People are flocking to law school again. Will there be jobs?

By Martin Pritikin

After nearly a decade of declining applications to law school, the nation saw its first significant increase this year — a jump of 8 percent. But the question on everyone’s minds is: Will the job market show a similar rebound, so that these larger entering classes will find jobs a few years from now when they graduate?

It is important to note that the law school applicant pool is not just larger than it’s been, but stronger, at least in terms of traditional entering predictors like Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) scores. The largest increases in applicants have come from those in the highest LSAT ranges. This means that the increases in law school enrollments cannot be explained away by concluding that law  schools are simply taking gualified applicants, who may be less likely to pass the bar exam and get jobs.

Another possibility is that the economy has finally recovered sufficiently from the Great Recession so that potential students once again see law school as a path to a  promising career.

It is true that the percentage of law school graduates employed 10 months out of graduation increased for the Class of 2017 over the prior year. But as the National  Association for Law Placement has pointed out, there were actually slightly fewer legal jobs in 2017 than in 2016. The higher employment rate was a result of smaller  graduating classes, meaning fewer new lawyers were competing for the available jobs. Some of the standard explanations given for the reduction in law jobs include  i  increased competition overseas and from technological substitutes.

Does this mean that prospective law students are being misled into thinking that the employment picture is better than it really is? Not necessarily. A recent study conducted by Gallup for the American Association of Law Schools found that, among undergraduates considering law school, nearly half saw it as a path to a career in politics, government, or public services, and one in three were motivated by the opportunity it would provide to give back to society or advocate for social change. (This fits with a Kaplan Test Prep studyfrom February that found that 32 percent of prospective law students were motivated by the results of the 2016 election--the so-called “Trump bump.”)

In other words, the improving employment rate may not be influencing law school applicants for the simple reason that employment prospects are not their main reason for going to law school.

But even assuming that every law students wants to practice law, and that there are fewer traditional law practice jobs to go around, this misses the point. While there may be fewer law jobs to go around, there is more than enough legal work.

There are tens of millions of Americans who are not eligible for free legal services, but who are priced out of the standard market for legal services by prevailing hourly rates of $250 or above. LegalZoom or other tech platforms will not be able to address all of their needs, and some of them would be willing to pay a little more to have a human lawyer attend to their needs. If even a fraction of this population could turn to new lawyers who would charge them manageable rates of say, $50 to $125 per hour, this would provide more than enough work to sustain the roughly 35,000 new law school graduates each year.

Of course, most graduates aren’t thinking in terms of legal work; they’re thinking about legal jobs. So are law schools, for that matter. That’s the problem. Law schools need to reframe their focus to help their graduates be more entrepreneurial in their approach to practice, preparing them to make their own opportunities rather than waiting for law firms to serve them up to them — except, perhaps, for the most prestigious schools that send their graduates into the largest, highest paying firms. These firms have seen modest job growth, and starting salaries at these firms were recently raised to $190,000.

But for the vast majority of those entering the legal profession, these figures are simply irrelevant. Even before the Great Recession, it had long been the case that only a quarter of law grads went into the largest firms. Most graduates went into small firms, solo practice, government or public interest work, if they practiced law at all.

So for the nearly two hundred law schools outside the “T14,” it is critical that they educate their students about the profession’s failure to adequately serve the public, and prepare them to access would-be clients themselves if existing firms will not do so for them.

What would this look like in practice? Each law school should, at a minimum:

      - Explicitly address the access to justice crisis, which must include not only those in need of pro bono services but those who could pay something but not hundreds of dollars per hour (so-called “low bono”clients).

      - Expose students to the economics of law practice, including the key considerations for opening their own practice should they desire — or need — to do so.

      - Teach students about non-traditional representation models like virtual law practice and limited scope representation (aka unbundled legal services), which can make solo practice more economically viable and open up new markets and revenue streams.

      - Host, or at least provide graduates with access to, an incubator program or not for profit law firm, to steer graduates who want to develop their own practices into structures that will help them to do so successfully.

      - Take a hard look at whether their tuition levels — and students’ corresponding debt levels — are defensible in light of their graduates’ average salaries or incomes.

This last point will no doubt raise some hackles. Given the cost structure at most traditional law schools, reducing tuition is no easy feat. But if law schools are to justify their existence — to prospective students, let alone the clients they would serve and to society as a whole — they must improve their return on educational investment, however one chooses to define that. This could mean improving opportunities for graduates, reducing costs, or, ideally, both.

The percentage of law school graduates employed in law firms is a clunky proxy for return on educational investment. It is said that we value what we measure. So rather than asking if the influx of law students will be able to get jobs at graduation, perhaps a better question is: How do we ensure they will represent the clients who need their help — and how do we measure that?


Martin Pritikin is the dean of Concord Law School at Purdue University Global (concordlawschool.edu), the nation’s first fully online law school, with tuition averaging under $12,000 per year. He can be reached at martin.pritikin@purdueglobal.edu.


 

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