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I don’t think this is what Socrates had in mind


Everyone who writes knows that being misunderstood is inevitable. For example a couple of days ago, Bernie Burke, whose work on the law school crisis I generally admire, produced what seems to me an obvious misinterpretation of a quote from a magazine article, as evidence for the claim that I argue law degrees are worthless.

But there is an equally corrosive rhetoric at the other extreme in this discussion, and it is just as pernicious and misleading. For example, this recent quote from Paul Campos in Fortune: “[I]t’s like the subprime mortgage scandal without securitization. When people realize it’s a worthless degree, the system is going to collapse.”

Taken out of context (a context which includes this preceding sentence: “This isn’t sustainable,” warns Campos. “There is a zealous faith in American culture that higher education always pays for itself[.]”), and read as literally as possible, this could be read as a claim that a “law degree” is worthless. Now of course Burke knows, since he has read a lot of what I’ve written on this topic, that I don’t make such a wildly implausible claim anywhere (For instance in an academic article I just published on the topic, I estimate that 92.1% of the 2011 class of Stanford law school had positive outcomes relative to the costs of attending the school. More on Stanford shortly). I suppose Burke might claim sincerely that a casual reader, coming across this single quote, might misread it in this way. Still, all this smacks very much of tactical high Broderism (“Some say law school is a great investment in one’s future. Others say law degrees are worthless. The truth no doubt lies somewhere in the middle.”).

Burke’s rather perverse literal-mindedness in this context is merely mildly annoying, however (and in any case his head and his heart both appear to be in the right place on the more general issue). Steve Diamond’s libelous musings are another matter altogether:

After all we could very easily solve the so-called “oversupply” problem by returning to the days of The Paper Chase (“Loudly, Mr. Hart!”), where women, blacks and Hispanics were a “discrete and insular minority” among law students. Professor Campos of the University of Colorado, who maintains a website called Inside the Law School Scam, seemed to go so far as to endorse such an approach, at least with respect to women.

Diamond is referring to this post. I’ll leave it to readers to decide for themselves whether I’m suggesting that law schools ought to discriminate against women applicants, so that law can return to the genteel days of almost all-male classrooms, or indeed whether anyone could in good faith conclude the post is saying such a thing.

Since as Scott points out below Diamond also argues that a student accepted at both Stanford and Santa Clara “would most likely have very similar opportunities once [he or she] graduated,” it’s difficult to say exactly how preposterous an argument would have to get before Diamond wouldn’t make it.

This claim is plausible only if one assumes that someone who graduated in the middle of the class at Stanford would “most likely” finish at the very top — as in the top half dozen people — of his or her SCU class. Given that the correlation between combined admissions numbers (GPA/LSAT) and first year law school grades averages only .48, this is not exactly a plausible hypothesis. In addition, anyone who gets into Stanford can go to Berkeley with a big scholarship, or UCLA or USC for free, which is to say there’s almost no even theoretically conceivable circumstance in which it would make sense for someone who is admitted to Stanford Law School to enroll at Prof. Diamond’s institution instead.

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  • mpowell

    It seems the new question is: well, yeah, but what should we do about it?

    There are lots of answers being offered, which is taken as a reason to ignore the problem. My suggestion is to focus on one thing first: stop lying to students about their employment prospects on graduating. This is the message to pound home. I would never expect scoundrels to turn down free money, but if the ACA can be pressured into holding schools to actual standards then students will help to correct the problem.

    The second thing to focus on, in my opinion, is fix the federal loan programs so they subsidize students, not schools. I’m not sure what the best fix is. Income Based Repayment seems like a very fine program to me as long as the terms are reasonable and the school that received the tuition money is at least partially on the hook for any loan forgiveness.

    • rea

      what should we do about it?

      I’d start with a formal demand for a public retraction from Prof. Diamond for his libelous statements . . . Oh, you mean about law schools? The bottom 25% or so ought to close their doors.

  • Karate Bearfighter

    Paul, if you didn’t want to have your words twisted and used in a completely specious accusation of misogyny by a disingenuous hack who is trying to distract attention from his complicity in an ongoing speculative bubble you shouldn’t have put them on your blog. It’s like you’ve never been to the Internets before.

  • Michael H Schneider

    Professor Diamond is giving us a perfect lesson in what law schools pride themselves on teaching: thinking like a lawyer. I foresee a prestious career ahead for him as a US Attorney.

    • (the other) Davis

      Given how few law professors have any prior experience in practice these days, I’m not convinced that law schools are actually capable of teaching “thinking like a lawyer.”

      • L.M.

        They’ve had law classes. Well, 18th century agrarian law. But I guess it’s all the same principles.

    • L2P

      He wouldn’t last a week as a AUSA. 1,000 words to say, “Well, yeah, we produce a lot of lawyers, but the BEST lawyers still get jobs?”

      Good lawyers are CONSISE.

      • Michael H Schneider

        Good lawyers are CONSISE.

        For certain values of good. Perhaps that explains why modern USSCt opinions are so often short and clear. Of course, we know that the best lawyers get the jobs, because they get the jobs, and only the best lawyers get the jobs, and they went to the same schools we did, and we know that we’re the best, because we got the jobs. (that’s thinking like a lawyer).

      • rea

        And spell right, too.

    • rea

      “Thinking like a lawyer” usually involves a bit more care to avoid committing an actionable defamation.

  • L2P

    “In addition, anyone who gets into Stanford can go to Berkeley with a big scholarship, or UCLA or USC for free, which is to say there’s almost no even theoretically conceivable circumstance in which it would make sense for someone who is admitted to Stanford Law School to enroll at Prof. Diamond’s institution instead.”

    I think you’re being a little optimistic about the chances of getting a scholarship at UCLA. Only about 10 people can get one most years, and you’re probably talking about an incredibly tiny difference in GPA and LSAT (169/3.88 v. 172/3.94). You’d have to be a TOP applicant at Stanford to get an academic scholarship at UCLA, not someone just above the waitlist. I wouldn’t advise it, but if your choices were waitlist at Stanford, $160k in loans at UCLA, or a free ride at SCU, it’s not a ridiculous idea to go to SCU. It’s not a terrible school.

    This obviously doesn’t excuse the pointlessness of comparing the job prospects of the No. 1 student at SCU to anybody from Stanford, and then saying SCU is “just as good.” Or arguing that we aren’t producing bad job outcomes for lawyers because, hey, at least more of the unemployed lawyers are women now!

    • mpowell

      The argument for moving down the ranking scale to get a free ride is much stronger for less qualified students, ironically. If you can get into HYS, it’s worth going because if you can make it through without a total breakdown you’ll have some kind of job at the end and most likely, a very good one. But if the best school you can get into is the 25th ranked school, finishing in the bottom half of the class (which is actually more likely than not if it’s the top school that accepts you) could end up being a financial disaster. So you might be better off looking for a heavy discount or full ride somewhere else that substantially mitigates your downside risk. And if you’re not near the top of your class after year 1, think about cutting your losses. Of course, that scenario is a borderline case for whether you should even consider law school. And if you’re paying full tuition at SCU, you’re making a big mistake. There is probably market for the graduates of 120ish law schools in steady-state, but until the surplus of lawyers contracts significantly and places like SCU bring tuition down, it’s not a viable path.

      • James F.

        This is pretty much the right analysis, IMO.

      • Publius Novus

        As noted in the article, “the correlation between combined admissions numbers (GPA/LSAT) and first year law school grades averages only .48.” So your supposition that a student who attends the highest ranked school to which he is accepted will finish in the bottom half of his class is rather baseless.

  • Peter Hovde

    Dust . . .Wind . . .Dude.

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  • John Steele

    I was a hiring partner in Silicon Valley for many years and hired from SLS and SCU. I have done adjunct teaching at SLS, SCU, UC-Berkeley and Golden Gate. I counsel lots of students from UC-Berkeley, SCU, etc., about jobs and careers.

    The “similar opportunities” comment from Professor Diamond, is, for lack of a better word, nuts.

  • john

    Leiter finally brings his great intellect to bear on the issue:

    And in other breaking news, a failed legal academic who refers to legal education tout court as a “scam” complains when someone points out that it is absurd to say getting a law degree is worthless. One can’t make this kind of stuff up, as they say.


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