Legal careers: what to believe?

An unprecedented amount of attention is being paid to the job prospects and salaries for new attorneys, changes in the legal profession, and changes in legal education.  Much of it offers a bleak assessment of the job market for newly minted attorneys, and an even dimmer view of the cost-benefit analysis of going to law school, with the occasional more upbeat set of anecdotes.  If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that I think this attention is overdue, and that prospective applicants should be very cautious when deciding whether law school is the right choice.  But the sheer number of articles and opinion pieces—much of it a mix of truth and exaggeration—can leave you wondering what to believe.  How do you sort out the analyses grounded in reality from those too deeply influenced by, say, the disgruntlement of a single unemployed law grad?

If you’re considering law school, you should be taking in as much of this information as you can.  But it’s so important to read it all critically: what is the basis of the author’s assertions?  Are there hard numbers cited or merely anecdotes? Do the numbers come from legitimate sources, or is there reason to be skeptical?  Is a lawyer in a big law firm who graduated from a highly selective law school generalizing about her experience, even though 90% of lawyers did not attend “Top 20” law schools?

Even when you have hard numbers from legitimate sources—like the widely touted Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers of jobs for lawyers—you need to dig deeper and ask what they’re counting exactly, and whether it’s relevant to what you want to do as an attorney.  (BLS counts employees, but not the self-employed, and the latter category includes a significant percentage of practicing attorneys who are either solo practitioners or partners in law firms.)

You should also take into account the author’s point of view and frame of reference.  If the argument assumes something along the lines of, “law school used to entail a guarantee of a high paying job in a large law firm,” you need to know right away that it’s been at least 50 years since there was any truth in that statement for any but a tiny number of law grads.  Grads of the most selective schools who wanted jobs in BigLaw generally had a relatively easy time of it, certainly.  Those who went to the other 90% of schools, and those who had no interest in the small slice of lawyering that is BigLaw (but which is absurdly over-represented in the mainstream media) have always had to work hard to obtain the kind of jobs they wanted.   Nothing has ever been simply handed to the overwhelming majority of law grads.

If you’re interested in a small general practice in your hometown, or a job in a state agency, or a mid-sized firm specializing in insurance defense in a small city, or becoming a staff attorney in a public interest organization, then the job market in big law firms is at best tangentially related to your job prospects, and more likely, not related at all.  Research the types of jobs in the the types of locations you’re actually interested in.  Talk to  grads of the schools you’re most interested in attending.  It’s critical that you anchor your research in the realities of your particular interests, and not in generalizations.

So, keep your eyes on these changes in the profession as a whole, and in legal education—they’re significant for all of us who are, have been or will be lawyers.  But when it comes to making decisions about your own future, narrow your research to what’s most relevant to you.

(And if you’re sitting there reading this, thinking “But I don’t know what kind of lawyer I want to be, I just know I want to go to law school!”—keep your eyes out for a future post on what you need to know about the law before you decide to go to law school.)