I’ve been developing a theory for awhile about what the structure and composition of lawyers at a typical BigLaw firm may look like in future, and how it’s evolved already, and now that The New York Times has made it official that law school applications are plummeting, it’s timely to bring the two together and talk about why anyone in their right mind would want to go to law school today.
First the Times story, because once a phenomenon makes the front page of the Times it’s all but universally recognized as true (as Paul Campos says, it achieves ontological truth) even if it hadn’t penetrated the universal consciousness just yet.
Now, for those of us who’ve been following the remarkable spread of the recognition that law school-except for the top students at the top schools-has become a very bad bargain indeed, with costs wildly out of proportion with benefits, this is extremely welcome news. Indeed, the Times article comes close to being a public service.
But just to quickly rehearse what’s wrong with law school for the great bulk of current and prospective students: It saddles hem with nondischargeable debt on the order of $150,000 in exchange for dismal job prospects. If you want a complete, chapter-and-verse, recitation of the bill of particulars against law schools today, there’s no more comprehensive source than Washington University School of Law Professor Brian Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools.
Here are the numbers, from the Times:
Law school applications are headed for a 30-year low, reflecting increased concern over soaring tuition, crushing student debt and diminishing prospects of lucrative employment upon graduation.
As of this month, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of some 200 law schools nationwide, only 4 have seen increases in applications this year. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; this year there are likely to be 54,000.
Such startling numbers have plunged law school administrations into soul-searching debate about the future of legal education and the profession over all.
“We are going through a revolution in law with a time bomb on our admissions books,” said William D. Henderson, a professor of law at Indiana University, who has written extensively on the issue. “Thirty years ago if you were looking to get on the escalator to upward mobility, you went to business or law school. Today, the law school escalator is broken.”
This graphic tells the story more vividly than any words:
Those who follow the industry, even in the shallowest fashion, have seen widespread coverage of the cost/benefit mismatch in going to law school for the past few years: The indispensable Paul Campos has been producing a running commentary on developments, while even the Gray Lady has produced hard-hitting stories for some time. Here’s the problem in a nutshell—not that law school is worthless, but that the investment required and the payoff delivered have gotten totally out of whack: