There’s been a lot of coverage recently on this year’s contribution to the law school applicant nosedive that began in 2011. Even The New York Times has jumped aboard. None of the coverage says a whole lot you don’t already know, but there are moments when I think it’s inaccurate.
The drop in applications is widely viewed as directly linked to perceptions of the declining job market. Many of the reasons that law jobs are disappearing are similar to those for disruptions in other knowledge-based professions, namely the growth of the Internet. Research is faster and easier, requiring fewer lawyers, and is being outsourced to less expensive locales, including West Virginia and overseas.
In addition, legal forms are now available online and require training well below a lawyer’s to fill them out.
In recent years there has also been publicity about the debt load and declining job prospects for law graduates, especially of schools that do not generally provide employees to elite firms in major cities. [Emphasis LSTB]
Okay, we can argue over perceptions, but there’s a distinction between people not applying because the jobs are declining due to productivity and people not applying because the jobs were never there to begin with because of a flawed system. The article implies that all law schools, including those that “do not generally provide employees to elite firms in major cities,” lived in a golden age until only recently, and all their graduates were able to find work at least as solo practitioners hauling in “middle class” incomes until WebPleader 2.0 came along. Perhaps I’m exaggerating the Times‘ perspective, but I doubt this was ever true. More importantly, the Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t either.
Even though jobs for lawyers are expected to increase rapidly, competition for job openings should continue to be keen because of the large numbers graduating from law school each year. During the 1970s, the annual number of law school graduates more than doubled, outpacing the rapid growth of jobs. Growth in the yearly number of law school graduates tapered off during the 1980s, but again increased in the early 1990s. The high number of graduates will strain the economy’s capacity to absorb them. Although graduates with superior academic records from well-regarded law schools will continue to enjoy good opportunities, most graduates will encounter competition for jobs. As in the past, some graduates may have to accept positions in areas outside their field of interest or for which they feel they are overqualified. They may have to enter jobs for which legal training is an asset but not normally a requirement. For example, banks, insurance firms, real estate companies, government agencies, and other organizations seek law graduates to fill many administrative, managerial, and business positions.
From last year’s Occupational Outlook Handbook? More like 1996-97’s. I don’t claim to read the minds of people who don’t apply to law school (there’s a koan for you), but the link to David Segal’s previous work notwithstanding, the Times appears to believe that no university frivolously expanded by building a law school. In short, it’s avoiding a discussion on the over-expansion of legal education generally by claiming applicants read about legal sector outsoucing on The Wall Street Journal rather than a scamblog or Above the Law.
Instead, “Some argue that the drop is an indictment of the legal training itself — a failure to keep up with the profession’s needs.” I don’t think anyone complained about the substance of legal education when it was cheap and Americans’ incomes were sufficient to afford legal services, so this strikes me as corporate opportunism. No one wants to pay to train their workers, and demanding law schools open expensive clinics to train tens of thousands of people for only thousands of jobs only places an impossible burden on the schools and shifts the training costs onto the students. Although the one-year and two-year specialist training discussed in the article are better than the existing system, supply still does not create demand.
The closest the Times goes to criticizing higher education expansionism is at the very end:
Whether or not such changes occur, for now the decline is creating what many see as a cultural shift.
By “cultural shift,” the Times refers to a statement that Bill Henderson makes about how law school is no longer the last refuge of the liberal arts major. Of course the Times doesn’t ponder why colleges sell degrees that don’t lead to relevant jobs. That’s just a “cultural” given. The fact that the government enthusiastically endorses mass higher education in the face of such poor outcomes doesn’t raise any eyebrows either.
For your edification, here’re the updates to the LSAC’s data over the last few weeks. We are now on week 4 of 2013.
In short, there’s been no real change since I wrote on this three weeks ago.