Reflections On The Lawyer Bubble

There is a simple explanation for the lawyer bubble: Too many kids are going to law school

As a law school graduate and member of the bar in two states, I know I am supposed to feel sorry when I am confronted these days—no matter where I turn—by another article; blog or book that says the kids who are currently studying for their juris doctorate, or those who have recently passed the bar exam, are doomed to a life of scrambling for clients and eking out a living.

By every reputable account there are too many lawyers. The best guess is there are about 1.1 million people have graduated law school.  That’s one out of about every 300 Americans. One lawyer to serve every 300 people? Common sense tells that the market can’t support that many, no matter how much corporate, government and non-profit work you think is out there.

Everything I’ve read about the lawyer glut focuses on how the nation’s law schools are making it too easy to get in; how the profession presents prospects in too rosy a light, and how no one has had the guts to say our nation is over-lawyered and as a result a significant percentage of attorney are unhappy with their career choice.

Well, I agree with have a lawyer glut. But I think we are pointing our collective fingers at the wrong place.

Dear Law Student: You are to blame

Now, I was only a B- law student at a B- law school, but I think the problem is far simpler than everyone is making out to be. The problem isn’t the nature of our judicial system, the courts, the law schools or the law firms.  The reason we have too many lawyers is too many people are going to law school.

Let me go back some 30 years.

I went to Rutgers Law School at night and it was ridiculously hard to get into back then. (Operating a night school was a pilot project and they were only going to take a small number of students in the early days of the experiment.) Even though I graduated a good state college with honors and did well on the LSATs, I was wait listed….eventually getting the word I was in just before classes started.

There were 60 of us who started. Some 40 graduated and 30 of us passed the bar on the first try.

Of those 30 kids, three should have been lawyers.

There was Rob who would tell us often the tax code was a beautifully constructed, totally symmetrical document. He is a partner at a big Manhattan firm today.  Karen loved bond law.  She is chief bond counsel for one of the municipal port authorities on the east coast and Bill thought 54% of all Americans probably deserved to in jail.  He is first assistant district attorney in one of our larger states.

The rest of us?  Just about everybody found a job working as a lawyer. A random survey shows they think it is okay to make a living, but with the exception of Rob, Karen and Bill no one seems emotionally fulfilled.

So, why then did they (and I) go to law school?  Well, then—like now I believe—the majority of students went because they didn’t know what else to do.  They were smart, but unfocused when it came to understanding what they wanted to do for a living. Law school seemed like a good option for kids with good grades who weren’t sure what to do next.

When I say this, most people concede the validity of the argument, but some are quick to point out that I am leaving out an important point.  For the last few years, the economy has been awful and millennials are observant.  These people tell me that many millennials are going to law school as a way to wait for the economy to improve. By the time it does, they will be credentialed and have a leg up on the competition for a job in law—or someplace else.

Well, it’s a thought. But I was in my 20s once and I wasn’t that clever about finding a job. I am sure that scenario describes some people, but I wonder how many.

No, I am going to stick to my original conclusion. A lot of people who became lawyers chose the profession more or less at random. And since they did, it’s no wonder a significant percentage of them are unhappy.

Paul B. Brown, Rutgers University Law School class of 1983, is a best-selling author who has never practiced.  He says if he had to do it over again, he would have gotten his MBA instead.

 

  • JohnAByrne

    For all our readers, I should let you know that Paul and I met each other many years ago at Forbes magazine where we were both writers. So I saw his transition from lawyer to journalist and have to say it was very smooth.