Is an Unused J.D. a Negative Signal?
By Bryan Caplan
Paul Campos‘ Don’t Go to Law School (Unless) is one of the most powerful polemics I’ve ever read. It uses no statistics more advanced than conditional averages, and provides few scholarly references of any kind. But the author, a law professor at the University of Colorado, draws effectively on his experience as a practitioner to make a compelling case.
Chapter 5, “The Myth of the Versatile Law Degree” is the book’s single best chapter. Thesis: “It’s quite true you can do many things if you have a law degree. The problem is that you can also do all those things if you don’t have a law degree – except practice law.” Campos then points out J.D.’s high rate of malemployment – ending up in jobs that don’t actually require their credential.
My immediate reaction: Given the power of educational signaling, couldn’t an unused law degree be vocationally useless but financially valuable? Campos anticipates the objection:
When tracking employment outcomes for law graduates, the ABA maintains a category of so-called “JD advantage” jobs – positions that don’t require a law degree, but which are categorized by the graduates who obtain them or by the law schools who report the data as jobs where the graduate’s JD played a role in obtaining it. (In 2012, 9% of new law graduates were categorized as employed in such jobs nine months after graduation – with how much accuracy it’s difficult to say).
But there’s a flip side to claims, whether accurate or not, that a JD helped someone get a non-legal job: jobs that people aren’t able to get precisely because they have a law degree.
There’s a great deal of evidence that suggests this category is actually quite a bit larger than the JD advantage category – that, in other words, on balance having a JD does more harm than good to the law school graduate who, by choice or necessity, is trying to get a job outside the legal profession. Rather than being a versatile degree, many graduates discover that a JD can be a toxic asset – one which they end up having to purge from their resume in order to move on with their careers once they’ve given up on entering and staying inside the legal profession.
… Four factors help transform law degrees into toxic assets for law school graduates who try to obtain work outside the legal profession:
(1) Non-legal employers assume that an applicant with a law degree is just marking time until he or she leaves for one of the many high-paying legal jobs that non-lawyers mistakenly believe most people with law degrees hold…
(2) Non-legal employers naturally wonder why someone with a law degree doesn’t want to – or worse yet can’t – practice law…
(3) Non-legal employers don’t like the idea of hiring someone who they imagine will have a sophisticated understanding of employment law…
(4) Non-lawyers don’t like lawyers.
Time and again, in the course of studying the collapsing market for both law graduates and experienced lawyers, I have encountered people who tell some variation of the same story: after a year, or two, or longer, of trying unsuccessfully to establish or maintain a legal career, the person started looking seriously for non-legal jobs. Remarkably often, these stories have the same conclusion: not until these people removed their law degree from their resumes were they able to begin to have some success in securing any non-legal job.
Statistical support? None. But I’m inclined to trust Campos nonetheless. Question for readers with first-hand experience in the J.D. job market: Does Campos story ring true?
P.S. If you know of any relevant statistical evidence for or against Campos, please share URLs in the comments.