In a New York Times op-ed piece (here), Dean Lawrence Mitchell of Case Western Reserve makes the case that law school is a good investment. I know that a lot of my colleague deans loved the op-ed, but I found myself very uneasy while (and after) reading it. And my reasons for my unease are precisely why what I'm about to say will alienate many fellow law deans.*
Sure, law school can give people a great education, even if law graduates find themselves working in non-law jobs. Any good graduate program that helps students develop their analytical, research, and communication skills will be a plus for all sorts of jobs.
But most legal education is expensive, and students who are borrowing thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable debt need to think clearly about whether they'll be able to pay off that debt upon graduation. I'm guessing that most law students are not particularly comforted by the idea that they'll find jobs eventually, over a 40-50 year span. Therefore, Dean Mitchell's suggestion that "[t]he focus on first jobs is misplaced[; because we] educate students for a career likely to span 40 to 50 years" fails to consider the very real fear that many recent graduates have about making ends meet when their loans first kick in.
What this op-ed represents, at least to me, is confirmation bias. Confirmation bias is a powerful phenomenon. For those who want to suggest that law school is always a good idea, they can focus on the fact that many law graduates do get good (or at least decent) jobs and that applications to law school haven't dried up yet. On the other hand, applications to law school have been dropping. Bad job market + non-dischargeable debt = decline in applications. That's no coincidence. Potential law students are starting to do some basic arithmetic. If you want to work against the natural confirmation bias that law deans probably have, see, e.g., here and here.
We can spend a lot of time congratulating each other on the idea that law school can produce well-educated people, or we could pay attention to some very disturbing trends. Those trends include the bimodal distribution of law salaries, the changes in law firm economics (see here, here, and here, for starters), and--frankly--the changes in law school economics. I didn't see Dean Mitchell's op-ed address those issues, but to be fair, an op-ed is likely not the right forum in which to address them.
I believe that legal education can be a wonderful thing, and I believe that law is an honorable profession. I'm proud of the legal education that Boyd Law provides to its students, of the legal research that our faculty does, and of the service we provide to our community. But just as the phrase "thinking like a lawyer" grates on my nerves because it implies that no other profession teaches top-notch analytical skills, the idea that legal education is important because it's the best way of teaching how to reason and communicate is dangerously naive.
That's why you won't see me posting Dean Mitchell's op-ed on our law school's website. Maybe I can now add "and persona non grata" to my Interim Dean title.
* Now that I'm Interim Dean, I need to mention that these views are mine alone, and not those of the law school or of UNLV (even though you probably already figured that out).
UPDATE (11/30/12): For a more fun way of saying the same thing, see LawProfBlog's post (here).
UPDATE (12/2/12): And for a way more erudite way of saying it, see The Faculty Lounge's post (here).