Law degrees are no longer recession-proof

This article in the Washington Post Magazine adds to the searing critique of the rising costs of law school tuition and the seeming inability or unwillingness of law schools and the federal government, which issues loans to law students no matter the price tag, to stop the bleed. Law schools and the federal government are, respectively, charging tuition and issuing loans to cover that tuition as though the legal profession is what it used to be – a sure bet. A sure bet for, at the very least, the middle-class security of old. Things have changed significantly. The old safety net that supported entering law students’ confident swagger is completely gone.  No longer are they assured a spot in the upper echelons of society once they graduate.

Most striking from this article are the statistics: nine months after graduation in 2011, only half of law school graduates have found full-time employment as attorneys; and, although there will be 73,600 new lawyer jobs available between 2010 to 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, by next year, more than 130,000 new lawyers will have hit the job market.

I can’t help but wonder what this means for public interest attorneys and for those communities who rely on their services.  With spending cuts taking place at the federal, state, and local level at the same time that law school tuition is going up, there are fewer public interest attorney positions, which means more work for attorneys who do take them.  It also means less money to pay public interest lawyers, who already are paid very little.  For a recent law school graduate who is staring at $150,000 and more in law school debt, a job at 30, 40, even 50 thousand dollars a year simply is not an option.  Additionally, the larger the debt, the longer attorneys must work just to pay off that debt so that viable candidates for the bench are able to put their names in the hat only if they are independently wealthy or have another source of income.  This is a slippery slope that will invite lowered levels of competence and ability in our public servants and may invite corruption as well.  The refusal of the law school academy and the federal government to examine this issue closely is short-sighted to say the least.

As the judiciary speaks out about pending sequestration cuts, the rising costs of law school tuition, and the heavy burdens judges must bear as a result, they necessarily take their law clerks along for the ride.  Law clerks who will watch and learn and who themselves will become advocates against this broken system.

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