I admit, I have watched television shows set in law firms for a long time now. When I was young and impressionable, I watched the excitement on L.A. Law and was intrigued enough to eventually take the Law School Admissions Test (I did get accepted in law school by the way, but ultimately against it). These days, I occasionally catch The Good Wife and admire the outfits by the likes of Jason Wu and Escada being sported by the fictional Alicia Florrick and her colleagues. Surely that show and others like it should be acting like an infomercial for the joys of being a lawyer for a new generation?
Turns out, as nice as Ms. Florrick’s wardrobe is (and her male costars look pretty spiffy too by the way), the young and impressionable these days are not getting enticed into law, at least now the way they used to be. According to data from the American Bar Association, law school applications were this year down 2.5 percent from last year, and are now at their lowest level in 41 years. A fear of debt and a skepticism about the prospects for new lawyers is scaring a lot of would be lawyers away from what used to be thought of as a slam-dunk way of getting rich, or at least solidly-close-to-upper middle class.
This article from Quartz shows what is going on in some nice charts, but actually the stories about the drop in law school admissions have been around for a few years now. The prospects for lawyers are just now what they used to be: for one thing, technology means you can download things like write-your-own-will kits that negate the value of some law services. And then there was the recession, which hit law firms hard and sent revenues declining. Of course new lawyers had to pay the price: Bloomberg Business last year reported that the lawyers who graduated from U.S. law schools in 2013 had an unemployment rate of 12.9 percent. Of those that did have jobs, only 64 percent were in jobs that required them to have passed the bar exam. Given that the average graduate of a private law s school in the U.S. ends up with about $125,000 worth of debt, you can see why a lot of would be lawyers are thinking twice.
The downtrend in law school applicants is bad news for law schools, some of which have been cutting expenses and paring back staff. In a larger sense though, it’s probably a good thing. Oversupply has meant that the starting salaries for lawyers have been trending down for several years. A smaller number of graduates will presumably help to put supply and demand back into balance – and presumably send salaries back up to Ferragamo-worthy status again.