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Both Critics and Advocates Offer Incomplete Perspective in Law School Debate

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By Christian S. Hartranft '12, Post-Graduate Fellow

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As with the battle over the value of higher education that I discussed in my previous blog post (and which resurfaced this weekend in the New York Times in an article misleading and worthy of critique in its own right), critics and advocates alike have taken to the newspapers and blogosphere to make their case regarding the value (economic or otherwise) of law school and a legal education.

Many of the same issues naturally come up, namely cost and likelihood of employment after graduation. Given the current economic climate, the legal employment picture is somewhat bleak, which, combined with recent sanctions issued by the American Bar Association (ABA) against Villanova University’s law school for misrepresenting employment statistics, has led to the perception that a legal education is not delivering for graduates in the way that it once did - and that law schools know it.

To counter this viewpoint, Lawrence E. Mitchell, dean of Case Western Reserve University’s law school, penned an op-ed in the New York Times in which he sought to address the most common reasons critics give to dissuade college graduates from attending law school. He suggests that “the focus on first jobs is misplaced,” arguing that a legal education prepares you for a lifetime, developing skills like leadership and critical thinking that lend themselves to a variety of careers and an ever-changing marketplace. In taking on the complaint about growing tuition costs, he cites that starting salaries for graduates from law school have risen at a comparable rate, increasing by 125 percent since the 1980s. The message: look beyond the price and think about the long-term benefits.

Mitchell’s piece did little to persuade the naysayers, however. Elie Mystal, an editor at (a prominent blog that critiques the legal community) responded with a scathing post in which he eviscerates Mitchell and his arguments, most notably his assertion “that some of the brightest potential lawyers are acting ‘irrationally’ by not going to law school.” Smart potential applicants who choose an alternate path, he says, are actually the most rational of all, since they have recognized that their investment in a legal education is likely to yield limited returns. Mystal is especially critical of Mitchell’s employment and salary data, suggesting that his use of means and averages as opposed to raw numbers is misleading, if not a completely inaccurate representation of those important figures.

As with most controversies, I think the truth about the value of a legal education lies somewhere in between. Mitchell is correct when he describes the media’s assault on law school, and higher education in general, as bordering on “hysteria,” and it is refreshing to read a comprehensive argument in favor of something so important that many feel compelled to attack and discredit, often with little cause. Mystal’s post, however, while perhaps overly sarcastic in tone, is appropriately dismissive of Mitchell’s implicit suggestion that smart, sophisticated law school applicants should ignore the very real issues of cost and employment statistics and apply anyway.

As with an undergraduate education, law school costs a lot of money. The immediate benefits of obtaining a J.D. as opposed to a B.A., however, are less clear. Whereas college is almost a pre-requisite for higher-level employment and career flexibility (which, admittedly, can mean many things), law school no longer guarantees its graduates numerous opportunities and six-figure starting salaries. This reality, combined with skyrocketing tuition costs, means that those interested in a legal education must think carefully before applying.

The law is an important and rewarding field, however, and there is absolutely no reason to write it off as unworthy of pursuit. What is important to remember, and what we should take away from the perspectives articulated by Mitchell and Mystal, is that applicants, now more than ever, must be savvy consumers. They must ask themselves why they want to be lawyers and be sure that an investment in a legal education is absolutely necessary for them to achieve their career and – more importantly – personal goals. If the answer to the first question is a sound one, and the answer to the second is “yes,” then law school is absolutely worth considering.

As Laurie Baulig, J.D., our Director of Legal Professions Advising often tells students, however, a legal education can no longer be considered a “default” option, as it once was for graduating college students unsure of what to pursue next. The investment required is too high and the obvious benefits for those who lack commitment are too few. The world needs good lawyers – just be sure you are willing to make the sacrifices necessary to become one.

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