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With Prospects Newly Limited, Be Sure You Want to Become a Lawyer


Tuesday, Nov. 12, 2002

The short-term picture for law school graduates has rarely been grimmer. Firms that lavished meals and Broadway show tickets on their numerous summer recruits just a few years ago have recently laid off quite a few of those same recruits--now associates. Meanwhile, they have drastically cut back on the number of new associates hired.

Graduates of elite schools have far fewer options than in the recent past, while graduates of other schools must struggle to find any gainful employment.

Yet last year, law schools around the country set records for the number of applicants, and the current year's applications will almost certainly surpass the new marks.

These two phenomena seem contradictory. Why would people apply to law schools in record numbers at precisely the moment when law jobs have become scarce? Can thousands of law school applicants be wrong?

In a word, yes. Applicants should think carefully before they follow the current stampede.

Why Applications Are Up, Even as Job Prospects are Down

To be sure, the rise in applications is no great mystery. In the immortal words of our forty-second President, it's the economy, stupid. Simply by writing "web designer" on his or her resume, a college graduate of the class of 1998 could expect a large salary, stock options, and the ability to come to work wearing Birkenstocks and carpenter pants. The only people applying to law school then were the risk-averse and those with a genuine interest in the subject.

With their other opportunities dramatically curtailed, today's college graduates reason: "I'll go to law school for three years, increase my marketability, and by the time I get out, the economy will be booming again. Best of all, because there are no prerequisites for law school, my major in accounting, which I had hoped to parlay into a job with Arthur Andersen, won't be a problem."

There is a certain logic to this approach. It's fortified by the often-heard claim that you can do anything you want with a law degree. Here's one version of that claim, which I found on the website of an elite law school touting its program in international law: "A . . . degree [from us] has the prestige that allows you to do anything you want, anywhere in the world."

Sounds pretty good, doesn't it? And in a way--but a very limited way, unfortunately--it's true.

Law Schools Train Lawyers (Duh.)

Lawyers do indeed end up running Fortune 500 companies; holding elected and appointed positions in federal, state, and local governments; writing murder mysteries; and performing countless other responsibilities that never require them to say "May it please the court, my client is innocent."

But guess what? Most law school graduates become lawyers, at least for several years, and usually for their entire careers. That's why it's called law school rather than learn-to-do-anything-you-want-anywhere-you-want-school.

Okay, that's not quite fair. We don't actually teach students how to be lawyers in law school. Mostly we teach them how to "think like a lawyer," which, as I explained in an earlier column, simply means teaching people how to think clearly and precisely. That ability is obviously useful in business, government, fiction-writing, and other endeavors besides law.

Still, even if clear thinking is useful in chess, you're not going to figure out how to defeat Gary Kasparov by studying the law of contracts. And even though lawyers sometimes make the leap from general counsel to CEO, an MBA is a more direct ticket to the boardroom.

The Path of Least Resistance Leads to Law Firms

Moreover, it's not just that law school trains students in thinking about the law; law school placement offices channel graduates into jobs in the law. And students who come to law school simply because they couldn't think of anything better to do, are likely to follow the path of least resistance when it comes to choosing a career as well. Thus, the very students who most need guidance may be the least likely to receive it.

When the law firms show up to recruit--as they do even in a soft economy--a student without clear direction is likely to start wondering about which firm in which city best suits her. But she probably won't ask the logically antecedent, and more important question: should I work for a law firm at all?

To be sure, enterprising students can find unconventional jobs, even right out of law school. And most schools provide assistance, in the form of placement services and loan forgiveness, for public interest jobs.

But those positions, too, are typically law jobs. With the exception of the odd investment bank or consulting firm, recruiters for non-law positions do not come to law school campuses. Students interested in those jobs must go out on their own. It's possible, but again, what are the odds that someone who goes to law school out of inertia will take the initiative?

For the most part, when people say that you can do anything with a law degree, what they have in mind is doing something other than practicing law after a long stint of practicing law. A fairly common career path goes from working in a law firm for a client, to working in-house in that client's office of general counsel, to working in that enterprise's main line of business.

David Stern and Paul Tagliabue, the lawyers who run the NBA and the NFL, respectively, are good examples. Each labored many years as an attorney before moving to the front office.

Apply Anyway, But Know Why

Don't get me wrong. I'm thrilled that so many talented young people--not to mention people who have been out of college for many years--are applying to law school. Outstanding students are always a joy to teach.

And a great many of the finest lawyers came to law school by default, only to discover that they had a knack and passion for the job. Despite perennial lawyer jokes, a legal education offers the opportunity to grapple with issues of justice and, in the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., to "live greatly in the law."

But college students and recent graduates who see law school as a haven for generalists should be forewarned: the great life you choose by embarking on a legal education will most likely be in the law, rather than business, the arts, or sports.

If that appeals to you, by all means, come. If not, well, I hear medical school applications have been down lately.

Michael C. Dorf is Professor of Law at Columbia University.

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