Is Law School Still Worth It?
The report noted that the percentage of those in jobs for which bar passage was required was the lowest ever recorded, at 69 percent. And private practice provided the fewest jobs recorded in the past 17 years — just 50.9 percent.
The annual statistics from the National Association for Law Placement aren’t likely to improve for the Class of 2011. That dealt a blow to the hopes of recent Pitt Law graduates like Faythe Mallinger.
“My classmates and I did not expect the job market to be so incredibly bleak — most of us don’t even have summer jobs on our resume. That’s unheard of,” notes the recent JD.
In response, Mallinger is adopting a strategy that might have seemed heretical only a few years ago: she’s postponed taking the bar exam, although financing her summer from a bar loan, and is rethinking a legal career altogether.
The law has survived other recessions; employment always returned with a reliable bounce. Donald Polden, who chairs the ABA’s Accreditation Standards Review Committee (SRC) in its Section of Legal Education, says the latest turndown is significantly different.
“After the dot-com bust in 2001, there was a fair amount of introspection and conversation,” says Polden, dean of the University of Santa Clara School of Law. “It’s different now because this recession is much more sustained and significant in depth. It has affected all sectors.” The stark results, reported in a Northwestern Law study, are that 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have disappeared nationwide since 2008. With 45,000 graduates like Mallinger joining the field each year, it’s clear that the supply of young lawyers is surpassing demand.
Partner track aspirations aside, new lawyers are being asked to demonstrate sophisticated practical skills to land even entry-level posts. That puts the onus on law schools. But the traditional approach to legal education — teaching analytic skills with rigorous insistence on individual performance — often clashes with team-oriented business settings.
Responding to the concerns of law school scholars and working attorneys, including those interviewed for this feature, Pitt Law is revamping its first-year curriculum to emphasize real world issues and skills. The incoming class of 2014 will enroll in two new first-year requirements, Lawyering and Legislation & Regulation, and will hear top-flight speakers in a new yearlong lecture series, the Pitt Law Academy program (see sidebar).
“Beginning in 2007–08, we took time to really dig into this issue,” says professor and former associate dean Lu-In Wang. “We adopted the three pillars of the Carnegie Foundation report (Educating Lawyers: Preparation for the Profession of Law, 2007) — legal analysis, strong skills to serve clients, and a solid ethical grounding — for our first-year plan.”
The shift in emphasis will focus attention on the legal skills required in the contemporary business world, introducing first-years to issues that will affect their choice of upper-level electives and helping them make informed choices for clerkships and employment. The change also aligns first year academics with the school’s newly developed Innovation Practice Institute and focus on energy law.
David Yellen, who serves on the SRC, says law schools like Pitt are moving in the right direction. The dean of Chicago’s Loyola University School of Law, Yellen believes that “ironically, the quality of legal education has never been better. There’s so much more innovative, skills-oriented teaching than when I was in law school.” But he acknowledges the issues that drive talk of a crisis in legal education.
“It’s way too expensive. That’s problem number one. Problem number two is that competitive forces, most notably U.S. News & World Report rankings and other influences, have led to a lot of bad behavior by schools.”
Disgruntled bloggers and law-suit filing students have heaped fuel on the now very public argument. A New York Times article published in January interviewed recent graduates, who complained that their career expectations were inflated by robust employment rates reported by the law schools they chose.
“The available technology for communications changes things so much,” says Yellen, referring to ongoing online debate. “Everyone with an opinion can get it out electronically. So there’s a lot more scrutiny.”
The debate involves law firms, underemployed attorneys, and law schools. Are there too many lawyers? Obsolete law schools? Or simply a bulge of newcomers with unrealistic expectations?
Professional schools have always held the implicit promise that students’ investment of time and effort would result in challenging work and a comfortable income that would easily retire tuition debt. But those goals have eluded many recent law graduates.
“Everyone thinks they’ll make six figures or close to it, after all this hard work,” says David Wingenroth, who graduated from Pitt Law in 2003. “Lawyers and doctors hold a certain prestige, and people make assumptions about the professional lifestyle. But basically, the job market and starting salary I envisioned didn’t happen.”
Wingenroth’s starting salary in the profession, after months of job-hunting, was under $40,000 in a firm handling asbestos cases. A stint in a real estate and bankruptcies partnership ended with the recession. The 33-year old father of an infant son is now a contract attorney working with a Pittsburgh firm.
Looking back, he wishes that he had combined a JD with an MBA or other more specific training. “Law school prepares you to pass the bar, and I did, on my first try. But the bar exam is broad,” he says. “I’ve done hundreds of depositions, and argued more than 50 motions, but never had a class in any of those areas.”
Pitt Law’s first year curriculum addresses those concerns in a new team-taught course called Lawyering.
“In most first year classes, you’re just learning cases to pull out the doctrine or rule, not necessarily learning how to apply it,” explains Professor Wang. “In our new course, the entire semester is one client problem.” The course begins with readings of course work relevant to the client’s case, followed by an investigation of the facts of the case. “That’s a huge innovation,” says Wang. “It’s figuring out how to get the messy information that’s not volunteered — documents, witnesses, and strategy.” In the final segment, students develop advice to give to the client.
Altruistic young attorneys drawn to public service have always accepted the fact that salaries in the sector will be lower. But these days they face especially constrained prospects. “A big part of [lawyer oversupply] is the tightening of jobs on the public side,” notes Loyola’s Yellen. “There‘s nothing that anyone can do about that, given the financial problems state and local governments are facing.”
Kate Corbett, ’05, acknowledges her own career choice limits her earnings. “I have no urge to sit behind a desk. I like the drama,” admits Corbett, a 32 year-old assistant district attorney in Philadelphia. “If I compare myself with friends in civil law, I feel like I’m making a difference for people. When you get that one case where intervening makes a difference, that stays with you for a while.” Now she ponders the impact of her choice on her future family. “What makes it rough is, with this financial crisis, our office has had a pay freeze for the past four years. I’m never going to own a second home. My kids will go to public school. That’s not sufficient to make me look elsewhere. My only reservation is: can I afford kids?”
Lawyering Skills and Real-World Experience
As corporate budgets contract, law firms are increasingly hiring those with experience in hand. “Clients aren’t paying for [work by] young lawyers, so firms must find a way to pay for training,” notes Santa Clara’s Polden. At least one Pittsburgh firm has outsourced training by hiring only laterally, and other partnerships have flipped their proportions of new and lateral hires.
“Of the 30 new hires we’ve made in the past four years, one-third have been new grads, and two-thirds have been laterals,” notes Chester “Chip” Babst, partner at Babst Calland in Pittsburgh. “The law review kids will get jobs, of course. But the days of Big Law hiring 25 [graduates] per class are not the case today.” All the more reason, says the University of Santa Clara’s Polden, for law schools to take the lead in developing students’ competencies in “project management, teamwork — the skills you see in grad school business settings.”
Chip Babst agrees. “The standard law school objective is rank in class,” he notes. “In business school, it’s group projects, working in teams. There should be more of that in law school. Clients want their problems to become your problems. You have to engage — to take ownership, rather than be intellectually detached.”
Pitt Law’s reformed curriculum reflects the values embodied in the initial draft proposals from the ABA Standards Review Committee which would require that every student complete one live client clinic, a simulation (trial advocacy or business and transaction-oriented simulations) or an externship. The University of Pittsburgh has offered real-world practicums since 1999.
Professor Wang says that law faculty are now co-teaching courses with nearby experts.
“Our Innovation Practice Institute offers Commercializing New Technologies in conjunction with [Pitt’s] Katz Graduate School of Business. Our law and economics course adds faculty from Carnegie Mellon University. Our law clinics routinely include doctors, social workers and psychologists.”
Recent graduate Faythe Mallinger responded enthu-siastically to an elder law clinic with Professor Martha Mannix. “We really put our knowledge to use,” she says. “The student attorneys were assigned their own clients from the get-go. We drafted wills and powers of attorney and informed them of their options.” She extended her clinic experience for an additional semester and realized that interacting with clients, perhaps even outside a legal setting, might be a career option. Assistant D.A. Corbett says her prosecution practicum and an internship in a drug crimes prosecution unit fed her interest in criminal law.
School Rankings and Student Choices
The value of law school may not be easily quantified, but rankings by U.S. News & World Report and other sources have achieved outsized influence. Young attorneys interviewed for this article frankly admitted that their decisions on law school were swayed far more by a school’s well-publicized ranking than by its actual offerings.
“Rankings definitely mattered,” recalls Dave Wingenroth. “And looking back, they shouldn’t have. Friends who went to lower-tier schools got great jobs.” Kate Corbett has similar thoughts. “I think rankings did more harm than good. I’m willing to bet if you asked other people where I went to law school, they don’t know or care. Your first year out it -matters, but after that, it’s totally your skills. I wish I hadn’t paid so much attention to them.” Faythe Mallinger now wishes that she had focused harder on her undergraduate decision. “Now I would perhaps wait a year, to see if law school was what I really wanted.”
Prior to July 2011, law schools reported the total percentage of a class employed, whether in legal positions or corner coffee shops, to the ABA and U.S. News. Critics say that those numbers offer a misleading statistic that belies the realities of the job market and artificially boosts rankings and expectations. The Young Lawyers Division of the ABA has voted for a resolution endorsing transparency in law school reporting “to accurately reflect the employment and financial realities” graduates will face at graduation. Moving forward, the ABA will start to require just that: more transparency. The new reporting structure includes clearer statistics on jobs for which the JD is or is not required, an unbundling of salary numbers from employment information, and the clear-cut treatment of whether students obtain full-time or part -time positions.
David Yellen chairs the SRC’s special subcommittee on Standard 509, the “basic consumer information” standard. “I’ve been very critical of the way schools have portrayed graduates’ success, and Don and I are working for more candid disclosure,” he says. “But I don’t have the sense that students really think anymore that they have some semi-guaranteed path to a high salary. There’s been a change in the past couple years. They’re coming in with a realistic, sober view of the economy.” He dismisses oft-repeated charges that the millennial generation has a sense of entitlement that leads to improbable goals.
“It would be sad if they didn’t have a sense of exceptionalism. Optimism on entering law school is quite high,” he notes.
In Chip Babst’s opinion, a law degree retains its long-term value, and he encouraged two sons to earn law degrees combined with other interests. “It’s ideal, because of the flexibility. You’re forced to learn a new way of thinking. It’s three years and a lot of money — but it has broader applications than an MBA. But if you go in with a lack of focus, you won’t advance your prospects. Think about it a lot harder, and define your interest in a specific area,” he suggests.
Don Polden sees current students following that advice. “They’re busy carrying out their plan. They’re committed to it. There’s a lot of evidence that the work of being a lawyer is not as remunerative as it was. But if you like complicated work — to use your mind and work around other smart people — the law is still a good choice.”