Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities

Say Goodbye to Law Schools: and Credentials More Generally

Law school applications have gone off a cliff. Just look at this statistic from today’s NY Times.

As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.

This radical drop in law school applications is not because people are suddenly reading Shakespeare. The reason is clear. Lawyers aren’t getting jobs. For law school grads in 2011, only 55% got full-time jobs working as lawyers. That means 45% did not get jobs they were trained to do. No wonder students and their parents aren’t lining up to take out debt to get a legal education.

Just as journalism has been upended by the Internet revolution, so too law is changing. The changes are different. Lawyers are still needed and law firms will exist. But more of the work can be done more cheaply, off-location, and by fewer people. Quite simply, we need fewer lawyers. And those we do need, don’t command the salaries they once did.

Finally, law school was for years the refuge of the uncommitted. For liberal arts grad unsure of what to do next, the answer was law school. But now with tuitions skyrocketing, debt ballooning, and job prospects dimming, law schools are out of favor.

What is more, these changes coming to law schools will be coming to other professional and graduate schools as well. All those Ph.D.s in hyper-specialized disciplines ranging from Italian studies to Political Theory are in for a really tragically rude awakening? There are no jobs. And those jobs are not coming back. For academics to keep bringing young scholars into Ph.D. programs now is really deeply wrong.

This retreat from law school is a good thing. My J.D. was hardly an educational experience worth three years of my time. Law schools are caught between being professional schools training practicing lawyers and the desire to be also to be something more. The result, they largely do neither well. They don’t produce lawyers ready to practice. Nor do they produce deep legal minds. Little would be lost if law school were reduced to 2 years (or even less), which is why legal academics are pushing an experiment to offer two-year J.D.s.

Education does matter and will continue to distinguish people who pursue it and excel at it. Liberal arts majors who combine a love for the renaissance with an interest in dance will succeed, whether they create new works of art or found a business curating Italian wines, these students learn to pursue their dreams. Education will survive because it raises people from their daily lives to the life of the mind. Education, as opposed to factory schools and large lectures, fosters creativity and daring, leading people to invent lives for themselves in pursuit of their passions.

While education will survive, schools and universities that have become credentialing factories will be increasingly challenged. When what matters is measureable performance, credentials will become ever less important. Law schools—at least many of them that do not offer an elite status—are credentialing institutions. So too are many of the colleges and universities around the country, where students sit in large lectures for four years so that they can get a degree that stamps them employable. Such credentials are ever less valuable in an age of cheap Internet driven education. That is why these institutions are under pressure.


The Hannah Arendt Center
The Hannah Arendt Center at Bard is a unique institution, offering a marriage of non-partisan politics and the humanities. It serves as an intellectual incubator for engaged thinking and public discussion of the nation's most pressing political and ethical challenges.

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  1. “Don’t go to law school,” one of my colleagues professed as we finished our subway-sandwich lunches and scratched our chairs against the linoleum floor, fully intending to go back to work. Her answer surprised me, however, and the other interns and I proceeded to sit back down at the table. Similar to Mr. Berkowitz’s argument, she explained that law school is merely a waste of time, as employment opportunities are dwindling and tuition prices are skyrocketing. “If I could do it over again, I would have never gone,” she claimed. I found her perspective to be haste, and I must say that I quite strongly disagree with the belief that a law degree is indeed futile. While both Mr. Berkowitz and my colleague made valid points regarding the uncertainty of employment, a law degree doesn’t necessarily mean “students [sitting] in large lectures for four years;” instead, I believe that one must seek a law degree with particular goals in mind–they must have a means. Law has certainly had a large impact on my life, as I watched my father practice malpractice cases for nearly seventeen years. He too attended law school–Loyola Law School– and endured long hours of studying and monotonous lectures, to be sure. However, he came into law school knowing exactly how he wanted to apply his education. Indeed, the notion of “applying” holds extreme significance in the context of education, and, education in a sense becomes a “utility,” a tool, which must be used. Of course, employment is the primary way by which an education is applied; however, my father is a good example of a man who embraced self-employment. Originally, he worked for a firm, which provided him with a lowly salary/benefits, and eventually, he could not support his family with such earnings. He and another attorney decided to leave the practice and start their own firm. Much like the decision to pursue a graduate law degree, his decision did not guarantee economic prosperity as many of the successful law firms in Pasadena existed for decades thereby building a good reputation over the years. My father and his well-educated partner began their firm in 2000 and have since then represented an extensive number of clients, most of whom are wholly satisfied with the firm’s work. My father passed away in March of 2009; however, his example proves that while law may be a difficult professional field to enter, it is by no means impossible. A law degree simply demands motivation and application of the education you received. Because of his Loyola Law School degree, many critically underrepresented victims of malpractice have received compensation for the wrongs committed against them and are able to return to a life of relative normalcy. Thus, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Berkowtiz’s ideas and instead argue that one’s attitude approaching law school makes all the difference.

    • Caroline Nutt, you are of course right. Many do great things with a law degree. I may even agree with the claim that you don’t fully make that we need more lawyers, not fewer. There are tons of unrepresented and under-represented people who could use the help lawyers provide. But most law schools today don’t steer young lawyers into that aspect of the profession. They prepare lawyers to work in big corporations or government bureaucracies. I would love to see law school change and become more innovative and flexible. Also cheaper, so that students like your father can have the flexibility and opportunity to do good things without worrying about six-figure loans.

  2. Skills instruction in law schools, as the argument for law school goes, allow the students to not only learn the skills that the employers complain are lacking, but also promote the deep thought about the ethical and legal principles that should be learned in law school.

    In fact, that’s one of the core values of the law school experience. Law professors in the clinical programs guide students to think deeply about those principles in the course of representing their clients. And students in clinical programs do represent their clients in hearings, trials, and appeals with support from their supervising attorneys.

    If law schools were truly concerned about law students’ employment prospects, they’d look around and start shutting themselves down. Too many law schools, producing too many students for too few legal jobs will not be remedied by a few cosmetic changes within the schools’ course work. Law schools as they stand right now are not a good career investment unless you happen to go to a Top Tier school and even then there are no guarentees.

    Market forces will eventually shutdown all the Tier 3 and Tier 4 law schools. When only the top 1% of a graduating class can get a job with a decent salary, there’s obviously something wrong. The desirability of law as a career has to be thrown into sharp relief for any young person looking for a career. The debt that a student carries upon completion of any graduate school is extremely burdensome and can lead to deferment of other aspects of life. With the high debt and slim chances of employment, I do not understand why anyone goes to law school anymore. It is just not worth the time and money.

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