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The Law School Curve

One of the most important reasons for the changing demographics in the legal market is that law schools figured out that the more One Ls a school washes out—by flunking them—after first year, the less tuition revenue it will receive in the second and third years.  It is much more financially prudent to pass students along and collect two more years of tuition. Let people finish their degrees and the let the job market sort out the ultimate winners and losers.

The result is that the real sorting happens in the job hunt that takes place in the Fall of the Two L year, after One L grades are in concrete, and then again during the Fall and Spring of third year, when the job search is on in earnest. Let’s be plain here: the top 30% or so of law students—the same students that would have been the only ones to survive law school in the past—are the ones that have the easiest time finding jobs. The bottom 70% struggle.

Now, of course we all know there are a host of factors other than rank that figure into the hiring process to some degree. Your personality matters. If you are obviously a jerk or a moron, it is going to be hard to get a job. If you have relatives that are lawyers or have solid connections to significant legal employers, that will certainly help. Can you interview? That makes a difference, of course. Miscellaneous other factors play a role, small and large. True enough. But say what you want, all other things being equal, the place you rank in the class is by far the most important factor in the job finding process.

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You Need to Beat the Curve to Get a Great Law Job

There was a day when graduating from law school was a sure­fire ticket to the upper-Middle class, if not the Country Club. The old model was demanding, but simple: survive the One L year—however hard it is—and then coast through the second and third years. The fact that law schools pumped out only very limited numbers of lawyers each year would ensure that most anyone would make a decent living, no matter where he or she finished in the class.

In the salad days of the legal profession, lawyer production from law schools was more regulated like it is now in medical schools. The medical profession strictly limits the number of med school entrants each year. The impact of this approach is that the supply of doctors is always well below the demand for medical services. Demand forces prices up, and so doctor’s salary levels are kept artificially high by this practice. All things being equal, if the medical world stopped placing severe limits on the number of doctors pumped out of universities and residency programs each year, you can bet the price of medical services would drop significantly.

Well, friends, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but unlike the medical field, the salad days in the legal profession are over. The fact of the matter is that these days you probably can’t make a great living out of law school unless you are in the top 30% of your law school class. You have to end up on the right side of the curve to get anywhere in the legal profession. Stay tuned. We are going to focus on how to do that.

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Law School: The Secrets of the Temple

I graduated from law school in 1995. Technology has improved, but substantively speaking, law school has changed very little since then. I know this because shortly after I graduated from law school I was hired as an Adjunct Law Professor and have taught the basic legal writing and research class that every One L takes in their first year for 12 years now. I remain in the thick of the first year law school environment, and from time to time I actually enjoy speaking with a One L student.

Let me admit one thing about me in law school: I was a grade hound, pure and simple. I am a very practical person, and so I am not afraid to admit that I shamelessly focused on grades. I wanted to end up at or near the top of the class. Why? I am not an egomaniac. I wasn’t looking for recognition. I wanted top grades for one reason: I understood the importance of grades for getting a good job. I didn’t have any illusions about it, and I still don’t.  Class rank mattered then, and it still does. Anyone that tells you differently is either clueless or a liar.

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The Law School is a Dungeon, and You are Its Prisoner

In Plato’s book The Republic, there is a famous chapter called “the Allegory of the Cave.” In the story, Socrates leads his pupil Glaucon through a cave and they discuss what they see. In the cave there is a group of prisoners chained on benches and bound to look forward to a wall. Behind them are puppeteers, hidden from sight, who operate marionettes in front of a fire, which projects a play that appears on the wall in front of the prisoners. The prisoners cannot see the puppeteers, and having been locked in the dark cave for their whole lives, the shadows are not shadows at all. For them, these ghostly figures are very real.

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The Mythology of One L

The first year of law school is famously competitive. Or so we are told. People camp out in the library for 15 hour days. Gunners hide key textbooks from classmates in trap doors. Did you hear about the One L who knifed the tires of the curve setting students the early morning before an exam? On and on the stories go.

But hold on friends, before you get too worked up, let me let you in on a little secret. The Paper Chase was fiction. It didn’t really happen. None of the legendary nonsense actually takes place in law school. It’s a big fat lie.  Turow claims his book was a true account of his One L year at Harvard. Maybe it was, but I can assure you it has absolutely no relation to the ordinary life of a law student today.

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So, you got into Law School. Congratulations. Enjoy it before the One L fear sets in.

Approaching law school is a lot like approaching heart surgery, or entering boot camp, or jumping off a bridge attached to a bungee cord. Outsiders may have a vague sense about what the experience may be like, and yet very little is actually known to outsiders about it. Only insiders—those who have been through it—really know. As a result, going to law school is like walking down some unfamiliar stairs alone in the dark. The footing is unsure, there is nothing to grab onto, and who knows what we are going to find at the bottom.

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