Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that dozens of law grads filed class-action lawsuits against their schools for giving unrealistic expectations for employment. The lawsuits mark a growing sentiment among graduates that law schools simply fail to yield a significant return on their very costly investment. According to a report by the National Association of Legal Professionals, 2011 was the worst year for legal employment since the 1994. But do law schools deserve all of the blame for joblessness or is the academy just slowly adapting to a changing job market?
Scholars suggest that technology is significantly lowering the value of a Juris Doctorate (J.D.) in a globalizing economy. In March of last year, Stephen Gillers, law professor at New York University, published an article describing how better communication and innovative computer programs are combining in a global economy to radically alter the labor market for legal professionals. Faster communication, through tools like the internet, allows businesses to outsource legal services to cheaper providers overseas and at home. Meanwhile, computer programs automate routine legal services; allowing anyone seeking legal advice to avoid paying for a lawyer altogether.
“The simple fact is that some legal services can be mass-produced, standardized, and commodified," Gillers writes. Companies like LegalZoom prepare documents for a wide range of legal needs. Instead of paying an attorney for legal advice and help completing paper work, businesses opt for products like LegalZoom as a cheaper alternative.
Technology is simply making legal information and services easily accessible, which means there is less work for recent graduates to do. Information technology hits the legal profession especially hard, as a good portion of legal work is information-based. Gillers compares the industry’s pitfall to the decline of print media.
Giller’s explains, “Like the print media, a lawyer sells information … many legal services consist solely of an explanation of what the law is, often followed by the application of legal rules to the client's particular circumstances, which may include creation of a document.”
Greater access to technology also translates into less billable hours, as lawyers are being replaced with programs like LexisNexis that tap into massive base of legal research.
While informal blogs are replacing formal journalism in media, non-lawyers are replacing lawyers in the legal field. In today’s economy, you do not even have to be a lawyer to provide routine legal services. Paul Campos, law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder, writes in his blog Inside the Law School Scam about how employees with specialized training end up filling roles typically reserved for lawyers. Employees with four-year degrees are acting as “compliance officers” or in other capacities to handle the more menial tasks of practicing law.
Of course, more senior legal positions require a law degree. But if J.D.’s are losing the entry-level work that boosts them up to that initial rung on their career ladder, how can they expect to reach that senior position in the future? Should they get a job at an outsourced legal provider before applying to law school?
This seems to be the best option for three reasons. First, aspiring law students can learn about multiple areas of law, in a paid position, and without committing thousands of dollars to a degree they may not want after all. Second, Paul Campos said of these trends: "[They] are irreversible; we have to adapt to them, not ignore them."
If law grads do make that senior position at law firm, more than likely they will have to work with these outsourced services. Having experience in those external service providers might make working with them a lot smoother. Finally, If grads decide to pursue a law degree, they should have a leg up on the competition when searching for those entry-level positions.