Monday, July 26, 2010

The textbook and supplement scam

Today’s dose of "journalism" over at the NYT today gives us this banal discussion about the sky-high price of college textbooks. Whatever the outrageous cost of these bundles of paper is in undergrad, it's amplified in law school. Anyone who has ever taken a law school class knows that textbooks and associated “recommended” study aids will run a poor student far more than undergraduate texts. My primary beef today is not with the cost of books for actual classes, although that is indeed highway robbery. The Times discussion left my mind to wander to the world of prelaw books, study aids, and other overpriced paperback manuals that claim to offer 0Ls the “inside track” to success in law school.

Apart from the schools themselves, who make out like bandits thanks to jacked-up tuition, there is an entirely separate bloated, fattened leech that feeds off of the law school scam. The law school “support industry,” or as some bloggers have dubbed it, the law school industrial complex, rakes in over $3 billion a year from hapless law lemmings. From publishers selling pricey, largely useless hornbooks or commercial outlines, to manufacturers of equally silly flashcards and other “study aids,” to bar prep and everything in between, these miserable creatures gorge themselves on the blood of 0Ls before they ever set foot in school.

It all starts long before a prospective 0L is even sure they’ll make it to law school. The LSAT prep industry charges students thousands of dollars for courses and books designed to boost dismally-low scores. In this economy, such scores ought to simply preclude many students from going to law school, but these vultures swoop in with their expensive paperback books and promise entry to a whole host of TTTs for the low, low price of a few grand. What is there for a future TTT student to worry about, if they’ll be making six figures upon graduation? Even those students with relatively decent scores often drop a couple hundred dollars on do-it-yourself LSAT prep guides. This is the first of many, many thousands that these students will be “investing in their futures.”

Once a lemming has been accepted to a presTTTigious institution, they will naturally want to start preparing in advance for the upcoming academic crucible. Luckily, the law school support industry is there again with a whole host of materials that will give students a look at the “reality” of law school. The publishers and marketers of these useless books have really done a great job of trumpeting their necessity to clueless 0Ls. They’re not casebooks, they’re not really study aids, and they honestly have very little to do with anything students will find themselves doing once classes begin. Due to the groupthink that zero-lemmings suffer from (particularly those on prelaw message boards), several popular titles are constantly bandied about in the desperate attempt to get a leg up on the competition once 1L classes begin.

Some perennial favorites are Law School Confidential and Planet Law School. 0Ls on message boards like to tout the absolute necessity of buying Guerrilla Tactics for Getting the Legal Job of Your Dreams, Getting to Maybe, and dozens of other related books that “all well-prepared students” are supposed to have read before their first day of classes. These dandy paperbacks offer very little in the way of useful information, probably because many are written by people who never went to law school. They will, however, do a good job of spooking the reader into buying even more preparatory material. Planet Law School in particular, apart from being hopelessly dense and poorly-written, begins most chapters with pages-long lists of “recommended” supplements that would run a student thousands more dollars were they to purchase every one, to say nothing of the hours that would be required to actually read all of them. The law school scam publishing industry tries to sink its teeth into younglings before they even send in their first seat deposit to their local toilet of law, and the ride doesn’t let up until after the last cent of bar review materials are paid for.

Assuming the lemming hasn’t been scared away yet, and has taken the advice of these law school support industry shills, he arrives at school several thousand dollars lighter and with his brain crammed full of useless information that will have little to no relevance in 1L classes. The professors will read off the assigned textbooks (at least $100/pop new) as well as several “recommended” hornbooks, which can be had for $40-50 apiece at the student bookstore.

Now, there is certainly the “used book market” reply to these outrageous prices. That’s the route I always took, whenever possible. Because there are so many goddamn law students, even used versions of the current editions of all the books will run about 50-75% of their list price. Students would actually be well served by looking for the previous edition of the casebook, which can usually be had for a couple bucks and contains 95% of the same material. Chances are that your professors will spend little to no time talking about the newest developments in whatever area of law you’re studying, and will focus on the long-established material and rules.

Naturally, one can do perfectly well in law school with some old textbooks, some borrowed outlines, and any other bargain-bin supplements they may need. This is not the line law schools, the law school support industry, or any other shills will feed students. The particularly heinous aspect of the law school industrial complex is that they will attempt to heap ream after ream of utterly useless, confusing, and unnecessary material on 0Ls. Hustlers trying to push marginally-useful books and preparatory material on prospective students is not a situation unique to the law school industry. Indeed, it usually starts in high school when SAT/ACT prep books are pushed on panicked 16-year-olds. However, the law being the noble and prestigious profession that it is, publishers are happy to boost the prices of their law materials to reflect this perception.

All of the "cheaper" alternatives to buying everything the law schools and their cronies tell you are beside the point. The smartest prospective students will look at all of the ancillary costs associated with law school, and realize that the "cheapest" alternative is not to go at all.


  1. great post. i bought tons of books and supplements on the internet. Over 25. About 3 of them never arrived.

  2. Jeez...that picture at the top of the post made me shudder with a nameless, faceless dread...the eldrich horror of it all!

  3. First, they shouldn't be going to law school to begin with.

    Second, if they are in law school and really do need help understanding something, they can just take a supplement off the shelf in the law library and solve their problem in a matter of minutes for FREE. Even then, supplements might not help because the professor might not test the way the supplement instructs.

  4. The "one edition out of date" advice is very good. The used book industry is the primary cause of new books costing so much. So many students buy used books that the publishers have to charge even more for the new volumes in order to make the profit they want. The best way to stomp on the used book industry is to put out frequent new editions which will at least not be available used for one semester. The new editions often have little new material and few changes to the older material. Academic law libraries often keep a copy of required textbooks on reserve, so you can easily compare the assigned pages in your older edition to the current edition so you're sure to be reading the right stuff. If there is additional info added, you can read it from the library's copy; photo copy it; or, better yet if your library has the capability, scan it and have the scanner send it to your drive or email and then read it on your laptop. The latter shouldn't cost anything and you'll have the new material with you in class.

  5. With an older edition, I always just figured out the three or four new cases that had been added, and pulled them off Westlaw. We're paying for that fancy "free" Westlaw subscription, might as well use it.

  6. The worst supplement scam is when your professor writes his own supplement for his classes. I'm already paying you to teach me this stuff, and so if it's necessary (or at least strongly recommended) that I use this supplement, shouldn't I be getting it for free? You shouldn't get to charge me an extra $40 because your in-class instruction was inadequate. The double dipping is pretty pathetic.

    I'd really like to see a student ask a professor who assigns his own text books whether that is the best text on the subject matter in publication.

  7. I've seen profs assigning their own books go both ways. One professor was scatterbrained and writing their own textbook as they went along that semester, and would email the class a PDF of every chapter as it was finished. It was a shitty way to teach the class, but at least we got the book for free.

    Another prof made us all buy his self-authored textbook, which was co-written with another professor at our school. Surprise, no other school uses the book and it's impossible to re-sell.

    If you're going to assign your own book, have the decency to give out free copies.

  8. Books can easily be $1000 a semester! Those law school bookstore workers have no sense of humor. They're happy to take your money.

  9. I must say, I thought this was a pretty interesting read when it comes to this topic. Liked the material. . . Chlorophyll Supplement