By LAWRENCE E. MITCHELL
I’M a law dean, and I’m proud. And I think it’s time to stop the nonsense. After two years of almost relentless attacks on law schools, a bit of perspective would be nice.
For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks. We entice bright young students into our academic clutches. Succubus-like, when we’ve taken what we want from them, we return them to the mean and barren streets to fend for themselves.
The hysteria has masked some important realities and created an environment in which some of the brightest potential lawyers are, largely irrationally, forgoing the possibility of a rich, rewarding and, yes, profitable, career.
The starting point is the job market. It’s bad. It’s bad in many industries. “Bad,” in law, means that most students will have trouble finding a first job, especially at law firms. But a little historical perspective will reveal that the law job market has been bad — very bad — before. To take the most recent low before this era, in 1998, 55 percent of law graduates started in law firms. In 2011, that number was 50 percent. A 9 percent decline from a previous low during the worst economic conditions in decades hardly seems catastrophic. And this statistic ignores the other jobs lawyers do.
Even so, the focus on first jobs is misplaced. We educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years. The world is guaranteed to change in unpredictable ways, but that reality doesn’t keep us from planning our lives. Moreover, the career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.
What else will these thousands of students who have been discouraged from attending law school do? Where will they find a more fulfilling career? They’re not all going to be doctors or investment bankers, nor should they. Looking purely at the economics, in 2011, the median starting salary for practicing lawyers was $61,500; the mean salary for all practicing lawyers was $130,490, compared with $176,550 for corporate chief executives, $189,210 for internists and $79,300 for architects. This average includes many lawyers who graduated into really bad job markets. And the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics reports projected growth in lawyers’ jobs from 2010 to 2020 at 10 percent, “about as fast as the average for all occupations.”
It’s true, and a problem, that tuition has increased. One report shows that tuition at private schools increased about 160 percent from 1985 to 2011. Private medical school tuition increased only 63 percent during that period. But, in 1985, medical school already cost four times more than law school. And starting salaries for law graduates have increased by 125 percent over that period.
Debt, too, is a problem. The average student at a private law school graduates with $125,000 in debt. But the average lawyer’s annual salary exceeds that number. You’d consider a home mortgage at that ratio to be pretty sweet.
Investment in tuition is for a lifelong career, not a first job. There are many ways to realize a satisfactory return on this investment. Even practicing law appears to have paid off over the long term.
The graying of baby-boom lawyers creates opportunities. As more senior lawyers retire, jobs will open, even in the unlikely case that the law business doesn’t expand with an improving economy. More opportunity will open to women and minorities, too. As with any industry in transition, changes in the delivery of legal services create opportunities as well as challenges. Creative, innovative and entrepreneurial lawyers will find ways to capitalize on this.
The overwrought atmosphere has created irrationalities that prevent talented students from realizing their ambitions. Last spring we accepted an excellent student with a generous financial-aid package that left her with the need to borrow only $5,000 a year. She told us that she thought it would be “irresponsible” to borrow the money. She didn’t attend any law school. I think that was extremely shortsighted, but this prevailing attitude discourages bright students from attending law school.
We could do things better, and every law school with which I’m familiar is looking to address its problems. In the meantime, the one-sided analysis is inflicting significant damage, not only on law schools but also on a society that may well soon find itself bereft of its best and brightest lawyers.
Lawrence E. Mitchell is dean of Case Western Reserve University’s law school.
A version of this op-ed appeared in print on November 29, 2012, on page A31 of the New York edition with the headline: Law School Is Worth The Money.