Education is an investment. Until recently, Americans considered that investment close to fool-proof; almost every degree from a reputable institution seemed to pay off in the job market. With rising tuition and a turbulent economy, however, an increasing number of students understand that education today is like other investments: it has downside risk.
Legal educators often note that law isn’t the only field experiencing high tuition and uncertain job prospects; other graduate programs show the same trends. That’s true, but the question isn’t whether other programs are risky. The question is whether prospective students now perceive law school as more risky than other programs. It’s like the old story about the two campers and the bear. Other graduate programs don’t have to out-run the bear; they just need to out-run us.
Here are some of the features that make legal education risky for today’s students. First, we maintain a three-year program. Students can obtain a wide range of master’s degrees in just two years–sometimes less with summer study. Master’s degrees in public affairs, public administration, public health, economics, social work, accounting, international relations, education, computer science, environmental science, and business are just some of the programs that might appeal to students interested in law.
Second, most of our programs are full-time. Part-time programs are much easier to find in many master’s fields, as well as in some doctoral programs. Full-time law students have limited options to earn money while pursuing their degrees; this increases the degree’s cost. Full-time enrollment may also discourage established workers from entering law school. In today’s volatile market, employees may be reluctant to cut ties as thoroughly as law school demands. Three years is a long gap in any employment history.
Third, our tuition is high. Law school costs substantially more than most master’s degrees, even without accounting for the third year. We also cost more than most PhD programs, especially since many doctoral students receive fellowship support or teach while earning their degrees. Medicine and dentistry cost more than law school, but they have much more secure job outcomes.
Fourth, our job outcomes are uncertain. For a worrisome number of graduates, there are no jobs practicing law. This reality emerges, not only from the 9-month employment statistics compiled by NALP, but also from Bureau of Labor Statistics projections. The Bureau estimates that, even if the economy returns to full strength, it will provide legal jobs for just half the number of students that law schools have been graduating.
It is true that some law graduates find satisfying work in fields other than law practice, but graduates of other programs fill those same jobs. Unless one wants to practice law, why pursue a degree that is more expensive and time-intensive than almost any other?
The job uncertainty, furthermore, extends to the type of law that a particular graduate may be able to practice. JDs practice many types of law, but that doesn’t mean that every JD can choose among all those paths. A top student at a top school probably can choose almost any route in law. The options, however, diminish steadily as one goes down the law school and class rank ladder. At least 80% of law students, for example, have no option to practice for an NLJ 250 firm; that’s simply not a choice for these students. The minority who can exercise that option aren’t necessarily the top graduates from the highest ranked schools–although they dominate this group. Some other students have this option because of special talents or background. My point here is that, for the large majority of students, this career path turns out not to be an option.
The same is true of many other legal positions. As the job market has contracted, and as high loans have made public service loan forgiveness very attractive, students can no longer count on careers as prosecutors, public defenders, or other government and public interest lawyers. I have seen excellent students compete desperately for these positions without success.
It’s one thing to choose law school knowing that you’ll accept a modest salary, and repay substantial loans, while doing work you love as a prosecutor. It’s another thing to choose law school knowing that you’ll have high debt combined with an uncertain menu of job choices. What if you invest all that time and money only to discover that your only options are small-firm family law practice or document review? Some graduates might enjoy those types of work but, if you went to law school wanting to be a prosecutor or other trial attorney, the pay off is disappointing compared to the investment.
These risks are particularly severe when put in the context of the overall job market. I recently discussed the changes that technology is unleashing on our economy. Given the accelerating impact of technology, it is hard to predict the parameters or income of any profession ten years from now. Certainly the economy will still support lawyers, but how many will it support? What will most of them do? And what will most of them be paid?
Against that backdrop, a rational college graduate might invest in a shorter, cheaper graduate degree than law. We are accustomed to thinking of the JD as flexible, but that may not be true in today’s economy. High debt alone reduces a graduate’s options. Today’s prospective applicant might think, “I’ll get a master’s degree in X and work in that field for a while. Maybe later I’ll see if law still makes sense.”
It’s hard to think of the JD as a risky degree; in earlier times, it seemed like one of the safest options for a college graduate wanting a professional career. But, if we want to address the dramatic decline in law school applicants, we need to put ourselves in the minds of those applicants. How do the risks of attending law school line up against the risks of other degree programs?
Reducing the JD’s riskiness will be difficult, and it will require challenging steps for law schools. The best ways to reduce risk for law students are some combination of smaller class sizes, lower tuition, more part-time options, a shorter degree program, up-front commitments from employers (similar to medical residencies), or “stepped” programs that allow students to obtain a series of degrees enabling them to perform different types of legal work.
I don’t underestimate the difficulty, from a law school’s perspective, of making these changes. It seems, though, that recognizing the riskiness of a JD–compared to other graduate programs and workplace options–is an important step towards reshaping legal education in a way that will continue to attract talented future lawyers. We need to outrun those other campers.