A friend sent me a letter that he received recently from Wake Forest University, where his son is a sophomore. Actually, it came from the university’s law school, which was "excited to announce" a "prelaw program for undergraduates." Last summer, according to the letter, the school offered a single course, "Legal Theory, Practice, and Communication." It was such a hit that Wake Forest has now added a second summer prelaw class: "Advocacy, Debate, and the Law."
The letter outlines a laudable premise: "The primary purpose of this program is to show undergraduates what law school is like. Some college students in the past have applied to law school simply because they could not decide what else to do after graduation."
So far, so good. The letter then acknowledges that law school "is now far too expensive to engage in a ‘test drive’ for a whole year. This program gives college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers."
Again, so far, so good.
A Worthy Endeavor
Adequately informing undergraduates who are putting themselves on a track toward law school is a vitally important educational mission that is long overdue. Colleges and universities have largely refrained from efforts to penetrate the confirmation bias of young people who think they’ll lead lives depicted in Law & Order, The Good Wife, and Suits. A legal career can be personally and professionally rewarding, but it’s not for everyone.
Wake Forest boasts that its program "gives college students a realistic view of law student life and educates them about the career opportunities of lawyers." It’s nice to give undergraduates a taste of the Socratic method so it doesn’t upend them in law school. But other aspects are far more important.
Does the program include data on new graduates’ dismal job opportunities? For example, nine months after graduation, only 56 percent of the Wake Forest Law School class of 2011 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree, which equals the overall average for all law schools.
Likewise, does Wake Forest’s prelaw program cover the staggering six-figure debt that now burdens the vast majority of most new attorneys, whose median starting salaries have fallen to $60,000? Does it discuss the widespread career dissatisfaction among practicing attorneys? Let’s hope so.
Assuming Wake Forest has, indeed, included these and other essential elements of a truly valuable prelaw curriculum, some of the advertised aspects of the program suggest competing agendas at work.
Why does Wake Forest offer its prelaw program only in the summer—at a cost of $3,240 per course? ("An interested student would receive maximum benefit from enrolling in both courses," the letter notes.) Why not offer a course that provides meaningful insights into law school and the profession during the regular academic year? And don’t tell me that professorial teaching loads have become too burdensome.
Something else gives me pause. The press release announcing the Wake Forest program included this enticing remark from a law professor who co-teaches the classes: "Since we will have gotten to know the students, we will also gladly write letters of recommendation about the student’s ability to do law school work."
His colleague added this: "In fact, we are very excited that one of our students, who applied to law school this year with our help, was accepted at several top-ranked law schools."
Those comments don’t neutralize student confirmation bias. They reinforce it.
Closing the Deal
And then there’s this: The law school admissions office "will waive the $60.00 application fee for any student who attended the summer program this year who later applies to Wake Forest Law School." More applications—even from unqualified students—lower a school’s acceptance rate and thereby raise its U.S. News ranking.
But that’s not all. Again, directly from the press release: "[I]f that student is admitted and enrolls at Wake Forest law school, the student will receive a tuition credit for the first year equal to the amount spent for tuition in attending the summer program. That’s right—you could get the law school to pay you back for the money spent on tuition this year for the summer prelaw program!"
Here are the only words missing from the pitch: Act now while supplies last!
Something is amiss when the lines used to sell a prelaw education read like a late-night infomercial for steak knives.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis (Basic Books, April 2013), and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.