Students today put a lot more thought into choosing a law school than they did in the past. And they have access to vastly more information with which to do so. In addition to a surfeit of books offering advice on the best law schools, not to mention U.S. News, they can (and do) turn to blogs and list serves and chat groups to gather information and exchange stories and opinions. On top of this, most schools invite admitted applicants to spend a day or two on campus, where they can learn still more about the school and meet current students and faculty.
I really enjoy these weekends. I love meeting prospective students, each more amazing than the last. I like explaining what we do at Stanford Law and why. I especially enjoy conversations in which someone challenges me to explain why he or she should choose Stanford over some other law school. But this year was different in one respect. A number of admitted students were still undecided about attending law school at all, still looking to be persuaded that a law degree is worth the time and money—still unsure, in the lingo of the moment, that law is a good “value proposition.”
Prospective law students do not have these concerns because of the economy. Hard economic times usually make law school more attractive, as young people sensibly invest in their education while waiting for things to get better. But applications to law school dropped this past year nationally. That counterintuitive drop, like the nagging worries of some admitted students, has been produced by a stream of negative stories in the press—about a supposedly collapsing legal market; about hordes of graduates, even from top schools, unable to find work while facing crushing debt; about starting salaries being lower than law schools report; and so on. The media coverage we’ve seen has been misleading at best and just plain bad in some instances.
While I cannot speak for the whole law school world, I can say that the reports are wrong when it comes to Stanford. There was a bubble, of course, and the legal profession was swept up in it along with the rest of our economy. The bursting of the bubble produced a short-term dislocation that was pretty rocky. But—again, like the rest of the economy—things have largely settled down. Obviously, the job market is slower than during the overheated run-up to 2008. But the market for lawyers is growing again, particularly in segments that employ students from elite law schools, and our graduates are finding work they want. In the meantime, salaries in the national firms flattened but did not drop, and students today are still graduating with better average debt-to-income ratios than was true a generation ago.
Law school is, to be sure, a calculated investment. And applicants should educate themselves about a school’s track record on employment along with other factors important to their decision. What they’ll find at Stanford is success in job placement: We continue, by any measure, to have among the best job outcomes in the nation, and the investment in a Stanford degree is as rewarding as ever. But there is so much more to it than this.
Law remains a good “value proposition” for all the reasons it has always been one. That is not now and never was primarily because of the first jobs students take when they graduate. The value of legal training, particularly from an elite law school, increases over time. We tell incoming students they should expect to have multiple legal careers during their working lives. They may work as lawyers in large firms, but they can also expect to work in smaller firms, spend time in-house or in government, work in nonprofit organizations or in business, choose to work abroad, and so on. The law takes our graduates into a stunningly wide range of careers—from venture capital to human rights diplomacy to creative writing and more. Lawyers do so many things in our society, because their training enables them to adapt to multiple roles.
That professional flexibility is being enhanced at Stanford Law by our new curriculum. By making strategic use of the whole university, we enable our students to develop expertise in multiple disciplines, while at the same time offering hands-on experience through a model clinical program and cultivating a global perspective and a public service mind-set.
The legal profession is changing, and it is hard to predict what it will look like in another generation. But I am confident that—whatever these changes bring—they will not diminish the value of legal training and a law degree. Law remains a rewarding profession because society has, and perhaps has never had, greater need for the skills and abilities that great lawyers provide. SL