Blumner: Laying down the law school

Published July 24 2013
Updated July 27 2013

"The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."

This famous line from Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part 2 has sparked endless debate over whether the Bard intended to condemn the legal profession or praise it. (I say it is a swipe against lawyers as handmaidens to power and privilege.) But one thing is clear: The injunction is no longer feasible; there are simply too many of us. • In 2010, there were more than 1.22 million lawyers in the United States, according to the American Bar Association. The year I graduated law school, 1985, there were fewer than 700,000. That was back when jobs for young lawyers were at the bar, not just tending one.

"There's always law school" is what undergraduates majoring in philosophy, literature and history told themselves. Jobs in the humanities may be few, but law school was a stamped ticket for those who could think and write well.

Not anymore.

The implied promise that spending $150,000 on three years of concerted effort would mint a solid if not lucrative career is now a shaky proposition. There are too many law schools churning out too many lawyers.

With 202 accredited law schools in the United States, about 44,000 students graduate each year into an economy that can't absorb them all. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 74,000 jobs for new lawyers will be created over the next seven years. Taking into account older lawyers leaving the field, there could easily be more than two graduates chasing every job.

When I was at the New York University School of Law the big decision for students was whether to go into public interest law or to a silk-stocking law firm. People like me with big hearts but even bigger debts worried about succumbing to the "golden handcuffs," a condition where one takes a high-paying legal job with the idea of paying off student loans, only to get locked into high rents and other major expenses. Many of my peers with aspirations of working for the poor and powerless joined big corporate firms instead.

Now that kind of choice must sound quaint. For the Class of 2012 the goal is to get any job that requires a law degree, something only 56 percent of graduates were able to accomplish nine months after graduation, the ABA says.

Law schools did it to themselves. From 2001 to 2011, average tuition at a private law school went from $23,000 to $40,500 per year. Law schools were the golden-egg-laying goose of higher education.

That is until the career path became saturated and the profession suffered in reputation, status and viability.

Applications to law schools have tanked, down for this fall's admissions by 38 percent from 2010 levels and only a little better than half what they were in 2004. Students don't want to be a sucker for a bad deal.

Meanwhile, quality control is suffering. While top law schools are highly competitive, there is essentially a law school seat down the food chain for large majorities of students who want one and can pay. The profession overall will lose standing if it cannot maintain admissions standards.

Legal educators know there is a systemic problem. In March, dozens of renowned law professors wrote a letter to the ABA over the crisis of students left with an average law school debt above $100,000 and few job prospects. But their solutions were counterproductive. They suggest that law school be cut to two years or ABA accreditation standards for new law schools be eased, which would reduce tuition but also encourage more people to enter the field.

We don't need to kill all the lawyers, just prevent the creation of too many new ones.

Law schools need to close or shrink to get to equilibrium. Until then, promising law students a decent livelihood relative to their debt is false advertising.