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JEFF JACOBY

US legal bubble can’t pop soon enough

Is America’s lawyer bubble getting ready to pop?

Critics have long bewailed our national glut of lawyers, to little effect. Chief Justice Warren Burger predicted 35 years ago that America was turning into “a society overrun by hordes of lawyers, hungry as locusts.” At the time, the population of attorneys in the United States had surpassed 450,000, and law schools were graduating 34,000 new ones each year. By 2011, the annual production of law degrees was up to 44,000, and at 1.22 million, the number of lawyers in the country — which included me — had nearly tripled. Over the same period, the population of the United States had risen just 40 percent.

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But the wind has changed. In 2011, the number of students entering law school dropped by 7 percent, an unprecedented fall. In 2012, the drop accelerated: Enrollment of first-year law students sank another 8.6 percent. It plunged still further in 2013. According to the American Bar Association, 39,675 new law students matriculated last fall — an 11 percent decrease from 2012, to a low-water mark not seen since early in the Carter administration.

Much of the flight from law school reflects the brutal reality of the employment market for lawyers. The National Association for Law Placement reports that fewer than half of lawyers graduating in 2011 eventually landed jobs in a law firm. Only 65 percent found positions requiring passage of the bar exam. At a time when many law school graduates are shouldering student-loan debts of $125,000 or more, compensation has declined painfully — the median starting salary for new lawyers in 2012 was just $61,000. And quite a few can’t find any work at all: Nine months after receiving their law degrees, 11.2 percent of the class of 2013 was unemployed.

Only some of this is cyclical. The legal profession, like so many others, has been permanently disrupted by the Internet and globalization in ways few could have anticipated 10 or 15 years ago. Online legal guidance is widely accessible. Commercial services like LegalZoom make it easy to create documents without paying attorneys’ fees. Search engines for legal professionals reduce the need for paralegals and junior lawyers. Maurice Allen, a senior partner at Ropes & Gray, is blunt: “There are too many lawyers and too many law firms,” he said in a published interview last week. That means less work for new law school grads, and therefore less reason to go to law school.

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And who, except perhaps for law school admissions deans, would be sorry to see America’s lawyer bubble finally burst?

With almost 1.3 million lawyers — more by far than any other country, and more as a percentage of the national population than almost all others — the United States is choking on litigation, regulation, and disputation. Everything is grist for the lawyers’ mills. Anyone can be sued for anything, no matter how absurd or egregious. And everyone knows how expensive and overwhelming a legal assault can be. The rule of law is essential to a free and orderly society, but too much law and lawyering makes democratic self-rule impossible, and common sense legally precarious.

Too much law and lawyering makes democratic self-rule impossible.

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Scarcely a day goes by without a fresh example of the damage caused by a legal system that so often puts the innocent at the mercy of the spiteful. To avoid legal liability, companies and institutions must comply with brain-numbing regulations and restrictions that destroy initiative, smother good ideas, and force grotesque results that benefit no one.

Because it is so overlawyered, “American culture is corroding before our eyes,” writes Philip K. Howard, a big-firm lawyer and well-known reform advocate, in “The Rule of Nobody,” his new book. “It would have been inconceivable, a few years ago, for a teacher to be scared to put an arm around a crying child, or for a fireman to stand on the beach for an hour and watch a man drown because he had not been recertified for land-based rescue. Creeping legalisms are eating away at America’s social capital.”

From environmental rules so inflexible that fixing a bridge can take years to licensing rules so onerous that kids’ lemonade stands get shut down, all of us are paying for those “hordes of lawyers, hungry as locusts,” that Warren Burger warned of long ago. Students by the thousands are shunning law school? That’s the best trend I’ve seen in ages.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby.
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