Law School’s Shaky Future

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Law students and medical students have long felt competitive with each other—and maybe a little jealous. Both law and medical schools, though, were traditionally seen as safe paths to financially rewarding futures.

That may no longer be the case. While medical school enrollment and the need for doctors continues to rise, the opposite is true for law schools and the demand for lawyers. In 2010, with the recession in full swing and law school enrollment hitting a 10-year high, the percentage of law school graduates who were able to find work hit its lowest point since 1996.

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Fewer Law School Applicants and Enrollments

It’s not surprising that interest in law school has started to cool off. The number of accredited law school applicants have dropped for the last three years, the Washington Post reported. This year it was down 13.4 percent from 2012. The number of people actually enrolling in law schools has dropped correspondingly. In 2011, there was a 7 percent decline in enrollment from the previous year, the first substantial drop in 10 years.

Jobs and Loans

“The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” by Steven Harper reported that when the most recent law school class graduates, there will be at least twice as many new lawyers as there will be jobs available for them, according to Bloomberg Businessweek. These are terrible odds, especially considering the large debt that many law students take on. While some students may use personal or small business credit cards for items such as books and supplies, the bulk of expenses will be for tuition and housing. Many students have to take out six-figure student loans, which can turn into heavy burdens if the graduates are unemployed or underemployed. Considerations like these are convincing many potential law school applicants to look into other careers.

Averages Can Be Misleading

While the statistics are dire, the averages conceal wide discrepancies in salaries of new lawyers. In a survey of law school graduates in the class of 2006, conducted by the National Association for Law Placement, the average starting salary was $80,000, Payscale.com points out. The most common salary, however, was $42,000, closely followed by $135,000, which shows that many graduates were getting hired at polar opposites of the salary range.

Furthermore, the results of the survey were artificially high because it only took into account those graduates who were working full-time as lawyers. The survey didn’t account for graduates who were unemployed or working in lower paid part-time and/or contract positions, such as document review, which can pay as little as $25 an hour, or in positions not related to law at all. In addition, the survey only counted those graduates who voluntarily reported their salaries. Since higher earners are more likely to report their salaries, this also skews the results.

Where students go to school also matters, with graduates of some prestigious schools earning significantly more than the norm.

Is There Hope for the Future?

Despite all the gloom and doom, Shawn P. O’Connor at U.S. News and World Report thinks this might be a good time to apply to law school, especially for people interested in practicing international law, where the need for lawyers is growing. Because there are fewer applicants, those applying could have less competition, at least at schools that haven’t reduced the size of their entering classes. Also on the plus side is that big law firms have already started increasing their hiring and should continue to do so as the economy improves.

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