The possibility of becoming a lawyer first began to appeal to me as a kid. I had some older relatives who’d entered the field (becoming judges, professors, and government ministers) and their example inspired me. I looked up to them and wanted to be like them. If you’d asked me 5 years ago where I saw myself in a future career, law would most certainly have been my firm answer.
That was then, this is now. As I’ve grown older and a bit wiser, I’ve come to see the pitfalls associated with the career I had once unquestionably chosen. I originally planned to be in law school as we speak. As of now, I’ve delayed the beginning of that process for a while as I work and see where the industry heads. I may ultimately decide not to bother at all.
My decision to delay was not made lightly, but I feel it was made correctly and should be considered by other young men with a potential legal career on their minds. Here are three reasons why one should be hesitant to become a lawyer right now.
1. There are too many lawyers
Society does need lawyers. It is, however, entirely possible to have too many of them. What does that look like? We’re finding out right now:
Barely half of all 2012 law school graduates had full time, long-term legal jobs as of Feb. 15, according to employment outcome data released Friday by the ABA’s Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar.
Only a slight majority of law school graduates in 2012 managed to secure full time legal jobs, and you can bet that only a fraction of those managed to secure full time legal jobs that paid relatively well. Put quite frankly, there are more graduates coming out of law schools than the market can take. We have dozens upon dozens of accredited law schools who each pump out hundreds of graduates annually, but can’t for the life of them produce a sizable number who can pass the bar and hold down a full time legal job. This reality is being corrected to some degree as law school enrollments drop, but even now the fact remains that there are just too damn many law students (and law schools, for that matter).
This sobering reality becomes particularly relevant when you consider the second item on my list…
2. Law school is expensive
Let’s say you were an aspiring law student in the year 1982. You’ve got great numbers and managed to gain admission to the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, a highly ranked Ivy League institution. Let’s say you pay the sticker price (no scholarships or financial aid) for Penn during your 3 years there.
Your sticker price (tuition, board, fees, etc) for the full 3 years would likely amount to about $40,000 (give or take a couple thousand) by the time you left in 1984. That’s $89,000 of debt in 2013 after adjusting for inflation.
Now, let’s fast forward to 2010 and look at another individual with a dream of becoming a lawyer. This modern aspiring law student also wants to go to UPenn Law. He will also be getting no scholarships or financial aid. What will his bill come up to at the end of his 3 year stint in Philadelphia?
Law, the J.D. program:
General Fee: $2,152
Technology Fee: $780
Average room rate in the University’s residence halls: $7,248
Average meal plan: $4,182
Law, the J.D. program:
General Fee: $2,318
Technology Fee: $800
Average room rate in the University’s residence halls: $7,592
Average meal plan: $4,286
Law, the J.D. program:
General Fee: $2,408
Technology Fee: $830
Average room rate in the University’s residence halls: $7,952
Average meal plan: $4,416
Total (give or take a couple thousand): $186,000
He’ll leave law school with a bill more than twice the size of his early 80’s counterpart. He’ll have twice the debt burden to contend with and (as my next point will make clear) he’ll enter a market in a condition that isn’t too conducive to helping him eliminate that debt quickly.
3. The impact of the financial crisis persists
During the boom times in the early/mid 2000’s, legal hiring was in a very different place. “Biglaw” (high paying major firm job) placement rates at even less prestigious, non “Top-14”, regional schools often approached 25% or more. Big firms had expanded the size of their associate pool significantly during that time period and it looked like such expansion might continue.
Recent evidence has shown us that it won’t. The legal industry is in a transition now, and the “new normal” is not going to be a pretty picture:
Last week, the National Associate for Law Placement announced that large law firms of more than 500 lawyers hired 3,600 new associates in 2012 — more than in 2011 but still far below the 5,100 new hires in 2009. Some students at top-20 law schools aren’t getting big-firm jobs that were once automatic for most of their predecessors. The overall market is even more dismal. In 2012, law schools graduated a record number of new lawyers — more than 46,000. About half of them got long-term, full-time jobs requiring a legal degree.
Is BigLaw going to go extinct? Probably not, but your chances of getting to it as a typical law student have declined significantly within the last few years. Bonuses at top firms have declined in that time as salaries have remained flat, meaning that even if you do manage to squeak into one of the remaining BigLaw jobs (and survive the brutal hours associated with them), you won’t be compensated as well for doing so. That sucks, because chances are you’ll be carrying a large debt monkey on your back in the process.
These new realities challenge old motivations for attending law school, motivations based on an old vision of the legal profession and its ability to provide a certain status to those who chose to enter it:
For generations, the law functioned as a kind of psychological safety net for the ambitious and upwardly mobile. If you wanted to be a writer or an actor or a businessman, you could rest assured that law school would be there if your plans fell through. However much you’d maxed out your credit card, however late you were on your rent, you were never more than an admissions test and six semesters away from upper-middle-class respectability.
The above is no longer a given thanks to the changes I mentioned above. If you’ve read this and still think you may have a legal career in your future, make sure you comprehend these changes fully. They’re not temporary.
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