The job market for lawyers: what's the future?

It’s so hard to know the job market for lawyers will be like in the next few years.  The economic downturn has thrown most sectors into turmoil, and it’s anybody’s guess what will happen in LawWorld.  The received wisdom is that lawyers do well in bad times as well as good.  But that aphorism really refers to the legal field in general, not to individual areas of practice.  The early 90s saw a number of restructured law firms and layoffs, especially in those firms closest to the financial sector.  That scenario seems to be playing out again, only potentially on a bigger scale.  At the same time, some practice areas will continue to do well.

The good news:

 

International commercial law, especially in Asia and the Middle East, seems to be thriving.

 

Intellectual property is almost certainly going to continue to be a growth field.

 

And of course, practice areas that benefit from hard times, like bankruptcylabor and employment law, and general and regulatory litigation will likely do just fine.

 

The bad news is all about layoffs, layoffs, bonus cuts, layoffs and layoffs.  The sectors feeling the cuts the worst will be at either end of the legal spectrum: the largest corporate firms (like those above) and providers of legal aid for the poor. (The latter is a victim of the huge drop in interest rates, since interest on lawyers’ trust accounts provides a significant part their funding.)

 

So what does this mean for you, as you apply to law school (or think about applying in the next few years)?  Is law school a wise investment at the current time?  The truth is, law school is always an investment where you have to be patient to see any real financial returns, in large part the initial buy-in is so enormous.  Average law school debt upon graduation now hovers around $75,000 to $80,000 for private law schools (not including any undergraduate debt), and the average first-year associate makes around $80,000.  Even before the current financial crisis, tuition (and therefore debt) was rising faster than salaries.  And we haven’t even talked about lawyers entering public interest or government, where salaries are significantly less (but look for a post soon on federal and school-based loan repayment assistance plans).

 

So is it worth it?  I think the answer is, you have to love it.  If you’re going to law school only because it seems like the right thing to do, or because your parents really want you to, or because you don’t want to look for a job in this market, or because you think you’re going to make a killing, you would be wise to rethink your options.  If on the other hand, you are chomping at the bit to practice law (in whatever capacity), then stay the course, but take heed of the numbers.