Should you really go to law school?

Despite the down economy and big firm layoffs, college students are still beating down the doors of law schools in America. More people — 60,746 — took the most recent LSAT on September 26 than had ever taken the exam before. The number of LSAT takers has been on the rise since 2007, but this is the largest jump since 2001— nearly 20% over last year.

I won’t dig into the reasons for this increase too much. (If you are interested, this thorough post on Most Strongly Supported has a good discussion.) But for any person considering law school or a legal career, this is a good excuse to discuss the question of whether you really should go to law school.

There has been a flurry of articles and blawg posts lately about whether a legal education is really a good investment. Vanderbilt Law professor Herwig Schlunk wrote an entertainingly-titled article “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be … Lawyers,” and Paul Caron of TaxProf Blog asserted that “Going to Law School Is Like Starting to Smoke.” There’s a healthy dose of humor and pessimism in both those pieces, but even the most optimistic observers have to recognize that the legal profession is undergoing a shift that is destroying many of the institutions that made it so lucrative. Aspiring lawyers must now realize that they might not have a job waiting for them when they graduate from law school. And law schools, particularly those in the top tier, have become more like big businesses than halls of learning. While the median income of lawyers increased by 25% from 1987 to 2002, the average law school debt increased 400% over that same period. In 2005, the average graduate of a private law school had $78,000 of debt from law school alone.

Young LDS students considering legal careers should carefully consider these sobering number, in light of Mormon Church advice on avoiding debt. I have heard many people within the Church say that borrowing money is okay for purchasing a home, obtaining an education, and sometimes to purchase a vehicle. But given the housing market collapse and the rising costs of a legal education, students should understand that neither a house nor an education is always a good investment.

While some parts of the country are still under-serviced, there are probably too many people getting into the practice of law. Last month Justice Antonin Scalia commented that he thought that America is “wasting some of our best minds” on lawyering, when other fields lack qualified applicants. After last September’s jump in LSAT takers, the ABA Journal took the unusual step of suggesting that applicants “consider the alternatives.

My advice to people considering law school is the same that it has always been. If you are interested in the practice of law, then by all means, pursue it. But if you don’t know what to do with your life and you know lawyers can make a lot of money, I think it’s a bad decision. I also recommend that future law students find out for themselves whether they will like legal practice. Most law schools will let you sit in on first-year law school classes, and you can volunteer or do internships at legal offices to find out what the practice is really like. It is better to find out early on that you wouldn’t really like being a lawyer, and if you do like it, the experience will cement your decision.

This content is cross-posted from LDS Law.

J. Reuben Clark Law Society Student Chapter Publishes First Newsletter

Recently, the J. Reuben Clark Law Society Student Chapter published their first Newsletter. The chapter is comprised of law schools from all over the country, not just Brigham Young University’s, J. Reuben Clark Law School. The Newsletter is designed to bring individual JRCLS chapters closer together and promote a greater sense of community throughout all the chapters.

The JRCLS Student Chapter Newsletter is to be published monthly. Click HERE to read.

On law school and early marriage

Kevin Barney of By Common Consent has a post about what he calls the “Mormon Early Marriage Culture.” As is often the case with such topics, the post itself is brief but the comment thread is not.  Barney talks about how he was an “odd duck” in law school because he already had a wife and child. I was married before I started law school, which also put me in the minority. But it was not an especially small minority; there were a fair number of students who had gotten married after undergrad. Some of those married students even had children while they were in school. Additionally, quite a few of my classmates were married during or immediately after graduation from law school. So perhaps young married Mormons aren’t as significant a group of outliers Barney takes them to be.

I admit that my law school classmates may not have been the most representative sample. I went to school in the South, where even the law students are somewhat more likely than their East Coast or West Coast counterparts to be religious. Or perhaps, since the legal profession is a relatively traditional profession,  lawyers and future lawyers are more inclined to follow traditional social orders. It would take another study to figure that out.

A couple years ago the U.S. Census Bureau released some data indicating that, for the first time in American history, the majority of adults were unmarried. And according to the graph below (from the median age of marriage has risen to 27.1 years for men and 25.3 years for women. I don’t know what the median age is for Mormon men and women in America, but I’m guessing it’s a couple years younger.

A few of the comments on Barney’s BCC post make some good observations. One law student commenter noted that many of his fellow law students were in long-term relationships, even though they weren’t married. This matches with my experience as well: many of my classmates lived with a long-term boyfriend, girlfriend, or fiancée, often owning property together. A generation or two ago they would have been married, but under current norms they put it off or never ultimately marry.

In a somewhat different vein, commenter John Mansfield noted that the age of first marriage for women had been creeping up after 1960, but that the average age of first marriage for men stayed steady until it shot up in 1973. He opined that this was largely due to Roe v. Wade, and that the continued lower age of first marriage for Mormons may be due to the fact that they are somewhat unaffected by the availability of abortions.

For new law students

Many law schools across the U.S. are starting classes this week, which means a whole new class of 1L’s. It seems like every lawyer or returning law student has advice to dispense to the new law students, so I’ll pitch in my three bits of wisdom. My successes and failures in law school were largely based on how well I adhered to these suggestions.

  • Work hard. It may be obvious, but it’s worth stating up front. Law school is intentionally hard, and you will be competing with some of the best and brightest minds. You will also be learning to think in new patterns and with new concepts. Put the time in, do the reading, and be prepared for class. A lot of law students are naturally intelligent and may not have had to do much work to excel in undergrad. That won’t cut it in law school and it won’t cut it in the real world.
  • Find a schedule that works for you—and stick with it. When I was in law school I treated it like a job. I went into school in the morning and I left at the end of the day or whenever I finished my work. Some people prefer to get up early so they can be home earlier. Others like to work late. Develop a schedule that allows you to get all your work done, and stick to it. Being able to focus for long periods of time is a skill you must learn in order to succeed in law school and to succeed in legal practice after you graduate.
  • Keep your priorities straight. You may be spending upwards of $100,000 to go to law school, so it should rightly be your top priority—most of the time. But you must keep some balance in your life. It is possible to spend too much time doing school work. I’ve seen classmates do it, and it’s unhealthy and ultimately unproductive. Make time for friends, family, scripture study, church service, and community involvement. You may even have to schedule some of these items to fit them in. Just make sure they happen. Even though law school is very important, your family or other priorities may trump your studies from time to time. And that’s okay. 

I also recommend that all new 1L’s (and even returning law students) read “To Beginning Law Students,” a brief but worthwhile article in the December 2002 issue of First Things magazine by Arizona State University law professor Patrick McKinley Brown.

If any of the readers have better advice to new law students or things they wish they had done in law school, feel free to share them in the comments.

Photo credit: Jesse Michael Nix.

To those who are about to take the bar exam: We salute you!

Today is the first day of the bar exam for many states.  Tens of thousands aspiring lawyers will spend the next two or three days in examination hell, all for the chance to practice law in the jurisdiction of their choice. And statistically speaking, a significant minority of those exam takers will fail the exam and have to retake it.

The bar exam is the legal profession’s greatest single rite of passage. Whether your view it as a necessary evil or a self-protective barrier to entry, there is no avoiding the bar exam (unless you live in Wisconsin). Reform efforts in this area have met enormous opposition, since the legal profession is extremely slow to change. But it has gotten better — many states now offer the option to use computers for the essay portion of the bar exam. I would have gladly taken that option, especially when rigor mortis set in on my writing hand in the afternoon of the essay portion.

One of the best proposals I have seen this year was from George Mason Law prof Ilya Somin, who suggests that law examiners and other state bar officials should be required to take and pass the bar exam every year. Somin continues:

Any who fail to pass should be immediately dismissed from their positions, and their failure publicly announced (perhaps at a special press conference by the state attorney general). And they should be barred from ever holding those positions again until – you guessed it – they take and pass the exam.

After all, if the bar exam covers material that any practicing lawyer should know, then surely the lawyers who lead the state bar and administer the bar exam system itself should be required to know it. If they don’t, how can they possibly be qualified for the offices they hold? Surely it’s no excuse to say that they knew it back when they themselves took the test, but have since forgotten. How could any client rely on a lawyer who is ignorant of basic professional knowledge, even if he may have known it years ago?

Of course, few if any bar exam officials or state bar leaders could pass the bar exam without extensive additional study (some might fail even with it). That’s because, as anyone who has taken a bar exam knows, they test knowledge of thousands of arcane legal rules that only a tiny minority of practicing lawyers ever use. This material isn’t on the exam because you can’t be a competent lawyer if you don’t know it. It’s there so as to make it more difficult to pass, thereby diminishing competition for current bar association members (the people whose representatives, not coincidentally, control the bar exam process in most states – either directly or through their lobbying efforts). Effectively, bar exams screen out potential lawyers who are bad at memorization or who don’t have the time and money to take a bar prep course or spend weeks on exam preparation.

That seems like an appropriate remedy to me, but it doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being implemented. Still, one can dream.

We here at Mormon Lawyers wish everyone taking the bar exam this week the best of luck. To those who are about to take the exam: we salute you!

Photo credit: Alex France.

Problems (and some solutions) with student debt

his week the New York Times has run a series of articles on the increasing costs of a college education. In an article Sunday entitled “How Much Student Debt is Too Much?”, several student loan experts weighed in on the issues and costs of mounting student debt. One of those people was Robert Applebaum, a lawyer who advocates canceling student debts as a method for stimulating the economy. I thought his last two paragraphs were particularly good:

Until higher education becomes a safe investment again, prospective borrowers should give greater thought to the financial consequences of seeking an advanced degree. Community colleges and state schools are probably better places to “find oneself,” than expensive private institutions, particularly if the student doesn’t really know what he or she wants to do for a living. Associates degrees and trade schools are other avenues to consider.

None of this is to suggest that a liberal arts education isn’t good for the mind and spirit — but whether it’s as wise a financial investment as it once was requires serious consideration. 

I would be the last person to discourage a prospective law school student from pursuing that course. But given the uncertainty in the market and the changing face of the legal profession, any future lawyer should think long and hard about the costs associated with a legal education. This is particularly difficult for law students because the education costs are higher than almost any other discipline, and because school rank is such a large factor in finding employment.

There is a lot of frustration building with respect to student debt, especially since many colleges are raising tuition and slashing financial aid at the same time students and their parents feel the pinch from the economy. Some of the comments from the first NY Times article I mentioned were published yesterday in a collection entitled “Student Debt, Fool’s Gold?”

It isn’t all bad news, however. Beginning on July 1 of this year a new Income-Based Repayment program will go into effect for federal student loans. This will cap payments for borrowers based on income and family size. Previously, federal loans didn’t take into account a borrower’s number of dependents, which was especially hard on borrowers with larger families. There is also a new Public Service Loan Forgiveness program for borrowers of federal loans who work in the public sector or qualifying non-profits. Of course, these programs only apply to federal loans, which currently have a $18,500 per year cap. That isn’t enough to cover tuition at many law schools, which often exceeds $40,000. But if you have a family, a public interest job, and six figures of student debt, every little bit helps.

Photo credit: AMSA.

Professors Say the Darndest Things…

Yesterday one of my professors said “dot your j’s…ahhh lower case j’s that is “. This reminded me of some of my favorite things professors have said during class; “Using this statute is like wearing a belt and suspenders at the same time”, “if you’re going to sue someone under this tort you better go after them whole hog”, “sack of snakes”– I never did understand what my professor was trying to say when she used this phrase, but she said it all the time and it would make me giggle each time she did. I look forward to adding more phrases to this list over the next year! Let us hear of the funny things you’ve heard professors say.

Law Schools Limit Bathroom Breaks During Exams

As ATL reported several days ago, law schools across the country are worried about wide spread cheating on law exams. How is this cheating believed to occur?… In the bathroom during exams. In response to this possible cheating Syracuse University College of Law has begun limiting the number of bathroom breaks a student can take during an exam to just one! The only exceptions to the one bathroom break one exam rule is for students who provide the dean with medical documentation explaining their need to use the bathroom more than once. I think all this rule is going to do for cheating Syracuse law students is they’ll now spend more time in the bathroom reviewing outlines during their one break. Fordham University School of Law is considering following Syracuse’s lead to prevent bathroom cheaters as well.

Maybe Syracuse and Fordham could take the University of Dayton’s approach and put so many security cameras in the school that you’d be afraid to cheat in the bathroom because there might be security cameras watching you in there as well. There’s no word yet on whether or not any of these schools plan on charging for restroom use that may be one way to cut back on bathroom use and raise revenue at the same time!!!

Disciplinary councils as alternative legal structures

Last week Steven Danderson of FAIR Blog linked to a paper on the LDS Church’s disciplinary council system as an alternative legal structure. Danderson initially attributed the paper to Santa Clara University law professor David D. Friedman, and the paper was hosted at Friedman’s site. I thought the paper was interesting, but it didn’t take me long to conclude that it wasn’t written by Friedman. The piece is more expository than analytical, it seemed more probable to me that the paper was written in the perspective of someone within the Mormon Church.

Fortunately, we have a little inside information from another Bloggernacle denizen, Keri Brooks, who is actually at SCU Law right now. She revealed that the paper was actually written by an anonymous student in Professor Friedman’s seminar “Legal Systems Very Different From Ours,” and a little digging in Friedman’s website bears that out.

The immediate lesson to learn from this is to watch how you attribute material online. (Danderson still hasn’t updated or amended his post to clarify the paper’s authorship.) But I still appreciate his calling attention to the paper because Mormon disciplinary councils are an interesting topic, and I haven’t seen much written on the topic. I know William & Mary Law professor Nate Oman has written on Mormon Church courts before and after the Utah territory became a state, but his article is more of a historical perspective than a current analysis. Mormon disciplinary councils are interesting for a variety of reasons, including the fact that they are derived in part (though not entirely) from Anglo-American legal traditions, and yet they operate in a wide variety of countries that have legal traditions far different from Anglo-American jurisprudence.

The paper on Professor Friedman’s site is not long, so give it a look-see, especially sections IX – XI.

Update: Danderson amended his post to clarify the paper’s authorship.