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Enablers of Law School Madness

Vivia Chen

October 27, 2010

NUP_133581_0001 We are either a nation of great optimists or utter fools. And I'm not even commenting about new entrants in the political arena. I'm referring to the seemingly endless flood of people who still aspire to be lawyers, despite the shrinking legal job market. Reports The National Law Journal:

Veritas, a law school admissions consulting firm, polled 112 prospective law school applicants in June and July, and 81 percent said they would still apply even if "a significant number of law school graduates were unable to find jobs in their desired fields." Only 4 percent said they would not apply to law school under that circumstance.

For months now, groups like the Law School Transparency have been arguing that law schools should be required to provide employment data about their graduates. The idea is that people might make the wiser choice of not going to law school if they know about the dismal job picture.

But "better information would do little to stem the tide of law school applications--which hit an all-time high last year," reports the NLJ. Part of the reason seems to be that prospective law students seem to think pretty highly of themselves. Though they say they are worried about getting jobs, they feel they'll do fine: 11 percent expect to earn "more than $145,000 out of law school. Another 29 percent expected to earn between $100,000 and $145,000, while the remaining 44 percent expected to earn between $75,000 to $100,000."

The reality, NLJ points out, is that 34 percent of new lawyers for the class of 2009 report salaries of  $40,000-$65,000.

But what's amazing to me is that these lawyer-wannabes know they'll be swimming in debt: "Of those polled by Veritas, 37 percent said they expected to take on more than $100,000 in debt."

None of this make much sense. What makes the Millenniums so cock-sure that they can defy the odds? Were they brought up with too much self-esteem? Are their parents footing the bills?

When there's irrationality in the marketplace, I tend to look to popular culture too. This is hardly scientific, but there seems to be an explosion of TV shows about lawyers in recent years--Boston Legal, The Good Wife, and the endless Law & Order franchise (there are now Law & Order L.A. and Law & Order U.K. in addition to the surviving L&O: Special Victims Unit, plus endless reruns).

Perhaps these shows need to carry warnings--like those that come with boxes of cigarettes or stock offerings--sternly reminding viewers that fictional lawyers hardly reflect real ones, and that romanticising the profession comes with serious risks to health and wealth. Perhaps Dick Wolf, the creator of the Law & Order empire who's made a gazillion dollars, should be held accountable--just like cigarette manufacturers.

Yes, we need a scapegoat for this madness. Know any?

 Do you have topics you'd like to discuss or tips to share? E-mail The Careerist's chief blogger, Vivia Chen, at [email protected]

Photo of ADA Alex Cavett of Law & Order SVU: Will Hart/ NBC


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Sadly, this article doesn't surprise me. The profession is undergoing fundamental change at a pace it has never seen before, and in my view as both a former lawyer in law firms and as corporate counsel, there are a number of management teams that haven't yet worked through what these changes mean strategically (see here: http://intelligentchallenge.wordpress.com/2010/10/10/law-firms-and-the-death-ground/). This of course has direct implications for resourcing, and hence it can be difficult for firms to see what their resource profile looks like in the future in this turbulent market.

If the firms themselves don't have a firm view of what their needs are, it can be more difficult still for students who even if armed with a good understanding of the profession, are having to make some really tough decisions about their future prospects.

For anyone looking at joining the profession, my personal view is that it will continue to be able to offer (which doesn't mean it will in every case!) a rewarding career, but the nature of the job and potential financial returns will likely look very different than they did to the partners who entered the profession 20 years ago.

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About The Careerist

The Careerist takes an inside look at how lawyers shape their careers and manage their lives. The blog aims to dissect developments in the profession, provide useful information and advice, and give lawyers a platform to voice their views. The goal is to provide a fresh, provocative take on the state of lawyering.

About Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen

Vivia Chen, The Careerist's chief blogger, has been covering the business and culture of law firms for a decade. A former corporate lawyer, Chen is fascinated by those who thrive (as well as those who don't) in the legal profession. Her take: Success in the law (and life) doesn't always travel a linear path. If you have topics you'd like to discuss or information to share, contact her: [email protected]

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