Has your teenager indicated that they might like to be a lawyer? If that doesn’t make you cringe, perhaps it should. I don’t suggest you should recoil because of some perceived ethical or moral lapse of those who enter the profession. Instead, this response should be based entirely on the simple economics of supply and demand. William D. Henderson, professor of law at Indiana University, said, “Thirty years ago if you were looking to get on the escalator to upward mobility, you went to business or law school. Today, the law school escalator is broken.”
In a recent survey, the American Bar Association released a study showing that within nine months of graduation in 2011, only 55 percent of those who finished law school found full-time jobs that required passage of the bar exam. The job market for lawyers is not even close to what it once was, coupled with the significant debt that students often carry to make a law degree possible.
Average tuition at private law schools in this country has seen a five-fold increase between 1985 and 2012. This figure is for tuition only and does not include living expenses, books, etc. Average debt has sky-rocketed ($125,000 in 2011 for private law school grads and $75,700 for public law school grads, according to the ABA).
Students, it appears, are finally getting the message, as the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test (LSAT) decreased by about 40,000 (from 171,514 in 2009-10 to 129,958 in 2011-12), and applicants to law school are almost half of what they were in 2004. Some of this change is attributed, not just to the rising cost of law school tuition and increased debt, but also to technology. Research is faster and easier, requiring fewer lawyers, and is being outsourced to save money. Legal forms are often available online and do not require a licensed attorney to complete them.
“We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply,” said Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California. But hope for those wishing to enter the legal profession is not entirely gone. Law school bound students, like everyone else seeking an education, must look at where the jobs are and prepare themselves with the skills that match the demand curve. For example, according to the U.S. government’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers working for the petroleum and coal products manufacturing industry still had strong job prospects and had among the highest average incomes at $208,410 per year. In Bob Denney’s annual legal industry trend report, banking, health care, energy and intellectual property will all see growth. So, if, after doing your research, you still think law school is in your future, at least know where the growth areas are and tailor your experiences to enhance your chances of employment in those industries.