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A Response to Cognitive Bias in Law School Applications

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Over the past few years, a lot of virtual ink (and I’m sure some actual ink – I don’t read newspapers anymore) has been spilt talking about the “law school scam.” Some argue the law schools are conning students out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. Others argue that students should be on notice, and it’s not the fault of law schools if students want to ruin their lives by taking out that much in non-dischargeable loans.

I’ve also written about it, focusing less on blame and more on advice to students considering law school. My advice: take out loans to go to a top law school; take that full scholarship (or a significant scholarship) otherwise.

Razib Kahn over at Discover Magazine recently wrote an interesting (and extremely harsh) article about the psychology of the decision to go to law school. You can read it here. It’s an interesting analysis of how cognitive biases affect the decision.

As someone who spent a lot of time analyzing how these biases affect the legal system (under the amazing Jon Hanson), I have to say that I agree with a lot of what Razib has to say. I wrote something similar in February (it’s long so I won’t blame you for skipping it). However, I disagree with his tone.

I think Razib’s right in saying that higher education in the US has some deep, foundational issues. Working with a variety of students every year, I get to see the level of education that certain law schools are offering. In my opinion, a lot of them are not providing value commensurate with what they’re charging. They offer liberal arts degrees that don’t prepare the student for a specific career path; then, they don’t even provide them with a solid liberal arts education that would prepare them for professional school.

Additionally, a college education is no longer a guarantee of a good job (which is made worse because a lot of students are being assured this by parents who grew up in a time when it was a guarantee, many of whom weren’t able to head to college themselves), so there’s no added value in salary over lifetime that there once was (if you end up taking a management position at Abercrombie after graduation, you’d have been better served taking it out of high school, getting 4 years of on-the-job training, and not having so much debt).

So I believe Razib and I agree on the problem.

He’s a little harsh with the solution, however.

Razib goes on to say that a lot of students out there are investing in themselves, but they shouldn’t. Why? Because their “human capital” isn’t all that great to begin with, and investing in low capital is a bad idea. This is where his cognitive bias comes in; most people vastly overestimate their own abilities.

I agree with the premise, but not the conclusion. I think, for the most part, everyone does overestimate their own abilities. It’s a natural human tendency, and one that’s been enhanced by a generation of positive reinforcement. Everyone is wired to believe they’re a special snowflake, and they’re told this for two decades.

However, just because you’re not a special snowflake doesn’t mean you lack human capital. You should still invest in yourself; however, you should invest intelligently (like any investment). Take that scholarship over the better law school. I promise you that graduating debt-free from a law school ranked 98th is worth more than going to a law school ranked 75th with $90K in debt. Invest in yourself as if you’re just like everyone else; then, hope that you’re not. Hope isn’t something to peg $90K to.

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