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

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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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