Law school administrators and teachers are notorious for overselling the benefits of law degrees. I don’t like it because: (1) they have a vested interest in maintaining law school admission levels; and (2) they often have distorted misconceptions about life in the real Better Call Saul world of the legal profession.
So not surprisingly, I am not a fan of this New York Times article last week by Cal. Berkeley law professor Steven Solomon. My biggest problem is the article’s title: Law Schools and Industry Show Signs of Life, Despite Forecasts of Doom.
A better title would have been: Despite Industry Downturn, Largest Law Firms Still Earning Huge Profits. I realize that the problem with the title is probably not Mr. Solomon’s fault. Curious about the origin of newspaper article titles, I reached out to a lawyer who was formerly a Clarion-Ledger reporter. He responded that when he was a reporter, they could not even suggest article titles. He would be surprised if any mainstream media source allowed the author to write the title.
This paragraph from the article text is more measured than the title:
Several new studies, however, point to signs of vigorous life in the legal job market, at least toward the higher end.
By “higher end” he means Am Law 100 firms and the Ivy League level graduates they hire. And to the author’s credit, he admits he is biased:
…The top 10 schools have even higher employment rates for the class of 2010, and employment statistics for 2014 are expected to rise. (Full disclosure: I teach at one of those top 10 schools and so am biased here.)
This is like Alabama coach Nick Saban writing an article stating that playing in the NFL is a realistic dream for all college football players because the NFL hires a bunch of his players every year.
If you can get admitted to one of the top 10 law schools in the country, then I’ve got no advice for you. But if you–like the vast majority of people who consider law school–are looking at attending a more pedestrian law school, forget about what’s going on in Big Law. That’s not where you will end up working.
This is an important paragraph also:
So, there will be disruptions, but this is likely to be a case of lawyers shifting from law firms to corporate departments and compliance becoming its own industry. Solo practice, meanwhile, will become more difficult because of automation. Again, these changes are likely to hit students at lower-tier schools harder than those graduating from the top schools.
I agree with the first sentence. The second sentence is just wrong. Solo practicing has never been easier because of automation. Compared to when I became a solo in 2002, solos need less office space, less expensive equipment like servers and phone systems and less support staff work because of scanners, electronic filing and software innovations. In 2002, I had to have a legal assistant. In 2015, it’s a luxury–not a necessity. All the solo really has to have now is a good computer, a scanner and connection to the internet–stuff many lawyers already own.
Solo practice is harder than it used to be because there are more lawyers competing for less profitable legal work. In The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law former big law partner Mark Herrmann compares soloing to practicing on the edge of a cliff. It’s a fitting analogy.
Soloing is the purest way to practice law–some would say the best way. Parts of it have never been easier. But it’s not for everyone, just like everyone can’t work at an Am Law 100 firm.
Yes there will be plenty of lawyers twenty years from now. Yes, high end law school graduates still stand a good chance of landing high paying Big Law jobs. But there are a lot more Jimmy McGills out there than Am Law 100 lawyers. If you are going to publish an article that pertains to what is a small—if visible and prominent–corner of the legal world, it should be reflected in the title.
There will be plenty of NFL players too. But let’s not sugarcoat the prospects for either profession. I view Mr. Solomon’s article as a measured take on the top of the industry. Unfortunately, the editors slapped a misleading title on it that exaggerates the scope of the overall message.