Why do so many people hate law school?

February 24, 2014, 3:00 PM UTC

(TippingTheScales) — You know law schools are deeply troubled when you ask a dean what it feels like to be under constant fire and he answers the question with a question of his own.

“When you say ‘coming under fire,’ what are we really talking about?” asks John Corkery, dean of the John Marshall Law School in Chicago. “Which fire are we talking about?”

You can’t blame him for seeking clarity. Truth is, law schools have not merely fallen out of favor in recent years, as jobs have become scarce and unemployment among freshly minted JD graduates has soared. Law schools have become the most despised part of the academy.

Most people associate lawyers with misery: an unfair lawsuit, a divorce. But at least previous attacks had come from outside of the profession. In recent years, plenty of criticism has come from insiders, mostly 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.”

Schools aren’t fairy godmothers with the power to bestow sparkly jobs upon all of their graduates. But placing little weight on the fact that professional schools exist to help people enter a profession — to help people move up in the world — amounts to willful ignorance. Why else would employment rates factor into every popular school ranking? (For the record, only 18.7% of John Marshall’s class of 2011 was employed at graduation, according to U.S. News).

Even worse, Corkery’s statement is at odds with the account of Amy Cramer, a John Marshall graduate who left with $250,000 in loans and spent almost two years without full-time work; she just recently started her own firm. She owes much of her staggering debt to an LL.M. she pursued in employee benefits. “I was certainly led to believe that employee benefits was the wave of the future with Obamacare, and that people would be knocking down my door to get me to work for them,” Cramer says. “And that has not happened. I don’t know if it’s a matter of time, but I don’t see those jobs out there for Obamacare, and so that has certainly been a disappointment.”

So, then, if getting a legal education isn’t about getting a job, why bother selling it like it is?

J.D.s certainly don’t come cheap. It’s almost unheard of to attend law school without taking out significant loans. What’s more, the average debt load is mounting: in 2001-2002, JDs borrowed on average $46,500 at public law schools and $70,000 at private law schools; by 2011, those numbers rose to $75,700 and $125,000, respectively.

If you think the debt is spread around evenly, think again. “The financial aid structure at so many law schools is exactly the reverse of what it is at just about any other educational institution,” Winterhalter says. “The bottom of the entering class — which tends to be women, tends to be minorities, tends to be people from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds — effectively subsidizes the top of the class, who get merit-based scholarships.” In the scramble for higher rankings, law schools focus on reeling in high-scoring candidates rather than helping students who might need it most.

This starting point doesn’t contribute to warm feelings for law school, which is a notoriously strange atmosphere to begin with. Winterhalter says it’s a lot like the reality show “The Bachelor.” “Everyone sort of pretends to get along, but it’s very clear that beneath the veneer, there’s a sort of lingering tension that comes from people’s competitive drive,” he says.

And if the law school of your dreams says it’s not like the others, you might want to take that claim with a grain of salt. “There’s a saying at Boston College that it’s the Disneyland of law schools,” Winterhalter says. “Apparently, it’s supposed to be a metaphor for how nice and friendly and warm and welcoming it is. To me, this is the … the perfect metaphor for how sort of phony people are about the fact that they’re being competitive. At the end of the day, it’s still a rigidly hierarchical school. It’s graded on a curve. Only a certain number of people can get in. There are big classes where people are fighting to be at the top, and it seems like that social dynamic is just too powerful to be completely overridden, no matter how hard you try to be nice.”

When competitive people work hard and don’t get what they want, the result isn’t pretty. “I think that often, they feel like what they thought was a mode of moving up in the world ends up just sort of stagnating them economically, and I think that, broadly speaking, people feel sort of bitter about that,” Winterhalter says. “That certainly makes people more receptive to critiques of law school and to ideological examinations of what’s going on.”

So, there you have it: Law school’s perfect storm. As an educational institution, it admits highly ambitious students, pits them against each other with little attempt to level the financial playing field, and releases them into a market that can’t absorb them. When students struggle, schools shrug and say they never guaranteed employment in the first place.

But there’s some evidence that law schools are taking steps to put out the fires. In the past few months, schools such as the University of Iowa, Penn State, and Roger Williams University have cut tuition.

Even Corkery has some disarmingly practical advice for prospective lawyers. “You know, you might not be able to afford to go where you want to,” he says. “I think tuition from public schools to private runs from around $13,000 to $16,000 a year, up to probably $56,000 to $57,000.” Full-time tuition at John Marshall is $41,304 per year.

“Now, where are those low-tuition law schools?” he adds. “They’re just in pockets across the country. One thing you might do is explore schools with lower tuition and see if you can get admitted and work out financing to go there.”

Institutional reforms aside, maybe the best first step is a little more real talk.

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Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Benjamin Winterhalter has written for Slate.com. Winterhalter has written for Salon.com.