It’s always fascinating to see what others make of your ideas. Sometimes your readers find them a window into a world they hadn’t fully explored, which is ineffably gratifying. Sometimes your readers make them into strange lenses that refract things into exactly what they thought they already knew, which is rather less gratifying. Three journalists (well, two journalists and a full-time blogger) took a look at my new article, “What’s New About the New Normal: The Evolving Market for New Lawyers in the 21st Century,” described in my last post. Karen Sloan of the National Law Journal provided a fair and balanced summary of the paper’s content, but concentrated on the aspects of the analysis predicting that the number of entry-level Law Jobs will remain depressed for the foreseeable future. Jacob Gershman of the Wall Street Journal provided an equally fair and balanced summary, but focused on the paper’s additional and somewhat counterintuitive conclusion that, because poor job prospects are driving down the number of new law students, there will eventually be fewer law graduates seeking more or less the same number of jobs, which should make life somewhat easier for the fewer graduates on the job market some years from now. Elie Mystal of Above the Law treated us to one of his breathless, spittle-on-the-corners-of-his-mouth rants, and pronounced me a Don’t-Worry-Be-Happy academic apologist vying with purportedly like minds for the “neatest bit of sophistry in defense of going to law school.”
Poor Elie. It can’t be three weeks since he indulged in a similar surge of fury at Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre of Seton Hall concerning their study on “The Economic Value of a Law Degree,” and savaged the work for errors that even a casual reader would have appreciated simply weren’t there. (To be clear, I think there is plenty to argue with in the Simkovic-McIntyre analysis; unfortunately, almost none of it could be found in Elie’s landmark post “Another Garbage Study Offering Misleading Statistics On The Value Of A Law Degree.” This had the perverse effect of deflecting attention from a range of more subtle concerns with the paper, which I doubt was the intended effect of the attempted beat-down.) Since I am a teacher, I can’t help but notice that there appears to be lesson emerging here: Read before you rage.
So let’s see if we can straighten this out for anyone else in danger of confusion. Anyone who knows anything about my work (and to be clear, Elie Mystal is not to blame if he doesn’t) knows that I have argued explicitly and repeatedly that there currently are far too many seats in far too many law schools given the number of law-related jobs available; that this mismatch has visited tragic and incalculable misery on tens of thousands of aspiring lawyers, and that anyone who tries to assert otherwise is either grievously mistaken or contemptibly dishonest. Look here and here, for example.
Far from being “sophistry in defense of going to law school,” then, the “New Normal” paper (here) provides detailed empirical support for the propositions just described (with which, ironically enough, Elie apparently agrees). The paper shows that the entry-level Law Jobs market is currently poor and has been for the last five years (pages 24-25, 28); that reductions in BigLaw hiring are responsible for a disproportionate amount of that change for the worse (pages 30-35); and that there are strong objective reasons to believe that entry-level BigLaw hiring, and thus the entry-level Law Jobs market in general, will remain depressed below pre-recessionary levels for the foreseeable future (pages 35-54).
So far, it would appear that Elie and I are in complete agreement. The paper goes on to reason that if the legal academy shrinks, and the number of law graduates falls while the number of Law Jobs stays more or less the same, then future smaller classes of law grads will have an easier time finding jobs. Elie doesn’t fight the logic (you can’t); instead, he pronounces the prediction of a shrinking academy “almost certainly wrong” because he believes there is no way that the number of law graduates will fall. What is the empirical basis for this prognostication? He says the executive director of the National Association for Law Placement, James Leipold, told him so. Now, I have no idea what Jim Leipold told Elie Mystal, but I do know the facts. Here are a few of them: The largest first-year class in history entered law schools across the country in the fall of 2010; it was about 52,500 people. The first-year class that started in the fall of 2012 is estimated at about 42,500, a drop of about 20% in two years. [Update: LSAC reports an entering class of about 44,500 in 2012, only a 15% drop in two years. Others estimate the 2012 first-year class at less. Hat-tip to Paul Campos for pointing this out.] Last year, over half the accredited law schools in the United States shrank their entering classes by 10% or more. We don’t have entering class numbers for this fall yet, but there are reports –particularly among the schools that have had the worst placement records in recent years—of 30%, 40% and even 50% reductions in entering class sizes. The number of applicants to law school has shrunk by a third just between 2010 and 2013, and the number of applicants for the first-year class that will be starting soon is at levels not seen since Ronald Reagan was president. And remember that, historically, about 10% of each aggregate entering class drops out before graduation. So the number of new graduates we can expect to see three to five years from now will necessarily be much smaller than it was just three years ago, and it’s still looking for its bottom. In other words, what Elie thinks is impossible is actually happening already. By the way, all of this information is prominently presented in my paper. See pages 54-56.
So yes, for the much smaller number of law school graduates we’ll be seeing three to five to seven years down the line, I do think it will be easier to get a law-related job, so long as the number of such jobs at worst stays at about the same seriously depressed levels we see today (which I think is a good bet, and probably a little conservative). But that is true only because there are currently way too many seats in way too many law schools, and only because a lot of people who might have considered applying to law school are already choosing not to do so, and even more in the future will continue to stay away.
What that means as a practical matter should be obvious: You need to figure out if you’re one of the many potential law-school applicants who ought to stay away for your own good. Nothing in my paper (or anything else I've ever written) should be read as suggesting that no matter who you are, things are going to be great for you if you start law school in the next few years. Things will improve only if more people avoid law school unless they are good bets to succeed. So unless you have a coherent and plausible plan for the use you’re going to make of your law degree that is rationally justified by your LSAT and undergraduate grades, don’t go to law school. If the only law schools you get into are ones with an acceptance rate north of 50%, don’t go.
If that makes me an idiot, I can live with it. When all is said and done, though, I do have one thing to thank Elie for. As Oscar Wilde memorably remarked, the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about. I thank Above the Law for subjecting me to the lesser of the two evils.