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The law school bubble is about to burst

Most prospective law students would be better off working their way up the ranks at McDonald's. There. I said it.

Even before the recession began, going to law school was a dicey proposition. Although law schools trumpet average or median starting salaries of about $80,000, most lawyers make between about $40,000 and $60,000, according to the National Association of Legal Professionals, and have for many years. Only a few lawyers get those gravy-train, six-figure salaries. But most law students graduate with $60,000 to $90,000 in debt [PDF] — and those are just the averages for public and private law school graduates.

In other words, the vast majority of law school graduates will not be able to afford the cost of law school. And despite the 90-percent-plus employment figures touted by most law schools, most graduates will not get jobs as lawyers in law firms.

Even Harvard students are starting to feel the pinch. And if Harvard grads are jockeying for fewer jobs, what is left for the rest of the top schools, including the University of Minnesota? There are high-paying jobs for — maybe — the top 1 percent of law school graduates. And the rest?

Many will pick up low-paying temp work doing document review. Many others will never practice law. Those who remain will have to evolve.

Why the loss of jobs?
The loss of jobs is not entirely due to the economy. The demand for traditional legal services is trending downward. Some believe the flush legal market of a few years ago is gone for good. It is not just the economy. Outsourcing and the rise of contract legal labor (getting cheaper, thanks to the swelling ranks of unemployed lawyers) play a large part. Cheap software packages for wills and divorces and the general commoditization of law are factors as well. The economy gets the rest.

Despite all of this, the number of people taking the LSAT are way up. About 10,000 more people took the LSAT last fall, foreboding a record number of admissions next fall. Many of those law students will end up regretting their choice.

Although law school deans may be going to bed with visions of tuition revenues dancing in their heads, they should be fearing for their schools' reputations come hiring time.

The law school bubble is about to burst, and it won't be easy paying off those law school loans with a McDonald's paycheck.

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Comments (6)

This article is spot on! The Minnesota State Bar Association should put a stop to the continued unethical practices of law schools who continue to recruit law students by lying to them about their future prospects. After 7 years I have $100,000 in student loans and make maybe $40,000 per year doing temporary work while supporting 3 children. I cannot afford to pay my living expenses much less my loans. The moral and ethical standards for lawyers are very high, but the Bar and the Minnesota Office of Lawyers Professional Responsibility allow this highly unethical and unprofessional behavior among law schools to continue. It is past time for the Bar and the PR Board to start supporting its members by requiring law schools to disclose these facts. It is also high time the Minnesota State Bar Association start taking care of their members and for lawyers to stand together and support each other!

Great article. When I toyed with the idea of going to law school after college, the sagest career advice I ever received was, "Law school is a lousy place to try to figure out what you want to do with your life." I suspect it is a more lousy place still to wait out a recession.

I think Mr. Glover's commentary on the surfeit of JD degrees should also apply to MBAs. From my experience in the corporate world, I think the MBA the most overrated "business" credential imaginable.

Good post, Mr. Glover, and thank you. Two points that may be accurate relevant:

a) My understanding of the information available from Lawyers Concerned for Lawyers is that the median average total student loan debt carried by law school graduates is now
$189,000. This figure includes undergraduate loans that have been rolled over while going to law school and is in line with the numbers I am hearing from new lawyers.

I believe this works out to about $2,500 per month in student loan payments (that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy) before the new lawyer gets to eat or pay for a place to live.

b) The disconnect between the recipient of the loaned money and the value of the item received is both apparent and accepted.

Schools are not expected to carry the loan, nor to depend on its successful repayment. In other words, once they arrange for the loan and get the money, it makes no difference to them if the buyer is unable to pay.

The parallel with the securitization of home mortgage loans is frightening, isn't it?

If America truly valued students and what they will contribute in the future, it would make all post-high school education free and then collect a small, graduated tax on income until retirement.

Those who made the big bucks would end up paying proportionately more, but no one would be in debt at the same time they are starting to establish themselves in a career and to start a family.

No one is forcing these would-be lawyers to apply to law school. Don't blame it on the law-school recruiters.

A good article...the only flaw is it's about 25 years too late.