Law & the Courts

If the Smartest People are Opting Out of Law School, Should We Fret?

Law school is the leading indicator of the higher education bubble. While college generally has been oversold, law school has really, really been oversold and we now have way too many law schools “producing” way too many legal grads at way too high a cost. As people have gotten wind of the fact that the JD is a super-costly credential that is not apt to do much for the student, law school applications have fallen dramatically. What stands out is the fact that applications are notably lower among top undergrads.

Consider this Bloomberg piece by Natalie Kitroeff, wherein she writes, “As schools grapple with a persistent slump in young American’s interest in legal education, the programs seem to be compensating for their sudden unpopularity by taking in people who wouldn’t have made the cut five years ago.” Kitroeff also mentions the latest bar exam results, on which the pass rate is lower and quotes a law prof, Jerome Organ, who has examined the numbers and says, “Four years from now, when those people graduate and take the bar, you’ll have a much smaller percentage who are likely to pass the bar and a much larger percentage that are likely to fail.”

Perhaps so, but so what? If some of the really bright college grads who previously would have gone into the legal profession choose something else, that’s probably a good thing. It means more brainpower going into fields where individuals are more likely to do something productive. Not that good lawyering is never productive — a carefully structured business contract is certainly useful — but in the main, the legal profession absorbs wealth rather than adds to it. Moreover, quite a few lawyers actually inhibit production and help to contract the sphere of freedom with their legal shenanigans. I doubt that the marginal shift toward the sharpest young Americans going into law will have much impact on that, but it seems more likely to help than hurt.

Besides, much of what lawyers do isn’t rocket science. Good legal work doesn’t even require having gone to law school at all. It could be capably done by others, at much lower cost. There would be many legal practitioners like Rosemary Furman if it weren’t for bar association unauthorized practice committees that work to eliminate any and all competition for billable hours from people who aren’t in the legal guild.

Furthermore, a good argument can be made that the bar exam itself should either be dispensed with or made optional — a voluntary certification rather than a governmental requirement for permission to do any legal work at all. My friend Allen Mendenhall makes that argument in this piece.

Instead of worrying that some of the sharpest young Americans have decided against the legal profession, I think we should applaud this development as a market-driven correction of a misallocation of resources we have suffered from for decades.

George Leef — George Leef is the director of research for the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy.

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