Indeed that year the dean of CU, in his annual graduation speech, alluded to the difficult employment situation, and presented the graduates with the following edifying tale:
A graduate of our school was determined to work for a prominent government employer. All through law school he had considered this his dream job. Unfortunately, at the time he graduated, the employer had no positions for new lawyers available. Undeterred, this enterprising fellow told the employer, "Hire me anyway. I'll work for free until you have a position available." And do you know what happened then dear reader? I bet you can guess. The employer agreed to this charming arrangement, and the graduate did such a bang-up job that six months later, when an actual paid position became available, he was hired into it.
Now I must confess that I sat up there on the stage and listened to this story, and thought it was indeed rather inspiring. That's because at the time I had no idea that the only unusual aspect of this story is that the protagonist got a real job out of it. I had no idea that for many years now working for free has become an absolutely routine job search strategy for both law students and actual licensed attorneys -- and not just, as the matter was presented in the dean's edifying narrative, in the pursuit of a graduate's "dream job," but in the pursuit of any legal job at all.
What I've learned since is that few pieces of advice for unemployed law graduates are more likely to infuriate them than the suggestion that they "volunteer" with some prospective employer in order to "get a foot in the door." This advice is routinely given by clueless baby boomers to young adults, without those giving it realizing that the recipients of their wisdom have often been "volunteering" for years already, both before and during law school, with the idea being at some point they would actually get paid for doing legal work (that point being when they could no longer take out student loans to pay for luxuries such as food and shelter).
Ironically, quite a few people in legal academia seem unaware that there are (theoretically) strict legal restrictions on the ability of employers to
Of course this system has very different effects on graduates, depending on their socio-economic status. William Ockham notes:
[Internships] certainly provide benefits to young law graduates. But only to well to do graduates. The intern makes connections with local practitioners, gains practical skills, learns much about the real world practice of law, while filling in their resume. The problem for society is that this creates more economic disparity. A kid without some money or outside income just can't work without pay. Even if in the best of worlds and you can live with your parents, six months, a year, 18 months without a check simply isn't possible. But with money or well to do parents its just another unpleasant thing that you have to do on the way to a legal career. So and again rich kids are in and poor kids are out. An even higher percentage of the profession is made up people with money in their background. And isn't there something odd about the graduate with little or no student debt, getting the chance for an internship and at least a long shot at a legal career while.....Very few people in our business seem to be aware of the extent to which tripling the price of getting a law degree over the same time period when the legal services market has been contracting relative to the rest of the economy is inevitably transforming the practice of law -- at least in its more exalted manifestations -- into a carefully guarded class preserve. This is a long-winded way of saying that law is becoming something for rich kids.
Consider the following: In 2010, the top 20 law schools graduated 1,543 people who had no law school debt. While at lower-ranked law schools it's routine for more than 90% of the graduating class to have law school debt, the numbers are significantly lower in the legal academic stratosphere. Nearly one out of four Columbia Law School grads in 2010 (more than 100 people) had no law school debt, while nearly one in three Northwestern grads had none. For the typical student at these schools it costs about $250,000, in tuition and cost of living, to get a law degree. (Such schools give out a few large "merit" scholarships, but they give out almost no need-based aid, and the vast majority of students pay the sticker tuition price or something close to it. And these figures ignore opportunity cost). People who come from social backgrounds that allow them to attend these schools without borrowing money are, shall we say, in a highly advantageous position in terms of getting their "foot in the door" in any situation in which doing so means having to rely on something other than one's salary to pay the bills.
And this is just one way in which upper class status makes becoming a lawyer a far more rational economic choice than it is for people who aren't within a reasonable hailing distance of the blessed one per centers. Consider that other classic bit of advice for unemployed law grads: that they should "network." Is it even necessary to describe the extent to which this could simply be translated, "have as much mutually beneficial contact as possible with rich and influential people?" And how does one do that?
All these things are examples of how, if it costs hundreds of thousands in direct and opportunity costs to get a law degree, doing so is going to make sense only for people who have large amounts of both monetary and cultural capital, and who can therefore afford to purchase a law degree in somewhat the same manner that in 18th century England gentlemen in easy circumstances could afford to purchase "livings" for their favorite sons.