It’s grim reading. The observations are raw, bitter, and filled with despair. It is easier to avert our eyes and carry on with our pursuits. But please, take a few moments and force yourself to look at Third Tier Reality, Esq. Never, Exposing the Law School Scam, Jobless Juris Doctor, Temporary Attorney: The Sweatshop Edition, and linked sites. Read the posts and the comments. These sites are proliferating, with thousands of hits.
Look past the occasional vulgarity and disgusting pictures. Don’t dismiss the posters as whiners. To a person they accept responsibility for their poor decisions. But they make a strong case that something is deeply wrong with law schools.
Their complaint is that non-elite law schools are selling a fraudulent bill of goods. Law schools advertise deceptively high rates of employment and misleading income figures. Many graduates can’t get jobs. Many graduates end up as temp attorneys working for $15 to $20 dollars an hour on two week gigs, with no benefits. The luckier graduates land jobs in government or small firms for maybe $45,000, with limited prospects for improvement. A handful of lottery winners score big firm jobs.
And for the opportunity to enter a saturated legal market with long odds against them, the tens of thousands newly minted lawyers who graduate each year from non-elite schools will have paid around $150,000 in tuition and living expenses, and given up three years of income. Many leave law school with well over $100,000 in non-dischargeable debt, obligated to pay $1,000 a month for thirty years. ...
What can we do? As a start, we can provide prospective students with straightforward information about the employment numbers of recent graduates. It is open knowledge that many law schools present employment information in a misleading fashion, or don’t disclose it at all. This lack of candor on the part of law schools is itself a telling indication that there is something problematic about the product we are selling to prospective students.
More crucially, law schools must shrink the number of graduates, and must hold the line on tuition increases. (The fact that many students get scholarships is no answer because it simply means that some students, those paying full fare—often the students with the worst prospects—are subsidizing others.) This will be painful: smaller raises (perhaps even salary reductions), smaller administrations, smaller faculties, more teaching, less money for research, travel, and conferences.
None of this will come as news to regular readers of PB.com. For some time, I have been covering the transformation of the legal profession into a mature industry and the resulting overproduction of new lawyers.
The post-war expansion of the regulatory state, the opening of the courthouse doors to new claims during the warren Court era, and the litigation explosion provided an exogenous shock that caused demand for lawyers to rise rapidly. Following a fairly standard s-curve model, the demand for lawyers grew faster than the population and economic expansion would have predicted, driven by the aftermath of those shocks. Over the last couple of decades, however, the market for lawyers has adapted to those shocks. Because there have been no comparable major exogenous shocks affecting the demand for lawyers, the market has matured. We would therefore predict that growth in the demand for lawyers would slow until it reaches a level that can be sustained by population and economic growth.
Characteristics of a mature industry are commonly said to include:
- Consolidation among suppliers: Witness the mergers and growth of large law firms, squeexing out the middle market
- Buyers demand cost reductions and emphasis on service: We see this happening all the time as consumers of legal services, especially at the high end of the market, have become very sophisticated and demanding
- Stiffer competition
- Reduction in innovation: When was the last time there was real innovation in the way lawyers provide services?
Unfortunately, the growth in the number of law schools and size of entering classes at many law schools was premised on the assumption that the demand for lawyers would continue to rise at the high rate characteristic of the period, say, 1960-1990. Because that growth rate was artificially high due to the exogenous shocks of the preceding decades, the number of law schools and large law school class sizes no longer make sense. Indeed, if law schools continue to grow in number and size at their current rate, the gap between demand for new lawyers and the number of new lawyers will continue to rise every year.
Put another way, we have been growing the number of law schools as though the demand for lawyers would permanently continue to experience exponential growth, whereas in fact it follows the classic natural growth S-curve.
My suggestion? Assuming we aren't going to have real free markets for legal services, but will continue to have such barriers to entry as ABA law school accreditation, bar exams, and so on, which presumably would solve the problem, we need to constrict supply. Lop off the bottom third of law schools and see if that solves it.
Unfortunately, I have no idea who would lead this charge or how they would accomplish it. No individual school would be willing to fall on its sword for the good of the whole. Nor is there any collective law czar with the power or will to do anything. Certainly, the American Bar Association isn't going to help, as Dan Slater has observed:
The American Bar Association, which continues to approve law schools with impunity and with no end in sight, bears complicity in creating this mess. Yet a spokeswoman, citing antitrust concerns, says the A.B.A. takes no position on the optimal number of lawyers or law schools.
So I guess we'll have to trust the market. Once word filters out to pre-law students about the state of the job market, maybe they'll start looking elsewhere. If admission applicants drop enough, maybe some of the bottom tier of schools will have to close for lack of qualified applicants. (Or maybe they'll just admit unqualified applicants.)
Don't get me wrong. Society still needs lawyers and we still need law schools. We just don't need as many as the American legal academy now produces. Until the problem is fixed, students--especially at the bottom tier schools--are going to struggle to find jobs. Worse yet, as they look for work, we might see an uptick in frivolous litigation. As Ezra Klein observed:
If we're overproducing lawyers, though, there's going to be a pernicious Say's Law effect, wherein the oversupply of lawyers begins creating its own demand (of lawsuits).
So everybody has an interest in finding a solution.