Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Scenes from the class struggle

A particularly interesting section of Brian Tamanaha's new book details the many ways in which less well-off law students end up subsidizing the education and eventually the careers of their better-off classmates. This is a function of the many ways the current structure of legal education in America reinforces and indeed intensifies class stratification.  Consider:

Over the past couple of decades, law school financial aid has shifted almost entirely from a need-based to a "merit"-based model.  With the notable exception of the three top schools (Yale, Harvard, and Stanford), the vast majority of scholarship and grant money -- a total of about one billion dollars per year -- is given out on the basis of an increasingly intense scramble to secure students with higher GPA and (especially) LSAT scores than a school's key market competitors.

It works like this: say the median LSAT score for students at Chicago is 170 while at UCLA it's 167.  An applicant with a score of 169 is going to get no scholarship money from Chicago, but will be offered a substantial discount to attend UCLA.  (Roughly speaking, the "bottom half" of a law school class, as determined by the all-important median LSAT score, gets no or nominal scholarship discounts, while the top half gets increasingly larger amounts as one moves up the admittance hierarchy, with someone at the 75th admittance percentile getting a 50% tuition discount, and someone in the 95th getting all or almost all of his or her tuition waived).

It will be seen that whether this student attends Chicago or UCLA will be strongly determined by the student's socio-economic status.  A high SES student is far more likely to pay full boat at Chicago, while a middle class student (needless to say, working class and poor people don't go to fancy law schools, except for the three people in every entering class who are there precisely for the purpose of allowing law schools to claim they pay attention to economic diversity along with all the other kinds) faces a much harder choice between going to an elite law school and taking on $200,000 in high interest non-dischargeable debt, or taking on perhaps half as much debt to attend a sub-elite school.

If the middle class kid goes to Chicago, she will be subsidizing the educations of everyone who is paying less than full tuition (almost all reduced tuition at law schools is a product of cross-subsidization rather than endowed scholarships per se).  And, perversely enough, a large proportion of those subsidized students will come from much higher SES brackets than she does, because of the innumerable ways in which a high SES background makes it far more likely that one will end up with a very high LSAT score 23 years after one's birth in our increasingly stratified plutocracy.  (If you need this latter point elaborated go read some books, or at least some Paul Krugman columns).

So upper class status status reinforces itself both because upper class kids can afford to buy elite educations (a shockingly high percentage of graduates, between a third to a quarter, graduate from elite law schools with no law school debt; keep in mind that full tuition scholarships are generally given to less than ten per cent of the class, and tuition plus COL stipends are far rarer), and because they are more likely to have their educations subsidized by other (on average lower SES background) students. In addition, as both Tamanaha and commenter below point out, the students who are being subsidized are the most likely to end up with well-paying (at lower-ranked schools, simply "paying") jobs, while those doing the subsidizing are precisely the people who will on average end up in a worse economic circumstance, even without taking into account the larger debt they're incurring relative to their more favored classmates.

This same pattern reoccurs all along the law school hierarchy.  The student who is offered no money to attend UCLA will get a big scholarship offer from Loyola. The student who is offered no scholarship money by Loyola will get a big tuition discount at Chapman. And so forth.

All of this, of course, is yet another pernicious effect of the sordid scramble to advance or at least maintain  one's relative place in the "all-important" USNWR.  15% of a school's ranking is essentially a function of the student body's median LSAT score.  Tamanaha emphasizes, in his modulated and even one might say understated way, the sheer absurdity of the situation: the surviving rump of an otherwise defunct news magazine has somehow managed to call the tune to which all law schools dance, because prospective law students are obsessed with these rankings.  (The total emptiness of the rankings as an actual measurement of anything other than their completely self-referential circularity is illustrated by the fact that the same 14 schools -- out of 200! -- have remained in the "top 14" since the beginning of this imbecilic system more than 20 years ago).

Why does all this matter?  Law is a status-obsessed profession, and it becomes ever-more status-obsessed the higher one gets in the legal hierarchy. It's no longer possible to get on the Supreme Court without having attended Princeton and then either Harvard or Yale. It's no longer possible to become a partner at Wachtell without having attended HYSCCN (How pathetic is it that you and I know what that acronym stands for? Answer: very). It's extremely difficult to even become a legal academic if one went to a law school below the what the rump wing of a bankrupt news magazine has declared to be the 98th percentile of legal academia.

If legal education is structured to all but intentionally funnel as many upper class people as possible into the tiny number of "slots" from which one must emerge in order to inhabit the upper reaches of the profession, that's a problem -- at least for people who consider class status in America today to be a reflection of something other than a combination of divine election and Darwinian destiny.

A final note: Some people may think it doesn't matter all that much whether that kid goes to Chicago or UCLA. I mean they're both "top schools," relatively speaking, aren't they? Yes they are.  On the other hand, here's an email I got yesterday from a UCLA 3L (I get several things like this every week):

I consider myself to be one of the ones duped; I have absolutely no job prospects with my 3.4 GPA which is probably only around "average."  This is despite the rosy picture UCLA presented about median private practice salaries of $150,000 - what you don't notice is a tiny asterisk which says that's only for firms of 500 or more attorneys.  And what they don't tell you is that only 20-30% of you will get those jobs.  And by the way, who gets those jobs is entirely determined by first-year grades, because that determines where you "summer" after your 2L year, and that's your only way to get your foot in the door.  At the time all I thought was, "Gee, UCLA's a high-ranked school, and if the guy in the middle is making that much, I'll at least be able to do that well and law school will be a good investment!"  It's a sad state of affairs when, for the time being at least, I will probably be able to make more on an hourly basis continuing to teach the LSAT than actually being a lawyer.)
This reminds me that whether one gets an all-important second year summer position at a big law firm is affected by factors beyond how well you did on a handful of all-important first year issue-spotting exams: factors such as whether your family might be in a position to affect whether a non-trivial amount of business gets thrown that firm's way somewhere down the long and winding "merit-based" road all of us are supposedly traveling. (Cf. this comment. And this one).  But that's a subject for another day.


  1. Instead of father, could you say family? In my family, I am the mother who has access to clients like Exxon Mobil, while my husband, the father, is an academic who has no access to anyone with money. Among my friends, many of them who have inherited wealth, the grandfather or grandmother has the money or access to clients. One friend the grandfather started at a TV station in the early days and ended up high at Viacom - so they can direct business out. Some of them, the sister married extremely well, so she has access.

    So please end this commentary that relates to what the "father" can provide.

    As for the content of the post, there are a lot of people who still think that law school aid is need based. They are shocked to find out that it has no bearing to need; they expect that they will get money because they are poor and have worked hard. Keep getting this message out.

  2. In addition to the other reform issues we need to organize around, we should be calling for an end to the meaningless LSAT.

    Speaking as someone who has taught & tutored standardized testing for eight years, as well as written standardized tests in certain circumstances, the entire enterprise is bogus. I'll except perhaps the MCAT and some of the APs from that statement, but "aptitude" testing does nothing of the sort; it is primarily a social-stratification measure.

    I propose an experiment. Law school is supposed to teach you how to "think like a lawyer," right? And the LSAT's job is to measure your ability to "think like a lawyer"? So -- law graduates should be taking the LSAT at graduation, to measure how their LSAT scores improved over the prior three years. The score differential ought to indicate how effectively the school is accomplishing its mission.

    If there's little or no positive change, then either the test doesn't measure what it claims to, or the school doesn't teach what it claims to...

  3. This post is the story of my life. I wish I had been aware of this prior to law school. I'm one of the dupes from a lower SES who subsidized the daughter of a law professor who got a free ride and lives without debt. Ah, regrets.
    Why did I ever think law school was a good idea?

  4. One reason that students believe that need based aid will be provided in law school is because undergraduate programs do offer need based aid. In California, the cal grant system and pell grant sometimes covers the full cost of tuition for exceptionally needy students. Of course, tuition as an undergrad dwarfs what law schools typically charge, yet students believe they can end up with a similar package in professional schools. UCLA for instance really puts a lot of smoke and mirrors in ther "financial aid" section of their website. They list scholarships (ranging between a 1000-3000) as a type of "grant system".

  5. Even when law school aid was "need based," there were limits to largesse. This is one of those three working class attendees of HLS here. I remember sitting down to my annual HLS financial aid review in the early 1980's and being told I had simply maxed out every available grant, loan (at double digit immediately accruing interest rates), and fellowship HLS could offer while also being sternly reminded that 1L employment was strictly prohibited. I, of course, left the meeting and promptly obtained employment. It was all I could think of to do. Individual problem, individual answer. Now, of course, I wonder why I didn't kick in Dean Jim Vorenberg's door and demand an explanation for how such a fabulously-endowed school could place a student in such an untenable position. Oh, and no I don't contribute to the alumni fund. You don't forget an experience like that.

  6. I'm so dumb, I didn't realize, until after arriving at law school, that a lot of other students had asked for more financial aid. But of course, as an average "B" student with a so-so LSAT score, I wasn't in the position to threaten to go elsewhere anyway. I was just happy to be going to law school. I was the first one in the family to have gone on to a professional/graduate school. I had arrived!

  7. LawProf, don't forget that top first-year students who happen to be over 30 usually fail to snag Biglaw summer clerkships. Firms prefer young people that they can mold. This also applies to smaller law firms, regardless of location.

    For instance, at Third Tier Drake, I noticed that some of the non-traditional students excelled at the theoretical exercise known as law school. Yet, those guys typically failed to get hired by firms. Of course, bias plays no role in the hiring process. (It just turns out that attractive women with strong grades make better summer hires, right?!?!)

    Thanks for tackling the role of socioeconomic status in this gutter "profession." I remember seeing "classmates" for the first time at the commencement ceremony. These men and women picked up their diploma, and then walked over to their magistrate mother, judge father, or retired federal judge uncle. I'm pretty sure that those kids had little trouble finding a decent job - REGARDLESS of their grades. After all, "hard work" is for poor people.

  8. When my son was applying to college about 10 years ago his private school circulated an article to parents about the origin of the USN college rankings. I wish I kept it or at least remembered where it was from. At any rate the gist of it was that when USN devised the college rankings as a scheme to save a failing magazine it needed a rankings formula, so it sent a bunch of staffers off to devise one. Which they did; indeed they devised a few. And some of these did not rank HYP as the top three colleges. Since this couldn't possibly be right these efforts went straight into the trash. The staffers returned to work until they came up with the formula that got the right answer; HYP as top three followed closely by the other Ivy's, Stanford, Chicago etc. Now I aways though the article was somewhat apocryphal but, when you think about it, it had to happen pretty much that way. Because if USN had come out with a formula ranking, say, Penn State above HYP the intended audience -- status obsessed parents desparate to get young Ashley of Zack into a top ten school -- would have LOL and thrown the magazine back on the newsstand pile.


  9. 6:28: Good point. OP edited to reflect.


    Once, I went to review my final essay for Civ Pro. The "professor" - Laurie Dore, "Ellis and Nelle Levitt Distinguished professor of law" - gave me a copy of her ridiculous, 29-page model answer. (At the time, I felt that this pointless exercise might help me write a stronger exam.)

    Anyway, Laurie was on the phone with someone from a law school in St. Louis, Missouri. I could overhear her end of the conversation. She mentioned that he daughter was applying to that school - and she then pointed out something called "reciprocal tuition." Apparently, it was Saint Louis University.

    By the way, her husband is Matthew Dore, who is something called the "Richard M. and Anita Calkins Distinguished professor of law" at Third Tier Drake. Combined, this family is easily in the top 1%-5% of household incomes, in this nation. Do they really need to take advantage of tuition exchange programs? (Then again, wealthy people are well-off, because they see everything as an investment - and act accordingly.)

  11. 6:52-- How did you max out everything 1L year? Do you mean you were working class and you got no real financial aid?

  12. I'm in a similar position to what is described in this article. I'm in to Wake Forest Law (USNW #39) with an offer of full tuition merit scholarship (they want to pad their GPA/LSAT medians), and I'm in to Duke law with 10k a year. So the choice is that I either take on $150k plus debt and roll the dice with Duke law, or take the safer option of minimal debt (I'll still need to borrow COL $ for Wake), but likely narrow my options down the line.


  13. Excellent post. To add another sinister layer of anecdotal evidence, many of my acquaintances have law-school age children. The ones with law professor, BigLaw, or other well paid positions don't care about rising tuition costs or the declining pay-off of a JD. They can pay full freight for their kids at any law school, so the job outcomes don't matter as much. If necessary, many of them can continue subsidizing their kids after law school, so the kids will be able to take low-paying or volunteer positions that are personally satisfying, polish skills, and maybe prepare them for eventual paid work.

    Recently I heard a colleague say that the law school transparency movement is a good thing because it will scare applicants off--allowing her child to get into an even better law school. Nice.

  14. I go to a much lower ranked school than anyone here, the name of which I will not mention, because I am beginning to tire of the snobbery that I see that is making me start to resent law students and lawyers, but I wanted to comment that I am one of those whose tuition is paid off the backs of the other students.

    I'm middle class, and unfortunately I did not do much research into the law scam before I began applying and eventually accepting my current law school. If I did not have a full ride I probably would drop out. Since I'm in the top 10% with very good prospects for law review, I think I have a better "chance" at getting a legal career than those who came in with average LSAT's and get B's and C's.

    And herein is the absurdity. The people with the lower/no debt at the top of the class . . . are the people with the best prospects for employment, while those who are subsidizing those students are hung out to dry, with 150-200k+ loans.

  15. I obtained a need based scholarship not associated with my law school. The law school responded by cutting the small grant that they did offer by replacing it with a loan.

    Bruh Rabbit

  16. I obtained a need based scholarship not associated with my law school. The law school responded by cutting the small grant that they did offer by replacing it with a loan.

    Bruh Rabbit

  17. How do you assess need at the graduate school level?

  18. 9:25: You ask people for their own and their parents' tax return.

  19. @6:57 Nando is absolutely correct.

    "LawProf, don't forget that top first-year students who happen to be over 30 usually fail to snag Biglaw summer clerkships. Firms prefer young people that they can mold. This also applies to smaller law firms, regardless of location."

    I have been out nearly 20 years, and I had very solid and extensive science graduate work before making the mistake of buying a lawyering degree. I was told, even by supposedly knowledgeable career counselors, how valuable my unusual background and knowledge would be in law. That was true only for patent law, and that was in the early 1990's before patent law became completely glutted and while it still existed in boutique law firms, before it was dominated almost exclusively by biglaw NLJ250 firms. That would not be true at all today. Being older or having any unusual additional educational background reduces one's chances of finding a job with a biglaw firm. In short, if anyone already has significant debt from education in a previous discipline, taking additional debt to fund a lawyering degree is even more dangerous than for a typical law student who has not previously pursued another career.

  20. Kind of a stretch to expect someone's family to support them when they're at least 22 years old. What about someone that's 25 or older? Also, how do you weight family vs. individual income?

  21. @8:55 There is another factor at work here too. Back in the '90's I started noticing that seemingly all of the senior partners in my firm had children who were being hired at other Biglaw firms in town. To be sure all of the children were graduates of top schools and it was a different market then but it is still a fact that if all of the hiring committee partners, firm chairs and interviewers considering your application know your dad, at least by reputation, your chances are a lot better that if you are some kid from Altoona.

    PS To the sexism police: I used the term "dad" because the senior partners in question had all graduated in the late '60's and early '70's when law schools were, as a practical matter, single sex schools. They were, in fact, all fathers.


  22. 8:03

    In the early 1980's, law school loans at market (double digit, interest accruing immediately, separate loans required to begin repayment while still in school) rates were all that was available once student loan caps were maxed.

    How did I max the annual student loan and grant caps? Easy. They weren't titrated to HLS tuition and I was required by HLS to assume my imputed parental contribution (yes, I put myself through college but had not had five years of economic/tax independence, so my working class parents were assumed to be able to contribute a few thousand dollars a year in HLS tuition and when they could not, this was added to my bill).

    HLS had no shame. This was "need based" aid, as they saw it. Were it not for my willingness to risk expulsion, I would not have been able to finish. By the time I was a 3L, I was working 2/3 time. 3L employment was permitted, but not at 2/3 time. I did what I had to do.

    I am forever grateful that my undergraduate institution, learning of my circumstances, stepped forward with graduate study fellowship money. They were more committed to need based aid at HLS than HLS was.

    Oh, yes, I contribute generously to the alumni fund at my undergraduate institution. I cannot thank them enough.


  23. Some obvious ways of identifying those in need:
    1) Single parents
    2) People with unemployed spouses.
    3) People made unemployed within a certain time.
    4) Immigrants.
    5) Public servants below a certain pay-level.

  24. The entire scheme is designed to keep the progeny of certain entitled Caucasians (often masquerading as bleeding hearts) in the upper echelons--it's a con.

    In essence, it's Jim Crow, but you can't say that in polite society.

  25. FOARP,
    I guess my point is that unless you include family income then most applicants will appear to need financial aid (particularly K-JD's who may have never been employed) and including family income for someone who is 22+ doesn't seem like a great answer either.

  26. Lawprof:

    Isn't intra-student subsidization a good thing, signal wise? Doesn't the higher tuition for less-employable students inform them that they are less desirable in the legal market? Shouldn't the higher cost deter some from attending law school in the first place?

    Maybe the problem is one of price opacity. Maybe if law schools were forced to publish meaningful sticker prices for different LSAT scores (instead of publishing meaningless sticker prices and privately negotiating downward with preferred students) the losers of the sorting test would understand that they aren't wanted here.

  27. 10:59,
    But they are wanted.

  28. @6:52-- my experiences there, at the same time, were very different.

  29. while also being sternly reminded that 1L employment was strictly prohibited. I, of course, left the meeting and promptly obtained employment. It was all I could think of to do.

    LOL no joke. I'm getting a ride at law school, but I spent 1L supporting myself and my girlfriend, who was looking for work at the time. That meant offering a big middle finger to ABA rules and doing double-duty with full time law school curriculum and working 35-45 hrs/week.

    I was told the rule was a limit of 20 hrs/wk, but there's no way that was gonna happen.

  30. This post smacks of whining.

    Why can't the poor kid get a 4.0 and a 180 and be fully subsidized with full tuition scholarships at CCN? Or get into HYS and qualify for their need-based aid?

    There's nothing wrong with obsessing over status. And ANYONE would be stupid to turn down HYSCC for something dirtier with money. Like you said, if you want to get into the upper reaches of the profession, these choices are necessary.

  31. Look at this sense of entitlement in the first comment.

    "I'm poor and I worked hard so I deserve "need based" money"

    No you don't.

    If you want money, you should've worked HARDER and either gotten into HYS or have been offered a Hamilton/Rubenstein. Whose fault is it that you didn't?

  32. And the second post. My God.

    You subsidized the daughter of a law professor who happened to be smarter than you? What a grave injustice. Why didn't you get a better LSAT score so she could have been subsidizing you instead?

  33. Comments 11:46 through 11:50 are either a first-rate parody or . . .

  34. There's nothing wrong with obsessing over status. And ANYONE would be stupid to turn down HYSCC for something dirtier with money.

    I'd think that obsessing over status is probably unhealthy. Since, you know, it's obsession.

    And as someone who had the suction to probably get into one of those swanky schools but didn't care to, I'll dispute the notion that "anyone" would be "stupid" to make the choice I did. There are as many different law school stories as there are matriculants, and a blanket statement like that is going to have enough exceptions to make it near-meaningless.

  35. Comments 11:46 through 11:50 are either a first-rate parody or . .

    Dammit. And I try so hard not to feed trolls. By all means please delete my prior comment and this one.

  36. I'm not 11:46-11:50, but I agree fully with all of those comments (though they seem to have been made by one person). The TL;DR version of this original post is: "Success breeds success" - and there's nothing wrong with that.

    I do, however, disagree with the idea that parents' income should automatically be counted in determining financial aid. My parents had helped me financially during 1L year, at great personal sacrifice (we were barely middle-class. I lived at home and commuted to a nearby university for undergrad to save money; my parents dropped me off at school most days since I didn't have a car until almost the end of undergraduate. My parents had scraped together enough money to help me with my law school tuition nonetheless.) Anyway, I came out to them after 1L year, and they immediately refused me any financial help. No amount of documentation of the fact that they were not going to help me, anyway, anyhow, could--in my law school's eyes -- surmount the fact that I was under their magic age/years of independence cutoff. Moreover, they seemed not to understand the significance, estrangement, and thus immediate "financial independence" associated with coming out in my case: "How can you be financially independent now if your parents were helping you out 1L year?" Anyway. I couldn't get need-based aid due to the "expected parental contributions" that I wasn't receiving, so I took loans and I am steadily paying them back. I'm not complaining, but I do think there should be a mechanism for future students that accounts for situations where they are genuinely independent of their parents despite being under the "years of independence" threshold. Otherwise, the "years of independence" threshold ends up discriminating against younger students in favor of older students, where both groups are not receiving any parental assistance.

  37. 11:46 and 11:50 fails to grasp that this numbers game begins at birth. Those lucky enough to be born to wealthy parents end up at great private elementary schools, then on to great private high schools, then on to great private colleges, then on to the Ivy League, then on to Ivy League grad schools.

    Those with poor parents end up at the local public schools, get little academic attention, live far more complicated and difficult lives (generally), and aren't give every possible opportunity to succeed.

    There is little chance that a poor kid goes to a great school and has the carefree life necessary to get a 4.0 (or buy a 4.0, however you want to look at it.)

    So suggesting that in order to get into HYS for law school by simply working harder and getting a higher GPA misses the point. By the time the poor kid gets to college (or the middle class kid), the cards have long been dealt.

  38. Wow 12:27 - glad you have you're sexuality figured out but you seem to still be confused about a whole host of other issues. You agree with the person berating "whiners", then tell your sob story, then follow up with need-based aid shouldn't include parental income because your middle class parents wouldn't help you out. Bizarre. I don't think the TL;DR (had to google) is "success breeds success" at all. I think it is more like "those who succeeded earlier are making it far too easy for their progeny to succeed later, mostly on the backs of those whose ancestors didn't succeed".

  39. 12:45: Good thoughts, especially if "succeeded earlier" is read to explicitly include "succeeded earlier by being born into wealth and the social privilege that comes with it."

  40. When you talk about rising tuition cost relative to inflation in other posts do you use the sticker price or the blended average of what students are actually paying? Just curious as it would seem that the sticker price wouldn't be as useful as the average price paid. I'd been meaning to ask but this post reminded me.

  41. A bit off topic, but I do question the dichotomy of "merit" that we often assume between advantages we inherit genetically (brilliance, logical thinking, talent, etc.) and advantages that we inherit environmentally (purchased by wealthy parents, a stable and healthy childhood, etc.). I'm not sure the first are any more "meritorious" or "just" than the second (though there is an argument that they are part of the person in a way the others aren't). I still strongly support need-based scholarships because, in my view, they increase access, equality, political stability, overall economic growth, efficiency, motivation, and other values, but I'm not 100% sold on the "merit" justification underlying them.

  42. 12:45:

    I wasn't telling a sob story, and I made it clear: I'm not whining. I'm not angry at my law school. I don't feel resentful when I write student loan checks. I will, in future (after the loans are paid off) donate to my law school.

    My experience, though, makes me support prospective loan reform that considers students' actual circumstances regardless of their age, in assessing eligibility for whatever need-based aid a school is offering. If a 22 year old and a 30 year old are both genuinely unable to receive assistance from their parents, then both should be treated equally; to do otherwise is ageism.

    I have no quarrel with "success breeds success" extending across generations. I had law school classmates whose parents were comfortably paying their tuition, and they definitely have had financial advantages that I have not. While I've been paying my student loans, they've been squirreling away larger amounts of cash. They have had advantages that my family and I have not had: my parents were third-world immigrants who came to this country with nothing, and my grandparents and their parents were illiterate farmers who definitely were not successful by any American reckoning. Rather than resenting my classmates who were born into upper-class privilege that I haven't enjoyed, I'm grateful for the opportunity that many opportunities that my family members and I have enjoyed in this country. And I'm not upset that my friends' parents, who worked hard and in many cases worked THEIR way from nothing into the upper-class, are enjoying the ability to give their children the advantages that they worked hard to earn.

    This is a country that rewards merit and hard work. Yes, it's easier to achieve highly if you're born into privilege -- but the opportunity to do so is open to all. My experiences as an undergraduate taught me that there's no inconsistency between having just enough money for some boiled rice and yogurt to eat, working in the school library reshelving books for $5.15/hour, and scoring in the 99th percentile on the LSAT. It just took sticking around the library after they stopped paying me those luxurious $5.15/hour wages for many, many hours to practice sample LSATs. Yeah, I'm sure that the rich kids could just have signed up for a prep course for which their parents were paying - but it turns out there was an alternate route available to the rest of us who were willing to work hard. There were plenty of prospective law students who couldn't be bothered to take the time to prepare for the LSAT - to drill logic game after logic game until they were consistently scoring 175+, since after all, they had Important Social Lives to maintain. Those same folks have had all the time in the world for belated ad nauseum whining about how they hadn't had the advantages it took to miraculously score high on the LSAT.

    I see the same pattern now that I'm in practice. I work for the government, and I make a a reasonable but not lavish middle-class salary. I make sure to put aside money each month for retirement, for my mortgage downpayment, etc. I have colleagues making the same amount of money as me who can't be bothered to do these things because they "have" to spend money on shopping, nights out, etc. These colleagues will in due course complain prominently about how unfair life is to people who "haven't been able" to save enough money for a mortgage, retirement, etc.

  43. Oops - meant to sign my comment at 2:15 as the same person who wrote 12:27.

  44. This reminds me that whether one gets an all-important second year summer position at a big law firm is affected by factors beyond how well you did on a handful of all-important first year issue-spotting exams: factors such as whether your family might be in a position to affect whether a non-trivial amount of business gets thrown that firm's way somewhere down the long and winding "merit-based" road all of us are supposedly traveling.

    Speaking as a law-firm partner, I think the extent to which this affects hiring/promotion decisions is greatly exaggerated.

  45. 2:15/2:16 you do sound a bit resentful and sanctimonious. I'm doing all this, therefore I can look down on everyone else. It's nice that you believe that the American Dream is attainable, but the reality is that it's harder and harder to attain. Suppose you had to care for a sick mother or brother and didn't have the time to study? Or if you came down with a serious illness?

    It still comes down to luck and good fortune. It's ironic that people who struggle the most turn around and kick those below them.

    The bottom line is that the system isn't fair. You do whine about ageism and all that yet you claim that you're not whining. Someone is always going to have more advantages and the solution is not to say that's okay.

    The solution is to make the system as fair for all as possible. Not to say it worked out fine for me therefore it must work out equally fine for everyone else!

  46. I found that most of the rich kids didn't have the benefit of character. I think I got the better deal.

  47. @2:15

    While your story is commendable, I think you are attempting to illustrate your wisdom and modesty to set yourself apart from what you see as irresponsible behavior on the part of non-wealthy persons who want to live a wealthy person lifestyle. This illustration instead highlights your naiveté. Perhaps because of your own history you are grateful for the morsels that fall to the floor. Where is the thirst for justice? You plan to give to your law school when you are done paying back your loans...great, when did you graduate? I'm just trying to understand the mindset of someone who not only takes the punishment, but then asks for more (I'll admit here I'm somewhat envious of what seems like a more peaceful existence). I don't count my blessings that I have been afforded the luxury to attain a middle class lifestyle when that ability comes with padding the accounts of persons who do nothing to deserve it and are righteous in demanding it. It might make you feel admirable; I think you're a pushover.
    In terms of prospective loan reform I think a school should look at the assets and income of the applicant and his/her family and inquire where he/she expects to find funding for their venture. No matter their age. The problem is law schools aren't looking to provide this aid at all. Because of needed revenue. Because of the ridiculous expenses of higher ed. And your plan is to subsidize those?! I don't get it. It's like you have total faith in the market; people get paid what they deserve and most deserve what they're paid. I can't see it that way.


  48. I agree that the legal profession is entirely too status obsessed, with academic pedigree acting as modern day patents of nobility and many institutions restricted to the de facto lords. But, in all practicality, what can we do about it? People that went to the "best" schools are psychologically programmed to believe that the best people go to the best schools--after all, that's how they know that they themselves are the best. Skadden partners that went to Harvard aren't going to start hiring third tier grads no matter what we say. Academic elites aren't going to hire people that don't have the same credentials they do because they've genuinely convinced themselves that such credentials are essential. Ironically, Supreme Court nominations would be the easiest to change since it would require only one President to stop being a classist tool. But I wouldn't hold my breath on that one. Both parties' likely Presidential candidates are Harvard law grads. So what are we doing here? Are we just whining, or is there some path towards changing the elitist culture of the legal profession?

  49. By all accounts, President O enjoyed meeting Judge Sid Thomas last time there was a SC vacancy. Maybe next time.

    I was hiring partner for a branch office of an AmLaw100 firm. As a lower tier grad myself, I came to it with a decidedly anti-elite bias. (And was frankly unimpressed with every single HYS grad I interviewed over that period.) That said, I've no doubt that someone from the upper classes is going to be a better bet than someone who worked his/her way up. What's difficult about succeeding in biglaw isn't the work at all -- law just isn't that hard. No, it's developing business. And someone whose family connections are going to produce business is worth a lot more than someone who's just going to be a work horse. (Obviously, extraordinary people [eg the most recent Dem presidents] are going to be the exception. But in both cases, one would've known these guys were exceptional by the time they finished law school.) But if you're hiring a limited number of people for a limited number of slots, you're going with the safer bet (who can undoubtedly do the actual work just fine) than with the potential lottery win.

  50. Off topic but worth reading


  51. Of course, cross-subsidization is not limited to within the law school itself. Outside those with full scholarships or who are attending independent law schools, law students are also subsidizing other students at their universities through the "tax." University administrators frequently see their law schools as giant ATMs and seem to feel no guilt about placing one group of students into lifelong debt in order to support another group of students. Failure to show some courage and advocate for their students on this issue is another sin we can place at the feet of law school deans' (with the exception of Baltimore's Philip Closius).

  52. @3:59

    I do have to admit to somewhat of an anti-Harvard and anti-Yale bias. I find the arrogance and air of entitlement of many Harvard grads rarely justified (they are usually good but not that good) and that it undermines their interpersonal skills, especially when it comes to working with non-Harvard lawyers (they just piss people off), while that Yalies are both generally poor on practical legal skills and oddly often really poor at persuasive writing (dull, dreary writing, no rhythm or style but with all with obsessively perfect grammar and punctuation.)


  53. The scholarship folks will also most likely end up at the "top of the class" and therefore have the best shot at employment. The bottom group subsidizes the very top group AND ends up unemployed as a extra bonus!

    It does seem that the smart thing for prospective students to do is to take the scholarships at the "lower ranked schools". If they go to a lower ranked school they are also much more likely to end up at the top of their class. If they stretch to be the last students accepted at an "elite" school they will most likely end up in the dreaded bottom 1/3 of their class.

  54. They are simply called: "Ringers" and I remember well a ringer that used to walk around Touro Law School most every day with a Yale t-shirt or sweatshirt, and with a nice easy seat on the Touro House organ/Law review, with a demeanor that would have made me want to slap his face, had I known what I know now.

    But back then I was just a dumb kid, with 95 to 98% of my tuition money paid for in federally backed student loans.

    Now my student loan debt is quadrupled and I am a by blow of the system with no way out and financially ruined.

    God help my damned, indebted soul, and all I can hope for is a better life in the hereafter.

    The American dream is over, for me at least.

  55. Lawprof:

    Something crazy has happened to your site. Is it just me or my computer? The format is in another language or something except a few things.

  56. I don't really agree with the argument that high SES students automatically do far better on the LSAT than the rest of us. I get that they have access to tutoring, classes, etc., that MAY help people improve their scores, but I don't really think those things are necessary to get a high score. I got a high score by just doing a bunch of practice tests, mostly out of a book that I paid about 12 dollars for, and I think I ordered some old tests from the LSAC as well (this was a number of years ago, so partly lost to the mists of memory). I did this in between working a summer job the summer before I took the LSAT. I got into Georgetown and received a 1/3 need-based tuition scholarship (now, this wasn't enough to keep me out of massive debt for the other 2/3 plus living expenses, but math was never my strong suit!). I did notice that most of my classmates were from what I would consider to be rich backgrounds (either "upper middle class" or straight-up rich-rich), but I think that was more because they could afford the sticker price. If I had been smart, I would have taken money from a lower-ranked school, although I didn't apply to any schools ranked low enough that they would offer me a full scholarship. I agree that the LSAT is unrelated to what lawyers actually do, but I just don't see it as hugely biased. It's a test, you need to learn how to take it, and that's it. If you choose to go to a low ranked school because they are offering you money, that's a legitimate choice, but to say that you had to get a low LSAT score because you weren't raised alongside Muffy and Buffy is a bit of a stretch.

  57. If you choose to go to a low ranked school because they are offering you money, that's a legitimate choice, but to say that you had to get a low LSAT score because you weren't raised alongside Muffy and Buffy is a bit of a stretch.

    It's a bit of a stretch because it is not the argument being made.

    I am amazed by the lack of empathy we are hurtling towards. It seems as if most have lost the ability to look beyond their perspective.

    Luck more than ability plays a huge role in the success you have in life. While you don't have to resent your wealthier peers, you shouldn't be content with the state of affairs either. We will never be able to address injustice as long as people like you justify the status quo...but you're just a few years away from being truly rich, right? As long as you keep putting in the 12 hours and working hard, you'll rise to the top, right?

    It's amazing how much faith you put in standardized testing. You probably think they're IQ tests or that they show how "smart" you are.

  58. The other fun game law schools play is how they structure "merit" scholarships so that the grade cutoffs ensure that a significant percentage of students drop off after the first year.

    So while it's very nice to tell people w/middle-income SES and higher LSAT scores to take scholarships from lower-ranked schools, a good percentage of those scholarships are essentially ARM's -- they're going to get jacked up significantly in year 2 and year 3.

    That leaves you with a worst of both worlds situation, not only did you attend the lower rated school but you're not even saving that much money in the process and the psychological sunk cost of your first year makes dropping out of school extremely difficult. They've got you trapped basically.

  59. A recommended read for those interested in the intersection of wealth, socio economic class, and education in America is Charles Murray's recent book Coming Apart. His central horror is the apparent founding of a permanent overclass forged by the fusion of wealth, intelligence and elite universities. William Ockham

  60. "He has dreams and hopes of doing something and when you're in a situation like this that looks very bleak," she says."

    Call me a whiner or bleeding heart liberal, but I have to believe we can do better than this. I'm sure if he buys a $12 book and studies real hard, he'll make it right?

  61. "I guess my point is that unless you include family income then most applicants will appear to need financial aid (particularly K-JD's who may have never been employed) and including family income for someone who is 22+ doesn't seem like a great answer either."

    Sure, but there are plenty of ways of identifying those in need of financial assistance other by simply asking how much money their family has.

    A single parent very clearly will have financial difficulties in re-paying a loan that someone without dependents or who is not single will not have.

    Someone who is disabled will almost certainly find it more difficult to re-pay loans than someone who is able-bodied.

    Someone who is an immigrant from a developing country will likely have problems paying that someone who is native-born will not.

    In each case it should not be too difficult to identify at least some of the people who, due to their circumstances, are less capable of paying. Yes, the student from a poor background who also goes straight to law school would likely slip through the net, but this shouldn't stop people from trying.

  62. I know there is a difference in simply the ability to pay for tutors for tests. For the SAT, my son was able to have a private tutor who focused specifically on the stuff he needed to work on. She also helped him write his college statement.

    The same thing goes with people who are taking the LSAT. Plenty of smart kids can't afford the tutoring for the exam. People can do self-study, and there are guides for doing well, but it isn't the same has the tutoring.

    But I don't think this class difference is any greater now then when I went to law school. I had to self-study and several friends had to borrow money from all their relatives to be able to afford a course. I also went to school before the USNews rankings focused everyone on the LSAT. But at my school, there were plenty of wealthy kids whose parents paid their tuition. I had to work while I was in school. But that worked out better for me because I got great jobs based on my grades and my experience.

  63. This post specifically, and the entire blog generally, ignore the fact that potential law students make the choice to go to law school. Regarding the subsidy of scholarships, schools can decide to whom they award aid; students have no claim on what the school does with their tuition after it is paid. Moreover, prospective law students should have sufficient responsibility and foresight to investigate the risks they will be taking by going to law school; and, while law schools do not (and should not be expected to) advertise the full extent of those risks, the information is available to the prospective students through a casual Google search.

    While enjoyable to read, this blog consistently illustrates negative aspects of legal education, but consistently ignores the fact that the choice to attend law school is not made in a vacuum, but in the real world with all sorts of conflicting pressures bearing on the prospective student.

  64. . . . . and it also points out that whilst law schools could help people from disadvataged backgrounds more, and claim to be doing to, they don't. The point here is about things that students have no control over (their backgrounds), not things that they do have control over - in fact LawProf has been consistent in emphasising the factors that students should consider before making the decision to go to law school.

  65. 8:52, I don't at all believe that I'm going to "rise to the top" or that rich people don't have a huge advantage in everything, and I am not at all complacent with the way things are. You sure did read a lot of your own personal biases into my previous posting, though, wow. I would probably agree with you on most of the things you are angry about; just not on the LSAT issue. I think standardized testing actually does level the playing field in admissions somewhat. I went to a no-name college, majored in poli sci (bleh), and had zero money or connections, yet was able to get into several top schools based on my LSAT score alone. I don't fool myself that it was anything other than the score that got me in. I mean, I hate my current legal job, and am not sure if I even should have ever entered this profession, so actually the LSAT probably ruined my life, but that is another issue. If you're smart and you study (maybe a lot), you can get a good score on this test! Whether you should want to do that is an entirely different issue.

  66. Reading over this commentary, I see a lot of people who say "Oh, if you study hard, you will do well on the LSAT."

    I have personally known people for whom this is not true. What do you say to them? Not that anecdotes are data, but a single counterexample is sufficient to disprove a rule. It cannot be a measure of how hard you work; I was in the high 170s on my first practice test with no prep, while others can bust their humps for months without seeing much improvement. But the test itself has nothing to do with what you do as a lawyer; it's a bunch of word games and reading passages about Stuff Rich People Like, a social-sorting mechanism. It's not the Bar, people. So why defend it?

    For defenders of the LSAT:
    - Do you believe it's measuring anything in particular? Anything particularly valuable?
    - If so, what? What independent measure can you use to verify the accuracy and appropriateness of the test?
    - How do you justify a social-stratification system based on the results of an arbitrary test?
    - Wouldn't it be better to lower the cost of law school for everyone, rather than using an arbitrary test to pick winners and losers in the game of tuition rates?

  67. 7:17 ignores the reality. Law schools hide employment statistics. Students have a warped idea of how much money they are going to make. They don't know that it seems to be all about the "top of the class." What are they to do? There is still a cultural perception that lawyers are "rich". That's just not true, and when you start with $150K in non-dischargable loans to Uncle Sam, it gets worse and worse.

  68. I don't think that everyone who studies hard will do well on the LSAT. I think that doing well requires some level (maybe quite high) of natural test-taking ability. But the fact is, if you are not good at taking tests, you're not going to do well in law school either. If you're not good under pressure, you're also not going to be good in this stressful, annoying profession. Do something else! It's not like practicing law is some glorious paradise that it's just terrible to exclude people from. I think the people excluded are the lucky ones. Honestly, if I had studied and prepared and did poorly on the LSAT, I would have been disappointed, but eventually I probably would have gone and applied to grad school instead, or library school, or tried to get a job with my bachelor's degree. AND I would probably be much happier now and certainly more financially solvent if I had done those things. I realize that it makes people feel bad about themselves to think that they got a bad score on a test, but why should that be? And anyway, admissions tests are not there to make everyone feel good about themselves. Get over it! It's a stupid test, I won't defend it as an accurate measure of anything other than the ability to sit quietly in a room for a few hours and concentrate on something. But for those who can't even do that, don't try to say that only rich people are capable of doing it.

  69. "But for those who can't even do that, don't try to say that only rich people are capable of doing it."

    Reader a bit more closely. You are misinterpreting the point made in the post and by others. I guess you'll never comprehend that. In your mind, it's always going to be "only RICH people are capable of taking the LSAT."

    Classic straw man.

  70. Whatever. If you want to bend over backwards to justify your getting a low score on a test, I don't really care. Plenty of people here have been arguing that tutoring and LSAT prep classes give a significant advantage to those who take them. I think that is only true on the margins. But I guess I will never understand your complicated argument. Way beyond my capabilities.

  71. Why do people care so much about arbitrary numbers. This whole notion is very interesting to me. Most lawyers and people in law school and in legal academia are liberals. And yet it is the same liberals who perpetuate the law school scam, the same liberals who create the school caste system by subscribing to the flawed US and World News score, and the same liberals who sneer at those who are less fortunate than them and are unable to score as high on a test of dubious value.

  72. It's interesting that numerous posters here have argued or implied that, for example, women should be excluded from the legal profession ("things were fine til all dem WIMMINS came into law school," has been implied here more than once) and yet, maybe the same, maybe different posters are steadfastly against judging applicants based on "arbitrary" numbers like LSAT or GPA. How are those numbers arbitrary? I would say that excluding more than half the potential applicants based on sex would be considered far more arbitrary by any thinking person than excluding a portion of the applicants based on a test that everyone is equally able to take. Maybe the test doesn't relate to the practice of law, but it's as good a sorting mechanism as anyone has come up with so far. I think liberals like standardized tests because they/we like to believe that things like school admission are based on merit rather than money, family connections, race, or gender. Do you have an alternate suggestion for how to evaluate the relative merits of students from a huge variety of different undergraduate institutions and academic backgrounds, or do you just want to let everyone in? Because god knows we could use some more unemployed lawyers up in here.

  73. There are three kinds of merit.
    1. Immanent Merit. This is post-Puritan neurosis about a person's actual worth and how good you would actually be if you had lived in a different situation. Well, guess what, you didn't! If you are going to complain about your unfortunate social position it makes as much sense to complain about your unfortunate genetic position etc until your complaint is not "If I were different from who I am, I would be better" but becomes "If I were diferent from who I am, everybody would be the same." Of course, this is basically true and is why all people must be equal in dignity. However, that is an entirely different issue from whether people should be equal in other things.
    2. Impure Merit. This is what a person does by himself or herself that either is socially valuable or is evidence of an ability to be socially valuable that a person develops because of her or his Nurture or Nature. For the purposes of this blog I am willing to put grades, LSAT scores, some other spirit of intelligence or enthusiasm that can be detected from a resume or interview. MAYBE where you went to school, but I am very skeptical about that sort of status-consciousness. Frankly, I would also add the ability to devote much of your time to something because your wealth means you do not need to take a second part-time job.
    3. Irrelevant Merit. This is what a person does by himself or herself is based on Nature or Nurture, but does not really involve any evidence of socially useful behavior. Where you went to school may be in this category. LSAT scores and grades (at least above a certain cut-off) may also be in this category too.
    4. Indirect Merit. These are the spcially valuable powers that a person has because of a connection with another person or a connection with the person's own money. This includes hiring somebody because they are related to a potential client or somebody else that the employer wants to impress.

    A lot of the tension related to unfair advantages is deciding whether to put a type of merit in level 2 Impure Merit or level 3 irrelevant merit. If there is unequal level 2 Impure Merit, then the best solution is to improve access. If there is unequal level 3 irrelevant market, then the best solution is simply to ignore it. Of course, I am just describing the big picture, not what anybody would actually do. STILL, the important issue is not to complain or resent so deeply about how somebody has something that you do not have with causes that are outside your control, unless you were specifically the victim of a wrongful act that can obviously be assumed to be socially destructive.

  74. You are too great a writer man. I am in love with all your articles and wait for them to appear. But, this article of all that you have written until now is my personal favorite. I shall surely have the same article forwarded ahead and spread the information to one and all.

  75. I graduated from UCLA School of Law in 2011. I'm $200k in debt and I currently make less than $20k a year. I actively apply to other jobs and I've "landed" numerous interviews but no other job offers. My only options seem to be (a) suicide, (b) leave the country, (c) lottery, (d) live with my parents until I'm 40 and SLOWLY pay down the debt. Law school was a fatal mistake that has corrupted the rest of my life. I will go to my grave regretting my decision to go to UCLA. Please, do not be like me. Ninety percent of students are not in the 10%. Hardly anyone gets high-paying jobs, even at the "good" schools. If you don't get a high-paying job, expect to beg and scrounge for a job that pays around $50k. It's feast or famine. If you decide not to take the low-paying job, you can do doc review for which you will get paid okay but the work's not steady, it's mind numbing, and you can kiss your future career goodbye. Do not go to law school. The job market is dead. If my tale is not enough to dissuade you to go to law school, I have many, many things I would like to sell you and they're going to provide you with so much prestige and profit! You'll be praised and esteemed by your parents and peers, women will swoon, men will respect you, your sex life will be reinvigorated. Send me $150 to "apply."


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.