A recent New York Times article brings readers into the life of Michael Wallerstein, a Thomas Jefferson Law School graduate with $250,000 in debt. Now, he can only find an occasional job as a legal temp, earning as little as $10 an hour with no benefits. Despite giving up a $60,000-per-year research position to go to law school, he believes he made the right choice. David Segal suggests in "Is Law School a Losing Game?" that Michael's situation is far from exceptional, and may be the reality for an enormous proportion of law graduates. Social psychology helps explain why people like Wallerstein choose to go to law school, and why they continue going even when evidence mounts that their course of action will probably lead to financial ruin.
Social proof is one important factor that can impede law applicants and enrolled students from evaluating their actions rationally. This psychological phenomenon states that we view a behavior as correct in a given situation to the degree that we see others performing it. The social proof effect is strongest when we can observe similar others responding in an uncertain or ambiguous situation. These factors make law school a social-proof perfect storm.
Individuals typically apply to law school in a highly uncertain time of life, which makes them highly vulnerable to social-proof distortions. People often apply to law school in their early 20s, either during their senior year of college or after working for a short time. College seniors normally have no professional work experience from which to make confident career decisions. Liberal-arts majors - whose field of study is by definition non-career-specific - may feel especially uncertain. Those who have worked for a few years have at least some exposure to professional life, but uncertainty about their current career path may have prompted them to apply to law school. The uncertainty of a bad economy only exacerbates this effect.
Paradoxically, uncertainty can increase after the applicant begins law school. Law students are placed in an unfamiliar situation, often far from home, friends, and family. Researchers believe that being in an unfamiliar situation far from home made Jim Jones' followers unusually susceptible to social proof and ultimately accounts for their individual decisions to commit mass suicide. At least one expert argues that the mass suicide would never have happened if the group had remained in California. Psychologist Robert Cialdini explains, "when we are uncertain, we are willing to place an enormous amount of trust in the collective knowledge of the crowd."
In uncertain situations, we are most likely to look to the behavior of similar others when choosing a course of action. Liberal-arts majors are surrounded by similar others who sign-up in droves to take the LSAT and then apply to law school. Those who withstood social-proof pressure to apply to law school during college may succumb after their first jobs prove less rewarding than expected. They may learn from Facebook that many of their college acquaintances have decided to attend law school. Since their college acquaintances are probably more like them than their mixed-age coworkers, disillusioned college graduates are likely to give great weight to the decisions of their former college peers to attend law school.
Once in law school, law students are surrounded by others who are strikingly similar to themselves, perhaps even more so than during college. Despite the efforts of law schools to promote diversity, any given law school class will be composed of individuals who (1) self-selected based on their perceived aptitude and temperament match for law in general and that law school in particular, (2) were selected by their law school's admissions office because they were a good "fit" with the culture of the school, and (3) had similar LSAT scores and undergraduate GPAs.
A context of uncertainty in the presence of similar others puts law applicants and law students in a situation where pluralistic ignorance can flourish. Pluralistic ignorance results when individuals project confidence and conceal their own uncertainties while they furtively look to similar others to interpret a situation or determine a course of action, not realizing that some of those they are looking to are equally unsure and could be falsely projecting confidence. Just as individuals passing an unconscious man on a busy sidewalk may incorrectly conclude there is no emergency from the inaction of others, law applicants and law students may incorrectly assume that their peers must be making the right choice to go to or stay in law school because they appear confident and stay the course. Social proof, then, may override law applicants' and law students' well-founded concerns about debt and scarce jobs.
To ensure that law school is really the best choice for them, individuals should closely examine their own goals and aspirations. Although the behavior of others can often be a valuable guide, choosing a personally fulfilling career is a unique decision for each individual. Obtaining the ability to distinguish when to rely on social evidence and when to ignore it is a tool that all prospective students should acquire.
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.