By now, word is out that law school graduates, particularly those from non-elite schools, are frequently unable to find jobs as lawyers. While law school apologists have largely abandoned the “law school is not a trade school” argument, there are three arguments that have become increasingly popular:
- The “you need to network” argument. Under this argument, new law school graduates can find a job; they simply need to undergo the mystical practice of networking. If they do not find a job, then it is proof positive that they simply did not network hard enough. This proposition is a variant of arguing that unemployment is high because people keep blowing their job interview. I will happily concede that the number of entry level legal jobs is somewhat elastic and an individual graduate can improve their chances by networking-- I have little doubt that, here and there, graduates of marginal schools can work their way into a law clerk position by cold calling their undergrad’s alumni database. However, this does not solve the systemic problem. No amount of networking can solve the massive imbalance between the demand for new lawyers and the supply of new lawyers.
- “You need to hang a shingle”/”Rural lawyer” argument. Under this construction, lawyers have the ability to simply open their own practices and become a lawyer that way, especially in rural America. This argument has already been ably refuted, so I will not belabor the point, except to note that our hypothetical rural lawyer would have to come up with at least somewhere between $5,000-$15,000 just to open their law practice, on top of student loan debt. Getting that kind of loan from a bank after being $100,000 in debt from law school is, itself, a non-trivial problem. It also ignores the fact that at lowly ranked schools, half the graduates don’t pass the bar. For example, at the most recent July administration of the California Bar exam, only half of the graduates from Thomas Jefferson passed. Law schools are admitting students who may never pass the bar exam and hence can’t hang a shingle. Similar to #1, an individual applicant may be able to improve his chances of passing the bar by working hard, but if half the graduates of a school are failing, then that points to a systemic problem.
- The “JD Advantage” argument, which is the primary focus of this blog. The National Association for Law Placement (“NALP”) page on this concept is representative:
It turns out that the JD degree prepares you for a variety of exciting jobs and careers. While many law school graduates go on to practice law, many others go on to play leadership roles in a variety of settings. Many law school graduates obtain positions for which Bar Passage, or even a JD, is not required, but their legal training is deemed to be an advantage or even necessary in the workplace. As the saying goes "you can do almost anything with a law degree!"
This argument has at least three critical flows.. The next series of posts will describe them in detail, but in brief:
First, let’s suppose everything said above was completely true. It fails to be persuasive on its own terms. A “JD Advantage” job is, by definition, one that could be acquired without a JD. To the extent somebody ends up in a JD Advantage job, then they will almost invariably have been better off if they had simply taken that job, or a substantially similar one, three/four years earlier instead of going to law school. Given three/four years of lost earnings on account of time spent attending school and the debt that the average law student carries, then somebody who takes a “JD Advantage” job will financially be massively behind somebody who took the same job without the JD.
Second, these JD advantage jobs are incredibly scarce. There is a variation of the sharpshooter fallacy going on here; NALP found people with good non-legal jobs who have JD’s. What they do not provide is any evidence that the law degree was necessary to obtain or keep the job in question. If I searched hard enough, then I am quite confident that I could find people who spent some time in prison yet, against the odds, now have a great job; obviously, it would be absurd to characterize these jobs as “Breaking and Entering Advantage.” Similarly, just because somebody has a good job and a law degree that they don’t use, it doesn’t mean that the law degree led to the job.
Third, it’s actually worse than that. “JD Advantage” jobs are rare, but the “JD Disadvantage” jobs this blog memorializes are incredibly common. That is, job listings which are available to people who have just a college degree (or not even a college degree), but that explicitly say that JD’s will not be considered. In other words, because a graduate from a non-elite school will likely never find work as a lawyer and merely having the JD cuts off other opportunities, a non-elite JD can and does have negative value-- and would even if it could be obtained overnight and for free. The purpose of this blog is to move the “JD Disadvantage” job beyond anecdote and prove from publicly available job listings that a JD is toxic on the open market, even for non-lawyer legal jobs.
Finally, I will put up a post that responds to some criticisms of the “JD Disadvantage” concept, taken substantially from the JDU thread about this blog.