by Savir Punia, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
The reports of Law School’s death are greatly exaggerated. At least I am hoping that is true. As a current law student I find myself frequenting blogs, websites and articles focused on the state of the law profession hoping I don’t become another “casualty” of law school. Since 2008, it has been a badly kept secret that the law profession is struggling and the internet is full of recent JD graduates sharing horror stories of their experiences in law school. Lucille A. Jewel‘s article, You’re Doing It Wrong: How the Anti-Law School Scam Blogging Movement Can Shape the Legal Profession, in Issue 12.1 of the Minnesota Journal of Law, Science & Technology, discusses just this, a community of malcontent JD graduates who have gathered together online to share personal stories and discourage others from going to law school.
While the argument of whether law school still remains a good investment is still debated, there is one result that has occurred due to the “Law School Scam Blogging” movement, applications are drastically down. According to the Law School Admission Council (LSAC), law school applications are headed for a 30-year low. LSAC expects there to be only 54,000 applications for the current enrollment cycle, which is down 20 percent from last year and a whopping 28 percent from 2010. Furthermore, the 54,000 law school application for this year is almost half of what it was in 2004 when there were 100,000 applications. This is in stark contrast to any other graduate or professional training school (except veterinary school). According to Debra W. Stewart, president of the Council of Graduate Schools, first-time enrollment to masters of business degree programs were steady – a 0.8 percent increase among Americans in 2011. Moreover, these graduate programs experienced a thirteen percent increase in foreign graduate enrollment, and this is after a substantial decade of growth in those degree programs. Unfortunately, an American legal education has less appeal to international students because an American legal education is highly dependent on the American legal system. An American legal education is not easily translatable to other country’s legal system.
This large drop off in applications to law school is strongly connected to the perceived lack of job opportunities in the legal market and much of that perception has been fueled by the rise of blogging JDs. Jewel discusses the impact of the “Anti Law-School Scam Blogging Movement” on the legal profession and the tensions it has created within among the legal community. It is not difficult at all for one to discover threads, memes and new articles discussing the bleak job opportunities new grads face coupled with the prospect of paying back large amounts of student debt taken on to complete law school. These bloggers have claimed their former institutions mislead them into thinking there were rosy career prospects at the end of law school, only to be left unemployed or working at jobs making a fraction of what they were promised outside of the legal profession. They have impacted current law students and potential law students by using a style that aims to shame law schools through the use of vitriolic blog posts. The impact this network has created clearly is beginning to show itself as law schools are struggling to find enough applicants to fill their classes. In fact, the class of 2015 at the University of Minnesota Law School was considerably smaller than the class of 2014 (of which I am a part of), due to the smaller applicant pool my school was faced with.
In my opinion, there exists a terrible disconnect in the legal profession. My personal decision to attend law school did weigh the potential of bleak career prospects before I ultimately decided on attending law school. Now as an insider of the law school community, I find the picture painted by these bloggers to be somewhat different than reality. The two biggest platforms that the bloggers have rested their thesis on according to Jewel are “that law schools are producing an oversupply of lawyers and law schools have purposely over-inflated post-graduation employment data in order to draw in more law students, and that, in essence, law schools and professional institutions, such as the American Bar Association (ABA) should be ashamed of themselves.” While post-graduation employment data has not been proven to be misleading nor has it been proven innocent, it is a topic I will choose to avoid for purposes of this blog. My main contention is with the argument of an oversupply of lawyers in the United States. Currently, there exists a severe shortage of legal help for low-income individuals. New York State’s chief judge, Jonathon Lippman, has responded to this by moving ahead with a groundbreaking rule requiring law students to perform 50 hours of pro bono legal services as a condition of admission to the state bar. Other states are seriously considering this requirement as well. Furthermore, according to Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California, there is a mismatch between demand and supply. She went on to say, that there is exploding demand for legal services for “ordinary folk lawyers” and “big corporate ones.”
To me, like Professor Hadfield believes, there is an atmosphere of feast or famine in the legal profession. Law students lucky enough to receive a high paying internship with a corporate law firm find themselves with high paying internships and post-graduation salaries in the six figures, but public interest and low income legal work often results in unpaid internships and extremely low paying full time positions, commonly below $40,000. Additionally, temporary doc review jobs with terrible working conditions and low paying hourly work muddle the market even more. It is not the oversupply of lawyers that has resulted in bleak career opportunities but a failure by the legal community to create business models that adequately address demand. There is demand from large corporations, who are dissatisfied with the high fees and unsatisfying results produced by large firms, for good attorneys according to Hilliard. Also legal access for “ordinary folk” is extremely strained; there simply aren’t enough attorneys in this line of work to satisfy demand. This is something I have experienced personally, as I am constantly helping my parents find an attorney for their small business who can work on their legal issues in a timely fashion, not an easy task. They have yet to find a good attorney who isn’t overwhelmed by the amount of work they have on their plates. This indicates to me that there is a large amount of demand, at least for good attorneys for small businesses, and the legal profession has failed to keep pace.
A disconnect between the supply of attorneys and the demand for their services is apparent. Too many students are forced to compete for relatively few big law jobs that pay enough to make a legal education a sound investment. The demand for attorneys for small businesses and individuals is high but current legal professions have skewed the funneling of new attorneys to fields of law in oversupply. There is much discussion of change at the education level of the legal field, but no one is discussing the change at the professional level. The legal field has to change the way it does business. Big law firms are not in a rush to change because they continue to enjoy profitability, and their partners regularly take home checks in the seven figures. But big law shouldn’t be required to carry the responsibility of leading; they have a successful business model. Solutions must come from individuals within the legal community to match unsatisfied demand for legal services with an adequately compensated supply of attorneys. When the catalyst for change will come is unclear, but maybe the drastic fall in law school applications will serve as the catalyst for change, or it could exasperate the situation further, but one thing is certain, the demand for affordable and quality legal services does exist.