Sour Truths for Law Students and Aspiring Lawyers

Brad Johnson agrees, “It’s unfortunate that our future lawyers have to face this truth but it is important for them to keep it in mind when considering law as a career. Make sure it is your passion and consider specializing.”

A Message to Aspiring Lawyers: Caveat Emptor


There is a crisis in law-school education, but don’t expect the institutions to tell potential applicants about it. In short, there are far too many graduates for the number of jobs available, and the majority of those who get jobs are not being paid nearly enough to service their debt.

Nationally there are twice as many graduates as there are jobs. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the economy will provide 21,880 new jobs for lawyers annually between 2010 and 2020; law schools since 2010, however, have produced more than 44,000 graduates each year. Yet schools continue to enroll more students than the market demands and to raise tuition faster than inflation. The result is exploding debt loads for current students and graduates whose employment prospects are appalling.

To be sure, the employment prospects for Americans across a broad swath of society have been grim in recent years. But the legal profession has clearly lost any reputation it might have once had as a safe, prosperous haven in troubled times.

I graduated in 2011 and am one of the “lucky” ones. Within six months of graduation I secured a job in my area of interest, international human rights. My class entered the worst American job market in 18 years—only 56.7% of law graduates found full-time jobs lasting at least a year and requiring passage of a bar exam.

For many new hires, even finding a job with a law firm might not be quite the cause for celebration it once was. According to the American Bar Association, the average amount borrowed by students attending private law schools has gone up 78% in the past decade, to $124,950 in 2011 from $70,147 in 2002. However, these loan figures don’t reflect the true burden. With the average interest rate on federal loans for graduate students at 8%, which starts to accrue while the student is still in school, the typical law graduate often holds debt in excess of $150,000 by the time repayment begins.

Making matters worse: Salaries have plummeted, with the mean private-practice compensation today, $78,653, falling 16% from where it was in 2009 ($93,454), and 8% from 2002 ($85,518). The dramatic increase in law-school tuition—which has increased 434.8% at private schools since 1985—coupled with the decrease in jobs and salaries prompted James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, to describe the current entry-level job market as “the weakest . . . that NALP has measured in nearly 40 years of doing this work.”

In my case, although I found employment, my finances are precarious. With $169,000 in law-school debt and an annual salary of $55,000 (which is within the average range for a small firm), I cannot start paying off my debt in a responsible and timely manner, much less afford to have a wedding, start a family, buy a home, etc.

To address this problem, some law schools have started loan repayment or forgiveness programs providing money to offset loan debt for graduates who go into public service. Some programs offer real help; others, as in my case, do not. I applied and received $500 to go toward my 2012 payments, an amount less than the $970 monthly interest accruing on my loans. My alma mater, Northeastern University, says it wants to make “public interest practice debt free for our graduates,” but clearly it is falling far short of that aim.

If this is my experience, then what about the graduates who are relatively not as “lucky,” those with low-paying jobs not in their area of interest? Or those floating between temporary jobs? Or worse, those like my law-school friend and other similarly situated graduates who now rely on government assistance because they cannot find a job and their debt is too crushing?

An especially worrying result of all this is that law graduates will be discouraged from providing services to the millions of middle class and indigent Americans who need but cannot afford legal assistance. Many graduates aspire to meet this need, but high debts make taking such jobs—even if available—financially untenable.

One wishes that moral suasion would prompt law schools to alter their ways—admitting fewer students, making tuition less ruinous—but change is likely to come only through financial pressure when enrollment drops significantly. That day may not be far off. Given current conditions, prospective law-school students would be wise to start off the new year with a resolution to think twice about applying.

Mr. Fletcher is an international human-rights attorney.

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