If you rely on News Feed in Facebook to find my posts, you're missing most of them. On average, only 16% of updates in Facebook make it into News Feeds. Let me suggest that you subscribe to me in Facebook, follow me on Twitter (@ccengct), or use an RSS reader.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

How many lawyers do we need?

My father had a law degree, the old LL.B. In my twenties, I read his law school books even though I never considered law school for myself. In my profession I work with lawyers directly, and several of my closest friends and former classmates are lawyers. I understand and respect the legal profession; I know how lawyers are trained to think, and I speak their language.

But for many years I have wondered whether law schools are turning out too many JDs for the market to absorb. A recent article in the Raleigh News & Observer says yes, at least in terms of graduates in North Carolina who actually intend to practice law. You can watch a NSFW, very jaundiced but not entirely inaccurate viral video eviscerating law schools that consume student loans for economic fuel with no regard for the consequences.

The truth is more nuanced than the video, however. Graduates with best grades from the best law schools will always get jobs in the profession, although life as an associate in a big, internally competitive law firm can be grueling. (My personal perspective: people who are very conflict-averse should hesitate before entering law school; much of the work is oppositional in nature.) JDs with backgrounds in science or engineering can always get good jobs in patent law, as can JDs with accounting backgrounds in tax or estate law. JDs who had identified their career paths — public service, politics, or a firm with a family insider — before matriculating don't have to worry.

But what are career and income prospects in the profession for the general practitioner, the JD with a low-end GPA, or the product of a less respected school? Not great anymore. On the other hand, the employment outlook for many holders of undergraduate degrees is not good, either. I don't believe that holding a JD makes one less employable.

The real issues are tuition, how to pay for it, and return on investment. Seminaries for priests, ministers, and rabbis are facing the same quandary because their tuition has gone up but the number of available full-time positions in the field is going down. My hunch is that the MBA, an uncommon degree 30 years ago but widely promoted today, is next to be endangered.

Education, even post-grad, has intrinsic value beyond employment. But when the bill is six figures — and potentially on top of a six-figure undergrad degree — one must proceed very cautiously.