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Law School Applications Plunge—Are Bloggers to Blame?

Vivia Chen

December 2, 2012


Time again to check up on the law school scene. Here's what's happening:

Signs of intelligence in the universe? The youth of America are wising up: Law school applications took another plunge this year. Reports the National Law Journal:

Approximately 8,000 fewer first-year law students will show up nationwide this year compared to two years ago, when enrollment reached an all-time high, according to the American Bar Association. This year’s numbers represent a 15 percent decline since then and a 9 percent decline since last year.

The article doesn't say why applications are down. Perhaps all the alarms that I and other bloggers have been sounding about the (expensive) folly of pursuing a law degree in a shrinking legal job market is getting through.

Stop dissing law schools, says Case Western dean. Meanwhile, Lawrence Mitchell, dean of Case Western Reserve University’s law school, has no doubts about who's to blame for the dropping applications. He writes in an editorial for The New York Times:

For at least two years, the popular press, bloggers and a few sensationalist law professors have turned American law schools into the new investment banks. We entice bright young students into our academic clutches. Succubus-like, when we’ve taken what we want from them, we return them to the mean and barren streets to fend for themselves.

Mitchell argues that the recession's impact on legal jobs, placed in historical context, "hardly seems catastrophic." He adds, "the focus on first jobs is misplaced" if you take a long view on careers. I could quibble with him about how that first job in law determines career paths (big firm, small or solo practice) but I won't dwell on it. I do think, however, that he overinflates the skill sets one learns in law school:

[T]he career for which we educate students, done through the medium of the law, is a career in leadership and creative problem solving. Many graduates will find that their legal educations give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more.

Ah, yes, law school as a font of creativity and life's essential skills. Those law school deans are such darned romantics!

Well, this sure beats © Couperfield-Fotolia.coman LL.M. in tax. As a blogger who covers the legal profession, I know how challenging it is to make law sexy. God knows I've tried and tried and tried.

But the University of California at Los Angeles School of Law is now putting sex front and center, offering an entire LL.M. on law and sexuality, which, according to UCLA, is the first program of its kind. The National Law Journal says the program aims to prepare "students to practice and perform scholarship in gender-identity and sexual-orientation law." Moreover, UCLA says it plans to enroll international students in this speciality.

I know that gay rights and gender identity issues are hot topics right now, but do people really need an LL.M. in this area? And are there really that many jobs in this field in the first place—especially in the international arena? I mean, is Baker & McKenzie about to start a sexuality practice in Shanghai or Saudi Arabia any time soon? I hate to be so pedestrian, but shouldn't every penny spent on legal education—especially for an "extra" degree like an LL.M.—further job prospects?  

Quiz—What's missing from this list? Yahoo lists careers for people who don't like people (to be totally accurate, they are jobs for people who like to work alone). The winners in the category are:

    - Accountant

    - Software developer

    - Paralegal

    - Graphic designer

    - Medical records technician

    - Computer programer

Whoa—where is lawyer? Beats me why paralegal is on the list but not members of the bar. My best guess is that paralegals have even less client contact than a first-year associate doing document production.

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Sure, blame the journalists for the problem they're covering. Not anything new.

I would add pathologist to careers for people who don't like people.

Too many lawyers out there today. Law school should be 4 years...

Liz -- I think the point that many people seem to be missing/ignoring here is that while there may be alternative careers for lawyers, if you are taking on $150,00+ in debt, how many of those "other" careers can support that debt load?

There are a multitude of books on "alternate careers" for attorneys. The problem is, the only people that think attorneys are amazing problem solvers and great thinkers outside of the "box" are other attorneys. Sometimes, when everyone is calling a cow a cow, but the cow thinks he's a horse, well, he's still a cow. And cows don't make very good horses, even if they run pretty fast.

As much as I respect your views, I think Mitchell makes a great point about the portability of skills you use in a legal career. In fact, I'm writing a book about alternative careers for lawyers based partly on that premise. One of the reasons there are so many unhappy lawyers is because we don't talk enough about the viability of other careers, and so lawyers - especially those in the BigLaw trenches - falsely believe there's nowhere else to go. But overcoming the hurdles of status and money isn't easy.

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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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