Steven Harper
Steven Harper (Karen Hoyt)

The latest data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that during April 2014 the country’s job growth exceeded economists’ expectations. So, the recovery continues. But one line item included in the BLS’ latest detailed jobs report should be particularly troubling to some law school deans and professors who continue to make bold predictions about the legal industry’s future.

The Facts

Even as the economy added 288,000 new jobs in April, the legal services sector (which includes lawyers and nonlawyers) lost 1,200 positions. A single monthly result doesn’t mean much. But over the past year, total legal services employment has increased by only 700 jobs.

In fact, according to the BLS [ PDF], the net number of legal services jobs has shrunk by 37,000 since December 2007. Meanwhile, law schools have been awarding 40,000 new J.D. degrees annually for more than a decade, according to the American Bar Association [PDF].

The Deniers’ Plight

Despite those numbers, some law school deans and professors still object to any characterization of this situation as a “crisis” in legal education.

In fact, one professor proclaimed last summer that now is still a great time to go to law school because a lawyer shortage will be upon us by the fall of 2015! Before rejoicing that we’ve almost reached that promised land, note that in 2011 the same professor, Ted Seto at Loyola Law School, Los Angeles, predicted that the short-term problem of lawyer oversupply would lend itself to a quick and self-correcting resolution when the business cycle turned upward.

Well, the upward turn has been under way for several years, but a significant growth in the number of new legal jobs hasn’t accompanied it. Nevertheless, tuition has continued to rise [PDF]. For prelaw students now contemplating six-figure J.D. debt, the law school deniers have a soothing argument: A degree from anywhere is well worth the cost to anyone who gets it.

Using aggregate data, the deniers ignore dramatic differences in individual outcomes for schools and students. Some deniers even use their lifetime J.D.-value calculations to defend unrivaled tuition growth rates for law schools generally. In somewhat contradictory rhetoric, they simultaneously promote income-based loan repayment plans as a panacea.

This Is Leadership?

Recently, one dean assured me privately that the deniers have now become outliers. If so, the overall reaction of deans as a group remains troubling. In particular, law schools have countered a precipitous drop in applicants with soaring acceptance rates. The likely result will be a total fall 2014 class somewhere between 35,000 and 38,000 first-year students.

Likewise, law school sales pitches have devolved into cynical efforts at selling something other than the practice of law. They market the versatility of a J.D. as preparation for anything else that law graduates might want to do with their lives. But so is a medical degree. So are degrees in lots of other disciplines. So what? Medical schools train doctors. Isn’t the core mission of law schools to train lawyers? What will remain after we abandon that sense of professional purpose and identity?

Practicing Law? Oh, I Could Have Done That.

All of this raises a question: How do the law school deans and professors in denial about the state of things deal with unpleasant facts that don’t fit the worldview they’re trying to sell others? Ignore them. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain, as the self-designated Wizard of Oz might say to Dorothy. Somehow, we’ll get you back to Kansas—which happens to be where Steven Freedman, the University of Kansas School of Law’s associate admissions dean, recently went public with his denial.

Like similar predictions, Freedman’s analysis is suspect. For example, his projected lawyer shortage by 2017-18 ignores the excess inventory of new law graduates that the system has produced over the past several years (and continues to produce). (In a follow-up comment to his own post on “The Faculty Lounge,” Freedman defended his resulting calculations on the unsupported grounds that “the vast majority of them retired or changed careers”—an assumption, he acknowledges, that contradicts the real-world observations and data of Jim Leipold, executive director of NALP.)

Even worse, Freedman offers a general recommendation to every prospective student—“ Enroll today!” was the title of his first installment at “The Faculty Lounge.” But he fails to mention that employment outcomes vary enormously across law schools. His post’s subtitle—“Why 2017-2018 Will Be a Fantastic Time to Graduate from Law School”—is fraught with the danger that accompanies the absence of a nuanced and individualized message.

Ironically, in the real world of clients, judges and juries, attorneys who ignore the key facts in a case usually lose. Eventually, they have trouble making a living. Someday, perhaps the law school deniers will have that experience, firsthand.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” (Basic Books, April 2013) and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.