Three recently released numbers tell an unhappy tale of what ails the legal profession in particular and society in general. Specifically, those data points reveal profound intergenerational antagonisms that are getting worse.
Dismal job prospects persist
First, the ABA reports that only 56 percent of law school graduates in the class of 2012 secured full-time, long-term jobs requiring a legal degree. The good news is that this result is no worse than last year’s. The bad news is the number of 2012 law graduates reached an all-time record high — more than 46,000. The even worse news is that the graduating class of 2013 is expected to be even bigger.
Sure, the number of students taking the LSAT has trended downward. So has the number of law school applicants. But students seeking to attend law school still outnumber the available places. Meanwhile, the number of attorneys working in big law firms has not yet returned to pre-recession levels of 2007. If, as many hope, the market for attorneys is moving toward an equilibrium between supply and demand, it has a long way to go.
Law school for all the wrong reasons
A second data point is even more distressing. According to a survey that test-prep company Kaplan Inc. conducted, 43 percent of pre-law students plan to use their degrees to find jobs in the business world, rather than in the legal industry. Even more poignantly, 42 percent said they would attend business school instead of law school, were they not already “set to go to law school.”
I don’t know what “set to go” means to these individuals, but if they want to go into business, first spending more than $100,000 and three years of their lives on a legal degree makes no sense. That’s especially true in light of another survey result: Only 5 percent said they were pursuing a career primarily for the money; 71 percent said they were “motivated by pursuing a career they are passionate about.”
Maybe these conflicted pre-law students are confused by the chorus of law school deans now writing regularly that a legal degree is a valuable vehicle to other pursuits. Let’s hope not. Many deans are simply trying to drum up student demand for their schools in the face of declining applicant pools.
Follow the money
The third data point relates to the money that fuels this dysfunctional system: federal loan dollars that are disconnected from law school accountability for student outcomes. Recently, the New York Times reported that on July 1, many student loan rates were set to double — from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent.
Young law school graduates are among the unenviable one-percenters in this group because 85 percent of them hold, on average, more than $100,000 in debt (compared to the overall average of $27,000 for all students). Like all other educational loans, those debts survive a bankruptcy filing.
In the current economic environment, an investor would search in vain for a guaranteed 6.8 percent return and virtually no risk. According to one estimate cited in the Times article, the federal government makes 36 cents on every student loan dollar it puts out.
Kids as profit centers
Ironically, those who favor raising the current 3.4 percent interest rate on many federal student loans to 6.8 percent are the same people who express concerns that growing federal deficits will saddle the next generation. The reality is that we already treat that generation as a profit center. For too many people, there’s money to be made in sustaining the lawyer bubble.
Until it bursts.