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February 03, 2013

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John Steele

As you note, schools were still practically giving away law degrees for free back then, so the crushing debt loads weren't there and there was no accusation that schools were selling expensive degrees of no practical value.

And those writers from the early 1970s couldn't foresee the big changes coming in the mid-1970s: the abolition of price fixing by lawyers, the permission to advertise, and most of all the effect of the American Lawyer magazinze's list of how much money other lawyers were making. The stodgy practice of law got aggressive. Starting by 1978 or so, mid-sized and large firms began a spectacular 25 year run of growth and profits. Law schools grew in the wake of that run, in effect feeding off of it.

The biggest difference, of course, is that today the market has figured out how to reduce its use of private practice lawyers. That started at the high end of the market and is now reaching the low end too. And while it used to be the case that firms and schools didn't want to share information about themselves, today they have no choice.

concerned lawyer

I would note two substantial differences between the early 1970s and the early 2010s.

1. The first, as John Steele notes, is the cost of law school. Because we work in a profession that more often trafficks in narratives rather than numbers, I think this aspect tends to be too often ignored in this discussion. Let's put a real number on it. According to Professor Paul Carrington, the "price of law school is now in real dollars five times what it was in 1965." This tends to understate the point, I believe because most of that cost is funded by loans. So the $150K average debt for graduates in 2013 is somewhat worse than the $30K (in 2013 dollars) of the average debt for graduates in 1965 because of the accruing interest.

2. Second, the quotations you provide from Millard Ruud, for the most part, describe a hypothetical concern over increasing enrolment and a fear that graduates may not be able to find law jobs. It was probably a legitimate concern at the time, but in retrospect we can dismiss those concerns as emanating from a pessimist. We would probably call Ruud a Cassandra. Today is different. The unemployment of law graduates is a well-documented reality. Anybody on the hiring side of the equation has seen resumes from hundreds of 2009 - 2012 graduates who have no legal experience at all. The concern is no longer hypothetical.

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