The Case for Why Law School Is Still Worth It

This post is a guest commentary by  Aaron N. Taylor and provided courtesy of preLaw Magazine. Aaron N. Taylor is a professor at Saint Louis University School of Law. You can follow him on Twitter @TheEdLawProf.

There has been a lot of negative talk about law school lately, but the facts belie the hype. The legal profession has low unemployment rates, lawyers earn high salaries and loans are manageable.

It’s open season on legal education — falling applications, lawsuits by former students and dooms day warnings about the legal job market. The rampant bad publicity has taken on a sensational flair. Popular blogs and even established news forums are peppered with anecdotes about law school graduates drowning in debt with no good options for the future.

But as is often the case with anecdotes, these compelling tales of woe represent exceptions. Worse yet, criticisms of the wisdom of attending law school are often based on flawed premises and faulty logic. You’ve likely heard many reasons why you shouldn’t go to law school. I’m going to give you a few reasons why you should.

Legal training helps in tough economy

Let’s start with the legal job market. Lawyers have not been immune to the effects of the recent recession. However, they have fared much better than most workers. According to U.S. Department of Labor data, the unemployment rate for lawyers was 1.5 percent in 2010 — more than six times lower than the overall rate of 9.6 percent. Since 2009, while the overall unemployment rate has remained above 9 percent, the rate for lawyers has exceeded 2 percent only once. It is true that unemployment among lawyers has increased significantly over the last few years (it was barely 1 percent in 2007), but the increase pales when compared to other occupations.

The plight of new lawyers in this economy has been a topic of frequent discussion. According to the National Association for Law Placement, “class of 2010 graduates faced [the] worst job market since [the] mid-1990s.” Only 87.6 percent of graduates in that class were employed within nine months after graduating — the lowest rate since 1996, and down from 91.9 percent in 2007. Again, lawyers are not immune to the effects of larger economic malaise — new lawyers less so. In fact, the 1996 rate was in the aftermath of the recession of the early 1990s. But these statistics show that even in bad times, the vast majority of law school graduates secure employment shortly after graduation. Moreover, logic dictates that employment rates increase with the passage of time, and history dictates that bad times don’t last forever.

Salary data show that the vast majority of lawyers earn relatively high salaries. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, lawyers boast the fourth highest median salary behind medical doctors, dentists and CEOs (some of whom have law degrees). While the majority of occupations have median salaries between $20,000 and $49,999, the median for lawyers in 2010 was almost $113,000. Again, this was the median — the actual midpoint — which means the majority of lawyers made six-figures.

Predictably, starting salaries for new lawyers tend to fall below the median for the profession as a whole, but they still tend to be relatively high. According to NALP, the class of 2010 had a median starting salary of $63,000, a respectable living for a new entrant into any profession. On the downside, the 2010 median was $9,000 lower than the year before. But declining wages have buffeted the entire economy. Fortunately, as the economy sputters back to life, salaries are unlikely to continue falling at the same rate — if at all.

The decline in salaries for new lawyers is attributed in part to a decline in private-practice jobs. About 21 percent of 2010 graduates got jobs in large law firms, compared to about 26 percent in 2009. Because these jobs are among the highest paying — typically starting well above $100,000 — the decline in this sector affected overall salary data for new graduates. This shift, however, does not render law school a bad investment. Even with the 5 percent decrease in BigLaw jobs, the overall employment rate for graduates fell less than 1 percent between 2009 (88.3 percent) and 2010 (87.6 percent). Again, the vast majority of law school graduates find employment paying relatively high salaries — even if it’s not the type glamorized by popular culture.

BigLaw has always held a special place in legal profession lore, so it’s not surprising that a decline of those jobs has received outsized attention. However, large law firm jobs have always comprised just a small portion of the overall legal job market. In fact, the job market for lawyers has always been broad, and based on recent data it appears to be broadening.

According to NALP, the proportion of 2010 graduates who accepted jobs for which a bar license was required was 68.4 percent — the lowest percentage ever measured. NALP characterizes this trend in negative terms, suggesting that weaknesses in the legal job market are forcing new lawyers to settle for being underemployed in non-legal jobs.

There may be some truth to that suggestion. But it’s also true that there are many well-paying, stable, even prestigious jobs for which the law degree is not required, but for which a law degree can provide a useful advantage in the hiring process. Lawyers have always inhabited non-legal career fields, where employers value the skills and dispositions nurtured in law school. As such, most law schools provide specific career planning services to students pursuing non-legal jobs. So the trend away from traditional legal jobs is a testament to the versatility of legal training and the favorable position lawyers often find themselves in the non-legal job market.

In terms of outlook, there is some optimism that the legal job market is thawing, albeit slowly. The legal sector has added about 900 jobs so far in 2011. Law schools are reporting increased employer participation in on-campus interviews. And there are signs that law firm hiring will increase in 2012. The U.S. Department of Labor projects that jobs for lawyers will grow about as fast as jobs overall. So larger economic trends will influence, if not determine, the speed at which the legal job market recovers. But one thing seems certain: workers with legal training will fare better than most in this economy, no matter what happens. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, lawyers make up one of the 10 smallest professions. This finding calls into question the “too many lawyers” memo, especially when you consider the prominence of the legal process in this country. In reality, lawyers are still relative rare — and with rarity comes demand and a wage premium.

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