of being a lawyer is that you don’t have to work for someone else, but have the ability to be a solo practitioner and be your own boss.

  • http://www.teamsikorski.com Spiv

    Sean says: “Another tip: some lawyers don’t have much of a sense of humor. Also some physicists, for that matter. Probably best to stick with chemistry”

    There you go again Sean, being part of the precipitate. If you weren’t such a polarizing figure we wouldn’t all have become so hard anodized to your commentary.

  • Lefty

    I got a 164 the one and only time I took it. My undergraduate degree? Aerospace engineering. I also passed the MPRE and the bar exam on the first try. These tests all test for the same things, things that help make people good scientists, engineers or rigorous analytical thinkers in general.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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