Leading Indicator of Me

If I ever go to another school, you should run away from it as fast as you can. That is the practical implication of Felix Salmon’s post a few days ago rounding up arguments for why you should not get a Ph.D. in the humanities or go to law school.

Thomas Benton’s article, “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go,” nails the basic reasons why I went to UC Berkeley nineteen years ago: excitement in the subject, a history of high grades, the comforting structure of academia, romanticization of university life, and no practical application of academic skills. (See the six bullets halfway down the article.) When I left Berkeley in 1997, I could not get an academic job that I wanted … and the rest is history, I guess. If you do get a Ph.D. in the humanities these days, the numbers are even more heavily against you than they were then. First, American universities as a whole are shifting from tenure-track jobs to untenured adjunct positions; second, within universities, the jobs are shifting from the humanities into vocational fields like accounting and nursing. The ongoing bloodbath in state finances is only making things worse, since most of the good universities in the country are public.

Law school (where I am now) is probably a better bet, but it could be getting worse. This is the money chart, from the National Association of Legal Professionals (commentary by Bill Henderson here; on the reasons for that distribution, see  Henderson here):

(Those are starting salaries after graduation, not current salaries.) There are some caveats here. 9.6% of the people in that distribution are judicial clerks, which means they will probably be leaving those jobs in one-two years, and many of them will move from the left-hand mode to the right-hand mode (which, these days, is around $170,000). 5.4% of them are public interest lawyers, which means they may have been planning to have a modest income all along–but that doesn’t change the fact that they have a modest income and, most likely, a lot of debt. (Some might be independently wealthy, but this post indicates that the proportion of public interest lawyers is actually higher among people with high debt loads than among people with no debt. Which also implies, indirectly, that the people who have money most want to make more of it.)

In other words, law school is no guarantee that you’ll make enough money to pay off $45,000 of tuition per year. And the trends, though weaker than for the humanities, are probably negative. That right-hand mode is based on the ability of top-tier, big-city law firms to bill out associates at outrageous rates. The trend is for big corporations to refuse to pay those rates for people right of law school, which is putting pressure on the system as a whole. (I don’t think this trend has a ton of momentum behind it yet, though, so it may fizzle out.)

Of course, no individual’s prospects are perfectly represented by the aggregate distribution. If you can get into a top school, your chances are better. When I went to Berkeley, the history department was essentially tied for the top position in the country, and I couldn’t get a good job; however, one of my closest friends in graduate school got tenure early at Harvard and another friend recently won a MacArthur “genius” grant. But nothing is guaranteed. At the very top law schools, if you want to be in that right-hand mode, you will probably get there. But you may not stay there for long enough to pay off your debts. At one school, although about 70 percent of grads go to law firms (most of the rest to public interest or government work), by five years after graduation slightly less than half are still at those firms. Job satisfaction is higher among the people not at law firms, not surprisingly.

Personally, I think law school is great: the classes are moderately interesting, the people are great, it’s super-non-competitive (at least at Yale), you can do whatever you want, … So I wouldn’t necessarily counsel people not to do it. But prospective students should know what the numbers are, they should be aware of how much debt they’re taking on, and they should know what type of lifestyle it takes to make the whole thing pay off financially. And, as always, they should watch out for optimism bias. It’s easier to say that you will be the person working late nights through your late twenties and early thirties than to actually do it.

B y James Kwak

29 thoughts on “Leading Indicator of Me

  1. I am contemplating returning to school to get an MA in Counseling Psychology.. definitely not doing it for the money.. and I am 41.. worked the corporate life (BSc in Business Mgmt) and it’s just not enjoyable anymore (plus after getting downsized I am now earning half what I did before).. and there’s something to be said for quality of daily life :-)

  2. Humanities have always been a horrible choice (from a pragmatic standpoint). It’s like getting a degree in English Lit. You can’t do shit with it after you graduate. But I think it’s the opposite with Law, and frankly on this issue (Although I respect Felix Salmon on Finance) I don’t give a…… what Salmon says on this. If you are of high intelligence, which you are (don’t forget my check in the mail) Law is always a good choice. You won’t regret it. Personally I wouldn’t have chosen Yale, but they have a super good reputation so nobody can really argue with that either.

    I haven’t done much with my degree so I should just shut up.

  3. James-

    I believe I speak for the vast majority of law students in the US when I say that I couldn’t disagree more with your statement, “law school is great: the classes are moderately interesting, the people are great, it’s super-non-competitive (at least at Yale), you can do whatever you want”

    In reality, the classes and workload are borderline abusive, the people are not so great, and it is, in fact, murderously competitive. I’ve found pages ripped out of books in two law school libraries; I had colleagues on law review steal other’s comment topics and preliminary research; I’ve witnessed professors verbally degrade students in class to the point of tears. Students gossip like high schoolers, and your friends at graduation are vastly fewer in number than after 1L. And its not unique to my law school: I actually transferred. The culture at each was nearly identical.

    The few studies in the area tend to bear out the anecdotal evidence. Law schools are psychiatric factories. Students enter law school with normal rates of depression and anxiety compared to the population (about 12%), but by the time they graduate, more than 40% of law graduates experience clinical depression and anxiety on a regular basis. And those are just the ones that seek help. Other studies have estimated that as many as 60% of law students need clinical psychiatric help.

    I regret being Mr. Debbie Downer, and perhaps I used artillery to shoot a bird here, but your statement that “law school is great” is vastly incorrect.

  4. You quote me saying “law school is great,” but the full phrase is “Personally, I think law school is great.” It should be clear that’s just my opinion based on my personal experience.

  5. You miss the fact that a substantial majority of the costs of a doctorate are often shared with the institution through some form of financial support. At top schools, this means direct financial aid through scholarships or grants. At lower tier institutions, it’s through TAs, GAs, and RAs. For instance, on paper my education should have cost me somewhere in the neighborhood of $90,000 (90 credits). In reality, I made roughly $90,000 over six years in wages and benefits (this excludes tuition costs) and the university pick up the entire cost of my education.

    Once you factor in opportunity costs and the relatively low salary for even tenured professors in my field it’s still not a good way to get rich, but it also isn’t a bad deal if that’s what you want to do with your life.

  6. Until a year or so ago, undergraduates with an eye towards primitive accumulation directed their aspirations towards banking and finance – whether a busines, poli. sci. or computer science major. Afterall, the banking industry needed the “best and brightest”. Law has always been the other great avenue – hand maidens to capital – for who but lawyers could write the jargon and arcana necessary to represent a sow’s ear as a silk purse? Like finance, it is essentially technical and vocational.
    While many law students may have dreams of ‘succoring the weak and downtrodden’ through public interest law, the belief that the courts are the only venue by which political change may occur is a measure more of the bankruptcy of American politics than anything desirable in a career at law.
    The position of American post-secondary education in the wake of the corporatization of the university is not so much an emphasis on the vocational/technical is it is the commoditization of education. The demise of the humanities reflects the continued strength of what Hofstadter identified two generations ago: anti intellectualism of American life

  7. After my first year in grad school (religious studies) there were 500 newly minted PhDs in the US and 10 open jobs in religious studies departments. Those are not great odds, and even if you assume you’d be in the top 10 in your class, those openings could all be at schools in places you don’t want to live. It’s a tough life, and you better really love your subject if you’re starting that road. Law school at least can take you in many different directions once you graduate. And Yale Law is a great school.

  8. Ha ha! I laugh at you all(in a good-natured and well-meaning way).

    From the Philosophical Gourmet report on graduate study in philosophy:

    “Unfortunately, a great deal of what passes for “philosophy” in law schools–even at some excellent law schools–is sophomoric. Students thinking of getting a legal education, but who want to keep their philosophical interests alive (or perhaps even pursue a career in legal academia), must pick their schools carefully.”

    He’s discussing alternatives to doing a straight Ph.D. in philosophy.

  9. “the classes and workload are borderline abusive”

    At least where I went to law school, that strikes me as a huge stretch, in particular compared to the workload after graduation (at least if you end up on the right side of the pay chart).

    As for competitiveness and underhandedness, I hear those stories a lot but (1) never saw themselves, (2) believe that some school have that culture while others do not (in particular, Yale, by reputation anyway, and (3) I’m certain the stories are told far more frequently that the underlying events actually happen.

  10. I suspect that James and his fellow Yale grads won’t have too much difficulty ending up whereever they want to on the distribution of pay, so literally following might not be so bad.

  11. Pat,

    Personally, I agree James. But I think you’re right with regards to a lot of law schools.

    I loved law school and didn’t see any of the problems you mentioned. Our workloads were generally fair (when my schedule was tight, it was because of extracurriculars like moot court – though my friends on law review did have some heavy duty time crunches). I never had a mean professor, never saw a book with pages ripped out, and it was always easy to find study groups when I wanted them. There was no competitive cattiness for most students. It was the best three years of my life, actually.

    I think a lot of it has to do with the level of competition needed to get the job you want. I went to UVA, where we all felt comfortable that we would be on the right hand of the distribution. There was no need to be overcompetitive, except possibly among the top few students who had a shot at becoming Supreme Court clerks. James is probably in a similar situation.

    Where I have seen the issues you raise are with schools where there is a substantial risk of ending up on the left side of the distribution. Students there are more directly each other’s competition.

    The curves are harsher (C+ instead of UVA’s B+) and they don’t have the same geographic name recognition, so the students are directly competing with each other for jobs.

  12. I think your own optimism bias has unwittingly caused you to paint an unjustifiably rosy picture of law school and the legal market generally, despite your post’s somewhat cautionary tone. The oversupply of lawyers is insane and it’s only getting worse with every newly accredited law school; job prospects are more or less hopeless. The basis for your relative optimism is the NALP statistics. However, the NALP statistics are based on self-reported data from law schools – they are NOT accurate. The NALP is, in fact, just a cog in the great fraud that is the law school scam.

    You may be alright since you are going to Yale – your pedigree may prevent you from being as screwed as the rest of us. I went to a second tier school and when I graduated in the good old days of 2007 the job market was positively abysmal. Two internships, two licenses, and $125k+ in debt later I could not even scrounge up a public defender position paying $30k. This is coming from a guy who had a bit of an edge on the average law graduate because I am a licensed patent attorney. After a brief stint starting my own law firm and a massive job search, I ended up accepting a position that I acquired solely on the basis of my undergraduate degree in computer science which pays $70k. Most young lawyers would kill for a job that pays $70k.

    That’s right, despite massive offshore outsourcing and an influx of H1B guest workers, the IT field is still way more promising than the legal field. I feel as though I wasted 3 years of my life and accumulated massive debt I will likely never be able to fully repay. This is compounded by the opportunity cost – I could have been well on my way to having a decent career in IT if I hadn’t gone to law school. I curse the day I decided to go.

    In conclusion, law school ruins lives. Taking up crystal meth or heroin for a few years would be a more beneficial life choice than going to law school; you would have less debt at the end, the same opportunities, and you would be less burnt out. For the vast majority of students, a law degree is a one-way ticket to a lifetime of poverty. STAY AWAY.

  13. When only 44% of practicing attorneys (ABA survey, 2007) would recommend law as a career, there is something very wrong in that profession.

  14. Most people who attend law school ultimately realize they have chosen the only career in which their chance of complete failure is distressingly high. This was true forty odd years ago when I attended Harvard and discovered that not making Law Review left you unqualified for any job worth having and over qualified for nearly any other opportunity. For many years I have discouraged anyone who asked from choosing law as a profession unless he was prepared to either embark upon a career in prostitution or risk actual starvation. No one has ever believed me.

    For those finding themselves already out on a limb, being a lawyer offers opportunity, but not as an employee. Find a way to establish yourself in individual practice. You may discover as I did that actually being a lawyer is quite rewarding.

  15. Based on experience, I would say that these observations ring true. To amplify on the point, it should be recognized that individual practice demands a broader skill set than can be acquired during law school. And most new graduates are not ready to jump right in.

    Only those who are prepared to develop business and people skills have the potential to flourish over the long term, in my opinion, in individual practice. If you happen to get the golidlocks formula right, practicing law can be a rewarding professional experience.

  16. I completely agree that there is an oversupply of attorneys, and that the job prospects coming out of a lower-ranked school do not justify the ridiculous expenses unless you’ve got a substantial scholarship. If you’re paying $15,000 a year in school loans on top of rent, its very tough to make ends meet. And the competition to get even the $60,000 jobs can be very fierce.

    Plus, as has been mentioned, law school doesn’t really prepare you to practice law if you have to do more than write research memos.

    That said, I think Jake is being quite pessimistic with regards to the chances of people who are able to get into an elite school. I loved law school and got into a great firm without making law review. Is it all roses? Of course not. But its definitely worth it. Just be careful about the expectations of the firm you go to – especially if its in NYC, DC, SF, LA or Chicago.

  17. This is my 20th year practicing law, and I would offer this advice for those considering law school: Don’t do it unless you have a real plan for what you want to do with the degree. And just showing up to work at the highest bidding law firm is not a plan.

    The lifestyle at large private law firms is terrible, and it is no longer a secure career path unless you have the connections or people skills to generate a lot of your own business (as few do). Many highly skilled, senior attorneys are now being cut and face dire consequences, because they’ve built a life around their fat paychecks. This recession/depression has just accelerated a preexisting trend; the days of serving an apprenticeship, mastering your craft, and then finding stable and ample rewards are over.

    On the other hand, if you have a burning passion to be a prosecutor or public defender, you’ll probably be happy (just keep your debts as low as possible getting there). If you’re a CPA or an engineer, you can probably do well combining your technical expertise with a law degree; having a genuine specialization that’s in demand can make for a much more secure and rewarding career path.

    The point is, have a plan. Just showing up at law school because you can’t think of anything else to do could leave you saddled with massive debts and no real prospects. This is what many recent grads are facing.

  18. “When I went to the bar as a very young man . . .
    . . . The Army, the Navy, the Church, and the
    Stage!” Thus W.S. Gilbert, a century and a half

    I did math. It did well by me. But it is not everyone’s
    cup of tea, as I know ’cause I taught it for a couple
    of decades.

    But what about statistics? (“Eewwww, yuck!” I can
    hear the cries) But these days all the computation is done by computer, so the statistician
    needs only to be able to think and analyze. The
    late Great Jerome Cornfield taught me how much one
    can do with only a knowledge of “mean”(expectation)
    and “variance”, and a few standard distributions.

    Best wishes,

    Alan McConnell in Silver Spring MD

  19. I don’t think it is optimism, nor do I think the question is oversupply. It’s a question of different worlds. Going to law school at Yale is a totally different bet than going to law school even at, say, Tulane, much less Tier 2.

    At Yale, the odd are in your favor that the bet will pay off. At the middle to bottom of the first tier, it’s probably an even bet, but you need to make sure you get the grades. Lower than that, and it’s a tall order, requiring a health dose of luck, great grades and/or connections.

    Unfortunately tuition prices do not reflect those odds, and the skewed NALP stats don’t help.

  20. I agree, and would add that three years from now will probably a be a decent time to be graduating (from a top law school).

    Jake and Allen – I would imagine that if one wants to start their own practice (which I can’t imagine from my seat in a big firm), it makes sense to minimize law school debt as much as possible by choosing an in-state public school. Do you agree?

  21. No offense, but your combination of degrees may be the worst ever. As an employer of JDs and as an attempted employer of JDs with PhDs (none of them worked out), I have first hand experience. Anyone going to law school now better do so with their eyes wide open and without student loans, because they could end up working at Starbucks.

  22. Have you seen the going rate for a lawyer’s soul? They’re dirt cheap right now. Personally, I’m at the point of giving very serious consideration to the Army… and I’m not talking the JAG Corps either (insanely competitive, as is everything else right now). At least as an E-4, I’d have three hots and a cot, without having to commit a felony to get it.

  23. As a top HLS school graduate once told me, yes, the pedigree opened some doors where he otherwise would have had to (metaphorically) beat them down to get his first job. But, he continued, the pursuit of credentialism isn’t what it used to be. Not to say that it wasn’t a thrilling experience. But while piling up accolades can be instrinsically satisfying, maybe it’s not always instrumentally valuable outside of academe.

    The choice of maximizing signaling prestige with an elite degree and minimizing debt burden by selecting an in-state program may present a good illustration of choosing a set of trade-offs. Arguably a higher ranked program will give you a wider peer group of movers and shakers with whom to network, but then, individual practice doesn’t draw so much on such networking.

    Who was it, Tennyson or someone, who articulated that you basically have the choice of perfecting your life or your art. I think the general idea applies.

  24. saying you couldn’t get a job “that you wanted” in history is not at all the same as saying you couldn’t get a job. were you, or were you not, offered a tenure-track job? anywhere? at any point on the history job market?

  25. Law school is a terrible decision/”investment” for most people. Just read Herwig Schlunk’s economic analysis of going to law school.


    ABA law schools produced 43,588 graduates in 2008. Were there anywhere near this amount of attorney (or law-related) openings in 2008? Are the anywhere near this many law openings in a good economy?

    But the ABA continues to accredit more law schools. The schools continue to accept more students, and graduate them. The schools do not care that many JDs will never work in the legal industry – or that many cannot reasonably pay back their student loans. They already made their money off you. The schools then move on to passing the next graduating class, and on recruiting more victims/students. You are left holding the bag.

    And if you dare speak the truth about this sick industry, you will be labeled a “whiner.” You will be attacked by the industry shills, and scorned for “not doing enough research” – even though the available employment and salary information was provided by the law schools themselves.

  26. Clears up that mystery, James, as to why you’re not a professor … assumed Berkeley PhDs had top choice of jobs. Most social science programs at my state university are realistic in emphasizing marketable professional skills for related non-academic employment.

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