Accountability Follies: The B.C. Law Student’s Unethical Lament

An anonymous Boston College Law School student, soon to graduate, has requested a refund of his tuition  because he is unemployed and sees no legal job in his immediate future.  On a B.C. student website, he has posted an “open letter” to the school’s Dean:

“As a 3L, my peers and I find ourselves in the midst of one of the worst job markets in the history of our profession. A few of us have been able to find employment, but the overwhelming majority of us are desperately looking, and unable to find anything. We are discouraged, scared, and in many cases, feeling rather hopeless about our chances of ever getting to practice law.

To compound our difficulties, many of us are in an enormous amount of debt from our legal studies. Soon after our graduation, we will be asked to make very large monthly payments towards this debt, regardless of whether we’ve been able to find employment or not. It is a debt which, despite being the size of a mortgage, gives us no tangible asset which we could try to sell or turn in to the bank. We are not even able to seek the protection of bankruptcy from this debt.

I write to you from a more desperate place than most: my wife is pregnant with our first child. She is due in April. With fatherhood impending, I go to bed every night terrified of the thought of trying to provide for my child AND paying off my J.D, and resentful at the thought that I was convinced to go to law school by empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career. And although my situation puts the enormity of the problem into sharp focus, there are a lot of us facing similar financial disasters. In all of this, we have had very little help from career services, who all seem to be as confounded as we are by this job market. Kate Devlin Joyce has been an amazing and helpful ally; everyone else in that office has shrugged their shoulders at us and asked if we have tried using Linkedin.

I’d like to propose a solution to this problem: I am willing to leave law school, without a degree, at the end of this semester. In return, I would like a full refund of the tuition I’ve paid over the last two and a half years.”

If the student isn’t embarrassed (and the letter is anonymous, after all, which does not indicate pride—or courage, candor, or forthrightness, for that matter), he should be. If he ever did graduate, and I had to cast a vote as to his worthiness to be a member of a bar association, I might well decide that his character is deficient. There is no merit to either his argument or his complaint, both of which indicate a deficient comprehension of law, life and ethics.

Let’s take inventory:

  • Law schools don’t make “empty promises of a fulfilling and remunerative career.” They don’t make promises at all, except to offer a good education in the law to those qualified to be admitted and willing to pay the tuition. The contract that the student claims has been breached never existed.
  • Law school educations teach students how to practice law if they choose to do so. They are not aimed at making graduates rich, and many legitimate uses of law school degrees, including many that do not involve the practice of law, will not make anyone a lot of money. If the student entered law school to make money, he attended for the wrong reason.
  • The presumption that the Boston College law degree is defective and responsible for the student’s employment problems are not warranted. Maybe his grades aren’t good enough. Maybe he makes a bad impression in interviews. Presumably some B.C. grads are finding jobs…Boston area law firms are full of them. Employers hire people, not degrees. If this student believes otherwise, that is yet another misconception that he needs to take responsibility for accepting, because rational people don’t.
  • His financial problems are attributable to his bad choices, and nobody else’s. Why, for example, is he having a child before he has a job? This is a self-imposed crisis, and he may not blame Boston College for it.
  • At what point, in this student’s job-guaranteed world, would a B.C. law grad not be entitled to a refund after his or her career stalls? By what standards and evidence would anyone be able to determine whether it was the individual, the degree, the education or bad luck that caused the unemployment?
  • Nothing, and I mean nothing, is stopping the student from using his law degree to earn a living. He can go into private practice: every major law firm started that way. He can use his knowledge of the law to start a business, or go into politics, or to become a lobbyist. He can use it to become a legal journalist, or a blogger, or a law professor; he can use it to become an author, or to enter law enforcement. The fact that this student has trapped himself in a financial dilemma where his options for making profitable use of the most versatile degree in the world have been reduced to those guaranteeing riches does not obligate the law school to refunds, apologies, or anything but sympathy and a hearty “Good luck!”
  • Law and law-related careers can be fulfilling, and they can be lucrative. The fulfilling careers aren’t always lucrative, and the lucrative ones aren’t always fulfilling. If the student can’t figure that out, then this also helps explain why he is unemployed.

In short, this 3L is trying to avoid his accountability, and make his law school pay for his problems.

Astoundingly, some accept his argument as valid. Ellie Mystal, over at Above the Law, for example, writes this…

“If you buy something, and it’s a piece of crap, you should be able to give it back and get your money back. Boston College sold him a promise, and Boston College cannot fulfill that promise; why can’t he get his money back? A lot of people will argue that this kid didn’t purchase a J.D., he purchased an education and a way of thinking, and he cannot just “return” these things in exchange for his money back. You know who will say those things? Law professors, deans, and other theorists who have idealized the process of “thinking like a lawyer.” But this kid (and thousands out there like him) did not go to law school to gain some intangible brain stimulation. They went to law school in order to get a job. That’s the whole point of a professional school. Deans who don’t understand that point do a disservice to their students.”

Utter nonsense, intellectually dishonest, and unfair as well.

How does the unemployment of one law student( and one naive and irresponsible enough to make this kind of request) show that a B.C. law degree is a “piece of crap,” or in any way defective? This is the equivalent of a pianist playing badly and screaming that the piano is a “piece of crap.”  B.C. has always provided an excellent legal education. Legal educations do not guarantee lucrative jobs. (Ask me about that.)

B.C. did not “sell him a promise.” And an education, not just a legal education but any education, is not a guaranteed ticket to a high-paying job. Mystal’s  logic would eventually require law schools to give terrific grades to every student, regardless of effort, skill, or ability; after all, only with good grades can the students get the great jobs they were “promised.”

There are fools and frauds with degrees who cannot be trusted to handle any job; there are also self-educated individuals without degrees who can run rings around them. Mystal can mock the idea that students should go to school to improve their minds, knowledge and skills, not to get a piece of paper, but it is still true, and will always be true. Indeed, the anonymous student is evidence of that. All he wanted was a degree from B.C., and based on his logic and ethical standards, that’s all he’s getting. I wouldn’t hire him to walk my dog.

Unfortunately, the degree won’t help if the holder is a boob.



8 thoughts on “Accountability Follies: The B.C. Law Student’s Unethical Lament

  1. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve been getting the bait-and-switch from my university. Nobody warned me that they don’t hire directors because some lunkhead will just step up and direct so they can be in charge.

    I’ve never once regretted it, or going to college at all. I’ve occasionally regretted working for the school gratis as a graduate (especially when the head of the department would respond to my empty-walleted lament with “get a job.” Yeah, I coulda looked for a job while the economy wasn’t awful while I was working on TWO shows for you not just for free, but at great personal expense. You want me to send you a bill?)

    Of course, I only think that.

  2. However ridiculous this letter is, it represents the logical conclusion of a commonly-held idea about education: that going to school is primarily a business transaction, and a student’s main concern concern should be whether the institution is giving students their money’s worth. My own observation suggests that students who hold that view of education often wind up shortchanging themselves, by actively seeking out the easiest professors or courses, and putting forth the absolute minimum of work required to make the grade. After all, if this is a transaction, then the easy A is a real bargain.

    Of course, no employer in the world wants to hire a candidate whose idea of success is an easy A. Indeed, perhaps the only candidate they want to hire even LESS is the one whose immediate response to a failed job search is to publicly place the blame on someone else.

  3. 1) This guy is throwing in the towel before the fight’s even over. If he’s graduating in May, he’d got 6-7 full months left to job search.

    2) What about the people that have been failing out of universities, colleges, trade schools, and high schools for decades? Do they get a refund?

    This guy’s letter aggravates me to no end. He might be special alright, but not in a way that convinces you to hire him.

  4. While I don’t have much sympathy for this particular guy, I don’t think the ethical issues can be decided so clearly or so easily.

    It’s true that a student is responsible for his or her own education and subsequent job search, but have you seen how some law schools attempt to sell their programs? Have you seen how some schools arrive at their published employment after graduation statistic and their median starting salaries, two very important factors in the decision making process for kids wondering whether the resulting debt would be worth it?

    Take a look at the American Bar Association’s response to the situation:

    • Obviously, I disagree….and I couldn’t care less what the ABA, a thoroughly political rather than objective organization, thinks about the matter. Median starting salaries are meaningless to a law student, or should be; so are employment statistics. Anyone who lets those stats, I don’t care how they are framed, determine their career choice and choice of school is a per se fool. The variables are absurdly unpredictable—what city are you in, what is your specialty, what was your undergrad college (my employers were more interested in that than my law school), what were your grades, what was you specialty, what’s the market like when you graduate, rather than when you applied? I’m sorry, but I know something about finding jobs with law degrees—I had mediocre grades in law school, but my degree has been a terrific tool for jobs in public policy, education, publishing, management, business, non profits and health care. If a grad is only looking at big firms for big bucks, that’s his choice, and if it doesn’t work out, he, not the school, is the reason.

      Law schools cost to much….agreed. And if people stopped going, the price would come down, a separate issue.Nobody forces anyone to go to law school. The letter is whining, and nothing more.

      • No, no, I don’t disagree with you. Anyone who goes to law school simply because of those two numbers probably won’t last as a lawyer. I also don’t have much sympathy for the guy either.

        However, you don’t see an ethical problem with the advertising from some schools?

        • I see the problem. Rankings are a joke; tuition is absurd. I would need to check out how various schools market themselves, but I am skeptical about how much deception there could be, frankly, about the schools themselves. The % of students who pass the bar for each school is generally available. Stats abut income and employment can be cherry-picked, which is what advertising is: I think the responsibility of a potential student is to do the research, and not rely on puff pieces. With the internet, this is possible now—it is strange to me that this issue would be arising when there is little excuse for a student not having the information he wants. [I applied to12 law school. I did not seek or learn the medium salaries, the employment rates, or anything related to them for any of the schools I applied to. It never occurred to me that this was a factor in my decision, or should have been.]

          • I don’t know much about law school, but I do know that false or severely misleading advertising is a real problem with some of the for-profit institutions, which tend to have larger advertising budgets than traditional non-profit schools.

            For example, my husband holds a culinary arts degree from one such for-profit school. One of the stats they use to impress potential culinary students is the high percentage of graduates who are employed in the food/hospitality industry — but they don’t mention that includes jobs like waiting tables or working at a fast food joint. My husband and his former classmates referred to the office of admissions as “the liars” due to the prevalence of this kind of misleading information.

            I don’t know if that kind of misleading statistic is unethical or illegal. I do know that it probably leads to more students becoming frustrated and dropping out partway through school, or finishing their degrees but choosing not to go into the culinary field. Those things may not cut into the school’s bottom line this year, or next year, but over time they can make a big difference in the school’s reputation.

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