Surveys fascinate me. They provide interesting glimpses into whatever or whoever is being surveyed. In this case, it’s lawyers (no surprise there since this is an ATL column), and the recent ABA profile of the legal profession doesn’t have many surprises but confirms what many of us already know. Is there any benefit to that? I think there is. It’s corroboration, and we lawyers know there is value to that.
One of the topics that the profile discusses is the crushing law school debt that most, if not all, graduates have. It’s not pretty, as if you didn’t already know, most law grads carry debt in excess of one hundred thousand dollars. It’s disheartening to read that newer lawyers (and they are over 40 as well) who have made personal and career choices based on debt rather than desire. Here are just a few examples:
Almost 83 percent chose a job that was eligible for loan forgiveness, rather than a job they genuinely wanted. The same held true for those who chose a job that paid more. Sacrifice in the name of servicing the debt.
Economic fallout: postponing or deciding not to get married, buying a house and/or a car, taking a vacation. Those should be happy decisions, but instead, burdened by debt, newer lawyers are deferring dreams. And you know what happens to dreams deferred; they either explode or sag under the heavy load of student debt.
Many, if not all, law schools will be online for at least part of the first semester and probably longer, given the reckless party attitude of many across the country. Are law schools considering tuition breaks? Should they? The in-class experience, as difficult as it can be, (see the movie Paper Chase as an example) is a lot of what law students are paying for, along with making friends, forming study groups, and other normative law school activities. Right now, nothing is normal, and we have no idea what the “new normal” might be. And is a law degree worth it? Even pre-pandemic, one issue was always the cost/benefit analysis.
How much cachet will there be if law school instruction is online, rather than in person? Will there be any diminution of that pedigree as a result of the pandemic? I don’t know; you tell me. Will you consider your legal education to be of lesser value because maybe one whole year out of three will be online? (Full disclosure: I am on the advisory council of Concord Law School, part of Purdue Global University; Concord is all online.) Some other law schools if not fully online are starting to consider and implement hybrid programs. I think that’s a great idea.
And not just because of my limited relationship with Concord.
One of the more interesting topics in the profile is the discussion of “legal deserts,” places where legal services are hard, if not impossible, to come by. There are many across the country. Just look at the maps on the pages in the profile that show each state and how underpopulated many parts of the country are in terms of providing legal representation. Some counties in some states don’t have any lawyers at all. I’m not saying that lawyers in those undeserved areas are going to make Biglaw money, but I would hazard a guess that a decent living can be made in those areas and certainly the cost of living would be less. If you live far away from a law school but want to practice in your hometown or someplace close to there, then online education is the way to go and a less expensive way at that.
There’s an old joke that if there’s only one lawyer in town, she’ll starve, but if there are two lawyers in town, they can both make a rather good living. Right now, 40 percent of all counties in the country have less than one lawyer per 1,000 residents. Makes you think a little about whether big city lawyering is how you want to spend your days.
The problem is that huge bugaboo of law school debt detailed in the profile. It’s not just the amount of debt, although it’s horrendous and if coupled with undergraduate debt, almost too much to bear. It’s also the frustration, unhappiness, and plain old fear from having all that debt. Mental health issues and depression also create feelings that one will never get ahead, even those who have taken Biglaw or other comparable jobs in an effort to reduce the debt load from crushing to manageable, if law school debt can ever be called “manageable.” In a little more than 10 years, the average law school debt rose 77 percent (and that number is not a typo.) That’s ridiculous.
What if more people read law in those states that allow it? It takes longer, but there may well be a benefit to it. Students will have the chance to see what the practice of law is really like, not the glamorous life portrayed in movies and on television, where lawyers duke it out in court with snappy comebacks, teetering on the verge of contempt citations, and blessedly brief closing arguments. How I wish all those were true in the real world. Reading the law also makes students understand that much of the practice is paperwork and drudgery.
Going to court, arguing a motion, or even (gasp) trying a case in person in the courthouse are dreams, at least until the pandemic is tamed (will it ever be so?) Dreams deferred for both clients and lawyers. Right now, those dreams deferred are nightmares for both.
Jill Switzer has been an active member of the State Bar of California for over 40 years. She remembers practicing law in a kinder, gentler time. She’s had a diverse legal career, including stints as a deputy district attorney, a solo practice, and several senior in-house gigs. She now mediates full-time, which gives her the opportunity to see dinosaurs, millennials, and those in-between interact — it’s not always civil. You can reach her by email at [email protected].