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Law school is not a losing game

A lengthy article in today’s New York Times asks “Is Law School a Losing Game?”  That story chronicles the problems new law school graduates are having finding entry level positions that will pay them enough to service the debt they incurred attending law school.  Meanwhile, rarely does a week go by without the American Bar Association’s weekly journal recounting some tale of a recent law school graduate engaging in some foolish, desperate stunt to erase the consequences–and debt–incurred in becoming a lawyer.  This week’s story is “Law Grad in ‘Severe Financial Distress’ Seeks $200K for Law Degree on eBay.”  The subtext of these tales-of-woe is that there are too many new lawyers and that law school is a game that only suckers play.  Given that the young lawyers these stories tend to profile come off as whiney rather than as earnest, this subtext isn’t even subtle or hidden.

And from my observations of both the supply side and the demand side of lawyer services, I say “bullshit.”  Law school is not a losing game and stories that say otherwise anger me.  There is plenty of demand for the type of services that new lawyers can provide and new lawyers who are interested in practicing law can establish a legal career and develop a satisfying and remunerative legal practice.

I start with the assumption that bright young college graduates attend law school with three goals: 1) to help people achieve justice; 2) to make a comfortable living; and 3) to do work that is creative, intellectually stimulating and culturally respected.  Each law student places different weight on the importance of these goals but I’ve met few law students, or lawyers, who didn’t place some value on each of these areas (the folks who graduate near the top of their class from first tier law schools and then go into low–paying public interest work should have everyone’s utmost respect).

I realize many folks talk cynically about the legal profession but when these same folks get into legal trouble they appreciate the ability to obtain an attorney to guide them and advocate for them.  I’ve practiced almost twenty years and while the legal skills of my colleagues varies greatly, I have met few attorneys who do not work diligently and thoughtfully to help the people they represent.  I am not all at cynical about my profession.

Given my view of my colleagues and my view of why folks become lawyers, I would contend that there are actually too few lawyers.  Take the example of my geographic and practice area: family law near Charleston, South Carolina.  From a demand perspective, there are too few lawyers.  The number and percentage of pro se litigants in family court increases every year.  I could have ten times as many clients if I did not charge most new clients my current hourly rate.  One way I keep myself from working 300 hour weeks is turning away work from people who cannot afford my services.  Not every one of these pro se litigants and folks I turn away because they cannot afford me would retain an attorney who could do the work for a lower cost than I am willing to work for–but many would.  There is a huge demand for family law work in the Charleston area that is not being met.

Meanwhile I am informally mentoring a few recent law school graduates, T. Ryan Phillips and Jenny R. Moser.  Both graduated law school and opened their own practices in Charleston within the past year and both are focused on family law.  There are probably similar attorneys of whom I am not aware.  While Mr. Phillips and Ms. Moser could certainly use more work, neither appear to be starving and both appear to be more productive and getting more experience than the unemployed whiners that the ABA and the New York Times profile.  There is clearly a supply of new attorneys able to provide legal services to a public that might not be able to afford the services of more experienced attorneys.

These news stories miss two important points.  First, there is an entrepreneurial, business-generating, component to the legal profession–and to every profession–that few professional schools teach–or even note.  Thus newly-minted lawyers exit law school with the expectation that they need an associate position to begin their career.  If, instead, they understood that what they really need is training to begin their career and enough compensation to remain fed and housed, and that an associate position is not the only way to meet these needs, they would be more hopeful.

Second, there are plenty of folks who could pay attorneys $50.00 to $100.00 per hour–but not $250.00 per hour–and could use the services of new attorneys hungry to establish a practice and develop a client base (frankly, I could do a better job matching the callers who cannot afford me with these newly-licensed attorneys).  A newly-licensed attorney who kept his or her overhead low and charged and collected for 20 hours of work at $50.00 per hour would still be better off than an attorney the New York Times’ story profiles, who was doing document review and earning $10.00 per hour.

I feel sad that some newly-licensed attorneys regret attending law school because they haven’t landed a $160,000 per year associate position that will consume their waking hours with stultifying work.  While I doubt Ms. Moser or Mr. Phillips are making $160,000 per year, I know they aren’t starving and know they are enjoying their career choice.  And I would advise anyone seeking professional education whose sole goal is to exit making $160,000 per year to attend B-school instead.

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