Complex Portrait Generates Conflicting Messages On Law School

July 10, 2014

Law School 3For years, critics of law school have consistently derided it as a poor investment and expressed bafflement as to why anyone would ever go to law school, particularly considering the well-publicized lack of jobs available to recent graduates.

But now, some sources are taking a different tone.

Last year, there was a small, positive climb in the number of new lawyers who were hired at Large Law firms (which is important, since these prestigious positions pay enough to make the cost of law school a worthwhile expense). This news was quickly followed by that of law schools enrolling their lowest classes since the 1970s. Some observers put the two together and saw the ingredients for the end of the legal industry’s supply-and-demand problems. An uptick in hiring plus a smaller pool of candidates in the future might mean that, say, the class of 2018 could finally be the one that graduates into a field that is ready and willing to absorb them and provide them with fulfilling, handsomely compensated jobs.

It is good that law schools and the legal industry have something to be cheerful about, but it may be a bit early to proclaim now “the ideal time to apply to law school.”

First, a major reason why law school enrollment swelled to dangerous proportions is that a legal education was (somewhat wrongly) perceived as a safety net. “A law school education is always a good investment,” the conventional thinking went. “You have so many options with a J.D.” That did not turn out to be quite true. If fewer students are going to law school because they thought seriously and critically and decided that law, with its attendant expensive and time-consuming education, was not the right profession for them, then that is a good thing. Legions of disillusioned, debt-laden young professionals are not a good thing for any facet of society.

Second, legal education itself has not done sufficient work to silence the critics who make the valid point that it provides a classic education, but not one that teaches practical, applicable skills that lawyers need in practice.  If reformation happens, it will probably be many years before we see its effect.

Finally, the uptick in Large Law hiring is heartening, but not necessarily indicative of any larger trend. It is important to remember that the industry is still trying to regain ground lost in the recession of 2008; at the risk of sounding pessimistic, any gains the industry has made recently are still overshadowed by job losses industry-wide in 2008 and 2009 and sluggish “growth” (if any) in the years following. Also, most observers agree that the legal industry itself is contracting, so it should not be assumed that the number of jobs it provides will grow, or even stay static.

All in all, declaring now to be the time to go to law school seems a bit premature. Legal education and the legal industry have a few elements to get sorted out before law school can be recommended without qualifications for most people.