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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.

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.