Law schools are not producing too many lawyers. They have become the whipping boys of the current "legal employment crisis," in which many complain that the institutions are producing too many graduates with too much debt and with employment prospects that are too bleak. Although some of the criticisms of the present legal education environment are valid, I disagree that law schools are graduating too many JDs.
Lawyers are by genus problem-solvers. By species, they may be traffic ticket-resolvers, child custody-facilitators, triangular merger-structurers, or business dispute-mediators. Indeed, it's likely that you, or someone very close to you, could recently have benefited from skilled assistance in one of these matters. There are not too many problem-solvers.
Law schools provide their graduates with incredibly valuable skill and knowledge sets. In the first four months of most programs, law students master the components of an enforceable contract, learn the elements of and remedies for negligent behavior, become versed in the myriad ownership interests in real and personal property, sort through the distinction between accomplices and accessories to criminal acts, and are trained to research and provide written guidance on any possible variation on these themes. There are not too many individuals with a deep working knowledge of our legal system.
Indeed, many areas remain legally underserviced. Chances are, if you live in a city that doesn't sit on a coast or have "icago" in its name, there are fewer than a handful of attorneys who can expertly navigate the acquisition of a mid-sized operating business, defend a Title VII employment action, prosecute a patent, or craft a charitable remainder trust. The business acquisition alone requires a thorough understanding of entity structures, tax consequences, potential tort and debt exposure, environmental laws, and a host of other concerns that a methodical professional can anticipate on the front end. There are not too many skilled specialists.
In Kansas, where I teach, around 400 attorneys typically are sworn-in each year to service a state of 2.9 million inhabitants. When considered in combination with retirements of older attorneys, it is arguable that the state is not producing enough attorneys to sustain its current standard and availability of service. (1) There are not too many practitioners in my state, and probably many others. (2)
Further, even in the heartland, the cost to retain an attorney to competently resolve just about any legal matter will likely run hundreds of dollars an hour. Few working folks and a very limited number of small businesses can afford these services. There are not too many people who can open the doors to the justice system for those in various socio-economic statuses.
Attorneys can lift significant burdens off of their clients. Skilled advocates give the assurance that someone has the client's best interests in the forefront of their minds -- that someone is anticipating what could go wrong with a transaction or how the client might be exposed to those who are opportunistic or parasitic. Good lawyers recognize that they are often responsible for the most important thing in their client's life, and that the client's entire view of the profession and even the system of justice may hinge upon the attorney's handling of their matter. (3) There are not, and can never be, too many advocates who eagerly embrace the weight of their clients' lives and fortunes and even their profession's standing in each aspect and product of their work.
Yes, the expectations should be realistic. Yes, potential law students should do a cost analysis before taking on six-figure debt and deferring wages for three years. But I would ask those considering law school to avoid giving in to the popular perception that lawyers are a family of booze-fueled writ monkeys with six-minute circadian rhythms. Lawyers provide a value that cannot be replaced by canned forms or electronic research databases. (4) The profession is still noble and the societal benefits of a well-trained stable of problem-solvers cannot be overstated.
1. Indeed, there were fewer active members of the Kansas Bar in 2012 (10,487 active; 3,092 inactive) than in 2011 (10,525 active; 3,003 inactive) or 2010 (10,651 active; 2,721 inactive).
2. The Wall Street Journal recently reported on law school enrollments since 1964. While the piece highlights a recent trend toward declining enrollment, first year classes for 2012 were roughly twice the size of first year classes from 1964 (44,518 in 2012 and 22,753 in 1964). These numbers, however, seem consistent with nationwide population increases. The 1960 census reported a United States population of nearly 180 million people and the current population is estimated to be nearly 314 million. "Crop of New Law Schools Opens Amid a Lawyer Glut." Available here.
3. This notion has been ingrained in a generation of University of Arkansas law grads following Vince Foster's 1993 commencement address. See 46 Ark. L. Rev. ix (1994).
4. See, e.g., "Law Schools Applications Fall as Costs Rise and Cobs Are Cut," (explaining that the legal market is diminished partly because "[r]esearch is faster and easier, requiring fewer lawyers, and is being outsourced to less expensive locales... In addition, legal forms are now available online and require training well below a lawyer's to fill them out.").