Now in Legal Rebels:
Posted Mar 01, 2012 10:50 am CST
Regarding “The Law School Bubble,” January: This bubble has been expanding for years. I started law school in the early 1990s at the University of Oklahoma. A couple of weeks after my acceptance, dean David Swank sent a letter warning of the declining job market and offering to refund my deposit. He wasn’t saying the sky is falling (like now), but he wanted to be honest about the declining opportunities for recent grads. I, being naive and full of myself, tossed the letter in the trash.
After reality kicked me in the face when first-semester grades were posted, I asked Swank if any student had taken him up on his offer. Not one had. He volunteered that a few brave souls had demanded a tuition refund after first-semester grades were posted. Too late. Swank wasn’t snarky about it; he seemed genuinely sad and concerned about the declining opportunities for grads.
No matter what statistics are cited or anecdotal stories like mine are submitted, the truth is that the law school bubble is no longer sustainable. The Great Recession probably accelerated what was already happening.
My original law school loans were around $60k. Went to a middle-tier regional school, got scholarships, worked for $5/hour as a licensed intern. Had to defer, forbear and reconsolidate many times before the last call with the Education Department. My payout is $620K.
I am in public interest and poverty law: legal aid, prosecutor, public defender, domestic violence specialist and now I collect child support. I’ve practiced in three states. However, I work in rural areas and there’s not a lot of legal work, and what there is is certainly on the below-median side of $63K. I haven’t had benefits since before law school. I now make around $20K per year and do divorces on the side in exchange for carpentry work. You know what? All that work is important. It helps build and maintain something we call civilization. I’ll be on Income-Based Repayment until discharge or a nursing home.
Until students have to compete for funding and make law schools suddenly face the prospect of empty seats, there is no incentive to control costs. I still believe a legal education is one of the most mentally valuable degrees there is. However, mentally valuable and financially valuable are different things. Who is going to staff legal aid when those who were able to pay for their degrees and live decently on $40K retire?
Terri Lynn Coop
Fort Scott, Kan.
I graduated from a regional law school in 1994. i spent three years at a quasi-legal job at a financial institution. Then I took a job at a small firm making very little and worked to learn how to get clients. After six years, I started a practice with others. Four years ago, I joined a well-known, local midsize firm as a full equity partner. I think many people have followed the same path in practice. I am still paying on student loans at 8 percent (the early ’90s were not a great economic time either). My advice to those who don’t land a high-paying job is to rely on your ability to learn and you will pick up great skills that may help you later.
I read this article with interest because as I progressed in my career I found that law school did not provide the skills needed to actually practice law. Now that there are no jobs, there are many lawyers learning on their own and/or committing malpractice because they have a law degree but no practical skills.
Also, not providing loans to students of all economic levels means schools will be primarily occupied by wealthier students who have no idea how to relate to many of their future clients. My upbringing, in Appalachia and middle class, provided me with one of the most valuable assets an attorney can have, and that is empathy. So many lawyers lack the simple ability to communicate and relate to others because their backgrounds afforded them no such opportunities. The legal community needs those of us who see the world differently.
Finally, I think the real issue is that law schools, our media and society give a different vision of legal practice than the reality. If people understood what the day-to-day life of an attorney was like, many would opt not to subject themselves to the education and debt issues. There must be a shift in the type of education provided for the good of those graduating and for the profession in general.
Tabitha M. Hochscheid
I’m a 1L at a tier-one school, so I’ve been following articles like this with great personal interest. Since I’m already committed and sticking it out at this point, I always try to find some silver lining. I figured I’d share it (even though it’s undoubtedly not enough of a plus to make this article less terrifying): I’ve noticed that an increasing percentage of law students are entering without any intent to practice law or even take the bar. Many of my classmates already have degrees in other fields and want a JD to help make them more competitive back in their own areas. Joint degrees with people going into careers in their non-JD field are also increasingly common. Perhaps one way to look at the dwindling percentage of law school grads in careers that require a JD is, at least partially, that more students are entering law school with that intent in the first place.
The ABA is a major contributing cause to the continually shrinking job market for attorneys. It makes me sick every time I read that there has been a new admission of 300 attorneys in Kentucky in the past six months. Not only is there no place for these new attorneys to work but they are driving down the salaries of more experienced attorneys who have to compete with them.
The ABA needs to take a hard look at all the schools it has accredited and take measures to stop this madness. Kentucky does not need three law schools. It is killing us.
I have been a lawyer since 1986, but it has taken a terrible toll on me. I expected some modicum of respect from the general public as a member of a learned profession, only to find my profession is the butt of jokes. It is too hard an endeavor to sit through three years of law school, bar review and bar exam to reap such disparagement.
The ABA seems to care about the ABA, not the legal profession so much.
Karen L. Stewart
Green Bay, Wis.
This article hits home for a lot of friends, colleagues and myself. I was fortunate to drop out of law school after my first year in 2008-09. Looking at the numbers, it made no sense to continue.
The issue with optimistic (and uninformed) prospective law students today is that they have not done their due diligence. Many schools post data that roughly 90 percent of their graduates find job placement within nine months of graduation. What they fail to say is that many of those jobs are episodic and range from retail to clerking for $15/hour as a doc review assistant. Prospective students should look at the real numbers, contact alumni and ask themselves if they are willing to work hard and live modestly for the next 15 years to pay off their debt.
Additionally, a lot of prospective law students don’t know that in California you do not need to go to law school to sit for the bar exam. Many other states have similar rules: Qualified professionals/students can sit for the bar exam by either attending law school previously or having experience working in a judge’s chambers or law office (essentially, work as a paralegal).
I know many paralegals who are happier working at a big firm or large corporation (earning $100K and bonuses) who do not have the liability and annual billable requirements that attorneys do. These paralegals simply went to a local school and earned their paralegal certificate, an investment of $5,000 max. This is nominal and a huge advantage in law school to have under your belt when you start your first year.
Laguna Hills, Calif.
While in law school, I traveled to Singapore and attended the National University of Singapore’s Faculty of Law LLM program. If you are unfamiliar with NUS, it is one of the leading law schools in Asia. Since there are no reputable rankings, I base this off the fact that NUS’s MBA is ranked 23rd in the world by the Financial Times, they have a strong record of performing well at international moot competitions, and they are partnered with New York University on several LLM programs.
The cost of attendance equals SGD$10,000 or what was about US$6,600 for the whole year.
The international lawyers who were my classmates, except my three fellow U.S. Americans (Colombian Americans and Panamanian Americans were in the class) could speak at least two languages.
There is a reckoning coming to the U.S. legal system. It has not even started to get bad.
“The Last Word,” January, is an excellent article. As a collaborative attorney in both the family law and medical-malpractice fields, I can attest to the power of nonadversarial and collaborative dispute resolution and apologies. In fact, most med-mal victims will tell you that they want two things: an explanation of what happened and a sincere apology. Those two things are far more valuable than money to them.
I am thrilled that the legal community as a whole is starting to realize that the traditional dynamic is not well-suited to many kinds of legal disputes. Legal practice is evolving for the better.
Randolph “Tre’ ” Morgan III
I recall sitting in on oral arguments for Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins (1989). The facts were simple: Ann Hopkins was passed over for partnership (even though she was more than qualified) and told to “walk more femininely, talk more femininely, dress more femininely, wear makeup, have her hair styled and wear jewelry.” Hopkins sued under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and ultimately the Supreme Court granted cert.
About halfway through oral arguments, Justice Thurgood Marshall questioned the lead counsel for Price Waterhouse: “Did you ever tell Ms. Hopkins that you were sorry?” Lead counsel answered, “Your honor, we don’t think that is relevant.” To which Justice Marshall, almost leaping out of his chair, bellowed, “I think it’s relevant.” The outcome was pretty much a no-brainer at that point.
H. Christopher Moss
Mount Pleasant, S.C.