The news is bleaker not better since we asked the “Should I Go to Law School” question here last year. So, when a good friend told us her brilliant daughter was considering pursuing a JD, we began desperately rattling off statistics, warning that law school guarantees nothing but a house-sized loan balance at the end. (Even if she lands a job in a big law firm, how long will it take to pay it back? How long if she’s assistant manager at Bed, Bath and Beyond?)
After killing that conversation (and pretty much guaranteeing we won’t be invited to the party next year), we began second-guessing our assumptions: Were we being too harsh? So, for this week’s Five, we decided to mine for any glimmers of hope that law school might someday turn out to be a wise move for our daughters (and sons).
1. Yes, change is afoot. The practice of law is changing, innovators are actually succeeding at shaking things up and turning a profit and, yes, even law schools are beginning to toy with innovations in their curricula. Change means opportunity—if you know where to look and are willing to remain flexible, that is. Check out Law Without Walls, the exciting and visionary program at the University of Miami’s law school, and Apps for Justice at IIT Chicago-Kent. Read Law21: Dispatches from a Legal Profession on the Brink, Jordan Furlong’s provocative blog, in which he identifies what needs to change and spotlights where it’s changing. And read through the list of InnovAction Award winners for some real-world inspiration.
2. The good guys. Sure, these days the dream of a steady paycheck in a rock-solid firm may outrank the dream of a career spent truth-and-justice seeking or aiding the underserved. But whether logging pro bono hours or working in a legal aid or government job, there are multitudes of opportunities for lawyers to do some good and spread some hope (Jokes Aside, Lawyers Do a Lot of Good). Look at big firm programs like the Holland and Hart Foundation, and DLA Piper’s New Perimeters for starters. Then stroll through the Facebook pages of the ABA Pro Bono Center, the LSS Immigration Legal Assistance Program (ILAP) or Kids in Need of Defense (KIND).
3. Oh, the places you’ll go! So if you’re not finding a way to practice law, what else can you do with that law degree? Plenty, of course. This eHow post covers the basics (really, though, can we stop dangling the John Grisham lawyer-turned-famous-novelist carrot? How many actually have that chance? Okay, two.) But we can’t beat the South Texas College of Law Resource Center’s handy list of 300+ things you can do with a law degree. (Hmmm. A law degree might just be an excellent springboard to the senator-astronaut thing if the whole serving justice situation doesn’t work out.) Lay your hands on Deborah Arron’s book, Running from the Law: Why Good Lawyers Are Getting Out of the Legal Profession, for insights into why lawyers leave the profession and options for alternate careers.
4. The solo life. If they stick it out in law, it’s a good bet many recent and future law school grads will have to create their own jobs—as a solo, a virtual practice entrepreneur, freelance or contract lawyer—or something completely different. Keeping up with the tools that will help create that future and learning the realities of running your own firm should be part of anyone’s legal education plan (even if it’s not part of the law school curriculum). For a dose of what awaits in the solo life, dive into the resources offered by state and local bars, and attend a Solo Day conference (most offer students deep discounts). The good news is more help for solos is coming online everyday. Check the links on the ABA’s solo and small firm resource center, including the Solosez discussion list, Carolyn Elefant’s My Shingle blog and Solo Practice University. And here’s a tiny silver lining. The few who voluntarily bail out of biglaw to create successful solo practices are finding out that their former colleagues think solos are living the dream! Go figure: Solo envy.
5. Now for some alarming facts. Okay, sorry to be Debbie Downer, but we can’t keep up that Pollyanna stuff all day. The EMSI report New Lawyers Glutting the Markets tells the story in a neat chart and table (without finger-pointing or whining): Too many lawyers, too few jobs. The National Association for Law Placement’s latest job report revealed more bad news for the class of 2010, and the outlook for the 2011 is no better. What’s more, the law school admissions process is in turmoil. The disconnect between what law schools teach and what real-world law employers need even has some suggesting law schools are a thing of the past. And, though the private practice model may not yet be broken as predicted, the seams are certainly straining. So if you still want to go to law school, understand that while the job picture may improve—incrementally—your law school diploma will likely be a ticket to a profession quite different from the one your grandfather knew. Bright side? It’s just possible that’s a good thing.