The Terrible Legal Market

First, congratulations to those who passed the North Carolina Bar.

Unfortunately, that’s where the good news ends.

Last year according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the American economy created 25,000 new jobs requiring a JD. More than 40,000 graduated from law school. That same imbalance was true, more or less, of 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, and will be true of 2013.

The problem isn’t that there are too many lawyers. The problem is that there are too many new lawyers with crushing debt loads who are entering a market where there are precious few jobs – under 5,000 – that can justify the debt that was assumed to go to law school.

In addition, layoffs and a 5-year-long weak job market means that there are plenty of more experienced lawyers who are better qualified to take whatever new jobs open up.

The government has stepped in with Income Based Repayment (IBR), but this is a false hope, which basically keeps a person indebted for 10 years before any kind of relief is possible. And then the relief comes with tax implications.

Having been profiled by MSNBC a few years ago for building a successful criminal law practice, I’m routinely contacted by recent grads asking for advice. Just this week I spoke to a gentleman who passed the bar and is busy setting up a practice in the Research Triangle.

For those of you considering going to law school or those of you in the first or second years, here’s my advice. Unless you are going to a Top 10 law school or you are going to law school and will emerge with less than $50,000 in total debt, you should cut your losses now.

Most of the 40,000 people who graduate from law school have no idea what the actual practice of law entails. They are going to law school because for 30 years it has been a ticket to at least a middle (or upper middle) and professional class lifestyle. But those days are over for the vast majority of law school grads.

The corporate economy cannot support ten thousand $160,000 a year hires each year. Those people who would’ve taken those jobs are now seeking what have long been derided as second-tier public service and non-profit jobs. The people who occupied those jobs are being pushed out of the market entirely.

And yet law schools continue to hike tuition, in large part because:

  1. Law schools have bloated budgets, driven by excessive faculty salaries.
  2. Law schools can foist those costs onto students who defer payment for three years.
  3. Law schools have either obscured or mis-represented hiring statistics.
  4. Law schools have had such significant cultural power that no one would think they would do 1, 2 & 3.
  5. The government has subsidized the true cost of law school, but denies the law student relief in bankruptcy by making student loans non-dischargeable.

Note that what’s true of law schools – the bloated budgets, the overpaid faculty, the bloated administrations – is also true of American higher education in general, just not to the same degree (although I don’t for a moment believe an English professor, who provides as much or more value than a law professor, would ever think himself overpaid.)

The problem in all this is that there is a denial of responsibility on the part of law schools, who insist that whatever problems their students are having in finding jobs are directly related to their students’ lack of “networking”.

I’m happy to take calls from law students who have graduated and are now seeking some advice. I’m afraid I’m not going to be the bearer of overly optimistic news. While the general economy is doing a bit better, than legal market is terrible, and will be terrible for at least the next 5 to 10 years. There’s just too much supply, too much debt, and too few jobs.

Damon Chetson

Damon Chetson is a Board Certified Specialist in State and Federal Criminal Law. He represents people charged with serious and minor offenses in Raleigh, Wake County, and the Eastern District of North Carolina. Call (919) 352-9411.