Law Students

'Cultural cachet' of a JD is one reason students go to law school, law prof says

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University of Tennessee law professor Lucy Jewel agrees with the critics on some points: The price tag for legal education, at $100,000 or more, is too high, she says, and the idea that you can do anything with a law degree doesn’t work.

But Jewel says law school continues to attract some students because of the “cultural cachet” of the degree—and it would be paternalistic and misguided to impose restraints on the ability to pursue a degree at lower-tier schools. The Wall Street Journal Law Blog notes Jewel’s argument in an article for the Journal of the Legal Profession, available at SSRN.

Jewel acknowledges the argument that some people likely attend costly lower-tier law schools because of the faulty belief that they will do better in the job market than others. She notes that before moving to the University of Tennessee, she taught at a fourth-tier, for-profit law school, where her experiences suggested another factor is at play.

“One thing to consider is cultural capital,” she writes, “the non-economic value that a law degree affords. Social mobility has long been associated with obtaining a law degree, and obviously, the argument that a law degree will help one move up in society’s structure is a difficult one to make, given the financial hole one must dig in order to obtain the degree. But there is more to the story of social mobility than just economics. Some law students, as the first in their family to obtain a J.D., may see the opportunity to practice law as an important cultural marker in their community. The cultural cachet of a law degree might mean something, even if the newly minted J.D. can only find full-time work in a non-legal job and must enter the profession via a part-time solo practice.

“I only have anecdotal evidence to support this theory; it derives mostly from listening to my former students who are struggling to make their way economically in the profession but who are nonetheless ecstatic to have the J.D. and the power that it signifies within their communities and families. These are students with relatively low merit indicators (LSAT scores/undergraduate GPAs), and but for the opportunity afforded by lower-tier law schools, these students would not get the chance to enter the legal profession. Every graduation, when I see the beaming smiles from my students’ family members, I do not think about the fact that they are getting a degree from a so-called fourth-tier toilet law school; I see people who have achieved a dream (albeit at great financial expense) and obtained a credential that signifies membership in a powerful profession.”

She goes on to say that professors “should not impose our hyper-snobbery on the rest of the world. For all the professional elitism about rank of law school and type of law practice, most lay people, especially in underserved communities, view being a lawyer as being a lawyer. It doesn’t matter what school one graduated from or what type of law one practices.”

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