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The legal one per cent


A particularly well-informed and perceptive law professor points out that many law faculty have tended to live in a kind of bubble that, for ethnographic reasons, makes it difficult for them to assimilate information about changes in the legal profession. Noting that a study of 1990 UVA law grads found on the whole (subject to some striking gender effects) high degrees of career satisfaction and income, she remarks:

The picture conveyed by this study corresponds very well, I think, with the image most professors have of law school graduates. Most professors graduated from T14 schools (like Virginia) and most graduated in times much more like 1990 than 2012.

I would add that in recent years what could be called “the one per center effect” has intensified on law school faculties, as law school faculty hiring, like legal hiring in general, has gotten increasingly competitive. In a thread earlier this week another commenter noted the sort of credential creep that has taken place in the legal profession: It’s now routine for employers to feature hiring committees filled with people whose credentials at the time they graduated from law school would have absolutely precluded them from even getting a first interview at the same employer today.

This is certainly the case in law school hiring, and one consequence is that the most recent hires to law school faculties, even at quite bad schools, tend to be (I’m of course generalizing and there are exceptions) people who had what both entry level employers and law schools consider fabulous paper credentials, and who were doing on-campus interviewing in the fall of their 2L year at at a top ten school (a strong plurality of them at Harvard-Yale-Stanford) no later than 2006 or so. In addition, America now being the country it has become, these people are increasingly likely to come from distinctly upper class backgrounds. (In this particular milieu, “upper middle class” means your father was chief of neurology at Sloan Kettering).

Almost unavoidably, such people have had shall we say a remarkably delicate set of professional experiences in comparison to those of almost all recent law school graduates.

When combined with the general cluelessness of the baby boom generation that now dominates the senior ranks of law faculties — we grew up in a world in which you went to law school basically for free and were more or less issued a high paying job upon graduation — this makes for social conditions within law faculty that are breeding grounds for the most virulent strains of denial.

I have heard a junior member of our faculty, upon being informed that nearly 20% of our graduates are completely unemployed nine months after graduation, remark that this must be to a significant extent by choice, since after all the national unemployment rate for all people — let alone people with at least seven years of formal higher education — is less than half that. This person is not an idiot, so this reaction is clearly a product of very much not wanting to understand a situation, rather than any inherent inability to comprehend it.

I’ve encountered another strain of denial among the parents of potential K-JDers (people who go straight from undergrad to law school) who are pushing their children to enroll in law school as soon as possible, even in situations where doing so now would be a huge mistake. For example, this week I ran into a kid who took the LSAT last fall with no preparation and scored around the 77th percentile. He got into some very expensive law schools with terrible employment stats who offered him almost no “scholarship” money. In the subsequent months he had his consciousness raised and realized that (a) going to these schools for this price was a bad idea, and; (b) the LSAT is a test that can be learned, so that by actually studying for it he might well be able to raise his score into the 95th percentile or higher, and possibly save himself several hundred thousand dollars in long-term costs.

He is now studying to take the test again in the fall, but his parents are “forcing” him to make seat deposits at the schools to which he’s been admitted, since he hasn’t been able to make them understand why going to law school this fall, given his current and possible future options, would in all likelihood be a catastrophic mistake. (Hopefully he will have the strength of mind not to actually enroll).

On one level I can’t even blame these parents, who are understandably confused why their child would prefer spending the next year working at a low-wage low-status job while studying for a test he already did “well” on (this illustrates the waste of human capital now going on — finishing in the top quarter of the LSAT is something that maybe the top 10% or so of college graduates can do) when he has the option of going to a “good” law school this fall. (The schools to which he’s been admitted are far from elite, but far from bottom feeders as well — in other words they’re the kind of law schools that 15-20 years ago were producing good career outcomes for large percentages of their graduates).

On another level this kid is actually lucky — if had scored in the 92nd percentile he would have been admitted in December to George Washington for full boat, and three years from now he’d be graduating with $279,000 in debt (punch in $77,000 in cost of attendance here in year one and see what you get) and a $55,000 a year job. But try explaining any of this to boomer parents — or to GW’s faculty for that matter.

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