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Lemmings on a turntable

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It seems the belief that lemmings periodically commit mass suicide as an instinctual response to overpopulation is, in the strict sense, a myth. Lemmings reproduce so quickly that they are prone to chaotic oscillations in their population: every few years the sheer number of lemmings in an area will overwhelm the area’s ecological carrying capacity, and the population will crash to near extinction. One common result of this pattern is that lemmings will suddenly disperse in a frantic mass migration in search of food, leading many to drown when they try to swim across bodies of water that are too wide.

The myth that they hurl themselves off cliffs in the equivalent of a recurrent Jonestown for Norwegian rodentia is apparently a product of the following great moment in the history of American corporate infotainment:

The 1958 Disney film White Wilderness, which won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature, [featured] staged footage [showing] lemmings jumping into certain death after faked scenes of mass migration.[12] A Canadian Broadcasting Corporation documentary, Cruel Camera, found that the lemmings used for White Wilderness were flown from Hudson Bay to Calgary, Alberta, Canada, where they did not jump off the cliff, but were in fact launched off the cliff using a turntable.[13]

A turntable?

Leaving the world of rodent biology and returning to that of human social metaphor, “lemming” has become a term for “Law school applicants who remain impervious to the growing evidence that law school might not be a good idea for them right now, given that they will have to have to borrow enormous amounts of money to get a degree which has, on average, a 50% chance of being worse than useless, and a 48% chance of landing them in a series of legal jobs they’ll really hate, most of which won’t allow them to pay back their educational debt at the legally amortized rate.”

Anyway,a term search turns up dozens of sobering internet threads, including the following hilarious series of graphics from a currently unemployed graduate from a 2008 graduate of NYU’s law school. (As Homer Simpson would say, it’s funny because it’s true).

What’s interesting is that even former fonts of purblind optimism, such as the forums at Top Law Schools.com, have, in the course of the last year or so, begun to take on a far more realistic tone, with numerous warnings that for most people law school is a bad gamble unless you get into a T-14 or a T-6 or HYS, or if you can go for free to a decent school in an area you want to work in eventually etc. etc. And there’s already some evidence that this change in the mainstream discourse is starting to have an effect: at least a couple of lower-tier schools shrunk their incoming class sizes this fall, while the number of LSAT takers was down 16% in June and 18% in October.

Still it remains the case that 50,000 people will enroll in ABA-accredited law schools next fall, even though it seems inevitable that, for the large majority of them, this will turn out to be somewhere between a serious mistake and a life-altering catastrophe. What drives these decisions? Leaving aside the small percentage of admits for whom the decision to attend law school at present makes sense from what the economists call an ex ante perspective, what are we to make of the tens of thousands for whom, from that same perspective, it clearly doesn’t? Some possible explanations:

(1) Innocent ignorance

Much of this ignorance remains quite understandable and excusable at the individual level. Most law schools still don’t publish anything resembling accurate employment and salary data. Law schools trade on the cultural prestige of the legal profession to mislead naive applicants and their often even more naive families into not looking at the official statistics with the cynical eye of, for example, a good litigator examining the products of a discovery request, Ironically, anyone who already thinks like a (competent) lawyer is unlikely to go to law school after doing the appropriate level of due diligence. But people don’t, because they’re understandably fooled by the whole Potemkin Village that is contemporary American legal education: the fancy big new buildings, the “official” statistics published under the aegis of august bodies such as the ABA (surely those people wouldn’t let law schools just lie, would they?), the plentiful of success stories (drawn from a pool of thousands of graduates, many of whom paid 1/10th current tuition and entered a completely different legal market), the ever-more glossy brochures, etc.

(2) Culpable blindness

Most people don’t read the fine print. Heck, most people don’t read the big print. Homo Economicus, Rational Maximizer of his Utility, has turned out to be pretty much as big a myth as the suicidal tribe of lemmings, hurling themselves over a cliff (with a major assist from the fine folks at the Disney Corporation). As the cultural conversation about whether or not law school is really worth it gets louder and more fractious, the ratio between people in the first and second group changes. 2011 may well be remembered as the year in which an important tipping point was reached in regard to that ratio. It turns out that there’s nothing like — another irony! — a few front page stories in the New York Times plus a class action lawsuit or three to suddenly get a bunch of law schools to start “voluntarily” publishing much more candid (although still far from fully transparent) employment and salary data. And as more schools do this, the pressure on the ancien regime holdouts increases. It’s not 1789 yet — as far as law schools go, no one is yet storming the Bastille — but Louis XV is already gone.

(3) Psychological exceptionalism

The averages don’t apply to me because I am not average. I am the exception that proves the rule. I will not make the mistakes that the average student at the law school I am going to attend makes. These include: not finishing in the top 10% top 5% top five graduates of the class, being socially awkward (Irony #3: the worst possible judge of whether one has a propensity for social awkwardness is a socially awkward person, i.e., the Rupert Pupkin Syndrome), insisting on interviewing only for Big Law jobs instead of, for example, taking one of the many excellent $105,000 per year positions available with smaller firms, or settling for an assistant district attorney position in the Manhattan DA’s office, not studying hard enough, spending too much time on Facebook in class, and so forth.

(4) It’s not like the federal government is going to loan me $200,000 to start a new Asian fusion restaurant or to send my band on a 16-city small venue tour.

Self-explanatory. Seriously, I grow increasingly convinced that many of the people now going to law school, especially lower-tier law schools, are doing so because, in the short-term, it seems obviously preferable to

(a) Working retail

(b) Flat-out unemployment

(c) Moving back in with Mom and Dad while negotiating the financial challenges of (a) or (b).

Especially given the prestige of being a lawyer. Oh we cynical ones, we enlightened, love to make fun of the “prestige” factor, but it remains the fact that, in its own twisted way, an unemployed lawyer is something to be. If it weren’t, half the law schools in the country would have to close tomorrow, despite the federal loan pipeline and the phony stats, and everything else that makes our game the only game in town for enough people to keep this thing of ours going.

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