Where Did All the Lawyers Go?

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When I entered the New York University (NYU) School of Law in 1989, I recall listening to classmates at orientation discuss why they’d chosen to attend law school.

I was shocked at how many said their choice was either law school or business school. Many of them had liberal arts degrees from prestigious universities. They figured what else can you do with, say, a philosophy degree?

In contrast, I was there because I wanted to be a prosecutor and couldn’t imagine spending the time and money—and enduring the stress—of law school if I didn’t really want to be a lawyer.

Of course, at that time, the upside of choosing law school for such unfocused reasons was that NYU graduates with decent grades were virtually guaranteed a job after graduation.

That’s not the case any more.

According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the employment rate for new law school graduates across the country fell to 84.7 percent in 2012—the lowest since 1994—with only 50.7 percent of graduates finding jobs in private practice.

In fact, the overall employment rate has now fallen for five years in a row since 2008.

Other key statistics from the NALP on the 2012 class:

  • Only 64.4 percent obtained a job for which bar passage is required, a decrease of over 10 percent since 2008, and the lowest percentage the NALP has ever measured;
  • The unemployment rate for this class was 12.8 percent , up 0.7 percentage points from the class of 2011;
  • Part-time jobs were especially prevalent in academic settings (39 percent) and public interest (18 percent). But both figures were down from the figures of 43 percent and 24 percent of jobs, respectively, measured for the previous class.

You’d think these statistics would deter college graduates from pursuing law school.

However, the NALP says the 2012 class of law school graduates was larger than the previous year’s class. According to the ABA, there were 44,258 law school graduates in 2010 alone. And New Jersey admitted 670 lawyers to the bar in 2013—the most since it started keeping track six years ago.

But this trend may be reversing.

According to the results of a recently released Kaplan Test Prep survey, 54 percent of law school admissions officers are cutting their entering law school classes for 2013-2014 and 25 percent plan to do so again next year. And the Law School Admission Council, which writes the LSAT, says law school applications have dropped from 602,300 to 385,400 in 2013—their lowest level in decades.

Why are law school classes starting to shrink?

There may be two reasons: slimmer hiring prospects coupled with the likelihood of graduating with a huge amount of debt.

In 2011, the New York Times reported that since 2008, about 15,000 attorney and legal-staff jobs at large firms have vanished, according to a Northwestern Law study. And at corporations, more entry-level legal work is now outsourced to contract temporary employees.

So a smaller overall job pool and a glut of lawyers—including both new law school graduates and established attorneys—means more people competing for fewer positions.

And when you consider that law school graduates in 2012 faced an average $100,433 in debt and thus need these high-paying and hard-to-come-by positions to pay back their student loans, it’s easy to see why other college graduates aren’t so eager to follow in their footsteps.

What are the implications for the criminal justice system?

Although there are some resources available to subsidize law school graduates who take public interest jobs, these programs are limited.

Jobs in district attorney and public defender offices never carried big salaries. (When I graduated from NYU in 1992 with over $60,000 in debt, I started at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office at a salary of $30,000, while classmates at firms were typically making six figures. And over 20 years later, I’m still paying off my loans.)

Because of the heavy loan burdens many law school graduates are carrying, a career in such public interest jobs simply may not be a viable option—assuming such positions are even available.

Law firms and corporations aren’t the only employers of lawyers that are cutting positions.

According to the Northwestern Law Center for Career Strategy, in 2011, state and local government hiring was largely frozen due to stress related to decreased tax revenues, while entry-level public interest hiring was also down.

And due to sequestration, there has been a 9 percent reduction in the roughly $1 billion budget for federal public defender’s offices and their budgets for Fiscal Year 2014 will be cut by 23 percent.

As a result, federal defenders in more than 20 states are planning to close offices.

Observers expect that federal public defenders will end up having to lay off between one-third and one-half of their staffs, says the Huffington Post.

District attorneys’ offices aren’t being spared big budget cuts, either.

For example, in the face of a $235,000 budget cut, one county prosecutor’s office in Oregon eliminated two deputy prosecutor positions, which may not sound like a lot until you consider that the office only had six prosecutors before the reduction. The remaining deputy district attorneys could see caseloads of 975 cases, almost three times the 331 caseload average for other Oregon counties.

As a result, the prosecutors and public defenders lucky enough to have jobs will have bigger caseloads and less time and resources to devote to them. Thus, the criminal justice system as a whole will suffer.

Lawyers aren’t generally a popular profession. So I don’t expect an outpouring of sympathy from the general public because they’re having trouble finding employment.

But for the criminal justice system to be effective, the hard-working prosecutors and public defenders need to have sufficient resources to do their jobs well and to manage their own finances. When these key public servants are underpaid and overworked, defendants, victims and the public as a whole won’t get the justice they deserve.

Unless the economy continues to improve and the budgets for these offices are increased, irreparable harm could be done to the system.

And unless the cost of attending law school gets under control, the lawyers most likely to take jobs in the criminal justice system—recent graduates—won’t be able to afford to do so.

Robin L. Barton, a legal journalist based in Brooklyn, NY, is a former assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and a regular blogger for The Crime Report. She welcomes readers’ comments.

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