I had a long phone conversation last week with a 2010 law school graduate, who asked me to employ his story for the purpose of illustrating the extent to which the current legal market makes even going to law school for "free" a risky proposition. Anecdotes are not data, but the data reflect clearly enough that there's nothing unusual about this particular outcome.
"Ben" has a classic But I Did Everything Right story. He was valedictorian of his high school class, an accomplished athlete, a community volunteer, etc. etc. He got a full-ride academic scholarship (tuition and living expenses) to a top private college, from which he graduated with honors and no debt. During college summers he did two internships with DA offices and participated in a DOJ program for undergraduates aspiring to work in public law.
He spent a year after college working and studying for the LSAT, on which he got a very high score. He was offered admission to several top law schools at sticker, but, having avoided all educational debt despite coming from a comparatively modest SES background, he instead decided to take a full tuition scholarship at a school ranked in the middle of the top tier.
While in law school he was one of a half dozen applicants selected out of a pool of hundreds for a very prestigious public law summer position. He got good grades, worked for a journal, "networked" with all the right people for the kinds of jobs he was aiming to get, and so on and so forth.
Ben is exactly the kind of person that law schools claim should be going to law school. He knew exactly what kind of legal work he wanted to do and why, and he did everything one was supposed to do to get that kind of job. But that kind of job -- public sector work -- has become even more difficult to get than big law firm work. And given that the Republican party's official position on the matter is that socialism makes the baby Jesus cry, while the party's liberal wing makes impotent gestures suggesting this may be an overstatement, the situation doesn't seem likely to change any time soon.
Thus Ben, despite excellent work experience and stellar recommendations from his employers, graduated from law school without a real law job. He has spent the last two years working at a couple of fake law jobs that count as real law jobs in the fake statistics put out by law schools -- temporary positions without benefits, one funded by his alma mater -- while applying for literally every public law job opening in the state in which he is barred, as well as private law positions that it doesn't seem inconceivable someone with his resume might be able to get. For the last few months he's even been applying for non-law jobs, and getting nowhere, no doubt because he is "obviously" overqualified.
His latest temp gig is about to run out, and he's thinking about hitting the re-set button, and throwing in the towel on the whole law thing. There are almost literally no jobs for someone who wants to what he wants to do, and what he wants to do isn't to be an international environmental sports law lawyer -- he just wants to be a lawyer who works for the goddamned American public (my adjective). Apparently this is now a highly unrealistic career goal. He would take a private firm job in order to stay in the game, but there's hardly anything in the way of firm jobs to speak of for people who have been out of law school for two years, especially people who have public law all over their resumes. So what exactly are his options?
The kicker is that Ben has $50K in educational debt, because of course he had living expenses while wasting three years of his life on a degree from a "top tier" law school. Except it wasn't three years -- as he emphasized to me it has added up to more like eight: a couple of years in undergrad doing all the right things in order to have the kind of resume you have to have to get into public law, a year after college dedicated to acing the LSAT and applying the right way, three years learning to think like a lawyer, and two years afterwards, learning to think like an unemployed lawyer.
Imagine if he had actually had to pay to go to law school.