Mark Dubois ()
If one was to rank past jobs only on the degree of satisfaction obtained, I have to say that the years I spent teaching law school were the best of my career. When I began teaching in 2001, things were pretty good. Though cyclical, the market grew nicely every year and was elastic enough that just about everybody who wanted to work could eventually find a pretty good job.
About halfway through my teaching career, the housing market collapsed, the great recession (depression?) settled in, and legal hiring flat-lined. First, some firms deferred bringing in their entry-level candidates, instead having them do pro bono work while receiving half of their salaries. Then some classes were canceled, and a glut of unemployed grads began filling the market.
Now, according to a recent report from the National Association of Law Placement, the folks that collect and analyze the data on hiring of new law grads, it appears that about 85 percent of the class of 2013 is employed, with about 70 percent of those folks in jobs requiring a JD.
Perhaps trying to put the numbers in the best light, NALP Executive Director James Leipold was recently quoted as saying that “the entry-level legal employment market is a complex labor market that defies easy analysis or simple summation. In the best of times, law school graduates have entered the labor force by taking many different kinds of jobs, not all of which can be described as actually practicing law or even law-related. As the legal services market continues to change at a rapid pace following the dramatic downsizing during the recession, the variety and diversity of jobs that law grads take now is greater than ever.”
In other words, while “thinking like a lawyer” might be a good talent for being a lawyer, it increasingly is something that folks are taking into other professions. That is fine, and in accord with the traditional notion that legal skills were very portable. Unfortunately, along with this information came news that the average new lawyer should expect to make about $60,000. That is about what experienced paralegals in big firms make.
And it appears that new lawyers are carrying record levels of student debt, so much so that some bar examiners have wondered whether excessive debt might be a disqualifying circumstance for bar admission. The thinking is that if a new lawyer owes too much money, she might not be a safe bet to handle client money in an essentially unregulated environment.
I read that Connecticut has seen a dramatic drop-off in bar exam applicants. An economist would not be surprised, and would probably point out that this is just a simple market correction. Excessive supply has depressed prices to a point where new market entrants are looking elsewhere to invest their money. But a lack of new blood has consequences.
Mike Bowler, the Statewide Bar Counsel and keeper of the statistics, recently pulled a report that seemed to show that our bar is shrinking. The cohorts who are 20 to 30 and 30 to 40 years old are markedly smaller than the 40 and up groups. Those numbers are worrisome.
Law schools are going to have to come to grips with the fact that the “new normal” may means that some have to close, other have to retrench, and that fewer teachers are going to be teaching fewer students for a long time ahead. Hmmm. Goodbye to my plan to teach in my retirement.
Bar association leaders and administrative staff are going to have to embrace the fact that their membership rolls are going to tighten, as fewer new lawyers will be coming in to replace those who retire or for other reasons leave the profession. Broadening their mission may save some from extinction.
Court administrators also are going to have to consider the ramifications of a smaller pool of practicing lawyers. Much of the effort by many courts to respond to the record influx of unrepresented parties has been to urge lawyers to do more pro bono work. Some courts do this with a mix of moral suasion and public recognition. In some other courts, such as bankruptcy, where the complexity of the rules and filing requirements pretty much negates self-representation, I hear there is talk of a mandatory pro bono requirement as a condition of practice. With a shrinking pool of lawyers, more and more will be asked of fewer and fewer, but there is a point where the supply is exhausted.
Maybe I had better think about being a bike mechanic when I retire instead of teaching law school. I bet thinking like a lawyer will get me through some of the interview questions.
Mark Dubois, the former chief disciplinary counsel in Connecticut, is now an attorney at the New London firm of Geraghty & Bonnano. He is also president of the Connecticut Bar Association. The views expressed here are his own and not those of the CBA.