I’ve been aware of the whole “law school scam” genre for years. The basic issue is pretty straightforward: all the problems of higher education with easy loans and inflated tuition for credentialing are manifest writ large in law schools. Here are some plausible numbers, Law Grads Face Brutal Job Market:
The numbers suggest the job market for law grads is worse than previously thought. Nationwide, only 55% of the class of 2011 had full-time, long-term jobs that required a law degree nine months after graduation. The ABA defines “long-term” jobs as those that don’t have a term of less than one year.
Read the whole article, and you see how law school deans try to present weasel explanations for the damning statistics. There’s also a nice interactive graphic. Whittier College of Law has a 40% unemployment rate for the class of 2011. The bar passage rate is 66%, and the tuition is $38,000. In contrast, Columbia 2011 grads have an unemployment rate of less than 1%, with a tuition of $51,000. Obviously the inputs matter here. Columbia professors aren’t that much better than Whittier professors. Rather, Whittier is probably taking $38,000 a year from individuals who are marginal lawyer material. They’re selling people a dream.
This where cognitive biases come in. A rational person will ask if an individual with a unimpressive LSAT and low G.P.A. and lack of genuine passion for law can be a great lawyer. Most people are quite rational…about other people. When it comes to oneself there’s a strong bias, perhaps for evolutionary reasons, to delude oneself about one’s intelligence, attractiveness, conscientiousness, etc. Despite the “market signal” of the collapse of vast swaths of the legal industry in the wake of 2008, and the real correction in the number of applicants an students, these sort of data still imply that the supply of self-deluded suckers is large enough to saturate the market.
One might point out the same issues that plague people who get law degrees also apply to graduate school. I would point out two mitigating factors. First, at least for science graduates usually there isn’t a large debt load. Second, people who gain a Ph.D. at least know something of theoretical interest. This applies even to an unemployed history Ph.D.! The main issue which one can bring up in favor of law school is the opportunity cost due to time invested for graduate school. Law school is 3 years of your life. A science Ph.D. takes on average 7 years. A humanities Ph.D. tends to take even longer. On the other hand the typical Whittier College of Law graduate has $140,000 in debt.
The takeaway is that law school in the USA is the apotheosis of the deep foundational problems with higher education. Higher education is marketed as a way to “invest in yourself.” Who doesn’t want to invest in themselves? More relevantly, who doesn’t overestimate the basic raw human capital in which they’re investing? The problem is when you start out with a low principal in regards to human capital the returns aren’t going to be that great. No one wants to admit that their own principal isn’t all that great in the first place due to natural human cognitive biases, and American society today has an ideology of self-esteem and self-worth which positively amplifies this tendency. Voila, you get a substantial proportion of the population borrowing to invest in improving human capital which they didn’t start out with in the first place. A number multiplied by ~0 is going to be ~0.
H/T Half Sigma