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Pop! Goes the Law School Bubble
March 20, 2012 6:41 PM   Subscribe

With the number of LSAT test takers in sharp decline, has the law school tuition bubble finally burst?
posted by reenum (79 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

 
I sure hope so. Maybe if the supply of fresh new grads decreases, all those recent graduates from the last few years can start finding jobs, or better jobs.
posted by jayder at 6:45 PM on March 20, 2012


Maybe if the supply of fresh new grads decreases, all those recent graduates from the last few years can start finding jobs, or better jobs.

That will take a very, very long time. There has been an approximately 2:1 ratio of graduates to jobs for many years.

I think what we'll see is essentially no change at the top end (e.g. Harvard is not going to hurt for qualified applicants), some modest loosening of standards in the middle, and a significant loosening of standards and a modest reduction in tuition at the low end. This won't be enough to make those mid-tier schools worth it, nor will it reflect the true lack of value in the low end, however, so the process will likely repeat again in a few years, with the tuition cuts slowly creeping up the ranks.

I fear that without fundamental reform it will take many years for the market to come anywhere close to correcting itself.

I wonder what the numbers are like for undergraduate admissions tests. Are SAT and ACT numbers down? Law school tuition has increased even faster than undergraduate tuition, but the tuition bubble is hardly limited to law schools.
posted by jedicus at 7:03 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


It's about damn time. Every legal intern and volunteer lawyer we've had for the past few years has seriously bummed me out.
posted by Mavri at 7:08 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


DC is full of law school grads. Most of them claim to hate law. The fact that they can't find jobs as lawyer means as much to me as an engineering grad who claims to hate math. If this is what its like nationwide, the problem isn't law school, the problem is that people who don't give a crap about what law school teaches end up going to law school.

Also.
posted by karathrace at 7:12 PM on March 20, 2012 [9 favorites]


One thing I sort of suspect is going on when people apply to law school is that they are discounting importance of the job market they will face in three years, in favor of gaining parental/peer/community approval NOW by going to law school.

For example, if you're working at a menial job and feel you have no career path to look forward to, law school -- even with the attendant job scarcity upon graduation -- may look good. "At least I'll be a lawyer! I'm sure I'll be able to find something! And mom and dad will be proud of me for the next three years!"

People applying to law school in the US often have very little idea what lawyers do or what practice entails. They're going into it pretty blind. This, in my view, perpetuates the cycle of college grads flooding the law schools, because basically they're treating it as a sort of default prestigious career in the absence of any other passions.

People will keep going to law school just like people will keep getting Ph.D.s in the humanities.
posted by jayder at 7:18 PM on March 20, 2012 [24 favorites]


Everyone I've ever known who contemplated law only ended up going if they could get into a top 25 school. What happened between 1998 and 2010 that made so many people thing that East Podunk Law School was a ticket to success? Why do that instead of a much more broadly useful MBA?
posted by Blue Meanie at 7:19 PM on March 20, 2012


DC is full of law school grads. Most of them claim to hate law.

Believe them when they say they hate it. It has its rewards, but these days it is really an awful field to go into. Lawyers become alcoholics for a reason.
posted by jayder at 7:21 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


What happened between 1998 and 2010 that made so many people thing that East Podunk Law School was a ticket to success?

A lack of other options, easy student loans, steadily rising salaries at large law firms, and borderline fraudulent employment statistics.
posted by jedicus at 7:22 PM on March 20, 2012 [2 favorites]


What happened between 1998 and 2010 that made so many people thing that East Podunk Law School was a ticket to success?

It very well can be a ticket to success. In my city, most lawyers are graduates of the local, fourth tier law school. They are doing fine. And until the market got terrible, I think most of them were getting decent jobs commensurate with their credentials.
posted by jayder at 7:24 PM on March 20, 2012


I dunno about as far back as 1998, but for the people who finished college after 2002 or so, the focus on law school I think treats it as an independent problem rather than a symptom. The problems mirror those in pretty much all graduate programs at the moment. Smart kids finish school with undergraduate degrees that don't give them jobs good enough to pay their *undergrad* student loans... and so where do you go from there? Back to school. An MBA may be seen as "broadly useful", but there are a lot of MBAs coming out of places that aren't, like, Harvard and Wharton that have prospects absolutely zero better than when they enter the program at the moment.

There will always be some people who prefer any given graduate program because they really want to do whatever it is they go in to do. Some of them will still think that when they graduate, others won't. But if young people could reliably get jobs that paid the bills without grad school, a lot of people would far prefer that, it's just that there's a lot of newly-minted college graduates these days who really would prefer not to wait tables.
posted by gracedissolved at 7:28 PM on March 20, 2012 [8 favorites]


all those recent graduates from the last few years can start finding jobs, or better jobs.

Unless Obama gets going on that student loan amnesty, I predict a generation of nuisance lawsuits.
posted by R. Schlock at 7:33 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I agree with gracedissolved. Law schools have a host of problems, some having to do with the legal profession, some having to do with legal education. But a lot have to do with problems affecting other prospects too.

My prediction is that recent foolish expansions in supply will contract, and justly so; I hope some schools shutter. But we will probably also see a correction in LSATs soon. Similar things have happened before, including a sustained slide in the early to mid 1990s.
posted by Clyde Mnestra at 7:46 PM on March 20, 2012


All it will take is a recovered economy and a few articles about how the new shortage of lawyers means huge salaries, and the enrollments will be back in the stratosphere.
posted by Forktine at 7:56 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


DC is full of law school grads. Most of them claim to hate law. The fact that they can't find jobs as lawyer means as much to me as an engineering grad who claims to hate math.

Flawed analogy (and I'm one of the people you're talking about.) We don't hate law (spend any time at all with us and you'll find the opposite is true. We hate the practice and, especially, the current market. We hate what the field ended up meaning for the quality of our lives. There's a difference.
posted by Navelgazer at 7:57 PM on March 20, 2012 [5 favorites]


We hate the practice and, especially, the current market.

I hate that lawyers have a 'market.'
posted by ChurchHatesTucker at 8:01 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I meant "job market" but I get your point.
posted by Navelgazer at 8:03 PM on March 20, 2012


The only thing that will reduce tuition or enrollment is a reduction in loan eligibility. Absent that, law schools will simply lower their standards to fill their classes. Hard to measure at Yale and Chicago, visible if not disturbing at the non-T14 good schools, and a dog's breakfast at the low end, which will stock up on kids who'll fail the Bar in unprecedented number three years later.
posted by MattD at 8:11 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think we are a long, long way off from seeing law schools reduce tuition rates. The notion seems to be catching on with many applicants, though, that law school (especially but not exclusively) at current prices is a terrible, terrible decision for most. So that's encouraging.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 8:12 PM on March 20, 2012


...much more broadly useful MBA...

Wait, whut?
posted by spacewrench at 8:22 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]



...much more broadly useful MBA...

Wait, whut?


Finance, business management, consulting, entrepreneurship v. law, politics and barista.
posted by Blue Meanie at 8:34 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Law schools are not going to significantly cut tuition unless something happens with student loan regulations.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:48 PM on March 20, 2012


Well, an MBA from Directional State or University of Online For-Profit is not going to open a lot of doors into consulting or finance these days - a lot of those programs are scams in exactly the same way that a third-tier law school is, as a way to separate the gullible and directionless from their student loans. On the other hand, a top tier MBA definitely gives you a wider variety or career choices than an equivalently good law school.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 8:58 PM on March 20, 2012


A co-worker of mine is off to law school this fall. I bit my tongue to keep from saying "Are you insane?" when I heard. She's going to either Stanford or Harvard, so she'll probably land on her feet.
posted by rtha at 9:02 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


I teach statistics to undergrads. I always find excuses to show the bimodal distribution of first-year lawyer pay. Everyone thinks they're going to get one of the jobs in the upper peak, but most get a job in the lower peak.

(This probably applies to the academic job market as well, but I'm not going to think about that.)
posted by madcaptenor at 9:09 PM on March 20, 2012 [3 favorites]


Having been through it, at very top tier law school, it's a crock....no reason it has to be 3-yrs, and well, it's well known that it's a killing for a law school to throw on that 283rd graduate for $40,000 and keep their butt in a lecture hall -- unlike medical school where you need cadavers, rotations, etc. to manage that new student.

The law you actually do and the law that you're exposed to as a law student is almost always very disparate...if you go the corporate route, you end up specializing in the type of law your firm's big clients bring business too...If you go public service routes, that's another specialty.

My hometown is utterly depressing in this regard too...it has a lowly ranked private law school (an educational institution that exists only as a law school) that churns out grads (despite two well regarded state universities with law schools) and driving up the main thoroughfares billboards are just trial lawyers advertizing their services. I looked up where such grads went to law school, and well, it's where I thought.

It's a real shame because plenty of middle class and working class families view having a lawyer in the next generation as a real step up. Given the $150,000 loans such kids take for work that might not be there, it's not and I can't help but think such kids would be making so much more money and have more security going into IT, Computer Science, or the like -- fields where we still immigrate in the talent.

But, I guess the latter has no show aggrandizing its career so much.
posted by skepticallypleased at 9:10 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


(This probably applies to the academic job market as well, but I'm not going to think about that.)

Well, in the academic job market, it really goes more like "Everyone thinks they're going to get one of the jobs."
posted by kenko at 9:12 PM on March 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


Careful, kenko, you're gonna make me cry.

Otherwise- yeah, plenty of people outside of the law world have the "I don't like my job" problem- and not all of that is because they don't like the underlying subject.

(I do actually like my job, but the market is ... less than pleasant.)

I am curious, though-- I know several folk who went to various well-ranked law schools, and they universally say 3 years is unnecessary for their current career, be they real estate or biglaw or public defender or nonprofit or-- well, anything. Is there any way to change the amount of time required? Could states require only 2 years of study before taking the bar (for states not CA)?
posted by nat at 9:21 PM on March 20, 2012


So, now that there are twice as many lawyers as law jobs, the cost of legal representation should be plummeting, right? Because people will start out on their own and undercut the big guys. Right?
posted by jet_manifesto at 9:33 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


Otherwise- yeah, plenty of people outside of the law world have the "I don't like my job" problem- and not all of that is because they don't like the underlying subject.

That's very true. I think about this sort of thing whenever I hear people gloating that "people with lots of money aren't happy." And I always think, "well, middle class and poor people aren't very happy either."

Is there any way to change the amount of time required?

But the length of law school might be a filtering device in itself. No matter how irrelevant the studies, three years might be beneficial in making sure there is a basic level of dedication and discipline in prospective lawyers. Make sense? If you think current law school grads suck, they may be much worse if the requirements are loosened, such as cutting law school to two years.
posted by jayder at 9:39 PM on March 20, 2012 [1 favorite]


That's a great article, Madcaptenor. I'll be forwarding it to several friends considering grad school as yet further evidence why they shouldn't.
posted by KGMoney at 9:42 PM on March 20, 2012


Well, in the academic job market, it really goes more like "Everyone thinks they're going to get one of the jobs."

The distribution is still bimodal, with zero as one of the modes.
posted by madcaptenor at 9:54 PM on March 20, 2012 [4 favorites]


As a young Canadian lawyer, it is always with a mix of fear and relief that I read these discussions. Like a lot of people, I went into this line of work without a great idea of what it would be like. I thought I could fix some problems- enviromental issues being at the top of my list. I figured it would be more interesting than contintuing to wait tables. It is. I have debt, but I am paid well. My job is not secure, but I know there are others out there. I am doing what I went to law school to do.

I am fortunate. I am able to (and do) forfeit tens of thousands a year in salary in order to do work that I believe to be good. I am able to do so because of a few differences in the Canadian and U.S. legal job markets/education systems. With U.S. debt levels, I would be forced into doing work that I hate. With more debt or a weaker job market, I would work for the highest bidder.

I list the differences here as a warning to Canada and a suggestion to the U.S:

- Tuition is too damn high in the U.S. When you graduate with $150,000+ debt, you take the job that pays. Doing good work has nothing to do with it. Some Canadians schools, led by University of Toronto, are pushing $25,000, having had huge increases in recent years. Many schools, (Victoria, McGill*, Manitoba) are still under $10,000. You simply have more options graduating from one of the latter schools.

- The U.S. graduates too many lawyers. You don't need 45,000 a year. I think Canada is closer to 3,000. With about 1/10 of the population, that's about 50% more in the U.S. per capita. Canada hadn't opened a new law school in about 30 years until last year.

- In Canada, the bottle-neck is more about getting into school. The schools tend to be competitive and well-respected.Prices are lower. Once you are in, you are liklely to get- but are by means guaranteed- a related job. In the U.S., the bottle-neck is after graduation. After the costs have been sunk. People get desperate.


The biggest tragedy is not the thousands of poor law students who were misled, although some of their stories are truly tragic. As someone who is faced with the decision of paying his debt quicky and doing work he believes in, I am convinced that the great tragedy is the thousands more bright young minds who work for the highest bidder doing work that they hate and know is evil because they have hundreds of thousands of dollars of non-dischargeable students loans and ten people waiting to take their place.

There is a value in having lawyers who can take the important cases. But they don't pay. We need security to take them on for little or no money. There is no money in environmental protection, and a lot in exploiting it. When the system is one in which all but the very luckiest are forced into such debt that they have to sell themselves to the highest bidder, we have stacked the deck against ourselves.


*<$4,000 at McGill if you are a Quebec resident.
posted by the thing about it at 11:11 PM on March 20, 2012 [11 favorites]


I didn't go to a top-25 school. I went to a top-100 school, for what that's worth. Aside from the whole problem of law schools being total cash cows for their mother institutions (and there thus being no connection between tuitions and the actual cost of running a law school), law schools are stuck on the US News ratings treadmill. A school ranked 120 must hire faculty from the same tiny handful of law schools as every other law school in the country. That means, effectively, that there is precious little savings possible unless you're willing to destroy your ranking by hiring faculty who are willing to work for wages more appropriate to the quality of the institution. Good luck with that, when every single school is fighting tooth-and-nail to climb the rankings.
posted by 1adam12 at 12:12 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


All of this makes me feel pity for lawyers, something I never thought I would do.
posted by twoleftfeet at 12:45 AM on March 21, 2012


I don't think "hell, I'll just go to law school" will ever disappear as the de facto choice for someone who did reasonably well at a reasonably highly ranked four-year college but doesn't know what to do next. Demographically if you accomplish this you're not going to have to walk up and down the business district with a tin cup and a sandwich board that says "Will offer legal advice for food." You've probably got some outs through your family or people you met in college who managed to get a business of their own off the ground.

I guess I'm just trying to say that the "what the hell law school" dude or dudette is already kind of a clear-cut demographic (generally upper-middle to upper class, probably white) and you'll either a) find a crappy law job that's still miles ahead of the local salt mine / Starbucks / call center work or b) have the connections to laterally move into another field, eventually. Chances are you aren't a terrible writer after three years of writing papers.

I know the situation is much worse than the swinging 90's, but let's not get too carried away with our pity party. And I certainly do hope this situation changes the institutional clusterfuck / feeding trough that is academic law.
posted by bardic at 2:16 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


What happened between 1998 and 2010 that made so many people thing that East Podunk Law School was a ticket to success?

This is what happened.

In 1991, about 22% of law graduates got a job that paid $30k upon graduation. The median was $40k, and no one was making more than $90k.

In 1996, things had shifted a little to the lucrative side, but only a little, as the median was still the same. The big spike is now around $32k, but it's only about 18% of grads, while a few more people are making in the $75-85k range. One suspects inflation had as much to do with this as anything.

In 2000, things have changed significantly. The big spike is at $35k, but it's down to 15%, and there's this massive 14% spike at $120k, with almost nothing in between.

By 2007, things have gone completely off the rails. The median is how $65k, but the mean is $85k, while fully 40% of grads make less than $55k. The single largest spike on the graph is at $160k at 17%, but over 20% of grads make between $45-50k.

Basically, biglaw went all in on the bubble and the market for legal education was distorted as a result. Law school tuition went up about 400% in that period, across the board, but there were never enough jobs paying enough money to support that kind of debt load. Even at the peak of the boom, unless you went to a T-25 school, your odds of getting one of those brass ring jobs was never more than about 25%, significantly less if you weren't first in your class. Your odds of getting a judicial clerkship were even worse.

Also: previously.
posted by valkyryn at 5:04 AM on March 21, 2012 [12 favorites]


Lots of politicians started out as lawyers.

So, there's that.
posted by krinklyfig at 5:19 AM on March 21, 2012


Now if we could only convince our best and brightest to NOT major in "Finance"...........
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 5:36 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I think people did go a little nuts -- not unlike the housing bubble.

My contemporaries and I were evaluating law school between 1992 and 1995 (graduating, if we attended, between 1996 and 1999). Even then, it was obvious that there were exactly two moves that had good odds if one had to pay for one's self: one of the top 14 schools, and highly-rated (if non-T14) public schools if one qualified for in-state resident tuition and there was a robust job market there (UT Austin for Texas, University of Washington for Seattle, etc.) I knew many people who declined to go to law school when they couldn't make either leg of that work and didn't want to roll the dice.

Since then, it's gotten objectively worse, not better, to role the dice. The tuition increases at private schools have completely outpaced higher BIGLAW salaries (with flat to down BIGLAW odds), and the in-state tuition advantage for public schools has essentially disappeared (UCLA tuition was $4,500 a year in-state IIRC for someone who enrolled in the fall of 1994 -- it's $45,000 a year now (!). I simply can't believe that anyone takes on $200k in debt to go anywhere outside the T14 ... and I believe that very few people would do so if the Federal government wasn't paying most of the freight in the first instance.
posted by MattD at 5:51 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


There is a lot wrong with legal education. There is a lot wrong with the legal profession. There is a great injustice in the lack of legal services for lower income and poor people. But I cannot tell you how much I hate the response of "just start your own practice" to the issue of unemployment among law grads.

No, people who go to law school and can't find jobs cannot just "start their own firms and undercut the big guys" for lots of reasons. Lots of good reasons, actually. Costs, for instance: malpractice insurance, Lexis/Westlaw contracts (you don't need much legal research once you've been practicing for ten years, but you can't draft the most simple motion without it the first few years--more on this later), filing fees for cases, copying/courier/service fees associated with filing a case. Hey, you owe $100k in law school loans and you want more debt to open an office? Sure, no problem.

Second, you don't know how to do the first thing in a case when you graduate from law school: which is decide whether or not to take the case. Unless they have had an excellent legal aid clinic experience or an unusual summer experience, law students don't learn anything about client intake. They don't know how to talk to a person with a grievance and determine whether it's possible they have a viable claim. They don't know how to get information from that client sufficient to draft a complaint that will survive the first motion to dismiss. And more practically, they don't know where to go in the courthouse to file it or how to get it properly served.

Third, all that stuff about not knowing the mechanics of practicing law in your jurisdiction is just part of what you don't know about effectively assisting your clients.

Fourth, most law graduates are no more prepared to start and run a business than any other person who is out of work right now. Representing clients in lawsuits; drafting wills for real people, handling real estate closings, even drafting and reviewing simple sales contracts are things you should not be learning without the constant assistance of a skilled attorney. And these are things you have not learned in law school.

To repeat myself: Unless they have had an excellent legal aid clinic experience or an unusual summer experience, law students don't learn sufficient practical skills in being a lawyer--It is irresponsible for most recent grads to start their own offices. Personally, I think law school needs to be the first two academic years and then one year doing substantive work at a teaching law firm. But such a thing does not exist.
posted by crush-onastick at 6:23 AM on March 21, 2012 [8 favorites]


Tons of lawyers end up being a being glorified paralegals, but predictive coding and advances in electronic discovery are going to make lots of the lower tier legal work less valuable and necessary. Law is very winner take all already and it's just going to get worse. There's going to be a place for small lawyers to handle local mediations etc, but being a well paid cog in a money machine version of law is eroding as more and more work gets delegated to computers. The supply side problem is going to get compounded by the demand side problem to come.
posted by I Foody at 6:26 AM on March 21, 2012


What happened between 1998 and 2010 that made so many people thing that East Podunk Law School was a ticket to success?

You used to be able to go to a lower-ranked school and find work in the local legal market and do okay.
posted by spaltavian at 6:36 AM on March 21, 2012


She's going to either Stanford or Harvard, so she'll probably land on her feet.

She'll be just fine.
posted by dixiecupdrinking at 6:45 AM on March 21, 2012


The other thing that has happened, during the same time that law schools have been booming, is that the biglaw model has been slowly caving in on itself.

Biglaw firms started moving away from the "we are a profession; we love the law" talk and started focusing aggressively on revenue growth and increasing profits per partner. A reputation among the elite firms was considered to be a prerequisite for success. This started a whole circular chain reaction of the top firms raising the ceiling, and the second tier following suit for fear of being seen as inferior. Then the top firms raising it again, and the lower firms joining again. Even when I was a young lawyer, it seemed pretty obvious to a lot of my peers that it couldn't work over the long term. But we were benefiting through increased paychecks so we didn't complain. (In fact, at a lot of firms the young lawyers complained when their firms didn't join the madness fast enough, feeling like they were getting unfairly compensated for making "only" $130,000.)

When I started practice in 2002, biglaw salaries in Chicago were 125,000 to start, up from 100,000 just a couple of years before. Within my first 4 years of practice, they went up to 135, then 140, 145, 150, and 160. So kids who were 25 years old were making $160,000 their first day on the job, before they'd even written a research memo. And at the time, it was seen as bad form to lose headcount, so even the worst of those kids got brought along for a few years at least.

To justify paying a kid $160K, the firms had to raise everyone else's salary too. And to justify paying a lot more in salaries, the firms had to increase everyone's rates. So a first year who used to bill out at $120 suddenly billed out at $150, and their rate just went up and up and up. I remember a moment of panic that I had when my rate hit $360 in my 4th year, thinking "there's no way in hell that I am worth $6 per minute." And I wasn't. But to pay me my salary they had to charge that much and hope like hell big companies would choose business as usual and still hire us.

That trend has continued (in fact, I talked to a friend my age recently and learned that his rate is now in the $700/hr range), and as rates have gone up buyers have gone down. The recession caused responsible companies to more carefully strive to control costs, and giant outside legal bills were an obvious focus. With so many other legal choices, companies either expanded their in-house practice (that's where I am now) or they moved down a tier to cheaper firms and discovered that the difference between a $700/hr lawyer and a $300/hr lawyer isn't all that much. And when that happened, a bunch of firms imploded and a bunch more had to go on a downsizing binge. So now the market has job-seekers and shingle-hangers at all levels and it's that much more competitive.

Even in the best of times, it wasn't a rosy picture for law graduates who came out from a lower tier school (or even at the bottom of their class at a decent school). But now, it's just brutal. And that's an effect of not just law school admissions foolishness but also a greedy, myopic law firm business strategy.
posted by AgentRocket at 6:53 AM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


the difference between a $700/hr lawyer and a $300/hr lawyer isn't all that much.

Yes and no. In terms of quality of legal work, probably not. But in terms of quantity legal work? Quite possibly. There's a reason my firm doesn't handle class actions or toxic tort suits. We simply don't have the manpower in terms of either lawyers or support staff to handle cases that big. Same goes for most claims north of about $10 million. Any claim that big is going to involve so many documents and depositions that we simply can't make it work a lot of the time.

But support staff don't generally get to bill. Paralegals might, but legal assistants don't. Those salaries have to be paid. Heck, my firm could probably stand to hire two full-time assistants just to do document management. But we don't, because we can't afford it.* We've got about two lawyers for every non-lawyer. The big firms may actually have more support staff than lawyers.

So when a business really needs a lot of legal work done, they're going to go to one of the big firms. True, they're paying several times what they'd pay my firm to do it, but the big firm is going to be able to get it done in a timely manner. They're also going to have access to their attorneys 24/7. Even the partners at my firm aren't that responsive to client needs. Sure, they'll work as late as needed, but you call them after hours or on the weekend or while they're on vacation? Unless it's an honest-to-goodness emergency--which very rarely happens in my line of work--and you can wait until Monday.

*Or because the partnership has chosen not to afford it. They'd all have to take a pay cut, and the decision seems to be that they'd rather not, even if it made their lives easier. It'd be a huge improvement logistically, but wouldn't probably make anyone more money.
posted by valkyryn at 7:16 AM on March 21, 2012


She's going to either Stanford or Harvard, so she'll probably land on her feet.

She'll be just fine.


I wouldn't be entirely sure. As I noted in an old thread, we've had disgruntled HLS grads pass through our offices doing hourly doc review grunt work. It's not a great gig, and hard to get a "real" law job after languishing doing doc review for a while. Certainly it's not the kind of thing that would develop your career enough to start a practice (and I fully agree with the posters above who note that saying that law grads should "start a practice" is like telling an out of work biochemist to "start a lab").

you'll either a) find a crappy law job that's still miles ahead of the local salt mine / Starbucks / call center work or b) have the connections to laterally move into another field, eventually. Chances are you aren't a terrible writer after three years of writing papers. ... I know the situation is much worse than the swinging 90's, but let's not get too carried away with our pity party.

I don't think anyone is throwing a pity party for the people with actual jobs. I know a guy who went to one of the lesser local law schools and has a job reviewing contracts for a tech company. It is not something one really needs a JD for (but one was required). He probably makes $50K or so. He doesn't like it, but so what? He pays his bills and has a roommate or two.

The pity party is for the kids who don't get ANY job, or get an hourly contract review job with no benefits and no steady flow of work. And because they paid the same $150,000 for law school as everyone else, they have to come up with $1500 or whatever a month in non-dischargeable loan payments. That's more than rent and groceries combined; surely their single largest expense.

And, as everyone always says, law school is not training for anything. The fact that you mention "three years of writing papers" suggests you don't really know what law school is about. I wrote two papers over the course of three years, for a total of 35-40 pages (I think one was 15, the other 25). You don't leave law school 1) a good writer; 2) a good lawyer; 3) a good business person. It's a joke.

Within my first 4 years of practice, they went up to 135, then 140, 145, 150, and 160.


I think I got two raises in my first year, one of which came before I even started work, the other of which was retroactive. The big firm model is totally wack.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 7:27 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


So when a business really needs a lot of legal work done, they're going to go to one of the big firms.

That's fair but the extra $400/hr billed by senior associates or partners at big firms doesn't pay for the army of $10-20/hr doc reviewers, technical experts, and consultants. That's all usually billed separately. What it does pay for is a plush downtown office and multi-million dollar profits per partner.
posted by jedicus at 7:28 AM on March 21, 2012


Why do that instead of a much more broadly useful MBA?

because satan can only buy so many souls at once obvsly. the economic downturn is affecting everyone.
posted by elizardbits at 7:30 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


What it does pay for is a plush downtown office and multi-million dollar profits per partner.

Also true. But there is, in fact, a certain, finite amount of legal work to be done for which cost is no object and which requires an incredible number of man-hours in a very short amount of time. The very big firms exist to do this sort of thing, and it's an essential service to the corporations that are big enough to need it.

But as a business model, it doesn't work unless you're getting that kind of legal work. Legal work for which $25 million in controversy is what you need to even get in the door and $100 million is really where it starts to get going. I think what we're finding now is that 1) there were a lot of businesses which thought they needed and could afford this kind of legal work but actually don't and can't, and 2) there were more firms that set themselves up to do this kind of legal work than there is actual work to be done.

The really, really big firms? DLA Piper? Kirkland and Ellis? Jones Day? Sullivan and Cromwell? They took a hit, but they're basically okay and aren't likely to change their business models all that much. The work they do still needs to be done. But the smaller end of biglaw? Those firms with a few hundred rather than several thousand lawyers? They took an absolute pounding, and some of them are still dealing with that. We're still seeing mergers, and hiring is pretty slow.
posted by valkyryn at 7:41 AM on March 21, 2012


Isn't this just the business cycle? With the exception of e-discovery, offshoring document review et al. Isn't this just a repeat of what we saw during the early 90's - although much deeper and tougher because the trough is much greater? It doesn't mean it isn't ugly, and there aren't too many marginal law firms and stuff like that, but what has fundamentally changed? Once cost cutting doesn't become a priority at clients why won't rates/billable hours creep back up again?

(this isn't say tho that the crazy inflation in law school tuition hasn't permanently impaired the economics of a JD - just that the industry itself isn't really as screwed as people here seem to claim)
posted by JPD at 7:45 AM on March 21, 2012


Once cost cutting doesn't become a priority at clients why won't rates/billable hours creep back up again?

The bubble in the early 1990's wasn't as steep as the bubble in the 2000's.

I'm not saying that the industry is screwed. I think we're returning to what is actually a sane way to run the practice of law. What happened in the 2000's should never have happened.

But like much of the rest of the economy, the bubble of the 2000's masked a fundamental change that has been going on for quite some time. Law is entirely dependent upon other industries for its revenue. It's a business service, not a product in and of itself. Even lower-end stuff like family law and trusts and estates is dependent on people having money to spend. So as manufacturing goes overseas and people lose their jobs, some seemingly permanently, the salad days of 2007 are probably never going to come back.

Again, that's probably okay. Until the 1970s, no one really got rich as a professional, even doctors. But then they did, and now there's that expectation. It was never a realistic expectation, but it's an expectation, and lots of people are getting disabused of it at the same time. Which is painful.
posted by valkyryn at 8:04 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


but what has fundamentally changed?

In my neck of the woods something else that is changing is large companies (companies that you've heard of, believe me) offshoring patent work. Most are being pretty conservative about it by only offshoring prior art searches, but some are also offshoring preparation and drafting. The companies I've heard talk about it have had good success, so long as they carefully manage it, and it saves them a lot of money. I think more and more transactional and litigation-support work is going to be offshored.
posted by jedicus at 8:09 AM on March 21, 2012


It was never a realistic expectation, but it's an expectation, and lots of people are getting disabused of it at the same time.

... and tuition / student loans have been priced under that expectation, and are, for those currently being disabused, locked in.

Not disagreeing with you, I just think it's important to include the painfully real economic consequences, because there seem to be a lot of people who think this is all just a matter of humanities grads learning they're not going to strike it rich with a J.D. and having a big sad about it.

I think more and more transactional and litigation-support work is going to be offshored.

And given to machines. I'd guess that in 15 years on the outside, 80% of document review will be handled by (let's call it) bayes.google.com.
posted by gauche at 8:14 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Serious question - if there are all these lawyers looking for work, why aren't more of them applying to be public defenders? I constantly hear how swamped public defenders are, so surely there must be room for more of them? It's a win-win; jobs for students, better representation for the accused.
posted by desjardins at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2012


I think more and more transactional and litigation-support work is going to be offshored.

Again, I think this is particularly true of the sort of work that biglaw does. My firm does civil litigation defense, but it's much, much smaller scale. Taking work away from biglaw and offshoring it would probably save these companies more than my firm charges. But we 1) work cheap, and 2) deal with lots of small, local files rather than large, national ones. So the economies of scale work in our favor here.

So your multinational contract disputes? Your mass torts? Yeah, some of those will probably be increasingly offshored. But there is a certain minimum level of legal work that needs to be done on any given file, and the files my firm gets tend to be right around there. So yes, we'll do discovery and review documents, but anything more than a few hundred pages is generally considered a lot. It's cheaper to just let us do that rather than trying to offshore it.
posted by valkyryn at 8:15 AM on March 21, 2012


why aren't more of them applying to be public defenders?

The reason PD offices are swamped is because municipalities won't pay to hire more lawyers. It isn't that no one's applying, it's that no one's hiring.
posted by valkyryn at 8:16 AM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Isn't this just the business cycle?

Yes, probably. There have been good times to be a lawyer and bad times to be a lawyer. Often different lawyers have different cycles. At the start of the trough here, the restructuring / BK practice was going gangbusters. The past six months--at least at my big firm--there is no BK work whatsoever.

But what seems different to me is that the economics are just so, so different. You point to the crazy inflation in law school tuition, but that's just a symptom, not a cause, of what's wrong. It really is a bubble all 'round.

Lawyering used to be a respectable middle-class profession. Now, at least on my end of the scale, it's a somewhat unsavory upper-class profession. I've mentioned on the site recently that I'm reading a great social history of three families in Boston in the years following the assassination of Dr. King. The husband in one of the families is a recent HLS grad, and he's weighing whether to take a job in Washington at a fancy white-shoe firm, at an astronomical salary of $10,000 or so (I didn't bring the book today, so I can't double check). Using one online calculator, that translated into about $74K.

That's a great salary for anyone, and, I think is about the value of someone just coming out of (arguably) our nation's most prestigious law school.

The entire law firm economy needs to be razed; law school must cost what it's worth (not much) and associates need to be paid what they're worth (not much), and the endless legal grind needs to come to a halt (no more Saturday night conference calls!)

Associates should unionize and demand less money and more free time.

When I started at a big firm, my salary was just shy of $200K, when you factor in the bonus.

That's wack, as I said above.

I have friends in foreign legal markets who have been practicing several years at leading firms and still make less than I did on day one. Most even make less than I did as a 2L summer associate.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:16 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


I constantly hear how swamped public defenders are, so surely there must be room for more of them?

Money. I don't mean they won't make six figures. I mean that there's not enough money to pay them low low fives. It's surprisingly competitive to get those positions.
posted by gauche at 8:18 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Serious question - if there are all these lawyers looking for work, why aren't more of them applying to be public defenders?

Two reasons:

1) there is no money to pay them; and

2) there is no time to train them.

Obviously, being a public defender is SRS BSNS. Already overworked defenders don't have time to train the no-nothings (as all recent grads are) to do that work.

Justice is accepting applications for people to work as prosecutors for free. But if you owe $1500 a month for student loans, working for free is a tough sell (but could be worth the investment, of course). There are alternative loan payment programs for those in public service, but you'd still be eating beans out of a can for 15 years...
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:20 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


As mentioned above, Public Defender offices don't have funds to hire more attorneys. Also, some states don't actually have Public Defender agencies that hire people--they have a pool of money to pay private attorneys who have agreed to accept appointments as attorneys for the indigent. They're not going to accept a new graduate into that pool, not if they want to avoid Ineffective Assistance of Counsel claims down the road.

Private legal aid is in similarly dire straits. Last fall, Congress slashed the Legal Services Corporation budget by nearly 14%, seriously affecting LSC’s ability to fund local legal services. LSC is the largest funding source for civil legal-aid for low-income Americans.. In Illinois, LSC supports our three largest low income legal service institutions: Legal Assistance Foundation of Metropolitan Chicago, Land of Lincoln Legal Assistance Foundation, Inc., and Prairie State Legal Services, Inc. The effect on legal aid and public interest law institutions across the US is going to be devastating.

So, being willing to work for almost nothing in order to work as a public interest attorney won't save you in a good legal market (it is an incredibly competitive field, even in good times), and it won't even give you more options in a bad legal market.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:48 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


Isn't this just the business cycle? With the exception of e-discovery, offshoring document review et al. Isn't this just a repeat of what we saw during the early 90's - although much deeper and tougher because the trough is much greater? It doesn't mean it isn't ugly, and there aren't too many marginal law firms and stuff like that, but what has fundamentally changed? Once cost cutting doesn't become a priority at clients why won't rates/billable hours creep back up again?

Big clients will probably happily pay out the nose for top-shelf legal representation. However, my experiences over the past few years have suggested that some decent-size companies have wised up and structured their workforce to keep legal costs down in the long term.

At one company I worked for, they made a point of absorbing Big Law refugees and creating their own substantially embiggened legal and compliance units, complete with their own fleet of interns for gruntwork. There was no expectation that they would eliminate their need to work with law firms, but there was the expectation that they would handle more and more of their day-to-day stuff in-house. It was actually sort of cool to see it unfold and actually work.

There's no point in paying Big Law prices for work that you can do yourself, for quicker and cheaper, as long as you start with a sufficient floor of knowledge and labor capital. As for attorneys seeking in-house work, it pays less than Big Law, but the hours and work culture are typically more sane.

I don't know if the trend for hiring more in-house counsel will continue, but I hope it does. It's not a big enough shift to alter Big Law forever, but it will affect these firms' bottom lines. Also, a rise in in-house counsel doesn't directly help baby attorneys, either, as companies are mostly uninterested in hiring newly minted attorneys for their in-house work. However, there will be more of a career track for baby attorneys, if they know that grinding away in a medium-size firm can pay off in ways other than maybe possibly perhaps making partner at a medium-size firm.

Serious question - if there are all these lawyers looking for work, why aren't more of them applying to be public defenders? I constantly hear how swamped public defenders are, so surely there must be room for more of them? It's a win-win; jobs for students, better representation for the accused.

In addition to the answer expressed a few times above - there isn't enough government money to hire or train more public defenders - it's also worth pointing out that funding has generally plummeted for nonprofit legal services. Many grads would love to work at Legal Aid or the equivalent, but the funding isn't there.

On the other hand, more law schools have been opening up defense clinics, and even more schools should. Properly supervised law students can be surprisingly effective, especially since their workload as caseload is minimal compared to that of a working attorney.

It's a shame that rankings and other stupid things indirectly force schools to limit their emphasis on clinical programs and the like. Money gets wasted on post-graduation fellowships which exist only to increase employment numbers, when that money should really be spent on giving students actual training for when they're actually in school.

As far as lasting actual educational worth goes, a practical-minded law school with extensive clinical, externship, and cooperative opportunities, followed by a rigorous bar prep course, would easily outperform a more traditional law school. I'm not talking about mail-order law schools of the sort which spit out Orly Taitz. I'm talking about something professionally-run and ambitious.

However, there is little incentive to create such institutions. The finances don't work out, and as far as reputation goes amongst law schools, they'd be in the toilet.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:49 AM on March 21, 2012


At one company I worked for, they made a point of absorbing Big Law refugees and creating their own substantially embiggened legal and compliance units, complete with their own fleet of interns for gruntwork. There was no expectation that they would eliminate their need to work with law firms, but there was the expectation that they would handle more and more of their day-to-day stuff in-house. It was actually sort of cool to see it unfold and actually work.

My impression is that this is also what happened during the 90-91 downturn. And then as soon as the up cycle came they realized they didn't want to have such large in-house staffs.
posted by JPD at 8:52 AM on March 21, 2012


why aren't more of them applying to be public defenders?

More broadly speaking, the question might be asked why more new graduates aren't doing something to fill the huge need for legal services in most communities. The answer is that if those people had money for legal services, there wouldn't be a huge need, because there are lawyers already working who would be glad to take their business, and probably enough of them to do so without skipping a beat.
posted by valkyryn at 8:53 AM on March 21, 2012


So, being willing to work for almost nothing in order to work as a public interest attorney won't save you in a good legal market (it is an incredibly competitive field, even in good times), and it won't even give you more options in a bad legal market.

Yep, I work at a non-LSC provider of free legal services, and there are no jobs. LSNYC (NYC's LSC provider) has been laying people off (due largely to mismanagement, but still, they're sure not hiring). My employer has been doing relatively well on fund-raising, but a lot the new money goes to fill gaps that have opened up due to cuts elsewhere.

We sure are seeing a lot people willing to work for free, which is sad.
posted by Mavri at 8:55 AM on March 21, 2012


My impression is that this is also what happened during the 90-91 downturn. And then as soon as the up cycle came they realized they didn't want to have such large in-house staffs.

You're probably right. I like to imagine that well-coiffed, well-oiled, and ceaselessly condescending efficiency experts made a well-argued case for these departments' removal, unaware of the later gargantuan waste of money and other resources.

Similarly well-coiffed, well-oiled, etc. experts will no doubt appear again after this downturn and make similarly well-argued cases, much to everyone's detriment.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:56 AM on March 21, 2012


The answer is that if those people had money for legal services, there wouldn't be a huge need, because there are lawyers already working who would be glad to take their business, and probably enough of them to do so without skipping a beat.

This is exactly right. Need without ability and willingness to pay is not demand. Markets do not respond to need: they respond to demand.
posted by gauche at 9:04 AM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


Markets do not respond to need: they respond to demand.

Also, it's not like new graduates can compete on supply. As discussed above, it costs money to run a law practice, and the lawyers who make a living doing the kind of work that a new graduate might plausibly be able to do without getting themselves in too much trouble are already charging about as little as it's possible to charge. Indeed, they're frequently charging significantly less than a new graduate might be able to afford, simply because an established attorney won't have a $1,000/month loan payment to make.
posted by valkyryn at 9:24 AM on March 21, 2012


To repeat myself: Unless they have had an excellent legal aid clinic experience or an unusual summer experience, law students don't learn sufficient practical skills in being a lawyer--It is irresponsible for most recent grads to start their own offices. Personally, I think law school needs to be the first two academic years and then one year doing substantive work at a teaching law firm. But such a thing does not exist.

Along those lines -- What They Don't Teach Law Students: Lawyering.
posted by blucevalo at 10:12 AM on March 21, 2012


Personally, I think law school needs to be the first two academic years and then one year doing substantive work at a teaching law firm. But such a thing does not exist.

A school in Fort Wayne is planning to open a law school in the fall of 2013. They're planning to do almost precisely this. Graduates will spend several hundred hours working for a firm as part of their third year.

Of course, whether the Fort Wayne legal community, which consists of some 450 attorneys, actually has the capacity to make use of a hundred-odd law students annually is another question. So is whether opening a new law school, innovative or no, in the teeth of a recession and just after LSAT numbers have dropped by 25% is the best idea in the world.

But hey.
posted by valkyryn at 10:25 AM on March 21, 2012


I like to imagine that well-coiffed, well-oiled, and ceaselessly condescending efficiency experts made a well-argued case for these departments' removal

And to bring it full circle, here is what your MBAs do to justify their salaries. In 10 to 15 years another new MBA will justify switching it back.
posted by readery at 10:27 AM on March 21, 2012


Northeastern Law also has a much more significant externship program that what I had. I think they're on a quarter system, with several full quarters of full-time externships. One friend of mine is in the MA prosecutor's office. Sounds like a great gig.

What I think the legal profession really needs is a zombie apocalypse (preferably caused by the Umbrella Corporation or something, and not just natural). It would thin the ranks and generate compelling work for the limited number of survivors.

This is also my solution for the tight Boston residential rental market.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 10:32 AM on March 21, 2012 [1 favorite]


I kind of have a theory that the popularity of zombie apocalypses in popular culture is wish-fulfillment for our anxiety around overcrowding, overpopulation, and economic decline.
posted by gauche at 10:44 AM on March 21, 2012 [5 favorites]


Yes, that seems generally consistent with the excellent essay (linked on the Blue some time ago) regarding the transition from slow to fast zombies.

But I also think (veering slightly back on topic), that the trope of the zombie apocalypse also ties with the zeitgeist of the un- and under-employment in the nation (and around the world, for that matter). There is a generation of young adults that thinks (rightly, in most cases), that they have something to offer beyond what the current world demands. It's inverting the notions of prelapsarian and postlapsarian society; after the fall, it's a return to innocence and self sufficiency.

Though I'd still love to live in a cool loft in the South End with a roofdeck, and for that, I need my zombie friends to eat the current residents.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:38 PM on March 21, 2012 [3 favorites]


Funny thing about the schools with massively extensive externship/clinic/co-op programs: I remember a T100 law school dean once being asked if that was a good direction for school to go, and he said that those programs were only really for schools in dumpy markets, like Dayton.

I didn't feel so contrary as to bring up Chapman, Drexel, Northeastern, etc. as places in major metropolitan areas with such programs. I probably should have said something, but it wouldn't have mattered.
posted by Sticherbeast at 12:44 PM on March 21, 2012


In related news, a trial court in New York, has thrown out a class action against New York Law School for allegedly misrepresenting their graduate employment statistics.

Sucks for the plaintiffs, but I think it's the right result, particularly as a good chunk of them actually do have legal jobs, just not the jobs they wanted. The court's observation that the damages sought are entirely speculative is well put.
posted by valkyryn at 1:20 PM on March 21, 2012


Yeah, I don't see any of those cases going anywhere, barring Villanova-esque escapades.
posted by Sticherbeast at 1:21 PM on March 21, 2012


I can expand a little on Northeastern's program. It's a regular 1L year, and then four quarters of classes alternating with four quarters of full-time internship. It amounts to about twice as much on-the-job experience as a regular legal program -- four quarters instead of two summers. This also means the classes are crammed into less time, which I think turns out to be a good thing -- I felt like I was working hard the whole time, and didn't get the sense of "why am I still here?" that I've heard from some folks at other schools.
posted by jhc at 1:38 PM on March 21, 2012 [2 favorites]


It sounds like a great program. I still know nothing about the law, but I can push papers around pretty good.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 1:58 PM on March 21, 2012


Do trusts. All my idiot tax clients think they need a trust for some stupid reason. There, problem solved.
posted by mrhappy at 11:02 PM on March 21, 2012


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