Blonde Justice is giving advice to prospective law students on finding good public interest law schools:
I’m certainly not saying you can’t go to Stanford, Yale, or Harvard and work in public interest. You can, and people do. I’m sure that there’s not a law school in the country that hasn’t produced at least one public interest lawyer, or that wouldn’t tell you on your tour “Oh sure, we encourage pro bono and public interest work.”
But I think there’s a difference between that and a school that has a reputation for public interest. There are schools—sometimes lower ranked, sometimes state schools, but not always—that put more of an emphasis on practical experience and have more graduates entering public interest jobs.
(You may run into the chicken and the egg problem here—do students in lower ranked schools go to public interest jobs because that’s all they can get? Or do those students genuinely leaning toward public interest gravitate toward these schools?)
Ms. Justice asks some interesting questions in her last paragraph that I think I can shed some light on with a little economics. In the grand tradition of armchair economics, I have not of course bothered to do any research nor ask either law students, law schools, or public interest lawyers how they make these kinds of decisions. Also, I don’t know much about law schools. Take all this with a few grains of salt.
The simplest answer to both questions is “Yes.”
To see why, consider two of the main professions in the healthcare field: Doctor and Nurse. Doctors make more money, and being a doctor is more prestigious than being a nurse. On the other hand, a doctor’s education is longer and far more expensive than a nurse’s. This makes sense, because doctoring has to pay better than nursing, otherwise people wouldn’t go through all the trouble of becoming doctors when they could become nurses with far less work.
Now let’s re-ask Blonde’s question: Do students in nursing schools go to nursing jobs because that’s all they can get? Or do those students genuinely leaning toward nursing gravitate toward nursing schools?
Obviously, the answer is that both are true. Someone who’s only been through nursing school can’t become a doctor, and someone who wants to be a nurse will go to nursing school.
From what I understand, public interest law does not differ from other kinds of law as much as nursing and doctoring differ, but to the extent that they are somewhat different professional paths, the same logic applies. Due to the advantages of specialization, law schools will tend to target certain types of students.
Since public interest law doesn’t pay very well, public interest law students will be unwilling to pay very much for a legal education. Any law school that wishes to cater to this market niche will necessarily have to trim costs, and that will have an indirect effect on its ranking among law schools. Targeting price-sensitive students is another form of specialization.
Consider also that success in public interest law may be less dependent on the things a top-ranked law school provides. Even assuming that top-ranked schools really do provide a better education, it may be that personal qualities and on-the-job training are more important to the success of public interest lawyers. In that case, why should public interest law students bother to pay for a high-quality legal education?
Perhaps even more important, law schools provide other services to students besides education in the law. For one thing, they provide connections which will be useful to anyone starting out in the legal profession. If public interest law students need different kinds of connections from other law students, schools can provide better connections by specializing. (Very large law schools may be able to avoid specializing by dividing into specialized sub-groups within the law school.)
Law schools also provide a service for students that economists call signalling. Think of it as a celebrity endorsement: If Michael Jordan says the shoes are good, you know they’re probably not too bad, because you know Jordan doesn’t want to squander his reputation by endorsing crappy products. Because you know this about Jordan, he can charge for endorsing products.
Similarly, one thing you know about a Harvard Law grad is that Harvard thought enough of him to allow him to say he is a Harvard Law grad. Just like Michael Jordan, Harvard can charge for this endorsement and presumably does, in the form of higher tuition.
We then have to ask whether the customers of public interest lawyers care what Harvard thinks of their lawyer. If they care less than other legal customers about the endorsements of elite law schools, then public interest lawyers would be foolish to pay for the kinds of elite schools that provide such endorsements.
I’m not sure if any of this is right, but I think it’s the right way to think about these kinds of questions…