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Presiding over the decline in the legal profession

Between my work as a volunteer attorney mentor, being asked by a Philippine attorney working on a book about legal career paths to describe mine, and being asked by South Carolina Lawyer’s Weekly “what do you tell young people who are considering a career in law?,” I have spent significant time the past few weeks thinking about the future of my profession.  Thus an article in last Thursday’s New York Times, Law Schools’ Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Jobs Are Cut, piqued my interest.  This story notes:

 As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.

And,

 “We are going through a revolution in law with a time bomb on our admissions books,” said William D. Henderson, a professor of law at Indiana University, who has written extensively on the issue. “Thirty years ago if you were looking to get on the escalator to upward mobility, you went to business or law school. Today, the law school escalator is broken.”

Responding to the new environment, schools are planning cutbacks and accepting students they would not have admitted before.

A few schools, like the Vermont Law School, have started layoffs and buyouts of staff. Others, like at the University of Illinois, have offered across-the-board tuition discounts to keep up enrollments. Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School, who runs a blog on the topic, said he expected as many as 10 schools to close over the coming decade, and half to three-quarters of all schools to reduce class size, faculty and staff.

After the normal dropout of some applicants, the number of those matriculating in the fall will be about 38,000, the lowest since 1977, when there were two dozen fewer law schools, according to Brian Z. Tamanaha of Washington University Law School, the author of “Failing Law Schools.”

And,

 In recent years there has also been publicity about the debt load and declining job prospects for law graduates, especially of schools that do not generally provide employees to elite firms in major cities. Last spring, the American Bar Association released a study showing that within nine months of graduation in 2011, only 55 percent of those who finished law school found full-time jobs that required passage of the bar exam.

“Students are doing the math,” said Michelle J. Anderson, dean of the City University of New York School of Law. “Most law schools are too expensive, the debt coming out is too high and the prospect of attaining a six-figure-income job is limited.”

Mr. Tamanaha of Washington University said the rise in tuition and debt was central to the decrease in applications. In 2001, he said, the average tuition for private law school was $23,000; in 2012 it was $40,500 (for public law schools the figures were $8,500 and $23,600). He said that 90 percent of law students finance their education by taking on debt. And among private law school graduates, the average debt in 2001 was $70,000; in 2011 it was $125,000.

Yet, as the article points out and as I have written before, the issue may not be that we have too many lawyers, but that there is a market failure in matching lawyers with potential clients:

“We have a significant mismatch between demand and supply,” said Gillian K. Hadfield, professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California. “It’s not a problem of producing too many lawyers. Actually, we have an exploding demand for both ordinary folk lawyers and big corporate ones.”

That same New York Times article notes that most professions are growing:

The drop in law school applications is unlike what is happening in almost any other graduate or professional training, except perhaps to veterinarians. Medical school applications have been rising steadily for the past decade.

For those who dispute that family law is a growth profession and that part of the legal profession’s problem is a mismatch between supply and demand , I would note that just last week South Carolina added six new at-large family court judges.

To the extent our profession is one in decline, the failure may be fairly laid at my generation and the generation ahead of me.  The professions—all professions, not merely the law—are a calling and that they combine aspects of a business (i.e., a method of earning one’s livelihood) with aspects of a craft guild (i.e., they have a code of what they are trying to accomplish and rules that operate to advance the goals of the profession, often to the short-term detriment of an individual professional’s economic self-interest).  The law is a profession in which its practitioners help others pursue justice.  The task of each generation of professionals is not only to pursue one’s personal goals within the profession but to train the next generation of its members and to improve its institutions so that the goals are more widely and easily obtained.  It is part of my professional obligation to improve the operation of family law and to help train the next generation of family law attorneys.

The generation just ahead of me (the generation now approaching retirement) has largely been an abysmal steward of our profession, though not locally and not within my particular field of family law within South Carolina.  The past twenty-five years has seen our profession increasing turn young associates from young members of a craft guild who are to be nurtured into partnership into a resource to be exploited to increase senior partner’s incomes.  Too many of our best minds go into “big law” where they work to advance their clients’ interests often to the detriment of the institutional profession.  I assume law students and new law school graduates who pursue big law realize the compromises they make when the pursue that career path so it’s hard to feel sad for them—but the mentality that “big law” should be the goal of top graduates (a career path I was encouraged to pursue in law school) is damaging to our profession.

I deliberately avoided Ivy League law school because I did not see myself cut out for a career in big law. However with law school tuition up 300% (even after accounting for inflation) from when I attended a generation ago, it is harder for young lawyers to pursue the career path I chose, which offered less money but greater autonomy and career satisfaction and better work/life balance.

For the past twenty years I have seen my seniors in the profession lecture my generation on the decline of professionalism within the law.  For twenty years I have wanted to scream back at them: “how is this decline the responsibility of those new to the profession rather than your responsibility and, since it’s your responsibility, why aren’t you doing something to fix it?”  Now, at age 50, I am part of the more senior bar membership.  I regularly see articles such as this one in the Times highlighting the decline of my chosen profession.  I regularly observe younger members of the bar struggling to develop the training and client base to make law a satisfying career.

We all could do a better job matching retail level clients with newly licensed attorneys–South Carolina should immediately implement a reduced rate referral service open to all attorneys to supplement the one that is only open to attorneys with three or more years of practice.  And we all need to work harder helping new attorneys gain a foothold into practice.

I was lucky to begin my practice in an era of low law school tuition with numerous attorneys willing to nurture the few young lawyers who chose, or were forced, to open their own practice if they wanted to work within the profession.  The law has treated me better than I had any hope or right to expect and I consider my career choice to have been fortuitous.   There are many newly licensed attorney who justly feel differently about our profession and law school admissions are dropping for good reason.

If attorneys my age and older do not do a better job nurturing these attorneys we will be justly blamed for the decline of our noble profession.

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