Friday, March 15, 2013

Is Law School Worth It? You want the short answer?

I guess because of my membership in the DC Bar, I get Washington Lawyer magazine, which is the official magazine of the DC Bar. I haven't bothered to see if the article is online, but in the March 2013 edition of the magazine, there is an article with the title "Price and Perils of a JD: Is Law School Worth It?" The article spans seven pages (not including a page devoted entirely to a "mood" photo, featuring good-looking young people intended to represent people considering law school who, as anyone who attended law school knows, are way too good looking to say "yes" to law school). I read the whole thing, and I'm still not sure where the author comes down on the question. I think he leans the right way, but he's a freelance writer and thus likely is reluctant to stake out a truly defined position (yeah, I used to do freelance writing, and the attitude is prevalent -- take too strong a position, and your article will get the hook. Stay in the middle.)

Well, I have the short answer: NO! Not anymore. Maybe once upon a time, but no more. Big Law is dying, slowly strangled by cost constraints imposed by ever-more parsimonious clients, who have their own cost-control issues to worry about. The contract attorney world is being squeezed into oblivion by computerized review and offshore competition. As for the folks who would go back to their hometown and do wills and divorces, I have two questions: how many people from each law school class can your hometown accommodate and, given the escalating cost of law school, can you make enough money doing that to cover the cost of your law school loans?

The answers, more and more often, are, not as many as want to come home to do that work and, briefly, "no." Wills, divorces, incorporations (a market crushed by, among others) and zoning disputes will only support so many lawyers in any given place. The available fee dollars are finite. If law schools keep creating lawyers -- and they will -- then those lawyers will be dividing a finite pie into ever-smaller pieces. Not a good end game.

Personal injury and product liability lawyers -- almost always the assholes at the bottom of the class -- likewise will be fighting over an increasingly limited pie. Not matter how you expand the definition of "victim," there remains a limit on how many victims there can be out there. For these fuckheads, no victims means no work. I think this arena of law will be self-limiting. And as states increasingly take steps to limit frivolous lawsuits, these folks will also see decreasing opportunities.

The fact of the matter is, the general public does not view lawyers as a valuable class of individuals. There are valid reasons for this. Most people never encounter a lawyer under professional circumstances unless their life is turning to shit. Sure, lots of people know lawyers, but almost nobody in the real world hires a lawyer because things are going great. Instead, they have to hire lawyers when they are getting divorced, or someone has died, or they are being sued, or they were injured in an accident (or they are being sued for injuring someone in an accident), or they are bankrupt, or they are charged with a crime, or any of a host of other equally unsavory circumstances. Damn few people hire a lawyer because everything is hunky-fucking-dory.

As a consequence, the more advances in technology make it possible to forgo using a lawyer, people will do so. Writing a will using something you found online might not be ideal, but it probably works. As states have made divorce easier, the need for lawyers has declined except in the most acrimonious cases. Any number of companies will help you incorporate your small business without involving a lawyer. The same applies to any number of the unsavory circumstances that require most people to hire a lawyer.

While there will remain situations in which only a lawyer will do, the fact is that people will hire lawyers as infrequently as possible, and the circumstances under which people can avoid hiring a lawyer are expanding, at the personal and the corporate level. Under those circumstances, how much sense does it make to invest tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars in a law degree?


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