NY Times Reports Grim Reality: Many Law Grads Jobless!

Today’s NY Times Business section includes a comprehensive report of how many law students cannot find work in the law profession.  Saddled with over one hundred thousand dollars in additional debt (even mediocre law schools charge about $40K per year intuition) these folks are working as assistant managers in Home Depots or waiting tables at night to earn additional income from the money they make as glorified clerks at some law firms. Here’s a quote form the article:

Today countless [law grads] are paying their bills with jobs that have nothing to do with the law, and they are losing ground on their debt every day.  Stories are legion of young lawyers enlisting in the Army or folding pants at Lululemon.

NY times, Sunday January 9, 2011 at page BU 7.

The economy has caused all businesses to shrink and even the large white-shoe firms of Wall Street and Park Avenue have taken a hit.  The Times reports that these large firms have eliminated over 15,000 legal positions  in the past three years.  Many of these legal factories are telling their recent hires that they are hiring them for 2012 and to find something else to do for 2011. Some are cutting their hiring classes down by 20%.   Yet Big Law jobs are really the  only ones that pay enough to allow a student to pay off his debt and live in New York.  Of course, law schools don’t do enough to tell those kids how miserable life is in Big Law and how you have another 10 years now to become a partner.

The shrinking of Big Law has a domino effect on the rest of the legal profession.  Those students at top tier law schools who don’t get large firm positions often then go for government positions like the District Attorney’s Office or the NYC Law Department.  These jobs used to be the place for grads of NYC area mid-tier schools like St. John’s and NY Law School, where I teach.   Now, the spots are getting filled by Columbia, NYU and Harvard grads. Also, since the economy is so bad, government lawyers are staying in their jobs much longer than they used to. When I started at the NYC Law Dept., you had to sign a three year commitment because it became common for folks to work a year or two, get significant litigation experience and then take that experience to a private firm. It was highly unusual for attorneys to stay beyond the three commitment. Now lawyers in that agency and the DAs office around the five boroughs and Long Island stay an average of 6 years. That means less jobs for new grads.

What the Times article does a really good job of doing is highlighting how law schools are falsely marketing to new applicants.  They promise the lure of $150K jobs right out of the box, when only  a handful of students proportionately  land such a salary. They don’t reveal that at some schools a high percentage of students graduate without any jobs in the legal field at all.  US News and World Reports which publishes a much-read ranking of law schools that includes a factor of the percentage of grads who get hired, uses an unreviewed survey produced by the law school. No one checks the data and as the Times reports, the schools fudge the numbers in a variety of ways.

Now I will tell you what I tell my law students.  There are definite benefits to a law degree.  Over time, I have no question it pays off if you can hang in there and survive financially in the interim. If you are not in a top 10 school, you better work hard to be at the top 5% of you class.  I often quote Daniel Webster who in around 1830 was asked if he thought there were too many lawyers and whether he would advise young men to go into the legal profession: There’s always room at the top.” If you are in a bottom tier law school, you better expect to not work as a lawyer for at lest a few years. Its student expectations that must be lowered and certainly law schools should be required to report information accurately on an agreed upon scale.

But as the NY Times suggests, that is not enough.  Lower performing law  schools (based on bar passing rate and grad employment percentages should just close. Particularly those that are contained within universities and which just serve as a money maker.  250 law students times $40K per year each is a $1 Million annual bonanza to cash-strapped universities.  Why should these schools care if they are producing men and women who can or will actually practice law? Well, the accrediting institutions should make them care.  Or at least make them be honest with their applicants about what the future likely holds.

My own son Steven, who is having great success at Penn State especially as one of the captains of the schools Mock Trial Team,  recently told me he was thinking about law school. He is somewhat better off than others of course, because after practicing 25 years, I have the benefit of experience and contacts that should likely help him land on his feet somehow. Still, I told him pretty much everything I have put into this article and have told to countless law students I have counseled over the last five years since becoming a professor.  Make sure you have a passion for it, gain hands-on experience as soon as possible, talk to recent law grads about what they are doing and whether they like it, realize that a high paying job is elusive and that it may be a long time before law becomes profitable to you, understand how much work is involved, and if after doing all of that analysis, it still appeals to you then go for it.  I love what I do, I still do after all these years, I am still excited by practicing law and the challenges that it presents.  I love using my brain as opposed to my back to earn a living. Who wouldn’t want to be well paid for arguing? But it is not for the weak of spirit or those who want to get rich quick.  Gone are the days when you can hang a shingle then have a line of clients waiting for your services.  As further proof that this situation is not really that new, here’s another of my favorite quotes about the law, from US Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story and his brilliant work The Value and Importance of Legal Studies:

The law is a jealous mistress, and requires a long and constant courtship. It is not to be won by trifling favors, but by lavish homage.

One reply on “NY Times Reports Grim Reality: Many Law Grads Jobless!”

Your article has sparked my interest to comment on this subject. As a small-business owner and private citizen who has often gone into court to represent myself over the last 20+ years (plaintiff more than defendant though), I have become more comfortable than the average person in court. I have also frequently hired lawyers to consult with and represent my or my company interests in court. These experiences have shaped my views of young lawyers in particular.

In a general sense, there has been for years a growing entitlement that any college degree (law or not) entitles the recipient to some guaranteed high salary and position in life. And because of a long-sustained growing economy, it fed into this entitlement mindset.

With this entitlement comes a level of ignorance, inexperience, and naivete, that is quite unbecoming in many young lawyers. Many young lawyers think that because they have studied law, they understand the way business should be conducted and predict how legal cases should go. Rulings don’t often go the way “they should be”.

They do not have insights of what the business world, business owners, and business managers seek of them. This is the same of doctors. Doctors are notorious for being business-ignorant and greatly dependent on their office managers and staff to take care of that aspect. However, the public understands that being a doctor is often being far removed from business issues.

With lawyers, they are being brought into high degree of confidence and information by the businesses who hire them. Young lawyers appear to not have much business education and only learn about the business world by working within a larger law firm and the senior attorneys who hire them.

As you pointed out in your article, these young lawyers will have to put in an easy 10 years to become partner. If they don’t like that, it will take about that long for them to get the seasoning and business experience they need to become a profitable sole practitioner or start their own law firm. One way or another, they WILL be putting in the time necessary to “learn the business”.

Unfortunately for young lawyers, I now rarely hire or consult with any lawyer under 30. Often, it seems I have a better instinct of what my case will be about in court than many young lawyers I have met. Any young lawyer who thinks that the judge cannot be swayed by human or extraneous issues is naive. If they do not believe presentation and style matters, they are naive. If they do not believe details and visuals matter, they are naive. I could continue on but the point is made.

Also in terms of client relations, they want repeat business but often don’t seem to know much about cultivating relationships. They just expect their clients to automatically think of them. Young lawyers have a lot going against them simply because of their age. They need go the extra mile to demonstrate they understand their client’s business and how it works, not simply the immediate small case at hand. They need to lose the attitude, the entitlement mentality, and hanging so much of their self-worth on their GPA and where they got their degree. IN the outside world, very few ask where you went to school and your GPA. People want to know what you have done!

Because when they get in front of me and my business friends who either manage, own, or invest in businesses, we quickly come to view a young lawyer as an overpaid legal clerk or a business/legal consultant.

Whether a young lawyer works for a small or large firm, the greatest asset they will have in cultivating their own clients for a partnership or their own law firm is to start developing a strong sense of entrepreneurship. If that is unappealing, they better continue working as clerks or stay in the research department because I don’t want them on the front lines negotiating for me or in front of a judge.

I would also say to young lawyers, that because of their predecessors who got away with providing unsatisfactory services and otherwise burned their business clients during the boom times, I know exactly how to contact and file written complaints to any State Bar Association as well as detailed written complaints about them and their behavior to AVVO and other lawyer-rating sites. You may not get disbarred but having complaints in your file cannot be good for career growth.

My comments may be scary to young lawyers and it is meant to be. Having said that, society and business wants you to succeed. We want you to be smart, capable, and hirable. My advice is to step and set correct expectations. Know what you know but also know what you don’t know and get the learning somewhere. Whether you know it or not, a lawyer is often a business consultant. Pick up some books and take some seminars on how to be a phenomenal business consultant.

Also, it is disgraceful that so many lawyers still depend on the Yellow Pages, do not use email, or have some kind of Internet presence. They think because they are at some large law firm, they can afford to NOT tell people what kind of person they are. Business people want to know what kind of people lawyers are especially young lawyers.

Most young lawyers went to college full-time. Yes, you may have worked hard earning that degree but you were like just like most full-time college students who liked to drink, party, and have sex during their college years. The time has come to put some serious distance between now and those fun-loving times even if it was only last week when you graduated!

If they were dumb enough to take those photos and load it to their Facebook or Myspace accounts, take them down! In place of all the nonsense, start writing some articles, get involved with AVVO, start a legal blog, put up a professional Facebook page, actively use email to communicate with your clients, get involved with a hot legal issue. I am tired of lawyers in general being behind the curve.

As Oscar has pointed out in his article, power has dramatically shifted in the hiring process. It is up to the young lawyer to take the corrective measures to gain the respect and following to rise to the top of his game.

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