Bryan Caplan  

Is an Unused J.D. a Negative Signal?

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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.

COMMENTS (22 to date)
Ted writes:

I think a degree from Harvard Law remains a good signal (though not one worth full fare) for public policy and political jobs, and one from, say, DePaul Law, is a negative signal, especially in this day and age when there are so few law school applicants.

Michael Makovi writes:

I have a question: why is this book self-published through CreateSpace? I'm sincerely asking.

Bosque writes:

Scarily accurate. This describes my own experience to a tee.

An onyx mousse writes:

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Dylan writes:

I've got a JD, never took the bar, decided I'd hate practicing and became a (non-JAG) Army officer instead. I recently left the Army and am looking for other jobs. I have confounding variables (I'm almost 40, and my wife is a lawyer and geographically restricts me), but I do feel my JD has been a burden in the job search. It certainly has to be explained away in most interviews, and in at least one I think it and the related personality traits might have been a factor in not moving me forward.

Ernest writes:

Mr. Campos is absolutely correct. I graduated with a JD in 2010, which was arguable the worst year for law graduates in terms of finding employment in recent years. It was very difficult finding a job with just a JD.

Big and medium size firms usually offer jobs after the summer of the second year of law school so if you don't have a job offer with such a firm by then, it is unlikely you'll find one. It is easier to find a job with a small firm, but small firms don't have the same kind of training resources as larger firms. Hence, they usually want lawyers that have passed the bar and have some kind of experience.

I became tired of applying for legal jobs and getting turned down so I applied for non-legal jobs. That was a waste of time. I had one employer tell me directly that I was overqualified because I had went to law school.

The only job I could find is waiting tables. Restaurants don't care that workers are overqualified because there is such a high turnover rate at restaurants that they are constantly hiring people. Therefore, they figure I would quit soon anyway but if I stuck around for more than a few months then they would've gotten their money's worth.

Once I passed the bar I was able to find temporary legal work very easily, which generally doesn't pay as much as a firm associate but significantly more than a waiter.

In summation, a JD usually does NOT expand your career options, it restricts them to working in law, politics, government and public policy type of work. In fact, I know many colleagues with JD that are not practicing law now.

Josiah writes:

In my experience a JD is a positive signal. The question "why doesn't this person want to practice law?" has an easy answer: a lot of people hate practicing law. And since such a high percentage of folks with law degrees don't practice law anyway, it's not like the only people who don't do it are the ones who can't cut it.

Martha writes:

Having worked with HR and search committees on a number of staff and faculty positions, I have certainly seen (2) and particularly (3) come up time and again. There's a serious nervousness about 'JDs' that--even if the job is completely unrelated to this--the person will be keeping some kind of score card on all kinds of employment law violations. (e.g. "She's going to report us to the OFFCP.." ; "We could never fire him if it doesn't work out because he'll sue...")

Mike W writes:

"...draws effectively on his experience as a practitioner..."

Campos got his JD in 1989 and "left a position with a Chicago law firm to begin his teaching career at Colorado Law School in 1990."

What experience?

Are JDs less likely to get involved in legal quagmires that might have been avoided with more legal knowledge?

_NL writes:

Joseph Hertzlinger: Law students and JDs get sucked into weird legal disputes, same as other people. Unlike non-lawyers, a lawyer with the right motivation can usually talk himself into thinking his groundless claim has a good legal basis. If stubborn, they are also harder to talk out of their dumb idea because they are less intimidated by other lawyers telling them no.

Famously, a judge once sued a dry cleaner for millions of dollars based on losing his pants. He worked up the theory that each customer service guarantee was a violation, each with a separate fine, and used that to rack up the count well into the millions. He didn't stop his case until it got before a court.

Ernest writes:

I just finished reading this book (it’s only 100 pages) and all I can say is “wow”. I had harsh criticisms of law school before but Mr. Campos makes my criticisms seem tame. In truth, he should’ve just named the book “Don’t Go To Law School” and left off the “(Unless)” portion because that is how the book reads. Maybe his publisher had him include that. He mentions things that I knew, e.g. Socratic method is ineffective, the vast majority of law school courses have no relevance to what lawyers actually do in their careers, law schools don’t teach a lot of practical skills that lawyers need like attracting clients and collecting bills, etc. But his chapter about law school scholarships was eye opening. The criterion that Mr. Campos sets for whether it would be a good idea to attend law school would exclude an upwards of 80 percent of law school applicants.

We also are treated with gems like:

“Keep in mind that the only job track that pays enough to justify what is now the cost of law school for most law students is to either get a job with a big law firm upon graduation, or to secure a federal judicial clerkship and then go on to such a job…” (p. 76)

“…most people at most law schools who find themselves in the bottom half of the class after their first year would be better off dropping out.” (p.88)

“With few exceptions, law school is now something that only people who are willing to take on high levels of financial and personal risk should consider.” (p. 96)

It is a grim book that see little net positive on going to law school compared to the costs. Based on my experience, I can’t say I disagree with him.

Nick writes:

All of these negative concerns to some degree relate to unsophisticated employers(especially #3). Yes, a JD may be a negative in a set of circumstances but those circumstances are likely not jobs one would forgo opportunities in the legal field for.

I would like to know the answer to the same question about an unused M.A. in Economics.

Guillermo writes:

When students ask me whether they should go to law school, I ask them, can you envision yourself practicing law? As for the school that claims, "You can do so many things with a law degree," I tell them I don't believe it, except in rare cases. The study of law is interesting and enriching, even for those who do not go on to practice.

Guillermo writes:

When students ask me whether they should go to law school, I ask them, can you envision yourself practicing law? As for the school that claims, "You can do so many things with a law degree," I tell them I don't believe it, except in rare cases. The study of law is interesting and enriching, even for those who do not go on to practice.

John writes:
"...draws effectively on his experience as a practitioner..."

Campos got his JD in 1989 and "left a position with a Chicago law firm to begin his teaching career at Colorado Law School in 1990."

What experience?

He may not have experience practicing law, but as a professor for 25 years, he ought to know what the job prospects are for law school grads -- which is the subject of his book.

Pedro writes:

Still not much statistical support but here's another datapoint.

My first degree (in Europe) was a JD, then realised that it wasn't for me so I re-trained myself as an economist. Did a BSc, Msc, then enrolled for a PhD. Throughout my PhD I was continuously treated like a lawyer: 'oh he's the guy who can't do maths cause he's a lawyer' and that sort of stuff. Then people saw my maths so the tone changed: 'oh he's the weird lawyer'... and so on..

Only after many years and publications have people stopped referring to me as a lawyer (but I still don't have it on my CV when I apply for jobs).

By the way, Hayek's first doctorate was in law, wonder what his experience was :)

James writes:


I'll answer you anecdotally based on my own experience and that of others whom I went to school with or know.

There are many professions in which a JD can go unused, basically anything other than lawyer. The same is not true for economics. In many technical fields the expectation is that people will start with degrees in the relevant technical discipline and then later get an MBA to become qualified for management. A masters in econ is seen by many employers as an MBA for people with more math skills and perhaps less interest in wine and golf.

Also, many jobs involve making business decisions with data, reading and interpreting economic reports, forecasting, etc. There are probably more jobs in which an econ degree would be seen as used rather than unused.

Phil writes:

These conversations would not occur if law school faculty considered themselves educators instead of employment counselors.

Dan Jelski writes:

I think the negative effect is also true of other degrees, such as a PhD in the sciences. Yes, to get a research or professor job you need that, but otherwise it is at best a waste of time.

See my book Your Future Job: Building a Career in the New Normal for more. The book, by the way, quotes Bryan Caplan.

GU writes:

I have my own set of criteria for when it makes sense to go to law school these days, and I assume they are pretty similar to Campos'. But one obvious point that is nonetheless often overlooked, is that you should not attend law school unless you want to practice law!

If you're not sure, don't attend. No one needs to practice law to attain a happy, fulfilling life, I promise. It's just too risky to "figure it out" at some point after enrolling.

[Excessive uppercase changed to italics. Please do not yell. --Econlib Ed.]

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