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NYT on the 'Lake Wobegon' effect at some law schools

A piece in the New York Times (“Law schools visit Lake Wobegon”) discusses a growing national trend among law schools – grade inflation. In the hyper-competitive job market, average grades at anything other than an elite law school likely mean a law grad will spend about as long in the job market as a house with a top-dollar price would in this real estate market. The answer some law schools have come up with? Buff up the grades.

Appropriate to Minnesota, the NY Times identifies this as the Lake Wobegon effect, where everybody is catapulted to being “above average.” The problem? Students who are standouts have fewer ways to show that they are. Thus, a student who finishes high up in their class at a low-ranked law school may be disadvantaged because it gets harder and harder to tell that the student did better than his or her peers.

I have not heard of any Minnesota law schools doing this — nor do I think it would be a good idea. It’s hard to think it would help the situation to make the 800-plus new law grads the state has every year virtually indistinguishable.


  1. Not to be too contrarian, but grade inflation actually exists in at least one Minnesota law school. All the evidence I’ve gathered from personal observation (and a little hearsay) points to students at this particular school having to work extremely hard to get less than a C average. And I mean really hard. As in, “It’s my personal mission to get a D this semester, and no one can stop me.”

    I won’t name names, but I think most present law students and young lawyers know which school I’m talking about.

  2. It was a decent article as far as exposing the silly practice of grade inflation and noting that it’s not going to help their students really get jobs. I was disappointed that the only reference to the plight of students and recent grads was this tepid line:

    “Once able to practically guarantee gainful employment to thousands of students every year, the schools are now fielding complaints from more and more unemployed graduates, frequently drowning in student debt.”

  3. It shouldn’t really have much of an effect, since most schools still employ class ranks. So what if you have a 3.5 if you are still ranked 50 out of 150?

  4. Some of the schools (again, not in Minnesota) have stopped reporting class ranks. I think it’s easier to get away with that sort of thing if the school has “elite” status. Other than that, some employers may bypass a law school altogether.

    On the other hand, not all employers are primarily concened with academic performance. Getting as much practical experience as possible in law school is another way to get a leg up.

  5. Instead of addressing the symptoms, we need to go to the cause. There are too many law schools producing too many graduates, especially in the Twin Cities.

    St. Thomas and Hamline should be closed, and WM pared back to a night program.

  6. I agree with you, MondaleHowl, that there are too many law schools in MN. But why leave open the only one that is funded with public dollars? We could save the state treasury some bucks, which is sorely needed.

    I did not attend Mitchell, but I have to say that I think Mitchell students are probably the best prepared and most easily employed around here. They’re not necessarily the most I.Q.-intelligent, but they tend to have invaluable real world experience. If I ran the world, I’d think about closing all of them but Mitchell, actually.

  7. The U is currently only drawing single-digit percentages of its funding from public dollars. The administration has been on a mission to make it more like other “private” public universities such as the University of Virginia, which charge private-school tuition, and thus draw very little money from state coffers, while still remaining nominally public. This is part of the reason why tuition at the U law school has doubled since 2005.

    The Twin Cities could never support or place 1,000 new J.D.s ever year, even before the recession, much like the country at large can’t absorb 45,000 new J.D.s a year. Yet schools continue to raise tuition, take on more students, and entice people with the “value” of a law degree. Clearly, the strategy is working: a record number of people took the LSAT during the past academic year cycle.

  8. I do not see how having “too many” law schools is some sort of societal concern. It is a private decision. If 800 students in the state of Minnesota want to pay for a legal education each year, so be it. No law graduate is entitled to anything, just like no college graduate is entitled to anything upon their graduation. I went to a top ten undergraduate school, had good grades and scores, but made a personal choice to go to one of the schools that many people seem to think needs to be closed. The law school I attended was the only one I applied to in the state, as it was the only one I was interested in attending. I worked hard and have a great job. While I recognize that there are plenty of law graduates looking for work, I don’t see how that is the legal community’s problem. If they pass the bar and character and fitness, they are fit to practice law in this state. Not everyone is going to get a six figure job out of school, but that doesn’t mean that the graduates will not one day see the benefits of the education. I didn’t realize having a legal degree needed to be even more elitist.

  9. Would it change the analysis if “Anonymous” had a very generous scholarship?

  10. Not everyone is going to get a job, period, coming out of school.
    When schools advertise high-90s percent employed and median salaries north of 80k for their recent grads, students can be forgiven for feeling a bit scammed when it doesn’t turn out that way. It didn’t turn out that way for many even before the economy took a nosedive.

    People paying $100k for a professional degree to enter a profession ought to be entitled to work in their chosen profession. When the schools are buttering kids up the entire way there and dangling misleading statistics in front of their eyes, something is wrong. The point of law school is to get a degree and become a lawyer. A job is the ultimate goal. While simply attending doesn’t “entitle” anyone to a job, no one is spending this kind of money simply because it’s a fun intellectual pursuit. Students are spending this money and investing three years of their lives on the premise they will find work. When this turns out to be not the case for so many, and the schools having long been aware of this…something is not right in law school land.

  11. Exactly, anonymous. I feel compelled to say this when I meet someone interested in going to law school: “If you’re looking to spend three years learning lots of interesting stuff and you don’t care about whether you can find work afterward, go for it! If you have a close family member or other patron who will definitely be able to find you a job, go for it! If money is not an object in paying for school, go for it! If, on the other hand, you worry about spending $60-80K in tuition and another $100K or so in forgone income and having nothing to show for it, perhaps you want to look at other ways to invest your time & money.” I have a terrific job now, but it took me more than 15 years post-law school to get it. I probably could have found a terrific (for me) job faster had I not gone. That’s the case for a lot of people I know.

    The law schools aren’t being compelled to tell the truth, so I have to do it for them. Sad.

  12. I think any alleged beef with law schools failing to tell the truth is different than having a legitimate concern about the number of law school graduates in the state each year. MAYBE the demand for the schools would lessen if statistics were portrayed differently. However, there aren’t many sociologist or political scientist jobs that are available for college graduates each year, but scores of students at many schools in this state graduate with those majors each year. Should we close down all but one or two of the undergraduate institutions in the state? Should we banish certain majors? Maybe we should pick the one major we think most worthy, and only let the ten smartest people in the state study it at the university level.

    No one knows where the great lawyers of each generation are going to come from, and if all the lawyers in this state came from the same institution we would have a body of attorneys that would all be influenced by the same small number of professors. Generally, we would have a group of people that were all taught to think the same way about the law, and it would be an even more elite, select group that is even less representative of society at large.

    My advice to potential law students is a lot different. To the extent their concern is money, I tell them not to do it unless they are passionate about it, and are confidant that they have the ability, discipline, and work ethic to finish at the top of their class. And you have to have the ability to not lie to yourself when you answer that question. The entire profession is inherently built around competition, and no one is entitled to anything. Everyone doesn’t get a trophy when competing at a professional level.

  13. @ 8:10

    That doesn’t seem like a particularly wise way to go about it. No one wants to dissuade the future great lawyers from becoming them if they so choose. The idea that we need to encourage so many people to go to law school to, essentially, see who likes it and turns out as a good lawyer, would be a great idea if it didn’t cost $100,000 or more just to get in the door.

    I think that law schools painting an inaccurately rosy picture of employment prospects is directly related to how many students matriculate every year. Many students (myself included) relied on the data reported by schools. It helped assuage some of the concerns about taking on so much debt in the first place…according to the school, we were all going to find employment and make a fair salary. Once you’re in the door, this mantra doesn’t let up from administrators. Only with the recession having laid bare a lot of the structural problems have schools scaled back some of the rhetoric, and that’s only some. By and large, schools are still encouraging 45,000 J.D.s nationwide to toss their hats into the ring every year, knowing that there will not be gainful legal employment for many of them. The number of students attending is inherently linked to the image and data the schools present. People go to law school to become lawyers, and work as lawyers, and they rely on the schools to be honest with them and tell it like it is re: employment.

  14. You make some good points, anonymous. I did finish at the top of my class at one of the schools I advocate closing. I also busted my butt while I was there, doing law review, internships, and a part-time job at a Mpls firm. I still didn’t get a job when I got out, and it took me about 5 years before I made as much money as I did when I went in. I love and am passionate about the law, but it didn’t seem to make any difference for me.

    So different life experiences lead to different conclusions, and I stand by mine as you stand by yours.

  15. If a huge percentage of the people who attend law school (and other expensive professional schools or even undergraduate schools) cannot find jobs in their fields it really IS a matter of societal concern, even in a free market society.

    Why is that? It is a societal concern for two reasons. (1.) The overproduction of lawyers (and people in other fields) constitutes a huge amount of economic waste. It means that human effort that could have been used to produce real wealth has been squandered on valueless education. In other words, our nation becomes poorer because of it. (2.) It constitutes a tremendous humanitarian crisis. Do Americans still have empathy? The victims of degree overproduction are often hard-working, intelligent, ambitious people who’s lives end up being destroyed as a result of their naivety. Shouldn’t we be concerned about the welfare and mental health of our fellow Americans?

    Part of the problem is that our current system of education funding circumvents real market forces. (Education financing is not part of a free market.) If we ended government funding for colleges and universities and made student loans fully dischargeable in bankruptcy this problem would take care of itself. Private lenders would stop issuing loans to all but the most promising students, forcing excess law schools to close, eventually decreasing the default rate for students who do receive loans. Private lenders should also be allowed to include “clawback” provisions in their loans, allowing them to bill law schools and other educational institutions for a percentage of the amount of a loan default. As a matter of national policy, it should be illegal for student loans to have cosigners, increasing efficiency.

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