Optimism and Confirmation Bias in Law School Applicants

Optimism and Confirmation Bias in Law School Applicants

          While the principle of social proof encourages large numbers of individuals to apply to law school in a bad economy, other psychological processes are also at work.  Why did the number of law school enrollees continue to increase over the past few years, even while large law firms eliminated thousands of jobs?  Optimism bias helps explain why so many enter law school every year despite dismal future prospects.  This phenomenon occurs when people are overly confident in their own abilities and knowledge.  As one study concluded, "people who set 98% confidence intervals are surprised 20-50% of the time." 

         The large number of students that enter law school knowing that only a small percentage will get top paying jobs demonstrates overconfidence in the face of an uncertain future.  The Segal article discusses surveys that find "most law students would enroll even if they knew that only a tiny number of them would wind up with six-figure salaries.  Nearly all of them, it seems, are convinced that they're going to win the ring toss at this carnival and bring home the stuffed bear."  Optimism bias causes most students to believe that they will be part of this select group; after all, people do not generally see themselves as average.  Incoming law students believe themselves fully capable of landing one of those scarce jobs after graduation.  To prevent the pitfalls of the optimism bias, prospective students should do their best to objectively analyze as much information as possible before enrolling, and they should seek and accept the honest, candid advice of career advisors.

            One of the phenomena reinforcing law school candidates' optimism bias is another common human disposition - confirmation bias.  Confirmation bias is the tendency of people to seek information that confirms their beliefs while discounting information that does not.  This bias leads individuals to be overly confident in their conclusions, as they have placed undue reliance on an incomplete set of evidence.  Despite the overall grim prospects for most law school graduates, the Segal article acknowledges that "a small fraction of graduates are still winning the Big Law sweepstakes" and getting the high paying jobs that justify the enormous expense of law school.  Prospective law students see the public success of some graduates as confirmation that law school will lead to a lucrative future - a classic case of overreliance on instances that confirm expectations.  Like most people, prospective law students tend to overemphasize positive instances and create relationships that do not necessarily exist.

          One of the most trusted, but perhaps least sufficient, sources of information for prospective law students is the U.S. News and World Report (USNWR).  This annual publication ranks law schools on a number of factors, including graduates employed after nine months of graduation.  Students rely on this data when applying, often sending applications to a set of similarly ranked institutions.  The USNWR contributes strongly to the confirmation bias by providing supposedly reliable, trusted information on law schools.  According to the data published in the annual rankings, contradicted by the actual experiences of many, the prospects for law school graduates are "downright rosy."

          When prospective law students look to the most recent USNWR for information, they see that the average employment rate nine months after graduation is 93%.  Seeking only to confirm their preconceived idea that law school is the right career move, these students may stop looking for additional evidence.  Unfortunately, had they looked deeper into the report and sought information that might negate their intuition, they would have discovered that the USNWR is deceiving in several ways.  To begin with, graduates with high-paying, prestigious jobs at law firms are much more likely to respond to the survey than those working in low-wage, non-legal jobs.  Additionally, stocking aisles at Home Depot or waiting tables at a local restaurant counts as "employed" under the survey's definition.  Some law schools even create temporary jobs for unemployed graduates that happen to coincide with the nine-month mark.  The schools feel both financial and reputational pressure to keep their rankings high, and law school deans behave according to the principle of social proof as well - if other schools are manipulating the rankings, the practice must be acceptable.  Michael, the law school graduate struggling under $250,000 of debt highlighted in a recent New York Times article, graduated from a bottom tier school.  Even today, the survey states that 92% of Thomas Jefferson graduates are employed nine months after graduation.  Many of those who saw these misleading statistics as confirmation that law school was the right decision may find themselves stocking aisles or waiting tables, law degree and hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt in hand.  Scrutinizing the data and understanding the facts behind the numbers would have been an easy way to prevent the psychological distortion caused by confirmation bias.


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.

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