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Following up on a New York Times article about the rapidly depreciating value of a law degree, Concurring Opinions has some advice on whether going to law school is a good career choice.
The gist of Sarah Waldek’s opinion is:
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I’ve been thinking hard about what advice I would give prospective students and this is where I’ve landed: Only go to law school next year if (1) you have always dreamed of being a lawyer; or (2) you are accepted by a very prestigious institution; or (3) you are offered a full scholarship.
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Of course, this year law school applications will be partly driven by the lack of opportunity costs. Graduating college students face generally dismal employment prospects regardless of what field they want to enter. But I suspect that optimism bias plays just as large a role in student decision-making. No matter what the economy, some lawyers will be wildly successful. Many prospective students are inclined to think that they will be part of this group, no matter how daunting the odds against it. On the more rational side of the analysis, it’s also true that law school historically has proven itself a relatively good place to weather out bad economic times.
What is different this time around, however, is that no one is yet sure whether the changes in legal markets and in law firms are permanent, or whether things will eventually return to what we had come to think of as normal. If you haven’t always wanted to practice law, or if you’re considering a law school that is not one of the best in the nation, or if the law school isn’t offering to pay for you to attend, my advice is to wait to see how this plays out.
Some of the comments on the article are also deeply troubling. Here’s a sampling:
Native JD: Don’t bother. There are no jobs for you. It’s a racist profession dominated by white men (I’m Native and Biglaw wouldn’t even interview me (Top 50 school, 3.0+, 5 years of Capitol Hill experience and heavily involved in ABA diversity efforts).
This profession is doomed.
Unemployed OVER A YEAR NOW: MEMO TO PROSPECTIVE LAW STUDENTS: THERE ARE NO JOBS! I have been out of law school three years now. I spent 2 years at Big Law (Cravath) and the past 14 months looking for work and doing lousy temp jobs. I had a 4.0 in college and law school (that is how I landed the Big Law job) and all the volunteer, pro bono, language skills, etc you could dream of. None of that matters. THERE ARE NO JOBS FOR LAWYERS. Go to Med School if your brain works.
LAC: I have been giving people who wanted to go to law school this advice since my 1L year. Except I say that you shouldn’t go to law school unless you are already rich (meaning you have about $200k just lying around), you can go to a Top 10 school, AND you can go for free or for less than $30k.
I was one of those poor kids who decided to be a lawyer when I was young so that I could grow up and support myself and my family. I went to law school with no debt—my college education was paid for with federal grants. I am now-$100k, and that only accounts for 70% of my tuition, which means NONE of my living expenses. The last $40k is one year of tuition in my LL.M program. One year. Frankly, I was in a better financial position when I was on Welfare. And at this rate, I will be again soon enough.
There are no entry-level jobs anymore for anyone. Not for finished fed clerks, not for LL.Ms (like me), and not even for Harvard grads. I have a degree in tax from one of the best programs in the country and about 10 people in my graduating class of more than 100 are employed 6 months later—more than half of those people are foreign nationals who have jobs in their native lands. Now, my friends who were lucky enough to get government jobs to take advantage of the public service loan repayment program are being told they make too much money to qualify (less than $70k/yr) and are left with $100k+ of student debt and a low-paying job. Frankly, many of us are taking paralegal jobs (and some firms now only hire JDs for such positions), thus effectively nullifying our credentials and Bar status just to put food on the table. At this point, my education is a curse. It automatically disqualifies me for lesser work elsewhere, and the loan load is oppressive to say the least.
There is no upside any longer. There needs to be a moratorium on law school admissions for at least 5 years to stop the excess flood of lawyers into an economy that cannot remotely support the supply it currently has.
I’m not sure how applicable Waldek’s concerns (or those of the commentators) are to the Canadian context.
First, Canadians pay far less for a quality legal education than Americans do. Tuition at the most expensive law school in Canada (U of T) is roughly $22,000. It’s considerably less at other law schools. You can get a top notch education at McGill, for example, for under $7000/yr (it’s even cheaper for Quebeckers). Out west, you can hit up UBC for under $10,000. Or try Dalhousie out east for under $13,000. American tuitions are 3-5x higher!
Second, the job market here appears to be better. To be sure, Bay Street recruitment has definitely dropped, salaries have dropped, and hire-back is no longer guaranteed for summer and articling students. But even so, the impression I get from my colleagues on the Street is that we are far from the nightmare scenario being described above.
Most importantly, it appears that although this past year was one of the worst in recent history, the storm is passing. The economy is now improving. Legal recruitment and salaries should begin to rise. Of course, it will be a long while before firms are throwing around money and perks like candy, as they were before.
I’d say the Canadian situation calls for cautious optimism.
Following a significant decline in corporate expenditures on legal services in 2008 and the first half of 2009, businesses will once again begin increasing their law budgets in the second half of this year according to the results of a study announced today by legal industry research leader BTI Consulting.
The study, titled ‘BTI Mid-Year Spending Update and Outlook,’ covers 16 practices and 18 industries and is based on 370 interviews with corporate counsel at Fortune 1000 companies that average $19.4 million in outside counsel spending. Key findings of the study include:
- Clear signs of renewed legal spending after a sharp decline of 7% since year-end 2008.
- Corporate legal spending at large companies will grow nearly 5% over the next 6 months, bringing overall market growth to only negative 1.4 percent for the year.
- Leading the growth in spending will be the practice areas of regulatory compliance, employment, securities and bankruptcy/corporate restructuring law.
- Year-to-date, the hardest hit core practice areas have been corporate, securities and finance, and intellectual property.
“We have all read the headlines detailing drops in business spending across every category, including legal services. This study presents a big ray of sunshine in what has been a very stormy environment. The reversal of this negative spending trend will help buoy flailing legal markets and offers some hopeful news about business spending in general,” explains Michael B. Rynowecer, President of The BTI Consulting Group.
Rynowecer suggests the increase in spending will not, however, alleviate law firm lay-offs which have been rampant in recent months. “Rather than a wholesale recovery, we are seeing a shift of resources to specific firms and practices that are well-positioned,” Rynowecer warns. “Large companies are sharing this renewed spending with a smaller group of law firms than just 6 months ago. Those firms caught unaware or unprepared for this shift will continue to face significant challenges and not reap the benefits of this increased spending.”
US law students are worried about jobs after the best job market in 20 years starts heading down. Should we be too?