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Is the J.D. Degree Not Versatile After All?

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by Publius
Posted August 16, 2012, 12:29 PM

Matt Leichter writes at AmLawDaily:

In September 2011, U.S. News and World Report published a blog post titled, "In Tough Job Market, Law Grads Use J.D.s for Nonlegal Work," which unselfconsciously promoted cartooning, training service dogs, and working on a wind farm as "nontraditional" careers some University of Texas Law School graduates have found themselves in over the years. It's understandable that law schools organize "Non-Practicing Advisory Councils" to help graduates find jobs if they're changing careers or even if, say, their degrees open doors that were probably already open, but it's a pretty sorry state of affairs when the number one rankings magazine needs to use the same line to sell readers on law degrees. It's time to put the "versatile juris doctor" argument to rest before it becomes entrenched.

Decades ago, the ABA asserted that post-undergraduate legal education was necessary to train effective lawyers, although its actual, semi-stated goal was to wall the profession off from people with undesirable origins and creeds and to ape the similarly consolidated medical education system. By the 1960s, the ABA had mostly succeeded in convincing state bar authorities to endorse its accredited law schools' monopoly over access to the legal profession on the grounds that law shouldn't be a mere vocational endeavor like plumbing. Soon after, with student loans available via the Higher Education Act, universities opened a wave of new law schools and greatly expanded their enrollments believing that more lawyers would improve access to legal services for poorer Americans.

But the graduate-level degree argument contradicts the versatility trope because postcollege degrees are supposed to be specialized, not generalized, and trades like plumbing don't require any higher education. Thus, if the legal knowledge, along with everything else law schools instill, is a set of general knowledge then it should be taught at the college level, and if law is a trade, then bachelor's degrees aren't necessary. . . .

The versatile J.D. argument essentially states, "Graduate found good nonlaw job after law school; therefore, law school helped Graduate obtain nonlaw job." This is a post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy that one usually learns in low-level college logic courses. To show that the J.D. contributed to a graduate's current position, those arguing this must show that (a) the graduate's job either requires a J.D. or the substantive knowledge taught in law school, and (b) the knowledge gained in law school can't be easily acquired anywhere else.This isn't to say that no nonlawyer benefits from law school. Plenty of jobs that don't require legal education—including some government positions, law librarians, and politicians—can be more effectively filled by law school graduates than mere college graduates, but service dog training doesn't even come close.

One problem facing American society that's all but embraced by the political elites is credential inflation, which is the dilution of degrees' values that comes about from easy access to higher education and the perception that degrees are necessary to compete in secure labor markets that offer passable living standards. Because employers demand workers prove that they are the best qualified to fill choice positions, the burden of years of study and education costs falls on them, even though in normal labor markets employers pay to train workers if they can't hire experienced ones. Credential inflation also normalizes employers' preference for overqualified workers for jobs that don't require higher education, and some even demand credentials just to reduce the number of applications they receive, which shuts less-educated people out of labor markets and encourages them to obtain more education, accelerating the cycle. Most research on the value of higher education rarely if ever tries to account for credential inflation.

Those holding the positions mentioned above who might benefit from legal education can also be filled by college graduates without the extra cost of law school. For instance, the University of Texas's Non-Practicing Advisory Council's list of "alternative careers for lawyers," includes political occupations like "campaign manager," "lobbyist," and "speechwriter," that can probably be performed by political science or history majors, but employers might be more willing to hire applicants with law degrees thinking that doing so provides a significant extra benefit when it might not, which shuts out previously qualified college graduate applicants. This is credential inflation.

However, although credential inflation usually normalizes job overqualification as described above, this frequently does not happen for J.D. holders. Anecdotes abound of job applicants being told they are overqualified for positions or employers who fear J.D.–holders will bail when a large-law-firm job magically opens up for them. Still others report taking their J.D.s off their resumes altogether.

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