The Law School Crisis
You've seen the law school rants. You've heard about dropping attendance. You've read the frightening stories about criminally low-paying legal jobs for recent law graduates who are already $100K in debt. Certainly, some of the teeth-gnashing is well-founded. As a combined result of the global economic recession, new do-it-yourself legal services, and an over-saturated market of lawyers, the legal profession was due for a downturn.
But does this mean that law school is dead? Should bright, legally minded college graduates automatically cross law school off their list?
The answer: not necessarily. Most of these doomsday stories start with intriguing data, but they forget about three key pieces of context. First, they fail to place proper emphasis on the current economic slowdown. Second, they focus too specifically on recent law graduates -- those in their 20s and early 30s. Finally, they fail to make the all-important distinction between top-ranked law schools and average law schools.
Outside technology, the economic recession has caused significant dips in just about every major industry, from hospitality to retail to construction. Law is no exception. Legal work comes at a premium, with per-hour costs in the hundreds of dollars. With consumer confidence still shaky, many people simply won't pay the high rates required to incorporate a business, draft a will, or settle a dispute. Fortunately for attorneys, these potential clients won't stay hesitant forever. As the economy grows, consumers and small businesses will once again be willing to pay the premium price legal services require.
Early signs show that the market is already improving. The Association for Legal Career Professionals (NALP) reports that the law school class of 2012 landed more jobs and secured higher starting salaries than their preceding classes (though large class sizes continued to suppress the employment rate). At the University of Oregon School of Law, assistant dean Rebekah Henley notes the challenging job market for recent graduates, but she has begun to see improved prospects for current students. "I'm optimistic, and I really do see interest and enthusiasm about our 1Ls and 2Ls [i.e., first- and second-year law students]. Smaller firms went from a couple [of students] to none; now they're at a couple again [see here]."
Next, keep in mind that the pessimistic articles tend to focus on the youngest law graduates, who have had only a few years to find a respectable job. Ironically, even as these authors reference American Bar Association (ABA) reports to make their points, they provide misleading conclusions by cherry-picking the age segments least likely to find employment.
Law is a lifelong profession. There is plenty of money to be made, but it takes time to build a legal career and to assemble a track record of solid work and experience at top firms. Most young students need to forget the myth that they will land a six-figure job straight out of law school.
Law is still a lucrative profession -- it just takes time to get there. The New York Times envisions a new legal career path, where young lawyers "apprentice first," gaining key experience at a lower wage. Both students and law firms need to give up the notion that lawyers must make a fortune two years out of school.
Law school detractors' worst oversight, however, has been lumping all schools into the same study, drawing conclusions based on 200+ educational institutions as one entity. The reality is that the best-regarded schools perform far better in terms of Bar Exam performance and employment. For example, this graph of law school tuition vs. employment (2012 ABA data) shows a distinct clump of schools with extremely high employment numbers. They may be a bit pricier to attend in the first place, but the near-guarantee of a job quickly makes up for the added $5K to $10K in tuition per year. What's more, the top law schools also produce students who land a higher percentage of jobs that require a law degree, and who earn disproportionately higher salaries.
While it's dangerous to focus too precisely on a law school's rank (is #16 really better than #18?), the fact of the matter is that law firms and potential clients value recognizable, prestigious school names. Most experts recommend aiming for the top 15 schools or so, as ranked by US News and World Report.
Attending law school should never be a casual decision, but students who have always felt pulled to a legal education shouldn't listen to (all of) the noise. Attorneys must be able to isolate key details in the documents they review and cases they study, but they can't get so lost in the intricacies that they miss the bigger legal picture. Much like the profession itself, the right perspective on law school requires a bit of healthy skepticism.