Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Law school today: a path to "almost guaranteed legal employment"?

In an article posted just a few days ago (and published at 27 Georgetown Journal of Legal Ethics 55-69 (2014)), with the striking title "Keep Calm and Carry On," René Reich-Graefe of Western New England University School of Law makes the equally striking claim that "over the next two decades, the legal profession market is moving statistically into the direction of almost guaranteed legal employment for all law school graduates." (68) Briefly, his argument is that the legal profession in the US currently is quite old, and so "[o]ver half of currently practicing lawyers in this country will retire over the next fifteen to twenty years" (62) -- and will need to be replaced; that the population of the country is rising rapidly, and for that and other reasons the need for legal work will increase; and that, as a result, "recent law school graduates and current and future law students are standing at the threshold of the most robust legal market that ever existed in this country." (66)

It is conceivable, of course, that actually the way that legal problems are handled is in the process of being transformed so radically that even with retirements and increased legal needs, lawyer jobs will not keep up. (More paralegals, or more lawyers paid less in other countries, might do more of the work, for instance.) Many people fear that this is the case. But Reich-Graefe says that many of our fears are the result of panic, and he illustrates his point by dissecting one fairly prominent journalistic prediction of disaster. He suggests that lawyers' conservative and defensive inclinations, not to mention their tendency to depression, mean that "lawyers ... often respond to any perceived crisis by means of collective hysteria--rather than by the same measured, pragmatic and productive righten-the-ship-and-proceed-calmly approach which they generally employ so well and successfully on behalf of their clients." (56)

Needless to say, as a lawyer and law professor, I would like to believe Reich-Graefe is right. He acknowledges that "he makes a living as a legal educator" (55 n.*), so he too may be swayed by self-interest. But his numbers look powerful to me. Many people have indeed worried that everything is changing for lawyers, but perhaps those worries rest less on numbers than on anecdote. Anecdote can reveal truth before numbers do, yet it's also easily shaped by panic. (I realize there may be more cogent worries that I haven't focused on.)

Suppose Reich-Graefe is right. In that case, the huge upheaval in the law school market, fundamentally based on the impression that the massive student debts graduates have incurred won't earn them the prospect of rewarding employment, was a response to a painful period in the job market (there certainly has been such a period, beginning a few years ago), and not to long-term realities. I hope it is so.

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