The View From Here . . .
Young Robert came back from Tulane to help me with my annual Super Bowl Party last weekend, which has been a tradition in our household since he was seven. Although there was a bit of grousing by the young man about leaving the balmy Super Bowl site city, he actually admitted after the party that he had a good time.
Of course, having a kid in college always makes a parent consider the future for their young scholar. While Robert appears to have a number of skillsets that would make him do well as a lawyer, I have no idea what his ultimate career path will be. Nevertheless, I have been giving a bit of thought to the seeming decline of the market for young attorneys and whether there are other ways to structure the process of training future members of the bar.
Life was once much easier and simpler. When I was an undergraduate at Columbia 40 years ago, it was a much less risky choice to major in an “impractical” subject like history, the one I chose, because there always the possibility of using the liberal arts training as a springboard for law school.
And indeed, it worked for me. I was able to get admitted to a good law school, Vanderbilt, and, while I certainly haven’t gotten rich as a lawyer, the profession has provided a good steady living for decades. I had a few thousand in student loans, but it was pretty easy to pay them off.
If my son does consider law and law school, it will be a much riskier proposition than it was for me. Tuitions at law schools are far higher than they were in my day, even factoring in inflation, so a student can easily have an education loan debt of $150,000. (Yes, I will try to help Robert, but this is a huge amount of money in addition to undergraduate tuition.)
In addition, the job market for lawyers has plunged in recent years. According to the Wall Street Journal, only 55% of the law school class of 2011 had full time jobs that require a law degree 9 months after graduation. Another survey showed that employment in the private sector dipped from 20,611 for the Class of 2007 to 17,666 for the Class of 2011. While it is still possible to hit a homerun with a $160,000 starting salary at a major firm, these jobs are few and far between.
With the financial rewards for being a lawyer now considerably reduced, and law school application declining, there has been some rethinking of the law school process. This is a welcome development.
A recent panel at New York University law school discussed the idea of cutting law school by a year. As was suggested at the meeting, it might make more educational and practical sense for third year students to in effect become lower-paid apprentices at law firms.
There is even merit in the suggestion of Professor Stephen Bainbridge at UCLA that there be an undergraduate major in law, which would qualify applicants to take the bar. (A master’s program would also exist for those desiring to practice at big law firms and a PhD for academics.) This would drastically reduce legal education costs and allow most lawyers to begin their career earlier.
Again, I don’t know what Robert will do in life, but if law is in his future, I think that significant rethinking of the present expensive, high risk system for training attorneys is very much in order.