The law school industry has hit upon a squall. The industry has seen its reputation take several body blows as dismal news began to come out about the fate of its recent graduates. Once seen as an escape valve for college graduates unable to get a job during the economic downturn of The Great Recession, law school applications have plummeted recently, reaching a 30 year low.
It seems inconceivable that law school of all things could experience such a trend. Being a lawyer has traditionally been seen as a rock solid career move that would put you in a sound financial position for the rest of your life. However, a combination of new factors is making a new reality emerge, where the dreams of being a lawyer that is pushed by law schools is little more then a scam.
One factor has been the astronomical rise in the price of law school. The American Bar Association's own data on the rising prices is enough to make your heart stop. For an in state public law school, in 1985 the average tuition was $2,000. In 2011 this ballooned to $22,116, an eleven-fold increase. Out of state public law school tuition rose from $4,724 to $34,865, a seven-fold increase. For private law school, tuition rose from $7,526 to $39,184, a five-fold increase.
To cope with the rising costs, law students have had to borrow more than ever. According to the ABA’s data, students at public law schools have had to borrow on average $75,728 in 2010, a substantial increase from the $46,499 average loan taken in 2001. For private law school the numbers are even worse, with an average loan amount of $124,950 in 2010 compared to $70,147 in 2001.
Such extraordinary prices would make sense if you get a high paying law job. However, the legal landscape has shifted. In the wake of the ongoing Great Recession law school graduates have less jobs in the legal profession and the jobs they have taken are worse. The National Association for Law Placement found that for the class of 2011 only 65.7% managed to get a legal job in which passing the bar was required, the lowest figure ever recorded. 12% are unemployed, most with a huge debt load.
University of Colorado law professor Paul Campos, who ran the blog, “Inside the Law School Scam,” crunched the numbers of the NALP report and found that only 33.75% of all law school graduates having what would be considered a real long-term legal job nine months after graduation. That is a one in three chance. You are better off flying to Las Vegas and betting all of that loan money on black.
Law schools are in no rush to correct the fiction of there actually being good jobs for law students. Law School Transparency, a nonprofit research group, found that 78.4% of ABA-approved law schools offered incorrect, imprecise, or outright false job placement information on their websites. In an attempt to battle the sheer forces of reality, law schools have done everything from opening their own firms to outright paying unemployed students to work at unpaid internships or do pro-bono work.
The changing nature of the legal profession only further adds to the woes of law school graduates. More and more people are forgoing utilizing a lawyer for legal paperwork, utilizing specialized companies such as LegalZoom to handle tasks that would have gone to recently hired law students. Firms and other organization are finding it simpler to outsource simple legal assignments to other countries such as India where they can get the work done at a fraction of the price. And in many industries, clients are pressuring firms to be more efficient in their services, decreasing the number of billable hours. This leads to fewer lawyers needed per client along with less money to pay those lawyers.
Ultimately the question is that will law schools be able to adapt to the new reality that has emerged. Schools will have to decide if they can ethically graduate legions of law students who have no chance for acutal employment in the legal profession. Because while lawyers may argue the about the law, you cannot deny the laws of economics.