The pending lawsuit against nearly 20 law schools by frustrated unemployed graduates has been coming up a lot lately. How should I advise my college students who ask about law school? I think somewould enjoy practicing law, but I urge them to consider other ways to use their skills before they make the enormous financial commitment of law school tuition. I also urge them to actually talk to lawyers before training to become one.
Life After Law is not about dissuading people from going to law school. It’s about dissuading people who would end up hating law from going to law school, and helping those who already have or are getting their JD to find work they would love more than law practice. That career pivot usually requires repurposing the skills they love using in creative new ways. College students can reframe their skills too, although they generally have less experience to infer from.
Inflating employment numbers is unarguably wrong, but law schools aren’t responsible for so much disappointment in the legal profession. It’s well known that the rate of recently minted JDs who can find work practicing law has been dropping for years, and now hovers around 56%. There are certainly fewer legal jobs available now, relative to the number of recent JDs, than there have ever been. The collapse of major law firms, including my former employer Heller Ehrman, every year or two for the past decade is one sign of this contraction. Just as law takes time to catch up with technology, it takes time for popular conceptions of law practice (fueled by TV shows from LA Law to Boston Legal) to catch up with the deteriorating realities. But the fact that law school application rates have also been dropping suggests that college students are getting the message. Law school isn’t a quick route to the good life for argumentative liberal arts grads.
These lawsuits don’t reflect the real problem with the legal profession. It isn’t that too few JDs can find work. It’s that too many practicing lawyers dislike their work, but can’t figure their way out. If more of these unhappy lawyers transitioned into better-fitting careers, they might make room for those new lawyers who genuinely want to practice law. Like the thirty ex-lawyers profiled in Life After Law, they would enjoy their work lives more. Lawyers’ rates of depression (currently twice the national average) might go down. More writers, analysts, managers, counselors, advocates and entrepreneurs might do the great work they should be doing directly instead of suffering inside law firms or law schools. I can dream, can’t I?