In most political science departments, there is a person that teaches and researches U.S. constitutional law, the federal courts, and/or judicial behavior. Many political science majors think they have to major in politicalscience to go to law school. (They are mistaken, but that's another post.) At teaching schools, as opposed to research universities, many of us who specialize in public law (the qualitative side of law) and/or judicial politics (the quantitative side of law) are also expected to serve as the pre-law adviser, often with no teaching release or other compensation.
For 9 years at DePaul University, I was one of two pre-law advisers in the political science department. I met with students who were interested in law school, talked to them about how to pick a law school, file applications, and write compelling personal statements. I have edited many of these statements as well. I carried out the pre-law advising on top of my 30 plus advisees that would come in for technical advising. (Technical advising involves sorting through curriculum questions for the students, not career advice or mentoring. "Can I take Math 101 and 103 to meet the quantitative reasoning requirement?" "Does Sign Language count as a foreign language.")
At Brooklyn College, I continued with the same duties but was also part of a "pre-law team" , a group of advisers and administrators that met through the year to devise programing and strategies that would get students to law school and raise the Brooklyn College LSAT average to be competitive with other senior CUNY schools. Brooklyn College was good enough to give me a one course teaching release for my efforts. Last week I resigned as pre-law adviser after 10 years of advising. The main reason is that as the Kurz Chair, I have substantial public programing and publishing duties that I need to concentrate on. But pre-law advising was never the favorite part of my job. As the years went by, and as the legal job market cratered, I had more and more misgivings about sending my students to law school.
It always struck me as silly to assume the public law/judicial politics person should be the pre-law adviser. Many of us study law and legal institutions, but we have no J.D.; rather we have a Ph.D, which entails entirely different training. In my case, I made a specific choice not to go to law school, which is not to say I have no legal training, because I did take a handful of law classes at my Ph.D. institution, the University of Texas at Austin. Many J.D./Ph.Ds in political science have both degrees but have chosen not to practice law. What is strange is to have someone who made a conscious choice NOT to go to law school for whatever host of reasons, advise students about law school. I was quite literally no more qualified to dispense advice about law school than any of my other colleagues in the department. Teaching and researching about law has little to do with law school. I had never prepared for or taken the LSAT. Why not hire many of the unemployed JDs to fill this role?
But the main reason serving as pre-law adviser in the last 10 years has becoming more and more dispiriting is the market trends of the legal field. It used to be that getting a law degree was a reliable vehicle for upward mobility for persons not born into wealth and that you could make quite a decent living. But those days are long gone and it has not been true for awhile. I posted a while ago about the trend that more and more people going to law school and saddling themselves with an average of $100,000 in debt, only to find fewer and fewer legal jobs out there. There is also a correlation between one's likelihood of landing a decent law job and the ranking of the school you graduated from. Many within the legal academy led by Brian Tamanaha, a law professor himself, have been very critical about the ethics of law schools continuing to churn out graduates with high student loan debt, knowing there are few jobs. Many media reports also document the deceptive marketing practices of law schools who inflate their employment statistics in an effort to mislead prospective students. The headline of a recent Salon article flat out said, "Law school is a sham."
The typical LSAT score at DePaul is between 140-150. There, the DePaul students commonly attended John Marshall Law School, Northern Illinois Law School, Kent, or Thomas Cooley Law School. Each year, a few would also get into DePaul, Loyola, U. of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and maybe one or two each year would get into a school in the top 15 law schools. The pattern was similar at Brooklyn College with an average LSAT score of about 146, with many getting into New York Law School, Brooklyn Law School, some others would get into second tier law schools like American or Villanova, and a handful into NYU, Columbia, and the elite law schools. (You'd need a score of 160 or higher to be eligible to apply to top 20 schools.)
This pattern did not sit well with me. About 2007, I had a conversation with my other pre-law advising colleague at DePaul, David Barnum. He and I independently reached the same conclusion that we didn't feel right encouraging our students to go to 2nd and 3rd tier law schools knowing the amount of student loan debt they would assume, and then knowing they were heading into a brutal job market where the ranking of your school often determines the job you get and whether you get a job at all. A famous New York Times article published in 2011 noted that grads of even top 10 law schools were having trouble in "the grimmest job market in decades."
About one fourth of DePaul's students are first generation college students and/or first generation immigrants. That percentage is even higher at Brooklyn College. These students are often my best students because of their level of effort and seriousness of purpose--like all young people, they are full of hopes, dreams, and optimism. They are also the ones that can least afford to saddle themselves with $100K of debt, the median law school debt students graduate with, and risk unemployment after that. The law schools accused of deceptive practices, mainly 3rd tier law schools desperate to fill their classes and put tuition paying students in chairs, are preying on the hopes, dreams, and optimism of this population. That combined with the ideology of the American Dream, that "anyone can make it", has been a boon for 2nd and 3rd tier law schools who are expanding their hiring of faculty and infrastructure since the recession began.
Feeling that we would be remiss and unethical not to do otherwise, David Barnum and I at DePaul began actively warning students of the job market and advising them of the tremendous student loan debt they would incur. The pre-law program at Brooklyn College was not as aggressive about advising students about debt and the legal job market, and it is still pushing law school in various ways through career panels and LSAT prep courses run by the Career Center. Administrators seemed more concerned about raising LSAT scores rather than just discouraging people from heading into the law school game of chance. (The Career Center does not advertise prep courses for the GRE.)
I never told any student not to go to law school. I would hand them the New York Times article and told them to do their own research and to assess whether the high debt and uncertainty in the job market was an acceptable amount of risk for themselves. Many students did just that and came back and thanked me for alerting them to the dismal state of affairs. Many more got angry at me and said that I had "killed their dreams." Market forces bigger than me destroyed their dream. I'm just the messenger. It's time for someone else to be pre-law adviser.