There’s no way to sugarcoat it: law grads simply aren’t getting hired by big, fancy firms at the same rates (and salary levels) as they used to — no matter how fervently my Greek grandmother might assure me that law is a safe and sensible career path. Thanks to an economic crisis and shrinking job prospects for lawyers due to outsourcing and downsizing, many recent law grads are finding themselves doing pro bono work or waiting tables: a stark contrast from the dreams of high-power, big-name firms they may have pinned their hopes upon when applying to law school. Thanks to educational search company Noodle.org, we have a painfully detailed look into the ever-changing job market for new law school graduates.
Brought to you by: Noodle
Almost a year after graduation in 2011, only 55 percent of law school grads held full-time, long-term positions requiring a legal degree and bar passage; fewer than half of graduates found jobs in private practice (good-bye marbled lobbies and fancy associate titles!). Even more terrifying: through 2015, there will be 147,200 attorneys for only 73,600 job openings (nearly twice as much). Even if you are one of the law grads out there lucky enough to get a full-time legal position upon graduation, chances are you’re not making quite as much as you expected: salaries for new grads have fallen about 17 percent since 2009. “This drop in starting salaries, while expected, is surprising in its scope,” said James Leipold, of the National Association for Legal Career Professionals. “Nearly all of the drop can be attributed to the continued erosion of private practice opportunities at the largest law firms.”
Guess what pairs well with falling starting salaries? Higher levels of tuition and student debt! Shamefully, even as law school admissions dropped sharply after 2010, private law school tuition went up annually by 4 percent (more than twice the rate of inflation). Public law schools have followed an even steeper curve. For in-state residents, average tuition doubled from $11,860 in 2003 to $23,590. In 2012 alone, tuition went up by more than 6 percent. The vast majority of new law grads (85 percent in 2010) carried debt, and the average debt load was almost $98,500 (yowza!). Unfortunately, chances of discharging such educational debt are almost nonexistent since the passage of the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention and Consumer Protection Act in 2005.
So who is to blame for this structural epidemic? Law schools, and the very model of legal education itself, immediately come to mind as #1 culprits — and for good reason. More and more media attention has been given to the fact that for the past 15 years or so, too many law schools have been accepting too many students, and teaching them too little while charging them too much — hence, churning out too many grads with too little opportunity in the legal job market awaiting them after the buzz of graduation day fades away. Granted, any criticism of law schools must be nuanced, since about 60 percent of law schools had graduates with better employment rates than the national average. However, a full third of law schools (59 schools) reported that less than 50 percent of their grads had legal positions as defined above. Even more sneakily, while many low-ranked schools are understandably flooding the depressing job market with graduates, there are many highly-ranked schools whose placement rates are worse than you might expect (I’m looking at you, USC and UCLA).
The good news: both law schools and potential law students seem to be catching on to these trends. Over half of law school admission officers (54 percent) reported cutting the size of their entering classes for 2013-2014, and a quarter intend to do it again for 2014-2015. According to the Law School Admission Council, interest in the LSAT has dropped drastically in recent years, with 65,982 fewer tests administered in the 2013-2014 admission cycle than four years previously. This decline hasn’t tapered off either: so far, only 86,033 people have applied for the 2013-2014 round. This is bad news for law schools who have enjoyed record-high profits in the last decade, but excellent news for potential law grads who don’t want to be saddled with debt.
All of this data doesn’t seem to bode well for my generation’s future as law students and wanna-be lawyers, and thought leaders in the legal industry are taking note. Their mission: finding a way to make legal education more affordable, effective, and relevant to better serve both law students and the communities they hope to serve in the future. That’s where IAALS comes in. The Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System’s initiative Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers works to align legal education with the needs of an evolving profession by facilitating, evaluating, and promoting law teaching methods designed to produce graduates who are employable and practice-ready; able to meet the needs of their employers, their clients, and society; and prepared to lead and respond to changes in the legal profession throughout their careers. Specifically, their multi-year project “Foundations for Practice” focuses upon defining the fundamentals that all new attorneys should possess upon leaving law school.
The first year-long phase focuses on the profession and will include a national survey and a series of focus groups to identify the Foundations. In mid-2015, the institute will publish results and recommendations, and convene its law school partners to identify opportunities to move legal education forward. Two key goals include (1) evaluating student and law school performance to identify key success factors and scalable opportunities for law school assessment, as (2) identifying key components of “experiential education” and creating universal definitions that can be used and understood by law schools, the profession, and prospective students.
Alon Rotem, our General Counsel here at Rocket Lawyer, had the honor of joining ETL’s Foundations for Practice conference this month in Colorado Springs. Along with other high-profile players in the legal industry , he discussed the following points:
- Who is affected by the quality of legal education? Who has a stake in the preparation of new lawyers?
- Who can/should be involved in improving the quality of legal education and the preparation of new lawyers?
- What kind of incentives might be used to get the right stakeholders in the conversation/drive improvements in the quality of legal education and the preparation of new lawyers?
This discussion gave Alon hope for the future. “Training our young lawyers to be prepared for a 21st century legal career is paramount to the health of the legal profession,” he said. “Society has an interest in producing ethical attorneys who are equipped with equipped with basic business training, the ability to communicate with their clients, and more than just one or two traditional career paths that don’t work for very many people anymore. I am excited to be a part of the IAALS project because it has brought together a diverse and distinguished set of legal advisors who are passionate about improving the preparedness of young lawyers for this noble and evolving profession.”
Former CA State Bar president John Streeter agrees. “The process of leading institutional change is a hard one. Doing that calls for efforts like those that IAALS is best known for, convening people to come together from disparate perspectives to talk about consensus ideas for the the challenges that they see. There’s no doubt in my mind that IAALS is making a different–everywhere in the country.”
Indeed, changes are already taking place on local, institutional levels. “We have to figure out a better way of balancing the theoretical with the experiential” in modern legal education, says Melissa Swain, Associate, Associate Director and Clinical Instructor at the Health Rights Clinic at the University of Miami (one of 30 law schools in ETL’s consortium working to improve legal education through innovation). “We need to teach [law students] certain foundations. They need to have a platform of skills that they can take with them into practice.” Swain became an ETL fellow and built a full course portfolio for the University of Miami Health Rights Clinic, along with Clinic Director JoNel Newman. A partnership between the University’s law and medical schools, the clinic gives students opportunities to interact with clients as they would in the real world. Swain says the Health Rights Clinic provides an “effective dose of professional reality” for her students. “From day one they understand, these are your case files. These are your clients. Feel the pressure of being an attorney responsible for a group of clients.”
For prospective law students, IAALS launched Law Jobs: By The Numbers™, an interactive online tool that gives prospective law students the most transparent and complete law school employment rate information available. Thanks to a prominent spot on the front page of the American Bar Association’s website, the calculator has been used over 65,000 times. Building upon the success of Law Jobs: By The Numbers™, the institute is developing a new data-fueled tool that will give prospective students access to meaningful, individualized information about the law school options available to them.
Noodle.org offers a similar finely-tuned search engine tool for those still dreaming of a career in law (myself occasionally included). Their unique algorithm claims to provide superior guidance by considering the factors that are most important to both applicants and law schools in the admissions process — to help students find the right fit and give themselves the best chance of success. I tried it out myself and was pleased with the user experience, although I would appreciate additional features like an ability to search by “family law” specialization and job placement success rates.
If you’re a student considering applying to law school (a life-altering decision), taking advantage of such tools and doing your homework is critical. Think about the nondischargeable nature of your future debt load, your shrinking job prospects, and the structural improvements that the legal education model and job market must undergo before the degree is statistically likely to be worth your investment again. Examine the real reasons why you want to go to law school. Is it really the best path and investment for you at this time — or if you could contribute to society in other meaningful ways without a J.D.?
As for me, I’m optimistically choosing to wait it out (sorry Grandma) and support pragmatic, technology-driven changes to the way that the law is taught and practiced in the meantime.