Why have law schools fallen out of favor to the extent that they have in the US? And elsewhere, too, many would argue.
What is it about the surge of law school graduates that leads to this feeling of hatred towards the schools – even the litigation that has pursued several of them?
More importantly, what are law schools doing to put out the fires that, according to some law school teachers and administrators, are consuming them?
Fortune magazine took a look at the issue and spoke to the dean of John Marshall Law School in Chicago, where Corkery explained some of the problems that are facing the schools.
While lawyers have sustained years of criticism, the mounting criticism has come from within law schools themselves, often from law school professors who acknowledge that schools have supplied far too many lawyers than the market can absorb, and from graduates who now carry six-figure debt loads and can’t get jobs in law.
Corkery’s school has been sued by its graduates for embellishing employment prospects. When asked if he considers his position difficult, though, he deflects: “The fire I’m thinking of is that there are a lot less people going to law school,” he says.
It’s telling that Corkery first lists a problem that afflicts the schools rather than the graduates. He’s on the mark about one thing, though: Law schools are trying to put out fires from all directions.
For the past three years, the media has picked up the attacks with relish. The New York Times, in an article on a graduate with $250,000 in loans, put it this way: “Is Law School a Losing Game?” Referring to the graduate, the Times wrote, “His secret, if that’s the right word, is to pretty much ignore all the calls and letters that he receives every day from the dozen or so creditors now hounding him for cash,” writes the author. Or consider this blunt headline from a recent Business Insider article: “‘I Consider Law School A Waste Of My Life And An Extraordinary Waste Of Money.'” Even though the graduate profiled in the piece had a degree from a Top 20 law school, he’s now bitterly mired in debt. “Because I went to law school, I don’t see myself having a family, earning a comfortable wage, or having an enjoyable lifestyle,” he writes. “I wouldn’t wish my law school experience on my enemy.”
Why are law schools being singled out? After all, the recent recession left Americans with an endless supply of things to complain about. (Corkery casually noted that journalism school graduates aren’t doing that well, either.)
One theory is simple: everyone’s jealous. Bryant Garth, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine who helped author a study on buyers’ remorse among law school graduates, suggests that law school haters just want to see the frontrunners fail.
“The law degree has always been, in this country, the default degree for ambitious and talented people, who’ve then gone into business, have gone into politics, gone into law practice, gone into a whole range of areas,” Garth says. “And basically everybody who is ambitious thinks about whether or not they want to go to law school.” Perhaps it’s satisfying to proclaim that those know-it-alls have been making the wrong choice all along.
But while there’s some merit to that theory, it doesn’t explain the fact that plenty of law school graduates have spoken out against the system. Statements like “I consider law school a waste of my life” don’t exactly save face.
A 28-year-old civil litigator and graduate of Boston College has a different theory. “It’s sort of cathartic — someone finally said it,” Benjamin Winterhalter says. Winterhalter, who’s written for Salon about the law school crisis, describes longstanding resentment among graduates — resentment that has exploded in the face of economic conditions that no longer favor lawyers.
Since the 1970s, an intellectual movement by the name of “law and economics” has steadily crept through law schools, Winterhalter says. The idea is that the law’s usefulness should be measured by how smoothly it lets the market function. “I think that ideological shift means that it’s often very difficult for people to feel able to critique law school, because they sort of go to law school and they hear, ‘Oh, it’s the free market, everyone makes choices, I made a choice to go to law school, you get what you get,'” he explains. “There’s something very seductive about that sort of thinking, but it also leads to some people feeling kind of powerless…. There’s this whole complex repressed anger, and I think that comes out.”
Corkery maintains that getting a well-paying job has never been part of the deal at John Marshall. “We never promised that, and don’t promise it,” he says. “What we promise is that you get a really good legal education that can serve you well for the rest of your life.”