Law school applications are declining sharply according to the New York Times, which is reporting a projected 38 percent decline from 2010 application levels.
When they failed to find jobs, law graduates took to the internet in droves to spread the word about their predicament, and finally the American Bar Association demanded more employment information from law schools. Before that, schools could count a graduate working part-time as a janitor as â€œemployed,â€ and could thus report a 91 percent employment rate for their law school graduates.
No longer. The ABA now demands information regarding the type of employment; full-time or part-time, practicing law or not, law-related or not, and the numbers are terrible.
In response, law schools have shown about as much sympathy as one would expect from a firing squad.
A Lawyer and a Prostitute Walk into a Barâ€¦
For all the hostility and jokes aimed at lawyers, the truth of the matter is that most of what lawyers do for a living is completely benign, often really quite helpful, and usually very boring; things like real estate transactions, probating the estates of the deceased, tax planning, and conservatorships.
To keep these areas staffed at a functional level, the country will need about 8,000 law graduates per year. If you add in the specialty practice areas, including prosecutors, criminal defense, civil litigation, and corporate business, then the country probably needs about 10,000 graduates per year.
Law schools churn out more than 40,000 graduates per year. That is 40,000 graduates competing for 10,000 jobs, which puts the issue in one perspective.
It is worth noting that in Stalinist Russia, lawyers were seen as an instrument for enforcing the Revolution, and they found positions in the courts, the party, or the NKVD/KGB. Lenin – himself a lawyer – had ordered the Tsarist lawyers purged so the profession had to be recreated from scratch. Law schools were state-supported, and produced about 10,000 graduates per year, their ranks including figures like Gorbachev and Putin.
The largest bureaucratic tyranny ever assembled needed one-quarter of the lawyers that modern America produces, which puts the issue into another, more frightening perspective.
In an attempted defense of law school, the Dean of Ohioâ€™s Case Western Law School penned an op-ed for the New York Times, where he denied that there is a crisis in legal education, declared that law school is worth the money, slammed the critics of law school as irrational, and generally attempted to play down the jobs crisis and the growing strain of debt on their graduates.
â€œInvestment in tuition is for a lifelong career, not a first jobâ€ writes Dean Lawrence Mitchell, and since law schools educate for a â€œcareer likely to span 40 to 50 yearsâ€ the critics are shortsighted when they focus on the terrible numbers for new graduates.
The problem, which the dean thoroughly ignores, is that it doesnâ€™t matter how high the career ladder goes if the bottom rungs of the career ladder are knocked off completely. If you decide to attend law school, you can be reasonably confident that you will not be able to earn a living when you graduate.
All law schools make it a point to play up the versatility of the law degree; that it opens up doors to careers in government, business, media, and academia.
Imagine a world where 300,000 law-trained people, desperate for work, elbow their way into careers in lobbying, tax collection, government administration, and corporate compliance. Even your municipal zoning enforcement officer could be a financially strained law school graduate.
Lawyers everywhere, enforcing the Revolution. Frankly, facing a firing squad doesnâ€™t sound so bad in comparison.
The Human Resources department is an oft-cited example of where law-trained people can find a paycheck. There, you can enforce political correctness and corporate policy, silence dissenters, and eliminate dead weight. The symmetry is truly beautiful; Corporate Americaâ€™s very own KGB, staffed with lawyers.
Revenge of von Mises
After graduating from law school, Ludwig von Mises found work at the Austrian finance ministry and then practiced law. He found both positions absolutely insufferable, and dedicated himself to the study of the libertarian economics of the Austrian School.
Because student loan debt is supplied primarily by the federal government, there is no cash crunch limiting access to law school. Anybody with sufficient academic credentials can get a seat in a law school class and cover tuition with easily-obtained student loans. Thus, there is an enormous oversupply of lawyers.
An oversupply which law deans across the country have tried to deny. There isnâ€™t an oversupply of lawyers, they claim, but a shortage of demand for lawyers, which is entirely different and not their fault at all.
Besides, there is a large and growing class of low-income people who cannot afford legal services, and this demand must be met. So, hurry up and pay record-high tuition, and graduate with record-high student loan debt, so you can have clients who are too poor to pay you anything. That is viable economics to the minds of the academicians.
Using scarce resources to develop skills that are not in demand falls firmly into what von Mises called a mal-investment, much like building houses in 2007. Well, the market correction is at hand.
Shades of Socrates
Despite the horrible job market, the unreasonable tuition, and the crushing debt, law school itself is still a rigorous dialectic education, through use of the Socratic Method and an emphasis on rhetoric, logic, and rational thinking. This is why the fiercest critics of law schools are their own graduates, and why law schools canâ€™t seem to shut them up.
When their graduates were unable to find work, start a career, or assemble an economic future for themselves – and began pointing it out publicly – law schools havenâ€™t been capable of addressing them in any way except to deny and obfuscate.
Tenured academics are a very influential species of what in Russian is known as the Nomenklatura; people with relatively secure and high-paying jobs, all operating under the patronage of the state.
People who are on the gravy train will never consent to meaningful reforms, and law schools are no different. The closest thing to a reform they have mustered are new clinical education programs, which are pathetic substitutes for real practice experience and are extremely expensive to operate.
Law schools have tried concealing the problem, and now they will try some sort of Perestroika in the form of â€œclinical education.â€ With a serious lack of job opportunities for law graduates, it will be up to the market to put down the law school bubble.
Hopefully, the market will show no mercy.