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
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!)