September 25, 2007
The Not So Rosy Side of the Legal Job Market
Posted by Lisa Fairfax

The Wall Street Journal has an article highlighting a troubling problem for law schools—the tightening legal job market.  Many law school students enter law school dazzled by the possibility of making a six figure salary at a large law firm, and hence take on law school debt with barely any qualms.  This may be particularly true for students desiring to practice corporate law because they want to work on large transactions at equally large firms.  And it is true that large law firm salaries have risen over the years—first years can make as much as $160,000 a year.  But it is also true that only students at top law schools and/or students at the top of their law school class manage to secure these law firm jobs.  For the rest of the students, the job market presents a different reality.

Indeed, the WSJ article suggest that many students in the middle or bottom of their class find it difficult to find employment; or at least find it difficult to secure the expected high-paying employment.  Instead, such students end up in small firms, as solo practitioners, in the government/private sector, or taking on contract work.  Jobs in these industries do not tend to come with dazzling salaries.  Moreover, the salaries at many of these jobs have not grown at the same rate as those at large law firms.  For example, apparently the average income for many solo practitioners has been flat since the mid-1908s, while the income for lawyers who enter the government or take on public interest jobs has not fared much better, rising 8.6% and 4% respectively between 1994 and 2006 while the median family income has risen at least 11% during that same period.  One of the reasons for this pattern is a supply and demand problem: while the number of lawyers continues to grow, the demand for lawyers has declined. Hence, according to data from the Commerce Department, since 1988 the legal sector has grown less than half as fast as the broader economy.   Thus, there appear to be too many lawyers and not enough jobs, particularly high-salary jobs, to go around.  And of course the salary issue is exacerbated by growing tuition rates at law schools.  The result is that many students take on tremendous debt; yet those students are under the impression that they will easily pay that debt with a high paying law firm job.

Ultimately, one key to this problem is disclosure.  No one is saying law school students deserve six figure salaries.  But prospective law students need to be given an accurate assessment of their job prospects so that they can understand the debt load they are taking on in relation to their realistic opportunities for employment once they graduate.  Schools also must do a better job of seeking out and helping students find alternatives to the large firm.  Some schools are better at this process than others.  However, the reality in many law schools is that it is almost too easy to learn about the relative ins and outs of large law firm jobs.  In contrast, too often learning about other law-related opportunities represents an opaque and up-hill struggle.  Hence, for many law students the job search represents a frustrating process.  And the frustrating nature of that process comes as a surprise for many students who entered law school thinking that there would be a fairly lucrative job waiting for them upon graduation.

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