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What does the LSAT have in common with playing the lottery?

12:39 pm 2012 April 13
by Bruce

It’s been widely reported that the number of people taking the LSAT took a nosedive, with applicants down more than 15% this year over last (and they were down last year over the year before). The question isn’t whether this is a good thing or a bad thing in the abstract; the question is whether the “right” people are taking the LSAT, and the answer appears to be a resounding no. The people taking the LSAT have skewed towards those doing poorly.

The always hyper-articulately entertaining Elie over at Above The Law has the whole story, but we wanted to point out something that seems intriguing to us given the skew of those who are dropping out from taking the LSAT: The best and the brightest are fleeing in droves compared to the, well, not-so-good and not-so-bright.

What could possibly explain this?

Here are a few theories:

This is courtesy of the Atlantic:

So the smart kids got the memo. Law school is largely a losing game, and they’re not going to play, even though they can probably count on a better hand than most. Meanwhile, the number of laggards applying has barely budged.

Maybe that’s just what makes the smart kids the smart kids.

Here’s Elie’s theory:

But there’s another reason the dumber people are being left behind in law school. It’s because the smarter people have more options. For most people, being a lawyer sounds like a boring thing to do. Safe and relatively well-paid, but boring as all hell. As the economy gets better, people with skills — even if their only skills are being awesome at taking tests — find that there are other, less boring options out there. In a good economy, smarter people feel better at taking risks. Hell, if things don’t work out, they can always go back to law school.

What we’re seeing here is a bit of a legal brain drain. It’s a drain that will continue to happen as the economy improves, and legal education continues to be wildly over priced relative to the expected value of the education. If law schools want to attract smarter people, they’ll have to start offering a better deal.

But in the meantime, there appear to be plenty of people dumb enough to continue buying what law schools are selling.

Wouldn’t it be funny if we get to the point where law school is what you do when you aren’t smart enough to do anything else? Wouldn’t it be a riot if it’s actually been like that all along?

What if there’s another explanation?

I like the analogy to state-run lotteries, which economists gleefullly, and PC-incorrectly, describe as “taxes on poor people.” (Sorry, folks, I’m just the messenger here.)

Paul Campos, author of the addictive, radically heterodox, and brutally insightful Inside the Law School Scam, floated something like this hypothesis in a different context a few days ago.

In the case of both lotteries and law schools, the crucial ideological justification for the game is that the participants are entering into it voluntarily. This is why the one thing on which even the most dedicated defenders of the legal academic status quo agree is that law schools should be transparent about outcomes. Nobody is willing to defend a gamble in which those who run it lie about the odds. But here is where the analogy between lotteries and law schools is most troubling. After all, the state doesn’t need to lie about the odds to get the poorest of its citizens to spend nearly one out of every ten dollars on lottery tickets. “All you need is a dollar and a dream!” appears to work just as well, in at least some social contexts, as “98% of our graduates have jobs nine months after graduation.”

In other words, what if you give people good information about the extent to which you’re ripping them off, and they insist on getting ripped off anyway? Of course in the world in which rational agents maximize their utility on the basis of adequate information regarding costs, benefits, and risk this can’t happen by definition. But it turns out we don’t live in that world. We live in a world of markedly bounded rationality, where people are prone to optimism bias, have short time horizons and poor options within them, and are therefore more than willing to spend a dollar on a dream — or $150,000 that they don’t have as the case may be.

What if law school is, for those who can’t do much better than the low 140s on the LSAT, a form of particularly pernicious regressive tax?

What could be more devastating to $150,000 and a dream than that?




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