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.
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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