Law School: The Changing Legal Field
Law school has a history of providing very good job placement and strong incomes to graduates. After the hurdles of LSAT testing, law school admissions, the intensive course structure of law school, and the great trial of the bar exam; you are justified expecting a large income. Unfortunately, there are changes in the legal profession that include and transcend the poor economy. You should plan accordingly.
Even before the Great Recession, total hires by the largest firms had peaked. The trend is the same across the legal profession. There are less traditional legal jobs each year. It is unlikely that the prosperity of the old days will ever return in the form that was once enjoyed.
The legal profession resisted the effects of technological erosion that devastated other industries. After all, a skilled negotiator or trial lawyer is hard to replicate with a computer program. Yet many traditional functions of lawyers are now being streamlined and replaced. Consumers have access to increasingly effective legal search tools. It is not uncommon for clients to come with a deed or will in hand from an Internet source, seeking only review by an attorney. Many of the mundane tasks of attorneys is being automated, and this especially effects new entrants into the field.
In the arena of corporate law, two trends are revolutionizing the market. Smart new computerized data mining services are replacing some of the job roles of traditional new hires. Companies are developing information systems that can produce basic legal research and automatically generate legal product to be assimilated by staff attorneys. In addition, there is a trend a to outsource basic legal duties to young lawyers in India. Foreign legal experts can churn out formulaic corporate legal needs for review by staff attorneys here in the United States. Both trends compete with traditional entry jobs into the major law firms.
A common mistake is to assume that the economy will return to normal after the recession has passed. However, there are economic forces at work which are permanently changing the economy. Jobs are going to remain rarer than they once were. The repetitious activities that were bread and butter activities of professions will remain automated and farmed out, just as retail tellers are being replaced by checkout kiosks. It is unwise to plan for the return to normal. Instead, one should plan to excel in this new leaner environment.
Even while the legal profession is transformed and inefficiencies in the labor market are eliminated, the legal education community has responded by opening more law schools and expanding the available seats in existing schools. While the labor market deteriorates, there is a simultaneous increase in the training of new lawyers. The value of a J.D. degree is certain to diminish as supply and demand adjust to this disparity.
If you are determined to attend law school, you should plan accordingly. You cannot expect the long mentoring process as a new hire at a large firm. You can expect more competition for positions on all levels. It is increasingly important to build practical experience while in law school. You need to demonstrate that you are a functional lawyer with practical experience from the start.
Finally, minimize you debt during school. Increased competition will put downward pressure on legal salaries. The student with a low debt load can afford to undercut the pay expectations of the student with a huge debt load. Many of those law students taking on hundreds of thousands of dollars of debt will find that they cannot find jobs capable of retiring those debts at a reasonable pace. Keep your debt low and gain real-world experience during law school to best prepare for this new economic landscape.
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