The Duck of Minerva

Against the Tide: A Defense of a J.D.

9 January 2011

This week, the New York Times published a (largely true) piece about the evils of going to law school, echoed by my friends on twitter and in the blogosphere have responded quickly, and in agreement. Like many political science professors, I am constantly telling our students not to go to law school – when 53% of our majors list it as their primary goal after undergraduate school. I even spoke a seminar at UF called “Why NOT go to law school -” and I had a lot of good reasons. After all, I now have a degree I paid $150,000 for (a J.D.) that I use sporadically if at all, and a degree that I was paid to get (a Ph.D.) that got me an excellent job that I plan to keep for the rest of my life. Law school was at times intellectually unbearable (after the free-thinking ways of academia, the caged ways of legal analysis were …caging), socially a nightmare (what do I have in common with these would-be corporate lawyers?), and one of the busiest times in my life (since I worked outside of law school to pay for it).

But almost four years out of law school now, would I trade my J.D. for a more peaceful three years and $150,000? I don’t think so, actually – and I think that people should be aware of the pitfalls (financial and otherwise) of going to law school, but that they don’t by necessarily make it a bad idea.

That people shouldn’t go into law school naively, or without a plan to pay off the debt, or without a sense of how brutal it can be – that should go without saying.

But if you know that law school sometimes (often) sucks, is expensive, competitive, frustrating ….and you still want to go …go. Go if you can pay for it. Go if you can figure out how to pay for it later. Go someplace that will pay you, or give you a discount, even if it isn’t that highly ranked.

Why GO to law school? I liked:

1) The skills I didn’t learn elsewhere – legal research, legal writing, legal communication, how to read and understand case law, tax, trial advocacy, the rules of evidence, legal citation, law journal editorship, parsimony …
2) The unique classes I took – my favorite classes in law school were essentially random and not particularly useful to me professionally – a course on judging from judges’ perspectives; an excruciating course on federal habeas corpus; several classes on race and gender law; and, of course, trial advocacy. Though they aren’t the subject of my current research, these classes enriched my thinking and broadened my horizons.
3) Interdisciplinary work like I’f never seen it before – most law research is as familiar with the substantive research on a given topic as it is with the law, and the combination is fascinating to read.
4) Since I wanted to be a political scientist when I grew up – going to law school made me an institutionalist. If you ever want to see where small procedural things matter, and can change the way the world works, read court cases.
5) The little stuff – I know what’s happening when my mortgage is being filed; know how to look up property databases; do my own divorce filing(s) ….

Having my J.D. is a luxury – not a necessity. I don’t need it for my job. I don’t need it for my life. But it makes both a little more interesting. In a culture where (according to a survey of UF undergrads) almost 75% of students don’t see their BA or BS as their last degree – some of them could make a worse choice than a J.D. for an addition.

(ADDED after having posted the post): I am also interested in how this relates to PTJ’s post about the Economist/Ph.D. thing – interestingly enough, by PTJ’s logic, I should have neither gone to law school or graduate school, since neither was my passion at the time, and certainly neither was something I “couldn’t not” do (I went to graduate school first, and then law school second). I envy people like Patrick who have that sort of passion for what they do in enough time to make that “right” choice for them – me, I guess I discovered it along the way instead of knowing it to begin with. Notwithstanding the fact that it might exclude me from the profession, I think PTJ’s idea that one should only get a Ph.D. with the intent to get a faculty job if it is a calling for one might be a good idea. But I guess I’m also disturbed – both in the Economist’s thoughts about getting a Ph.D. and the New York Times’ thoughts about getting a J.D. – how instrumentalism (can I make a career/money?) is the key focus – where I tend to ask questions about knowledge enrichment and life experience as well.