Saturday, June 02, 2012

Don't Go to Law School....

Just don't.

Okay, if you're admitted to one of the twenty or so "top ten" schools and are in the upper half of your class, or if you're admitted to one of the ten or so "top five" schools, even better Harvard or Yale, although your future is not assured there's a good chance you'll end up getting one of those @70 hour/week, $150,000 jobs that everybody supposedly wants. But... are you sure you want that? And if you don't, how well do your wishes line up with your projected debt load? That job or career you want - is there another way to enter the field or to get a job that's "close enough" to being a lawyer that doesn't require the law degree? Because if we're talking public service, a lot of those jobs don't pay lawyers much (or any) better than they pay non-lawyers who perform similar tasks.

Back when I started law school, my very first classroom experience was an 8:00 AM contracts class with Professor J.J. White. To put it mildly, not all of the students in my section liked Professor White. But if half of my professors had inspired me to work as hard, I would have learned about five times as much law by the time I graduated, he tested based on knowledge of the law and legal principles as opposed to your ideological alignment, and he seemed to put more effort into preparing for his classes than most of the students. He was also a tremendous platform speaker and, when I first passed by him in a hall, I was surprised that he wasn't a foot taller. I had the opportunity to briefly work with him on a CLE course, about ten years after I graduated, and he displayed a level of passion and perfectionism that not only exceeded that of a typical top speaker, I think his passion significantly exceeded that of the lawyer who was planning the course.

Professor White would at times share his wisdom with us. "You are all fungible", he advised, noting quite correctly that most law firms view and treat associates as a commodity. He liked to tease the "limousine liberals" among us that although they were sure that they would be working public interest jobs after law school, for most that notion would be end after their first, highly paid summer associateship. I had a couple of friends who, over the course of their first summer, shifted positions from, "Maybe other people will chase the money, but not me", to "He was right". That was twenty years ago when law school only seemed expensive. Now, if you're a typical law school graduate, it seems that the choices are to put your hands out straight in front of you to be fitted for the golden handcuffs or, if you can't find a highly paid job, be grateful that we don't have debtors prisons in this country.

Paul Campos, a law professor and critic of what has happened to law school education - with costs spiraling up, job opportunities limited, and many law schools seeming to be intentionally misleading incoming students about placement and probable salaries - describes reality for a current law school graduate:
In any case, let’s consider what’s going on not just in the American economy as a whole, but in the legal sector. Over the last twelve months the legal sector has added a total of 4,800 jobs. Keep in mind that at best perhaps 70% of these jobs have been filled by attorneys, since the sector includes all support personnel (paralegals, administrative positions etc.). So we can estimate that there are about 3,000 more attorneys employed in America today than there were a year ago.

Now a certain number of people who were working as attorneys a year ago aren’t today, because they’ve died, retired, moved into other lines of work, or have simply become unemployed. The BLS estimates the total annual “outflow” from the profession to be about 13,000 people at present. So that means that about 16,000 lawyer jobs have been filled over the last 12 months by people who weren’t working as attorneys at the time they moved into these jobs.

Note this does not mean that 16,000 new law graduates got real legal jobs, since some unknown number of these jobs were filled by unemployed attorneys who moved back into the legal work force. It’s true that the 2011 NALP stats claim that 25,654 of the nation’s 44,258 2010 law graduates had a full-time job requiring a law degree nine months after graduation. For quite some time now I’ve been trying to explain why that (atrocious) 42% functional unemployment rate for new lawyers is actually seriously understated.
Campos links to an ad for a full-time associate position, expected to pay $10,000 for the first year of work - and that the ad elicited "32 applications from law school graduates within 24 hours of being posted on a law school’s web site". I recall a few years ago, having a lawyer tell me that when she needs complex issues briefed she posts an ad on craigslist and can often find experienced lawyers who will take the work as independent contractors at $15/hour. Campos notes, "23% of barred attorneys in Alabama made less than $25,000 [!] last year".

The practice of law is a tough profession to enter. Your first job will likely have a strong influence on the rest of your career. If you get a coveted clerkship or are hired by BigLaw, you're probably okay. If not, no matter how good a lawyer you are, your upward mobility is likely going to be limited by your ability to bring business to a prospective employer. And even if you have an impressive client list, if it's in thew wrong practice area you may find yourself limited to an "of counsel" relationship (although it does seem that in recent years more large firms have softened on the notion of which areas of law they "won't practice"). It doesn't matter how good you are as compared to lawyers who work in the firm, or that you match or exceed their potential, if you have the wrong pedigree you're going to be on the outside looking in.

If you have a family full of lawyers and know what the practice entails, you can enter law school with your eyes open. If they are going to guarantee you a job and salary when you graduate, all the better. If your notion of legal practice comes from watching TV shows, even though you "know" that the depiction is romanticized, you may want to try working at a law firm in some capacity before you choose to attend law school. You will likely find that law is a lot less glamorous, interesting and lucrative than you believe. And you may find your passion (subject to the aforementioned caveat that, if you can pursue your passion for a similar salary without paying for a law degree, you should consider that alternative path). But law school is now far too expensive for you to attend a middle or lower tier school simply because you don't know what you want to do with your life, or because law "sounds interesting" or you believe you'll be entering a prestige profession.

I told my brother not to go to law school. He wasn't really listening, went anyway, and through some good luck and timing ended up working at a defense firm with a pretty good salary. You too are entitled to roll the dice. What I'm really saying is, consider your alternatives and proceed with your eyes open. With about 16,000 true law jobs available for about 44,000 new law school graduates, and (as the numbers make inevitable) a lot of last year's grads still trying to find work, consider your drive, your connections, and the likelihood that you'll actually enjoy a real-life legal career. You have a lot of options before law school, but afterward the odds are you're going to be weighed down by your significant debt load (not to mention three years of opportunity cost).

1 comment:

  1. I could have written this post. I wish people had been talking about these things when I was thinking about law school, about 20 years ago (yikes, it's been 15 years since I took the Bar!). I honestly thought you would walk out of law school and into a highly paid job. I had no concept of what a 70 hour per week job was and no idea that I, with mild to somewhat moderate hyperactivity, simply can't focus for that long.
    You are so correct in everything you said, but especially how your first job will pretty much set things up for your future. For whatever reason, I was never able to attract clients...was it my youth? gender? lack of self confidence? I don't know, but it steered me to public interest law which paid less than I made during my first year as a teacher. Unless your dad is Lee Free or Call Sam, stay the hell outta law school, kiddos.

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