Number Applying to Law School to Hit 30-year Low (Applicants Starting to Realize There Are Already Too Many Lawyers?)

January 29, 2013

I saw this when a classmate (a friend who graduated with me from law school and is now a manual laborer in the oilfields of North Dakota) posted it on Facebook:

“Law School Applications Crater”, Above the Law

So far, applications are down 20 percent from where they were in 2012. Law school applications are down 38 percent from where they were in 2010.

. . . the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) reports that applications will drop below 60,000 submissions for the first time since 1983, when they started keeping records.

(Hyperlink in original.)

Maybe it has something to do with things like this (and with the fact that the counterarguments are terrible):

“Is Law School a Losing Game?”, New York Times

Today, countless J.D.’s are paying their bills with jobs that have nothing do with the law, and they are losing ground on their debt every day. Stories are legion of young lawyers enlisting in the Army or folding pants at Lululemon. Or baby-sitting, like Carly Rosenberg, of the Brooklyn Law School class of 2009.

“I guess I kind of assumed that someone would hook me up with something,” she says. She has sent out 15 to 20 résumés a week since March, when she passed the bar. So far, nothing.

I’m no economist or statistician (though I am a lawyer), but from where I’m sitting, in market terms, it appears that there are already too many lawyers; so, many of us already can’t find full-time jobs practicing law, and the profession continues to add thousands more lawyers every year (about a thousand a year in Ohio alone, I believe).  More from that New York Times article:

Law school defenders note that huge swaths of the country lack adequate and affordable access to lawyers, which suggests that the issue here isn’t oversupply so much as maldistribution. But when the numbers are crunched, studies find that most law students need to earn around $65,000 a year to get the upper hand on their debt.

In other words, for the money many law-school graduates can make as law-school graduates, they might as well not have gone to law school.  They would have been better off going into some other field (preferably one that doesn’t involve another degree and the attendant student debt).

Apparently there’s a whole book about this:

“New Book Claims Law School is a Bad Deal for Most”, Wall Street Journal

Elite schools like Harvard Law School, Yale Law School and Columbia Law School have been able to charge more and still fill their classes, while placing graduates in good jobs, but the same cannot be said for non-elite schools, which make up the majority.

“Let’s talk about what really matters,” Mr. Tamanaha said to NLJ. “There are not enough jobs, and a law degree costs too much for the money they are making.”

Update (January 29th, 2013):  At Tax Prof Blog, Professor Caron points out that the decline in applicants is not spread evenly:

Interestingly, the decline in law school applications is greatest among those with the highest LSAT scores (170-180, 24%-25% decline) and is least among those with LSAT scores below 140 (15% decline) and 165-169 (16% decline).

In other words, the smartest people are the most likely to conclude that law school is a bad deal?

Update (February 5th, 2013):  Tax Prof Blog also linked to this in 2011:  “The Poor Employment Market for Law Grads Predates the Recession”.  Excerpt:

Two weeks ago I wrote a post about the remarkably high number of graduates of the class of 2009 who failed to obtain jobs as lawyers. When confronted with data like this, law schools respond that the dismal job placement rate is a recent phenomenon, a product of the current recession, suggesting that things were fine before and all will be well once again when the legal market rebounds. . . .

The problem with this response is that it is not true.

. . .

On a fairly consistent basis, almost one third of law graduates in the past decade have not obtained jobs as lawyers [nine months after graduation], and the above chart suggests that this is disproportionately the case at the lower ranked law schools.

(Links and emphasis in original.)

Update (February 15th, 2013):  I was amused to receive this in an e-mail from Monster.com today:

4 Job Skills That No Longer Impress Recruiters

By Alida Moore, PayScale.com

. . .

According to online salary database, PayScale.com, the skills on this list have seen the biggest drop in market value over the last few years. “These skills are associated with jobs the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts to have slow to no growth over the next 10 years,” says Katie Bardaro, Director of Analytics at PayScale.com. “Often, to be successful in your career, you need to have multiple skills to set yourself apart,” says Bardaro.

If the skill that tops your resume is on this list, it may be wise to invest time in developing other skills related to your career and industry.

. . .

Legal Research

An abundance of underemployed law school grads makes this skill not as impressive as it used to be.  If you want to compete with them, you may need to head back to law school yourself.

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9 Responses to “Number Applying to Law School to Hit 30-year Low (Applicants Starting to Realize There Are Already Too Many Lawyers?)”

  1. Snoodickle Says:

    The decision to attend law school and accumulate the attendant debt certainly carries risks, but our economy is still set up to reward risk takers. A law degree enables you to potentially make millions of dollars, which may make the risk worthwhile for those with the requisite ambition.


    • On average, it makes the risk worthwhile only for those who are bad at math. (A lottery ticket “enables you to potentially” make millions of dollars, too; that doesn’t make it a worthy investment.)

      But then, people always joked that that was why we all went to law school, because we couldn’t do math…

      • Snoodickle Says:

        You obviously have no idea what you’re talking about.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        You obviously have no idea what you’re saying.

      • Snoodickle Says:

        Oops, duplicate comment. Anyway, allow me to explicate my position. I am related to six lawyers. Five have made millions of dollars, the other is just starting his career. Are you suggesting my odds of prospering with a law degree are the same as me hitting the lotto?

  2. Kevin Says:

    Actually, our economy is set up to reward people with connections and then make it look like risk-taking. To wit, if you’re related to at least five millionaire lawyers, the odds are pretty good you’ll prosper as much as you want, whatever you do – whether it’s law, politics, business administration, or managing a non-profit. Those five millionaires either get you a job themselves, or refer your business to their associates once you’re hired somewhere else.

    The fact is, there are too many lawyers because law degrees are cheap for universities to supply (compared to, for example, advanced degrees in science or engineering) and for a long time there was a high demand for them. The end result is that there are a lot of lawyers with a lot of debt, meaning they have very inelastic supply curves compared to the demand for legal services – if they tried to, as one person suggested, merely charge lower rates to their clients, they would find themselves losing ground on their debt, so the market for lawyering doesn’t actually clear.

    This puts law school more or less in the same boat as most post secondary education in this country, namely that it costs much too much for the dubious median benefit it provides.

    • Snoodickle Says:

      I agree with that. Connections are vitally important, but there are people who succeed starting from scratch as well.

  3. johnhaskell Says:

    The problem with the issue of law school employment centers on the false talking points being spewed by reformers/educators; specifically, that law school employment decline is a product of the 2008 financial crisis. Also, the problem with employment has more to do with a contraction of demand than an expansion of supply.

    http://anirrationalviewoftheirrational.wordpress.com/2013/02/08/why-we-need-fewer-law-schools-in-two-charts-and-lots-of-words/

    First, the data from NALP and the ABA indicates that employment, and employment requiring bar passage has declined over the past decade. To be fair, the latter could be graduates (like myself and my partner) saying thanks but no thanks to the legal field. I have interests elsewhere, while she spend 1 year as an associate and, to put it mildly, did not love life. Regardless this decline was occurring even during an overheated economy, so the ‘it’s because of 2008’ argument is a red herring.

    The problem with adopting the 2008 argument is that by assuming legal employment declined because of the downturn, then it should rebound with the upturn. The problem with this assumption (aside from being false) is that the demand for legal services has contracted, which brings me to my second point.

    In 2000, the employment rate was 91.5%, and there was one law student per every 125,627 people in the U.S., and one law school for every 1.54 million people in the U.S. By 2011, employment was down to 85.6%, with 18 more law schools (ABA accredited). So, it would appear simple issue of too much supply, right? No.

    Per capita, in 2011, there was 146,288 in the U.S. for every law student, and 1.56 million people for every law school. In short, population outpaced the growth of law school students/graduates.

    I think these statistics point to the fact that with the proliferation of information in general, and more specifically for access to legal information via legal zoom and its competitors, as well as off-shoring of some legal work, as well as firms streamlining operations to become more efficient, regardless of whether the economy rebounds, the legal profession is, like several industries, facing a long-term and permanent decline in employment.


  4. I think that makes a lot of sense, and the phenomenon you describe (Legal Zoom etc. making more lawyer jobs obsolete) had crossed my mind as well. However, I would be curious to know not only the ratio of law students to the total population at different points in time (what you gave) but also the ratio of lawyers to the total population.


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