A law degree has long proved a pathway to a high-paying profession and a challenging career. But seismic changes in the legal industry that mean fewer jobs and lower salaries for new lawyers are making the decision of whether to go to law school — and in many cases, take on tens of thousands of dollars in debt — more complicated.
Unemployment among recent law school graduates has climbed steadily in recent years, even as the overall jobless rate has declined. Nine months after earning law degrees, the unemployment rate of the class of 2013 was 11.2 percent, up from 10.6 percent for the class of 2012, and 9.2 percent for 2011 law school graduates, according the American Bar Association.
During that period, the national unemployment rate fell from about 9 percent to less than 7 percent.
“It’s still difficult out there for young attorneys,” said James G. Leipold, executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, a nonprofit that provides career services for attorneys and recent law school graduates.
For those considering law school, the key is whether conditions will remain difficult, and for now, industry trends suggest a tighter job market in the immediate future. There’s still a potentially big payoff for earning a law degree, industry officials say, as many large and mid-size firms pay first-year associates $100,000 a year or more.
The catch, however, is there are simply fewer of those jobs around.
To those thinking of attending law school, industry officials say potential students should consider a number of factors beforehand, such as what type of legal field they want to enter and what the job prospects are in those areas. For instance, students in business-related fields of study — such as intellectual property and regulatory compliance — are in particularly high demand.
The idea of going to law school appealed to Leah Segal, but she worried about turmoil in the legal industry, including cutbacks at many firms that were making it harder for young lawyers to find jobs. A 2008 Brown University graduate who majored in literary arts, she contemplated getting a doctorate in English or even an MBA, but ultimately enrolled at Boston University School of Law.
Segal said she saw a law degree as offering many options, with potential opportunities at law firms, corporations, government agencies, and nonprofits. She also knew lawyers who had moved to the business world as a result of their legal training.
“Even though the job prospects are tough today in law, it seemed to me that a legal degree provided more flexibility and could open more career doors,” said Segal. “It was a really, really careful decision.”
Segal, 27, graduates later this month with a job offer from WilmerHale, one of the largest law firms in Boston. “It’s worked out wonderfully,” said Segal, who hopes to practice corporate law.
It may not work out so well for many other law school graduates. Law firms are increasingly reluctant to hire young associate attorneys, as they try to make operations more efficient amid a major transformation within their industry.
Until a decade or so ago, law firms more or less set the financial terms, charging clients by the hour and expecting them to pay, with few questions asked. But technology, global competition, and increasing demands from corporate clients, under their own financial pressures, are forcing law firms to lower hourly charges, establish set fees for routine services, and bid for legal work. As a result, law firms, too, have cut costs.
“The legal business model is changing — and it’s changing very rapidly,” said Vince D. Rougeau, dean of the Boston College Law School. “It’s been painful. It’s no longer true for large law firms to absorb a large number of young law grads.”
It has also meant changes at law schools, where applications and enrollments have plunged. At BC Law, applications are down by about 40 percent from five years ago. At BU Law School, applications are down 50 percent during that period.
Other law schools are experiencing similar declines. First-year enrollments last year at the nation’s top 200 law schools fell 11 percent from 2012. They are down 24 percent from the peak enrollment of more than 50,000 in 2010.
As a result, law schools are making adjustments with a keener eye to the job market, tailoring more courses toward business-related topics and hiring new faculty members to teach those classes. Among the more promising legal career fields these days, industry officials say, are corporate and entrepreneurship law, intellectual property, and finance.
Suffolk University Law School, for example, now offers a course on “project management,” or how to research, analyze, and estimate the time and money a legal case might take. Law firms increasingly want attorneys with such skills, said Andrew Perlman, a Suffolk law professor and director of the school’s Institute on Law Practice Technology and Innovation.
“The opportunities within the legal community are different today from what they were in the past,” said Perlman. “There’s a real structural shift underway within the industry, with lawyers expected to do more with less.”
Elizabeth McIntyre, 24, who graduates from BU Law School later this month, was prepared to do more with less, but it wasn’t easy for her to land a job. She didn’t want to do corporate work at a large firm or major company, but rather practice in legal advocacy, such as helping the poor with legal needs.
But legal services organizations have come under financial pressure since the recession due to government budget cuts and lagging donations. Ultimately, McIntyre accepted a two-year paid fellowship at the nonprofit Greater Boston Legal Services.
She said she’ll worry about finding a permanent job after her fellowship is over. “Two years is more time for the economy to improve,” said McIntyre, who declined to say how much her fellowship is paying. “But I’m not complaining. This my dream job, even if it’s only for two years. I feel so lucky.”
Jay Fitzgerald can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.