I'm a law scholar, and I'm ashamed--ashamed of analyses like the one Lawrence Mitchell published this week in the New York Times. When will legal scholars learn that it is embarrassing to misrepresent facts about our own industry?
LawProf and so many others have already described the wild misstatements in Mitchell's op-ed. He quotes a government estimate that lawyer jobs will grow "about as fast as the average for all occupations," without mentioning the source's next sentence: "Competition for jobs should continue to be strong because more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available." Mitchell similarly ignores the bimodal distribution of JD salaries; the rapid increase of part-time and temporary work; the growth of nonpartnership tracks in law firms; the role of technology in eliminating legal jobs; the impact of outsourcing on those jobs; and increased competition from foreign lawyers.
These are critical trends that serious scholars are addressing. They won't disappear when the economy improves or the Boomers retire. Nor can today's grads take much comfort from the fact that the average wage for salaried lawyers who graduated over the last 50 years is currently $130,490. Ten percent of those same lawyers are earning $54,120 or less--which throws some cold water on the suggestion that everyone will make a lot of money if they just stay in the workforce long enough.
Scholars let the data speak, they don't twist the numbers for their own purposes. Scholars look for patterns and trends, they probe for causes and explanations. Our profession has a long history of stratification; Heinz and Laumann's pathbreaking study of Chicago Lawyers demonstrated that fact thirty years ago. Their 2005 update, Urban Lawyers, concluded that "social stratification of the bar [had] increased," and "[t]he gulf between the wealthiest lawyers and the less fortunate [had] widened considerably" since the original study. Pp. 315, 317. In a profession this stratified, it is folly to speak of average outcomes or to chastise students for being "shortsighted" when they decide to avoid the gamble.
It is equally foolish to neglect the dramatic changes that technology, unbundling of legal services, and global competition are having on our profession. These trends are affecting almost every workplace; it would be odd if they didn't affect job prospects for law school graduates. Scholars approach new developments with open-minded inquiry; they don't reflexively assert the status quo.
Law schools and the legal profession are facing a crisis. The crisis didn't stem from journalists, "sensationalist law professors," or bloggers. The crisis comes from tectonic market shifts--and from a dogged refusal by many law faculty to acknowledge those changes.
I started writing about the legal economy because I saw deep problems for both our graduates and our schools. I want to understand those problems and fix them. As I explore those issues, I'm frustrated by academics who rhapsodize about the "leadership and creative problem solving" we teach in law school, without giving any indication that they have studied the cognitive science literature on how one actually teaches those skills. I'm even more frustrated by a scholar who announces that "[m]ore opportunity will open to women and minorities," without discussing candidly the losses those groups are actually suffering.
As a scholar, I want thoughtful answers to questions about the legal job market; I won't settle for defensive vehemence. As an institutional realist, I insist on answers; today's students won't invest three years and more than $100,000 in response to vague promises that law school will "give them the skills to find rich and rewarding lives in business, politics, government, finance, the nonprofit sector, the arts, education and more." And as a person, I especially want those answers: I care about the people who trust us with their futures.
Update: Thoughtful responses to Mitchell continue to appear across the internet. I want to add this one, because it is written by a law dean in a forum that 0Ls and current students visit. Kudos to Nancy Rapoport for speaking on this.