The career paths and prospects for young lawyers are markedly different than recent generations. A law degree was once a passport to a stable, predictable, and financially secure career. Most lawyers began their careers with little or no student debt and entered a marketplace where on-the-job training and mentorship were provided. The situation is different today from the day a student enrolls in law school. The cost of legal education has risen approximately 400% during the past quarter century, leaving many grads with six-figure student loans to pay off. Worse still, law schools do not expose them to marketplace conditions that demand they be ‘practice ready’ and equipped with skills beyond a knowledge of doctrinal law. The Grateful Dead comes to mind– ‘Well the first days are the hardest days, don’t you worry any more….’ [Read more…]
Ok, so the decision to pursue or forego a legal career hardly elevates to Prince Hamlet’s existential choice of living a pained life or ending it to endure something perhaps worse. But let’s face it: embarking upon a legal career is no longer a reserved seat for a comfortable, predictable career journey.
To the contrary, those about to embark upon that journey confront: (1) the daunting cost of law school; (2) an average of $120K debt for attending; (3) a job market where, nationally, close to half of all graduates do not have Bar-required employment nine months after graduation; (4) a widespread market perception that law school graduates — even those from elite schools — lack “practice ready” skills; (5) cut-backs in hiring newly minted lawyers — even among many stalwart law firms; (6) an erosion of mentorship due in part to pressure on senior lawyers to “produce” more (7) the unlikelihood of making (equity) partner; (8) instability of law firms; (9) global competition; (10) technology companies creating products that replace services; and (11) a blizzard of negative press trumpeting the glum prospects for the profession; and (12) alternative career choices–finance, accounting, technology, etc.– that portend greener pastures and do not require the same time and financial commitment to prepare for entry.
So how do you respond to a wide-eyed young person who asks, “Should I become a lawyer?”
It’s Rarely a Simple Answer
Whether or not someone should become a lawyer does not lend itself to a “one size fits all” answer. Some variables include: (1) what other options are available? ; (2) is there a particular reason why the person wants to become a lawyer (to save the environment, to represent undocumented aliens, etc.)? ; (3) does the individual have financial means — or access to them — to pay for law school and, if not, what is the risk tolerance for assuming (additional) education debt? (4) can she get admitted to a highly ranked law school or exact a good financial deal from a lower ranked one?; (5) what are the expectations of the individual going into law school? (a reality check may be necessary); (6) does the individual have other skills (languages, business or technical background, etc.) that could be leveraged and serve to distinguish them from others?; and (7) how informed is the prospect about the job market, especially relative to the cost—actual and lost opportunity—of attending law school?
The list of variables goes on, of course, but if law schools are not willing to provide their version of “informed consent,” then the “caveat emptor” student/buyer must conduct independent due diligence. And make no mistake about it: law students — like students generally — are “emptors” of the institution they enroll in and have a right, if accepted, to be trained for the legal marketplace not as it was even a decade ago but as it is today. Law schools are not guarantors for matriculated students’ success, but they do — at least in my judgment — bear responsibility to imbue students with a cursory understanding of the current global legal marketplace as well as provide them with doctrinal and practical skills necessary to be “market ready” upon graduation and passing the Bar. And “market ready” today means something very different than it did until recently when law students transitioned to law firms and received years of client subsidized training and mentorship. [Read more…]