Well, looks like everyone got the memo. According to the New York Times:
Law school applications are headed for a 30-year low, reflecting increased concern over soaring tuition, crushing student debt and diminishing prospects of lucrative employment upon graduation.
(And a good related article at the Atlantic, with charts.)
In other words, things played out pretty much as I predicted in Epilogue 7, written in July 2010. Which is not to gloat — many others saw what I did. And unfortunately, the legacy of the law-school bubble will not be bankrupt law schools (though there will be a few of those), but permanently insolvent law graduates ("bankrupt" being an inapplicable term, since bankruptcy cannot discharge law-school debt).
Instead of rising to their highest & best purpose in our economy, each of these graduates will be taking a job — any job — that will help them pay off their debt. And since those jobs will pay a lot less than the lawyer job they had planned on getting, paying off that debt will be excruciatingly slow. Moreover, along the way, those graduates won't be able to afford the houses, cars, and vacations that they would have under ordinary circumstances, with the corresponding negative impact on the economy at large.
"But those people chose to go to law school." True. But we now know — well, we knew, but now we have proof — that law-school employment numbers were being fudged beyond belief. Of many articles on the topic, the Wall St Journal's June 2012 exposé on the subject was perhaps the most lacerating. Law students have been unsuccessful suing their law schools for misrepresentation of job prospects. But does it really seem fair that law schools, who filled their seats using flagrantly misleading job statistics, should get paid in full? And if they are not held to account, either legally or extralegally (e.g., by the ABA), then what's to prevent them from doing it all again?
Right, that's what I thought — nothing. And this seems to be the cruelest coda of every bubble-popping story: that the costs fall on those least able to bear them, and the bad actors are almost never held to account. Those who profit from bubbles simply slither away and hide, to reappear as soon as memories of the last bubble fade. But there is nothing noble about a culture that rewards the destruction of its best and brightest. It is simply the recipe for a new dark age.
05 Feb 13 :::
My book based on my website Typography for Lawyers is now available from Jones McClure Publishing and Amazon. The book features a foreword by Bryan A. Garner, editor in chief of Black’s Law Dictionary, who calls it a “tour de force” that’s “smartly reasoned,” “well written,” and “assuredly infallible.” I won't quibble.
05 Jan 11 :::
In July 2009 I discussed the cratering of the job market for young lawyers:
My prediction (and I will be happy if I turn out to be wrong) is that the legal job market is looking at a lengthy and painful retrenchment that will last beyond the end of the recession at large. The basic issue is that the supply of attorneys is outstripping demand.
According to this story in today's Wall St Journal, not much has changed:
Alex Barnett spent 14 years as an attorney ... But after getting laid off by two firms in the spring of 2008, he began prepping for a different kind of spotlight: He launched a career in stand-up comedy.
Facing a tough job market, many lawyers struggling to find work ... are re-examining their roles and testing the waters in other fields. Some are attempting to stay in the industry by taking temporary work as contract lawyers — low-profile, lower-paying positions that often involve more routine work, according to consultants and industry experts. Others are becoming accountants, consultants or teachers.
"Quite frankly a significant number of lawyers are simply moving out of the profession, just looking to do completely different things," says Jerry Kowalski, a law-firm consultant based in New York and Washington, D.C. "The overall picture is the huge oversupply of lawyers."
Since the recession is technically over, I guess that means, once again: you heard it here first.
It also means, unfortunately, that all the advice I gave you in 2009 about suffering through the job market still holds, maybe most of all #1: If you're thinking about going to law school, think harder.
And you really do need to do your own thinking, because law schools want your business. They will not put your well-being ahead of theirs. I continue to get fliers in the mail from UCLA law school about new-student recruiting events. I continue to read stories about how UCLA and other law schools are increasing tuition. (For instance, UCLA law tuition for the coming year (2010-11) is over $40K for residents and over $50K for nonresidents. That's a 60% increase in the three years since I graduated.)
If American homeowners got into trouble by treating their homes as ATMs, it's hard for me not to think that law schools are sailing into similar trouble by relying on the apparently endless flow of new students (paying higher prices) to prop up their finances.
You could say that UCLA is a special case, because it's a state school and it's had to respond to cuts in government funding. Fair enough, but let's face it — every school is doing it. Here in LA, USC law school's tuition for the coming year is nearly $45K; Loyola is over $41K; and Southwestern is nearly $39K. Law students are not paying more for prestige; they are just paying more.
So if my warning wasn't clear enough before, let me put a finer point on it.
The idea that a law degree is "versatile" or "valuable in many fields" is a self-serving urban legend propagated by people who run law schools. The only job that requires a JD is being a lawyer. As to other jobs, though a law degree might help you in the pure sense of "make you a better-educated, more well-rounded person", it will not help you in the economic sense of "provide a net positive return on investment".
To keep the student inflow at the right levels, my impression is that law schools have been pitching themselves less as professional schools and more as finishing schools for young adults with good college GPAs. So far, it's working. The result is that students are graduating, getting the same jobs they would've gotten without their law degree, but now they have $150K+ in loans to pay back. (By the way, any competitive advantage attributable to a JD outside the legal market shrinks as the supply of JDs increases.)
In essence, the law schools are pumping up an existing bubble economy of JDs, processing as many students as possible without considering the long-term effects on the labor market.
And just as the real-estate bubble couldn't inflate forever, neither can the JD bubble. But the popping has been slower than the real-estate bubble, because unlike homeowners — who had to directly handle the consequences of sinking home equity — law schools are insulated from immediate consequences. By the time a student realizes their JD was a bad investment, they're long gone.
Eventually, the terrible conditions for lawyers in the job market have to translate into reduced applications. Don't they? To go back to the top of this post: lawyers are seeking supplementary careers in stand-up comedy? How many stories like this do potential law students have to read before the light goes on? One of the major reasons people drift into law school is because it's perceived as a safe career choice. If the safety factor is plummeting while tuition is rocketing, how is it still a worthwhile investment?
For as long as there have been lawyers, there have been lawyers trying to talk people out of going to law school, so I worry that the answer to most of my questions is "Shut up, you cranky curmudgeon". Hope springs eternal. Everyone who applies to law school does so thinking that the odds don't apply to them. Law school students, perhaps, are not rational actors in the economic sense.
That's too bad, because everything else about the job market for lawyers in the last three years has unfolded pretty much straight out of the Econ 101 playbook. I hate to be a naysayer, really I do. Before I went to law school in 2004, I made a relatively dispassionate assessment of the costs and risks, and compared being a lawyer to other options available then. But if I were making that same assessment in 2010, there's no way I would pick law school.
Let me be clear that I'm not griping about the profession at large. Law is an important field; lawyers do important work; being a lawyer can be rewarding. All this remains true. My argument against lawyering simply has to do with the crumpling of the basic economic model that has sustained the profession to date.
Finally, a few thoughts from Justice Antonin Scalia, who raised some points in 2009 that I agree with and that law-school applicants should take seriously:
Well, you know, two chiefs ago, Chief Justice Burger, used to complain about the low quality of counsel. I used to have just the opposite reaction. I used to be disappointed that so many of the best minds in the country were being devoted to this enterprise.
I mean there’d be a, you know, a defense or public defender from Podunk, you know, and this woman is really brilliant, you know. Why isn’t she out inventing the automobile or, you know, doing something productive for this society?
I mean lawyers, after all, don’t produce anything. They enable other people to produce and to go on with their lives efficiently and in an atmosphere of freedom. That’s important, but it doesn’t put food on the table and there have to be other people who are doing that. And I worry that we are devoting too many of our very best minds to this enterprise.
20 Jul 10 ::: Comments closed
I just got back from vacation. A friend mentioned that while I was gone, Michael Schill resigned as dean of UCLA law to go the University of Chicago.
I can't say I'm surprised. Faithful readers even heard it here first. As I wrote in a comment on March 13, 2007:
I really could not tell you what Dean Schill's vision is for UCLA law school in the next 3, 5, 10 years. (I don't think he'll be sticking around that long, but that's another story.)
He's leaving at the end of 2009, so that means he'll have lasted 33.5 months after my comment. Yahtzee.
It was apparent from the time he arrived that Schill saw his UCLA position largely as an audition for something bigger and better. To be fair, Schill's ambition was not, in itself, inherently bad. After all, many UCLA law professors try to move to higher-ranked schools after they get tenure.
And it doesn't mean that Schill's accomplishments were illusory. I haven't followed the UCLA law press releases that closely since I graduated, but it seems like UCLA under Schill recruited and appointed some solid new faculty members. Schill also raised a lot of money in the last couple years for the capital fund (during perhaps the worst possible time in the last 50 yrs to be asking). All of which made Schill justifiably popular among faculty and alumni.
But I didn't know any student who liked him that much. Perhaps that's to be expected, since students are probably the least important constituency for a dean to cultivate — after all, they didn't hire him, they can't fire him, and they're only there for three years. Not that students actively disliked him either. There just weren't any compelling reasons to feel warm toward him.
Schill may have been an effective administrator, but he had no gravity as a leader. He avoided big ideas. He wimped out around controversy. He was sensitive to criticism and reluctant to risk political capital on potentially unpopular positions. While always composed in front of the school at large, behind the scenes, he had the capacity to be petty and dictatorial when provoked.
He was 50% bureaucrat, 50% glad-handing politician. He always reminded me of a character in a Graham Greene novel, the career diplomat tending the embassy gardens in some long-forgotten edge of the British Empire, while quietly lobbying for a more civilized reassignment.
While Schill's time at UCLA law will be regarded as a success overall, he did not — he could not — grapple with the core identity crisis that UCLA law faces, which is: what does it mean to be a public law school these days?
Schill, coming from NYU, seemed to think that UCLA needed to act more like a private law school. In some ways, that was probably true — if UCLA wanted to compete with private schools for students and faculty, then it needed to raise the level of its game. (At one point Schill was receptive to privatizing UCLA law school.)
But as a public law school, UCLA has certain opportunities and — dare I say it? — responsibilities that private schools do not. Being competitive doesn't mean being the same. I'll stick to what I said in March 2007:
[A]s a public school, UCLA cannot compete in a head-to-head arms race against private law schools. Those schools have institutional & fundraising advantages that we can't overcome merely with willpower and elbow grease.
[For UCLA t]o be "true to its roots" as a state school would mean to care less about ranking and more about making a really solid legal education accessible to the widest range of Californians. After all, there is some notion that the point of a public education program funded with tax dollars is that it returns benefits to the public.
Bear in mind that for 20 years, UCLA has maintained its ranking around #15-20 without the benefit of huge funding. Tuition at the law school from 1999-02 was around $11,000. [For academic year 2006-07] it's $25,000 [for California residents].
And this year, it's $35K for residents — a 40% increase in three years, with no end in sight.
Schill didn't create this problem. As someone who wasn't going to stick around for the long term, he wasn't going to solve it either. But the next dean will have to. I hope that UCLA picks a dean who is prepared to grapple with this issue, who isn't afraid to step on toes when necessary, and who has the institutional commitment to see it through.
18 Sep 09 ::: Comments closed
Wow, how about that job market?
Friends and colleagues are bravely soldiering onward but this is a truly inhospitable time to be a lawyer. To those who are considering law school, currently there, or recently out:
You can safely discount the advice experienced lawyers may offer you about the current job market. They've never seen anything like it and they're not affected by it the way you are. Historically, the legal profession has been considered relatively recession-proof. Not so this time.
My prediction (and I will be happy if I turn out to be wrong) is that the legal job market is looking at a lengthy and painful retrenchment that will last beyond the end of the recession at large.
The basic issue is that the supply of attorneys is outstripping demand. Four contributors to that problem:
First: law schools are expanding the labor supply in a market that doesn't need it. For the last 10 or so years, law schools have been churning out an increasing number of lawyers in response to student demand, not labor market demand. The legal profession has grown to accommodate some of them, but not all.
Even before this current recession started, stories were percolating about new lawyers abandoning the field because entry positions were too competitive and salaries too low.
Now, we're having a major retraction in the legal job market, making it even more like a game of musical chairs than before: there just aren't enough jobs for every lawyer who wants one.
Meanwhile, law schools are pumping new lawyers into the labor market at the same rate as before. I didn't take economics in college but I believe this is called a problem of highly inelastic supply—we keep getting new lawyers whether anyone wants them or not. The necessary result will be higher unemployment among lawyers and lower wages for those who get jobs.
Second: law firms can't absorb the oversupply. The big law firms who have historically provided a lot of the entry-level positions have done so by hiring years ahead of their needs. Many recent associates have had their starting date deferred by months. Other firms are offering new associates incentives to defer a year or more.
So even after the economy at large turns around and business picks up again for these firms, they'll still be working to absorb their own oversupply.
Not to mention, big firms could also historically rely on large turnover to create spaces for new attorneys. But turnover rates depend on the availability of other options. So if 3rd and 4th year associates aren't getting called by headhunters, they're not leaving their firm jobs. And if they're not leaving, that's a seat that's not available for a new attorney.
Finally, firms have boxed themselves in to an inefficient cost structure by offering huge starting salaries to associates. That will also hamper their ability to create positions for new attorneys because they're struggling to pay the ones they've already got.
Third: government can't absorb the oversupply. Government employs a lot of lawyers. For instance, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office employs over 1000 lawyers. That's comparable to some of the biggest private firms in America.
But the pace of government hiring has slowed dramatically because of a) budget cuts and b) lower turnover.
Fourth: older lawyers are staying in the labor pool. Not a lot has been said about this issue but it seems inevitable that it will have an influence.
Retirement portfolios have been demolished in this bear market. People who thought they were near retirement are putting off their retirement plans. And people who are actually retired are going back to work to supplement their income.
This is true across the labor force; why won't it also be true for lawyers? Lawyers who would have exited the labor force in better times will now stay in. The labor pool just got larger still.
Perhaps this all sounds a little gloomy and grim. In one sense it is, but a young lawyer will do themselves more of a disservice to ignore reality. In the long term, everything will be fine. In the short term, it's apt to be tough sledding.
So what do you do when the sledding is tough? A few suggestions.
1) If you're thinking about going to law school, think harder. Many prospective law students have imagined that a law degree is an insurance policy—"at worst, I can always get work as a lawyer". That may have been true in the past, but it ain't true now. The labor market is competitive and will stay competitive for a while to come. The natural result will be fewer jobs and lower pay.
"Oh, but a law degree is a worthwhile credential in any field." No. Non-legal employers are not going to pay you a premium for your law degree. It's not economically rational to spend three years and $100K on a law degree so you can get the same job you could've gotten without it.
2) If you're in law school, be creative and open-minded about your employment options. There are a lot of legal jobs that are not in big firms, though law students gravitate toward the firm jobs because they're the lowest-hanging fruit. As that fruit gets picked clean, students will have to look elsewhere. Start the process while you're still in school. Seek out lawyers and firms who need help but who aren't at OCIP. Cultivate those relationships. It's going to be a lot harder to do once you're out of school, you're paying rent, and you have to start making loan payments.
3) If you're recently out of school and looking for a job, differentiate yourself. There's more competition now in the labor market. And the essence of competition is differentiation. If your pitch to prospective employers is "I got good grades and I don't drool on my shoes", that's not going to cut it. Neither is "I really want this job because you have a job available and I really need a job", which is what most cover letters boil down to.
Your challenge is to stand out in this crowd. I'm not talking about printing your resume on purple metallic paper. I'm talking about showing a prospective employer why they should hire you and not the next guy or gal. Give them a substantive reason why you are really more qualified, or more interested, or likely to be a better bet. Yes, you are a special unique snowflake, but nobody's going to notice in a stack of 200 resumes unless you clearly bring it to their attention.
Good luck everyone.
8/26 UPDATE: A story in today's New York Times echoes many of these points. You heard it here first, folks. One current student says he saw law school as a "green pasture of stability, a more comfortable life ... It was almost written in stone that you’ll end up in a law firm, almost like a birthright." Tip for my readers: Don't be this guy.
9/25 UPDATE: An admirably candid concurrence from the chairman of gigantic law firm K&L Gates:
In addition to layoffs, law firms have dramatically cut their hiring of law school graduates. Do you think many college graduates today should think twice before they head off to law school?
Yes. The business model of the U.S. law school doesn’t quite make sense to me. Law schools will bring you in from college and educate you, but they will encumber you with six-figure indebtedness at a tender age.
The assumption was that there was no problem, because law firms like K&L Gates would pay that off for you. And that is where the wheels are falling off.
I’ve heard that law school applications are actually increasing. We will be pouring tens of thousands of young people into a market that I suspect is not going to be able to absorb them at the remuneration levels that would have justified them taking on that debt.
1/17 UPDATE: Big story in today's NY Times. The Great Recession may be over, but the Great Legal Hiring Freeze-out will continue.
03 Jul 09 ::: Comments closed
But it's all for a good cause: self-promotion. I've launched a website that takes some of my hard-won knowledge about typography and document layout and packages it for the legal profession. Law students will probably also find it useful. Please enjoy, and send it to 10,000 of your closest friends. It's a lot like this site, but with less cursing.
16 Sep 08 ::: Comments closed
All my friends who retook the bar in February found out they passed a few weeks ago. So congratulations to them. Law school is really, definitely, completely over now.
I've made good on my plans to go solo. I've opened Butterick Law Corporation, where I'm focusing on developing consumer class action claims. I should have some good ones for you in the near future.
Readers, I've kept my promises to you. I did not chicken out at the last minute and go to the thousand-lawyer firm to toil in obscurity. I am here to fight the good fight.
To date, much of solo law practice seems to boil down to two skills: reading carefully and meeting deadlines. (Of course, these are rarer than you'd hope among other attorneys.)
In other words — so far, so good.
10 Jun 08 ::: Comments closed
I passed the California bar exam.
It was almost exactly four years ago that I literally woke up and had the idea to go to law school. And next week, I will take my oath and become an attorney.
Over time, I've found that a funny thing happens when you set long-term goals and reach them: by the time you get there, you've already started focusing on the next goal so it's hard to pause and appreciate the ground you've already covered.
Four years ago, the idea of going back to school after 12 yrs and becoming a California attorney seemed almost preposterously far-fetched. But here it is. So I should be pausing for a moment of self-congratulation.
But it doesn't feel right. And that's because I know quite a number of people from UCLA who didn't pass the bar exam. We stormed the beach together, struggled across the dunes, and reached the top of the hill, and just as we were about to complete the mission, they got picked off by a sniper.
It sucks. It sucks for them. And for me, it makes passing the bar exam seem less like an achievement and more like another instance of the unpredictable grading standards at work throughout law school. These are people who were plenty smart to pass. Everyone expected them to pass. But they didn't. And meanwhile, people who were not, shall we say, high achievers in law school did manage to pass.
Am I saying that people with low grades don't deserve to pass the bar? No. The bar exam has rules. When you take the exam, you agree to play by those rules. And whether you passed or you failed, you earned your results fair & square. I'm just saying that I probably underestimated the ability of the bar exam to confound one's expectations — in both positive & negative directions. On a different day, it could've been me.
So, I'm not ready to celebrate. I'm glad I passed. I'm ready to start working as an attorney. But this achievement is incomplete. I'm not ready to congratulate myself until I can congratulate all my friends. The cork stays in the champagne bottle until everyone makes it over the finish line.
To those who didn't pass: if you're crying, or yelling, or lying face-down in a puddle of Jack Daniel's — who could blame you. It sucks. It sucks to have gotten this far and just miss. It sucks to have made such an emotionally exhausting commitment to the exam the first time and now be called upon to repeat that performance. I won't say I know how it feels because I don't. But if you told me I had to take the bar exam again, I would definitely cry. And then crawl off to eat a six-pack of Swiss Miss pudding.
And I salute you. Because most of you will be signing up to retake the exam in February. And it is no small feat to pick up from this setback and get ready to do it all again, in the meantime experiencing all the collateral annoyances from not being a licensed attorney (e.g. the bump-up in salary you were counting on to help pay your student loans). It sucks. But keep at it. I am cheering for you.
18 Nov 07 ::: Comments closed
Next week is the bar exam.
I remember reading that during the good old days at West Point, new cadets would be hazed by having to do a "white tornado": an upperclassman would take all the condiments on the mess hall table — salt, sugar, pepper, tabasco, ketchup, etc. — and mix them in a bowl. Then the cadet would have to eat it. All of it.
The whole bar exam process is a white tornado. At the beginning, you stare down and wonder how you'll be able to consume all the material. Then you start plugging away, and though progress seems slow, little by little you make your way through the pile. Toward the end, you feel disgusting and ill, but you realize that getting through it is more about willpower and persistence than intellect or talent.
Much like law school, preparing for the bar exam is not hard so much as it's long and tedious. After nine weeks of studying, I am utterly, totally, sick of it. I'm sick of being stuck in the house, watching the beautiful summer days pass outside my window, as I hit "play" on yet another Barbri lecture (I listened to the lectures at home, an option I recommend if you're someone who can work at home without habitually ending up watching the Game Show Network). I'm sick of eating takeout. I'm sick of having to say "I'd love to go, but I have to study for the bar exam".
I hit the wall this past Wednesday — I just didn't feel like I could cram one more item into my brain. So for the last few days, I've just been taking it easy and goofing off. Next week, as I sit in air-conditioned discomfort in the Sacramento convention center, I will remember these days fondly.
To be fair, the study process is not totally without value. I've learned some useful things that I bypassed in law school. I also have a better sense of how different areas of the law fit together. I can't say whether I'll retain anything 10 days from now, but today, I'm competent to give legal advice.
A lawyer I know who took the California bar after moving from New York said "What's the big deal? If you study, you pass." I think he's pretty much right. The bar examiners make a deal with you: The bad news is that the exam covers a ridiculously broad range of topics — more than anyone could hope to retain. So if you think you have to learn all the material to pass, you're nuts. Because you can't, and you'll go crazy trying.
The good news is that they write the exam so it hits the same topics over and over, the same way. So studying the law is important, but studying the past exams is what helps you narrow your focus to a feasible territory.
On that point, I must give credit to the Barbri lecturers, who do a good job separating out the "must know" material from the "learn it if you can" material. The first amendment? Must know. The federal postal monopoly? Only if you have time.
I can't imagine anyone ever feels totally prepared for the bar. The best you can do is feel prepared enough. And that's fine, because as a pass / fail exam, there's no profit in overpreparation. Many of the bar takers I know, including myself, are lifelong academic overachievers (i.e. dorks) so it's required a bit of adjustment to turn off the part of our brains that wants to get an 'A'. Because there is no 'A' to get.
(Though I hear that if you do really well on the California bar exam, they solicit you to be an essay grader — if I find out that anyone I know accepts that offer, I will drive to their house and give them a massive wedgie.)
The last straw for me was a few days ago, when I emailed a friend to ask a question about free speech regulation. He told me he had had the exact same question, and had emailed Erwin Chemerinsky, who is a national constutitional law scholar and handles the Barbri con law lecture. Chemerinsky implied that it had no answer.
At that point, I knew it was time to put down my pencil and go outside.
Best of luck to everyone taking the exam next week.
JULY 26 UPDATE: Bar exam complete. Pretty much exactly what I expected. I think we can say that what's true of law school is also true of the bar exam: if you can get past the whining and griping, it's not that big a deal. The two months of bar exam preparation is far worse than the exam itself, that's for sure. Now if you'll excuse me ... I have to start the goofing-off part of my summer in earnest.
21 Jul 07 ::: Comments closed
Epilogue 8: Buy my book
Epilogue 7: Recessionaires cont'd
Epilogue 6: Schill quits UCLA
Epilogue 5: recessionaires
Okay, I lied. Epilogue 4
Epilogue 3: The End (really)
Epilogue 2: Nov 2007
The eagle has landed
Seduced by the dark side
You've been in law school too long when...
I have only five more class days
The lone gunman
The last spring break is over
Someone saved your life tonight
Dean Schill & the Pussymobile
Help me yet again
Wall St Journal Law Blog
Matthew Black Orchestra