Friday, January 1, 2010

How much doom and gloom should lawyers feel about our profession?

Can someone, somewhere attempt to write a balanced essay on the job situation of new law school graduates and the extent of the alleged employment crisis? Yes, there is an entire cottage industry of disenchanted non-elite law grads blogging about how cruelly they were misled and how unhappily indebted they are. I read them and then scroll down to the comments, which are a mix of "Amen, brother!" and "Actually, I went to a similar school and found relative financial stability doing family law/real estate closing/working at the DA's office." Also, while rants like the ones linked to on ATL can be bitterly funny, I'm skeptical about taking them as gospel truth.

I do have a vested interest in trying to figure out this all out. After all, I'm about to marry a law professor, I work for another one, and so I'm surrounded by their kin whenever I attempt to socialize. (I'm also not really competent at socializing with most normal people, but that's another story.) So I sometimes find myself wondering if the entire American legal education market is really on the verge of going belly-up each time I shell out $4 for a whole wheat boule at Whole Foods. These thoughts rarely stop me, however...

Some scattered thoughts and some questions:

1)I may be wrong, but I don't think young lawyers from non-top -schools fretted about these problems to nearly the same extent in, say, 1975. Sometimes the angry bloggers make it sound like parents are pushing law school debt on their kids out of some kind of misguided prestige-uber-alles false consciousness narrative. I doubt that; I suspect that what's really going on was that law school simply was a much better financial bet when they were young than it is now. After all, parents have every incentive to want their children to do what's financially good for them in the long run. But I haven't seen many people attempting to explain why there's such a gap between parental perceptions and reality. In fairness, both Bill Henderson and Larry Ribstein have made some admirable attempts to date, but I suspect there's still a wide field open for occupation on this one.

2)Relatedly: do things ever improve for these people? If you gut out the miserable 40K job and actually pick up some skills, do things eventually get better? Do you actually make more money?

3)Is the problem worst in a few markets? Constant readers know that I grew up in a small red state city. I went to its fanciest private high school, which was full of local legal eagles' kids. I applied to a few of those firms 1L summer. When I went through lawyer bios, there were a very small number of Penn grads and the like, but most went to Temple, Villanova, Widener, or what have you. I'm sure that most of the V100 firms that interviewed at my school would also scoff at the types of cases they worked on. But the lawyers' kids I knew growing up generally had nice houses, cars, etc. So is the trick just to consider more small markets?

Relatedly, does that mean that the law schools which are most vulnerable are the low-ranked schools in very large cities?

4)How far up is the problem? My law school typically ranked around 20 in U.S. News; we weren't in the vaunted magic circle of the T14, but we were far up enough in the rankings that comparing our situation with fourth-tier grads doesn't make much sense either. The conventional wisdom was that the top 1/3 could get Biglaw offers fairly easily, and plenty of people who were slightly under that cut-off but had something else nice going for them still could do pretty well. Yet I had a few classmates with low-ish grades who spent the last two years of law school in a cold sweat, wondering if they'd ever find permanent, paying legal jobs that would let them pay off their loans. The "You must have known what you were getting into when you accepted a fourth-tier school" reasoning perhaps shouldn't apply to these people. But, again, how many of them will figure out in five or ten years that they were worried for naught?

Sometimes, the ATL commenters say things that all schools below 14 should be shut down. I suspect that's absurd. But even if it is, how far up are schools vulnerable?

5)I'm not sure how much better many prospective lawyers would do in some other fields. I saw this study on Tax Prof Blog a few months ago and found the numbers looked way off. When I was hunting for work in mid-2004 right after I graduated from college, there were lots of D.C. non-profits and magazines eager to hire people with roughly my background into jobs with titles like "research assistant" or "editorial assistant." Most of these opportunities paid in the low to mid 30s. Hill, entry-level gallery jobs, publishing, and fancy prep school teaching all pay worse than that. The big firms that wanted paralegals with credentials similar to mine all paid $37,500, with perhaps another $20,000 or $30,000 in overtime on top of that. Of course, those jobs generally dead-ended at... law school... after two years. I should note that several Wachtell attorneys told me that their paralegals typically raked in around 90K, but again, same problem with the job dead ending in law or other grad school after two years.

I know, I majored in something useless. While I forget if my undergrad institution is 9th or 11th in U.S. News (it's usually either one or the other), classifying myself as an also-ran in collegiate academic competition feels a tad harsh.

I had one close friend from college who graduated with honors in computer science who went onto a top graduate program. He made $57,000 in his first job out of college. That's still short of even "Solid Performer" according to Schlunk.

Yes, there is investment banking. These people do commonly get in the 80 to 90 range. But investment banking can be quite hard to get even from very good schools, especially depending on the economy. People who are shy/not particularly good at exuding a certain kind of charm in interviews, even if they had econ degrees and good grades in them, sometimes struggled.

6)Will night programs emerge as the way to go for most students outside the very top schools? You can keep your job while you're in law school, so you have some positive cash flow. Your opportunity costs are $0. (Unless you would have worked a night job instead of going to law school, of course, but most people who have college degrees don't take on second part-time jobs.) And if you have poor grades after a semester or two of putting forth your best efforts, so that it looks like you can't recoup your investment, you can still walk away with much smaller debts than otherwise. And if you finish but can't find paying legal work right away, you still have other paying work to tide you over until you do. Part of me hopes they are, since that leaves Pnin's school especially safe...

1 comment:

  1. I went and checked with LSAC's website, and the number of takers of the LSAT has some very interesting properties:

    1) It is EXTREMELY variable. In the decade just past, the highest number was 151,398 and the lowest number was 109,030. In the prior decade, the highest number was 152,685 and the lowest number was 103,391.

    2) It is on a long term uptrend. (As one might expect from general population and economic growth.) The decade just past saw about a 2% overall increase in takers.

    3) It seems to vary inversely with economic prosperity. (This is generally assumed in discussions of this topic, but the assumption seems to be reasonably justified.)

    Right now we've got more lawyers and more law students than we've ever had, and our economic activity, especially in the areas where lawyers find the most business, has dropped off a cliff. Of course the competition for jobs is fierce.

    I went to what is now apparently a 4th tier school (don't know what it was then) although in my field (IP law) it is one of the top schools in the nation. I've never worked for a firm and the few times I tried to get jobs at one I didn't get much interest. However, I've never had any difficulty obtaining legal employment. If you want to be a TV-style firm lawyer, the competition is dreadful and you have a rough road ahead of you. If you want to be a lawyer of some kind and have a pleasant life and a reasonable level of compensation, I don't know that things are as bad as all that.