“The legal profession must be saved from itself”

I speak with some level of qualification — as an underachieving law student who barely survived the nightmarish law school experience and yet managed to have a career (so far!) as a commercial lawyer — when I say that this piece in the LA Times by Mark Greenbaum is spot on. America has hundreds of thousands of lawyers, yet many tens of thousands who never find employment in practice, many thousands who were added to the unemployment roster over the past two years due to the sharp economic downturn, and yet the American Bar Assocation and numerous state legislatures are pushing to open even more law schools.

An abridged version of the article appears below. Every paragraph is basically enough to expand into an entire book chapter.

No more room at the bench
Mark Greenbaum

Remember the old joke about 20,000 lawyers at the bottom of the sea being “a good start”? Well, in an interesting twist, thousands of lawyers now find themselves drowning in the unemployment line as the legal sector is being badly saturated with attorneys…

From 2004 through 2008, the field grew less than 1% per year on average, going from 735,000 people making a living as attorneys to just 760,000, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics postulating that the field will grow at the same rate through 2016… the number of new positions is likely to be fewer than 30,000 per year. That is far fewer than what’s needed to accommodate the 45,000 juris doctors graduating from U.S. law schools each year.

Such debt would be manageable if a world of lucrative jobs awaited the newly minted attorneys, but this is not the case. A recent working paper by Herwig Schlunk of Vanderbilt Law School contends that with the exception of some of those at the best schools, going for a law degree is a bad investment and that most students will be “unlikely ever to dig themselves out from” under their debt. This problem is exacerbated by the existing law school system.

Despite the tough job market, new schools continue to sprout like weeds. Today there are 200 ABA-accredited law schools in the U.S., with more on the way, as many have been awarded provisional accreditation. In California alone, there are 21 law schools that are either accredited or provisionally accredited, including the new one at UC Irvine.

The ABA has also refused to create and oversee an independent method of reporting graduate data. Postgraduate employment information generally provides the most useful facts for prospective students to study in deciding whether to go to law school.

In many cases, the data that schools now furnish are based on self-reported information, skewing the results because unemployed and low-paying grads are less likely to report back. Law schools do this because they want the rosiest picture possible for the influential rankings given by U.S. News & World Report. Despite its ample resources, the ABA has rebuffed calls to monitor the schools to get more accurate data, calling the existing framework an effective “honor system.”

Based on what happened with the accreditation task force, the ABA is not likely to force change; it is too intertwined with the law schools. ABA groups — such as the task force, which was chaired by a former dean — are stacked with school officials who have no incentive to change the status quo.

The author thinks the solution is to regulate and limit the power of the ABA in accrediting law schools, in a similar limitation on the influence of the bodies that oversea the medical profession, and maybe he’s right — although I tend to take a more cynical view and think that the complicity with the reckless expansion of the profession is far broader. (I’m looking at you, US state legistlatures!)

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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26 Responses to “The legal profession must be saved from itself”

  1. Leadbelly says:

    The growth of the schools is simply down the demand from students not the demand of the jobs market for more lawyers. As I understand it, the electorate in the US doesn’t much care for state interference in things that it doesn’t need to get involved in; if people are stupid enough to pay for schooling that serves them no real purpose then they can have it. Unless of course, law graduates are of real use in other professions. In a perverse way, it means that the people you probably want to have as lawyers are the ones who see the problem in the jobs market and choose to study something else – they may be the brighter ones!

  2. M-Bone says:

    Thanks for this Curzon. I’m going to look into this trend in my country and rethink the advice that I give to students.

  3. DJ says:

    I don’t feel sorry for many of these people. They choose the easy route in their undergrad education and got some social science or humanities degree. Then when the graduated they realize they have no professional skills and that many people are out there with these degrees. So one of the few grad school routes that they are qualified for and sets them up for an actual profession is Law School.

    I think more people should focus on professional degrees for their undergraduate education. They are harder and better prepare you for the working world with applicable skills and getting used to long hours. I am doing graduate level engineering now but as an undergrad we were in class five days a week with quiz’s and deadlines each Friday. Meanwhile other people with the easy degrees were only in class 3 days a week and had Friday off. Therefore Thursday was the big social night I did not have time to participate in.

    I’m not bitter though. I have a job I wanted lined up and it is not even in the engineering field. Doing a harder degree does not preclude you from practicing in other fields. I was more interested in Geography and History than engineering, but I found out I can practice that stuff anyway.

  4. M-Bone says:

    Looks like the opposite problem here so it is nice to know that I haven’t been giving out bad advice -

  5. Law is a default choice for most people. The failure to give American kids adequate quantitative training in primary and high school means they cannot even contemplate something requiring numbers in college. Then, they gravitate to the law since they are afraid to enter the workforce with a BA that will not get them a real job, since it taught them nothing of value to any employer. The problem has deep roots. It is actually typical of the situation you see in third world countries, which we seem to be becoming in many ways. The failure of America’s unionized public schools is the biggest threat to our future, and it is totally self-inflicted.

    Meanwhile, the ABA has utterly failed to limit access and thus keep up wages and keep up the average quality of people in the field. Why not? I am not sure. The profession used to be two tier: Big Firms, and everybody else. Now it is three, with a third tier of unemployable and desperate lawyers.

    The physicians have not made this mistake. It is very hard to get into medical school and they have kept skills and wages high.

  6. DJ says:


    Here is a good article on getting PhDs in the Humanities and how they may not be worth it and hot hard it is to get jobs with them now. Very similar story to the legal profession.


    “It was a message many prospective graduate students were not getting from their professors, who were generally too eager to clone themselves. Having heard rumors about unemployed Ph.D.’s, some undergraduates would ask about job prospects in academe, only to be told, “There are always jobs for good people.” If the students happened to notice the increasing numbers of well-published, highly credentialed adjuncts teaching part time with no benefits, they would be told, “Don’t worry, massive retirements are coming soon, and then there will be plenty of positions available.” The encouragement they received from mostly well-meaning but ill-informed professors was bolstered by the message in our culture that education always leads to opportunity.”

  7. M-Bone says:

    A few differences there DJ – In some areas like modern East Asian history, there is a very good new job to new PhD ratio (almost 1:1, some areas like modern Middle East are even more in demand) while in 17th century Europe the ratio may be 10 new PhDs for every job. Also, most humanities PhD students at solid institutions are getting $20,000 – $30,000 (not including free tuition) a year while studying. Law students, if they are borrowing to pay room and board as well, may be looking at $60,000 plus a year in the hole.

  8. Christopher says:

    I’ve heard the same story in some of the sciences as well. Too many Ph.D., not enough jobs for them, IIRC.

  9. Smithy says:

    Another important factor to consider is the utter lack of mobility for lawyers. Every singled State has their own bar exam you must pass in order to become a lawyer in that state. Every bar exam has differing levels of difficulty but none of them are easy. The further you get away from law school the more difficult it is to pass the bar exam in another state. This is because the bar exam tests what is colloquially called “bar exam law.” This is not real law, it is closer to the law you learned in law school but still somewhat different (FYI all bar exams are written by professors, not practitioners, which leads to an ever further disconnect from legal reality).

    Passing a states bar exam basically requires you to memorize the “law” in approximately 14 different subject areas and then regurgitate it onto paper in the way the bar graders want to see it (the topic of bar grading, BARbri bar review, etc. would require its own post). The further away from law school you get the more difficult it becomes for you to remember the law you learned in law school and for the bar exam. Attorneys specialize just like doctors; no attorney would attempt to practice in 14 different areas just as no doctor would be a cardiologist and a plastic surgeon at the same time.

    Therefore, if you are an attorney in Texas, that has been practicing for 20 years in employment law, and you have recently lost your job and you hear there is a great need for employment lawyers in California. Can you just up and move to California and start applying for jobs? Of course not, you must first pass the “attorney’s exam” which is the same as the normal California bar exam, except you get to skip the multiple-choice portion (the easiest part).

    You are a very smart competent lawyer that would be a great asset to the State of California, what do you think the chance is you will pass this exam? In July 2009 the answer would be 32.5%. Shocking? It should be, you are an honest, ethical hard-working attorney so California doesn’t want you.

    Essentially the end result of all this is that an attorney is stuck in the place where they first took the bar exam. I was an economics major in undergraduate so I do not know much anymore about econ, but I believe the legal profession lacks labor mobility, leading to an inefficient allocation of resources. I challenge you to think of any other field that makes it so difficult to move from state to state.

  10. ElamBend says:

    Law schools are typically cash cows for their affiliated schools which is why you saw a growth in laws schools in the last 20 years (along side the credit boom). Law schools sell themselves as a route to high income, keeping mum about the actual pay profile of attorneys. What’s more, the actual cost of law schools differ little from the worst to the best. The schools help the students get financial aid (loans) and virtually anyone can find a law school that will admit them. Meanwhile, what the students learn in lawschool is divorced from actual law practice.

    I am also a non-practicing lawyer (by choice). From time to time I’ll pick up a doc review job and it always amazes me to see all the under-employed attorneys reviewing documents for (comparatively) low wages. It’s a problem that law schools don’t want to acknowledge.

    As you can see above, though, it is not just a problem of law school, it’s a problem of most grad schools and colleges fueled by cheap credit and an over-emphasis on signaling through certification. At the undergraduate level, schools like Phoenix prey on people who need a piece of paper certifying that they have checked off something on a list, but doing little to provide actual advancement in knowledge.

  11. ElamBend says:

    One more note:
    It is easier to move from one state to the other, some states even encourage it. Nebraska for instance just requires that you have a certain score on the multistate portion of the bar exam to practice there. So, supply and demand still are at play in some markets.
    Rural areas also. The attorney in my home town was a bit frustrated with my decision not to return there and take up his business so that he could become the circuit judge. It would have been good money in a very cheap place and the chance at being prosecutor or judge or both down the road. I just didn’t want to go back.
    While in lawschool my buddy and I met some lawyers, including a judge, from rural Mississippi, who told us to “come on down.” He said they need lawyers in in small towns and in my experience it’s mostly true.

    I often counsel against law school, but I tell people that if they really want to be an attorney, find a state like Virginia that allows for apprenticeship and find and attorney who will sponsor you.

  12. ElamBend says:

    Check out this chart at this link to see what attorneys make, the distribution is bimodal:

  13. Roy Berman says:

    ” In some areas like modern East Asian history, there is a very good new job to new PhD ratio (almost 1:1)”
    Good news for me!

  14. M-Bone says:

    I should also mention the bad side of that ratio, however – a bunch of those jobs are probably 5/5 teaching in southern Georgia… the competition for top jobs is still pretty heinous. Academics have very little choice over where they end up. Since you can search in Japan and the English-speaking world, I’m fairly convinced that you are going to land well straight out of school.

    Another big advantage for East Asia people – we can find freelance translation work so the chances of winding up as an eternal adjunct making $20,000 a year for 60 hour weeks is pretty much nil.

  15. SJPONeill says:

    I’m not a lawyer but I love the law: it has a logic and structure that fascinates me. It annoys me that there are so many lawyers out there who think that the law is something you can twist for your own (or your boss’s) personal gain. perhaps if we restricted the number of lawyers, dragged the bar system into the 20th Century, and reintroduced a ethical base to the law business, the legal profession might once again be something that one might be proud to be in?

  16. Curzon says:

    Sjponeill — your ideal is the antiquated way of practicing law outside the West, and why lawyers from America and the UK dominate the international practice of law. Lawyers are supposed to advocate their clients interests. If you want to get paid by someone to loftily speak on abstract virtues and logical discussions, not zealously advocate their interests to the extent possible within the confines of the law, you may find yourself with little work.

  17. Curzon says:

    And M-Bone, I would read the comments in that article, which sound spot on…

  18. M-Bone says:

    Curzon, which article (we’re up to like 7 linked now)? Macleans?

  19. AstutoZorro says:

    At DJ: I disagree w/ your statement that a degree in humanities or social science is “taking the easy way out”. Some of us did not care to become little mindless robots. working the 9 to 5 routine, living in suburbia, having 2.2 kids and obediently doing whatever government wants us to do, so we can have a bi-weekly paycheck. There is more to us than that. And if you think that Law School is a last resort for those who dont find a job with a B.A., you got it all wrong. It was a law degree most of us wanted all along but in order to get into Law School you must have an undergraduate degree. Choosing one like Political Science, Psycology, History or some other like that was the smart way to prepare for it. Reading and writing about different aspects of the human condition serves a Law School candidate a lot better than knowing how to dissect a frog or splitting water into hydrogen and oxygen. It wasnt the easy way out, it was the right way in.

    It has been said that “those who do not have an interest in politics will have their lives ruled by those who do”. The U.S president is a lawyer. Obviously the 9 Supreme Court justices are lawyers. Go up and down the ranks of Congress and tell me what’s the ratio between lawyers and ALL other professions combined. Think about that for a sec before belittling a social science degree.

    As far as the law and how bad lawyers have it, there was 200 billion dollars spent on legal fees in 2008 in the U.S.. There are about 1 million lawyers in America. Do the math, im sure you are pretty good at it.

    Having said that, i wont deny that there are some in our profession, though a minority, who would rather do the 9 to 5 thing and be employed by a law firm rather than strike out on their own. There are some others that are afraid of tackling criminal cases. Those are the ones who arent making ends meet. Lord knows there is plenty of money out there waiting to be had.

    My $0.02

  20. AstutoZorro says:

    SJPONEILL wrote: “It annoys me that there are so many lawyers out there who think that the law is something you can twist for your own (or your boss’s) personal gain. ”

    Sir, respectfully, we dont twist anything for our personal gain. We defend our clients with the utmost zeal. there is an ethical base in our profession. It’s just a different one than for other professions. We work within what we call an “adversarial” system. And it needs to be that way so our clients can have the best defense possible.

    It would appear, though I’m merely making an assumption, that you havent being in a position in which you have been falsely accused of wrongdoing. Be grateful for that. If you ever do find yourself in such a position, you’ll be grateful to have a lawyer that will do whatever it takes to defend you.

  21. stevelaudig says:

    they’ll be doing collection work

  22. lirelou says:

    Took my J.D. in 1977 from the University of Puerto Rico. Took my first bar exam in Spanish, three days essay. Scored just under enough to pass, which only a very small percentage did. Traveled up to Massachusetts to take their Bar, after a three month prep course, and passed. Meanwhile I was training Nicaraguan commandos in a three month stint and returned to Mass. to take up a position as a bi-lingual welfare worker. That led to becoming an associate in a local law firm. Practiced criminal law, with a bit of workman’s comp, family law, and conveyances thrown in. Then got an offer to return to the Army as a Special Forces officer. After a short detour in Europe, my J.D. and Spanish/Portuguese qualifications landed me in Latin America for the next 15 years, and then Asia for 7. ( I retired in 1989 to take an intelligence position) Overall, I am grateful for my legal education, even if much of it was Spanish Civil Law. It gave me unique insights to the region I was working, and even prepared me to transition to other duties. I take great pride in the fact that many of my fellow students have made a difference within our own legal system, in the political life of the island, and beyond (several classmates went into federal service, and one became an Ambassador).

    Just bragging, I suppose. But a law degree is what you make of it. Coming from a poor background, and gaining a college education only as a Vietnam veteran via the GI bill, I count myself as fortunate. I had considered a career in dentistry, but the fact of the matter is that I was not ready to settle in one place, which both a legal career and dentistry require. In the end, I was glad to have chosen law. I may have met some shady lawyers in my time, but I never met a dull one. I was happy to return to a previous profession, but I did have the privilege of knowing some very fine lawyers, along with the occasional slimeball.

  23. Curzon says:

    M-Bone — the first one you posted. Read its comments.

  24. Jeff says:

    Sounds like another bubble waiting to happen.

    Fortuantely, if you are a dynamic and motivated enough individual, you can get a job doing just about anything, so long as you have a bachelors in something. I cite the case of a family member who graduated with a B.A. in philosophy, and became a database engineer after being trained by the army.

  25. GK says:

    Astutozorro is right. Look at all the lawyers in government and how well it’s working. How ethical everyone is in the political arena; how magnanimous and service oriented they are. That is why we need more lawyers. Who else would have the citizens’ best interest at heart if it weren’t for the all knowing and wise lawyers we’ve allowed to “lead” our country?

    A couple years back a local private university opened a law school. The local media was all a buzz about it. Greatest thing in the history of the city..great things on the horizon. What they didn’t mention is that all those newly minted lawyers would need to pay back their student loans. How do they do that? They sue. They sue often and hard. They take from others who actually work for a living to feather their nests. You may know the litigants he’s talking about, the 9 to 5′ers, with kids and mortgages and other responsibilities. Those who have jobs that don’t require taking from others out of proportion to their worth. Greatest thing ever..law.