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.