Sunday, July 21, 2013

The Million Dollar Law Degree

Given the triumphalism of those who tout a dubious study ostensibly showing that the present value of a law degree for an new graduate is $1 million, I think it's fair to remind them of how the rise in law school tuition, the huge rise in the number of law graduates, and the collapse of the legal job market call all of the authors' assumptions into question:
In June, the legal services sector lost more than 3,000 jobs, according to the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Since June 2012, the latest BLS data shows, the industry has seen a net gain of only 1,000 jobs. In the last two months alone, 6,000 positions disappeared....

The increase in the percentage of applicants being admitted to law schools is one reason that the lawyer bubble continues to grow. Another is the stagnant job market. In 2008, the BLS projected that the economy would add a net total of 98,500 new attorney positions for the entire decade ending in 2018. In 2010, the agency revised that estimate downward to project the addition of just 73,600 positions by the end of 2020.

Even allowing for attrition by retirement, death, and other reasons, the BLS now estimates that there will be 235,000 openings for lawyers, judges, and related workers through 2020—23,500 a year. Last year alone, law schools graduated 46,000 new attorneys.

If law schools as a group reduced enrollments by 20 percent from last year’s graduating class, they would still produce almost 37,000 new lawyers annually — 370,000 for a decade that will require only 235,000 — not to mention the current backlog that began accumulating even before the Great Recession began.
If you're a Harvard or Yale law student, odds are your law degree will return well over that $million over the course of your career. The further you get away from the elite schools, or the upper ranks of the law school you attend, the less likely it is that you'll end up earning a good (or even a decent) income, and the more likely it is that you'll end up working a job that neither requires a law degree nor helps you pay off your student loans. Law is also a profession where your first job will often significantly limit your options for the rest of your career, so graduating into a poor employment market can have a career-long impact on your earnings.

If you're thinking about attending law school, you need to keep in mind that when people are talking about the flexibility of a law degree the odds are (a) they don't know what they're talking about or (b) they work for a law school and you're hearing a sales pitch. If you're not committed to practicing law, consider taking some additional time to think about your options or considering how other graduate degrees (or employment options) might better fit your goals and personality. If you are committed to practicing law, and have done some homework to figure out what that actually means (no, TV dramas don't count as homework), you still need to consider in light of your grades, LSAT score, and the law schools willing to accept you whether that's a good investment. For most students at most law schools, in the present market (which, unfortunately, seems to be the likely market for legal employment stretching into the foreseeable future) it's not going to be worth it - most law graduates end up racking up a large amount of debt and then not finding work in the legal field or finding marginal work that sets them up for a career in which they're excluded from the more prestigious and higher-paying jobs. You can't get around the numbers.

1 comment:

  1. I think some people read John Grisham (the very definition of a tool, btw) and think they will get that one huge case and become millionaires. Just as there are a few dot com millionaires, there are a few of those types, too. But the chances of it actually happening is extremely rare. The only thing that saved my ass was that I had no debt coming out of law school (I do now from my teaching degree and MA). Have I ever sent you my law school manifesto? It makes the Unabomber look like a Glee script. The final exam is going to the 3rd Circuit Court in Detroit on "motion day". Anyone who still wants to practice after that is insane.