Too Many Law Schools, Too Many Lawyers
The job market for lawyers is terrible, full stop—and that hits young lawyers, without professional track records and in need of training, worst. Though the National Association for Law Placement, an industry nonprofit group, reports that employment for the class of 2009 was 88.3 percent, about a quarter of those jobs were temporary gigs, without the salaries needed by most new lawyers to pay off crushing debts. Another 10 percent were part-time. And thousands of jobs were actually fellowships or grants provided by the new lawyers’ law schools.
The big firms that make up about 28 percent of recent grads’ employment slashed their associate programs in 2009 and 2010, rescinding offers to thousands and deferring the start dates of thousands more. Worse, the profession as a whole shrunk: The number of people employed in legal services hit an all-time high of 1.196 million in June 2007. It currently stands at 1.103 million. That means the number of law jobs has dwindled by about 7.8 percent. In comparison, the total number of jobs has fallen about 5.4 percent over the same period.
At the same time, the law schools—the supply side of the equation—have not stopped growing. Law schools awarded 43,588 J.D.s last year, up 11.5 percent since 2000, though there was technically negative demand for lawyers. And the American Bar Association’s list of approved law schools now numbers 200, an increase of 9 percent in the last decade. Those newer law schools have a much shakier track record of helping new lawyers get work, but they don’t necessarily cost less than their older, more established counterparts.
Even for those 3L’s who do have jobs waiting for them, it’s not necessarily the high-paid position that many think it is, and sometimes barely enough to pay off seven years worth of student loans:
Prospective law students usually look at average pay at graduation. But the average hides substantial inequality: There are the jobs at white-shoe firms that pay about $160,000 per year to precent graduates, and then there are the rest of jobs, which generally pay between $45,000 and $60,000. Almost no salaries are near the median or the average. They are clustered at the bottom, with fewer high earners, many of whom come frLom a handful of super-elite law schools, up at the top. That means that most students do not meet the break-even salary—the starting salary that would make law school tuition a good investment, estimated at around $65,000.
Students simply “cannot earn enough income after graduation to support the debt they incur,” wrote Richard Matasar, the dean of New York Law School, in 2005. “Even those making the highest salaries find that the debt that they have accumulated while in school may tax them for years.”
And yet, year after year, college students continue to flock to law schools in record numbers.
Partly, I think it’s because of the supposed glamor of the legal profession as projected in the entertainment media. Legal dramas of one kind or another, none of which accurately portray what is often the day-to-day drudgery of practicing law, have been a staple on television since the L.A. Law years, and even before then if you go back to the days of Perry Mason. Some people see that and think “Hey, I’d like to be a lawyer too.” For others, I think the decision to go to law school is often made because of a lack of anything better to do at the end of a four year-college career where one has obtained a degree in Political Science that is of little use in the real world unless one wants to become an academic. For these people, go to law school ends up being a substitute for trying to find a way to apply what they’ve already learned toward making a career of some kind. The problem with that is that law school isn’t something one should do on a whim, and the legal profession has little to do with the day-to-day world of Denny Crane or Arnie Becker. Someone who goes to law school based on those factors is bound to be disappointed, especially when the reality of real-world legal practice hits them in the face three years down the line.
Another factor is one that I noticed when I was in law school in the early 1990s. Back then, we were in a relatively modest economic downturn and the job picture for college graduates was worse than it had been in many years. The result was that enrollment at law schools across the country was much higher than it had been in many years as students who might have otherwise cast their lot with the job market decided to ride things out for a few years in the hopes that the economy would improve. The economy did improve over those three years of law school, of course, but not by that much and when the Class of 1993 graduated it faced a tough job market, although not as nearly as tough as the one that graduates have faced over the last two years.
What’s somewhat confusing is the fact that the admittedly bleak legal job market doesn’t seem to be dissuading people from signing up for law school:
The harsh realities of being a young lawyer have not stopped thousands from enrolling in law school during the recession. Veritas Prep, a graduate school admissions consulting firm, found in a recent survey that four in five prospective applicants still plan to apply to law school even if “a significant number of law school graduates were unable to find jobs in their desired fields.” Only 4 percent were dissuaded.
Some would see this and conclude that law students are idealistic and entering the profession because they want to “do good.” Others would say that these students are simply crazy in that they’re not realistically thinking about their own futures and the tens of thousands of dollars in student loan debt they’re about to incur. I say it’s a sign that law schools aren’t being honest with students about the world they are being prepared for. If they were then students wouldn’t be signing up to incur an almost unmanageable load of debt with the risk that they might not end up earning enough money to pay it off in anything approaching a realistic amount of time.
There are many good reasons for becoming a lawyer, but thinking you’re going to end up with a glamorous job making big bucks and handling important cases isn’t one of them. Odds are, you’re either going to spend many, many years in a law library doing research for someone else, or you’re going to be working in the nitty-gritty of a small to medium sized firm where there are no glamorous cases and little reason to think you’ll be driving that BMW by the time you’re 28. If you can live with that, and only if you can live with that, then go to law school.
Or, as they put it in this video:
It’s funny because it’s true.