While doing a little digging on judicial attack ads, I came across this post by a distressed 3L at Boston College (for the full Slate article on the overabundance of law students, click here). In this open letter, the unnamed student states that he would be willing to leave law school without a degree in exchange for a full refund of his previously paid tuition. The student argues that this will allow him to go back to teaching and give him the opportunity to support his family, while relieving the law school of the burden of having to report his unemployment to U.S. News. In particular, this student alludes to the looming specter of unmanagable debt, stating that “[i]t is a debt which, despite being the size of a mortgage, gives us no tangible asset which we could try to sell or turn into the bank. We are not even able to seek the protection of bankruptcy from this debt.”
The immediate problem with this student’s proposition (and I imagine the answer that he received from interim Dean Brown) is that we are not technically purchasing a “diploma” when we enroll in school, but an “education.” Yet it is easy to see how the two can become conflated. A diploma is simply some means of verifying to the world that we have an education. Even if we leave school without one, we still have the skills, training and knowledge that we acquired while enrolled. One could pitch a pretty good argument nonetheless, that without that piece of paper, a legal education has little practical value.
There is a memorable scene from the movie Good Will Hunting in which Will, one of the janitors at Harvard, chastises an arrogant student in a bar, telling him “You wasted $150,000 on an education you coulda got for $1.50 in late fees at the public library.” While many of us may agree with Will in principle, we’ve accepted the fact that even the best of public library educations will not be recognized or rewarded without a diploma to back it up.
At one point in time, someone like Will Hunting could become a lawyer through an apprenticeship with a local practitioner, no $100,000 degree required (only scholars and philosophers had JDs from the university). But in the interests of standardizing a rather disjointed process, JDs became a requirement for entrance into the profession. And to some extent, this development transformed the nature of JDs from purely academic pursuits to traditional marketplace commodities. They became a means to an end, rather than an end in and of themselves. Though unfortunately, as this student points out, a JD is one commodity that does not come with a warranty, that cannot be repackaged or sold back to the bank, and may not be returned if it does not live up to the hype.