We are either a nation of great optimists or utter fools. And I’m not even commenting about new entrants in the political arena. I’m referring to the seemingly endless flood of people who still aspire to be lawyers, despite the shrinking legal job market. According to The National Law Journal:

Veritas, a law school admissions consulting firm, polled 112 prospective law school applicants in June and July, and 81 percent said they would still apply even if “a significant number of law school graduates were unable to find jobs in their desired fields.” Only 4 percent said they would not apply to law school under that circumstance.

For months now, groups like the Law School Transparency have been arguing that law schools should be required to provide employment data about their graduates. The idea is that people might make the wiser choice of not going to law school if they know about the dismal job picture.

But “better information would do little to stem the tide of law school applications — which hit an all-time high last year,” the NLJ reported. Part of the reason seems to be that prospective law students seem to think pretty highly of themselves. Though they say they are worried about getting jobs, they feel they’ll do fine: 11 percent expect to earn “more than $145,000 out of law school. Another 29 percent expected to earn between $100,000 and $145,000, while the remaining 44 percent expected to earn between $75,000 to $100,000.”

The reality, NLJ pointed out, is that 34 percent of new lawyers for the class of 2009 report salaries of $40,000-$65,000.

But what’s amazing to me is that these lawyer-wannabes know they’ll be swimming in debt: “Of those polled by Veritas, 37 percent said they expected to take on more than $100,000 in debt.”

None of this makes much sense. What makes the Millenniums so cock-sure that they can defy the odds? Were they brought up with too much self-esteem? Are their parents footing the bills?

When there’s irrationality in the marketplace, I tend to look to popular culture too. This is hardly scientific, but there seems to be an explosion of TV shows about lawyers in recent years — Boston Legal, The Good Wife, and the endless Law & Order franchise (there are now Law & Order L.A. and Law & Order U.K. in addition to the surviving L&O: Special Victims Unit, plus endless reruns).

Perhaps these shows need to carry warnings — like those that come with boxes of cigarettes or stock offerings — sternly reminding viewers that fictional lawyers hardly reflect real ones, and that romanticising the profession comes with serious risks to health and wealth. Perhaps Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order empire who’s made a gazillion dollars, should be held accountable — just like cigarette manufacturers.

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If you have topics you’d like to discuss, or information to share for The Careerist, e-mail chief blogger Vivia Chen at VChen@alm.com.

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