Is A Law Degree Still Worth It?

A law degree used to pretty much guarantee a stable job. But journalist Elizabeth Lesly Stevens reports that thousands of law students are going into an industry that no longer has room for them. Stevens discusses her article with host Michel Martin, and they hear from NPR Facebook fans about whether a law degree is still worth it.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

And today's story speaks to something that a lot of people in a lot of different fields are experiencing right now, a dramatic decline in pay, opportunity, even status that seemed to happen overnight, but today, we are talking about the legal profession.

Now, it used to be that, if you went to law school, then you could pretty much count on a decent job with decent pay and, while it's been common knowledge for a while that it's been harder to find jobs right out of law school, writer Elizabeth Lesly Stevens paints a particularly grim picture in her piece for this week's Washington Post magazine. She says hundreds of thousands of law students are being trained right now for jobs that just don't exist and she's with us right now in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

ELIZABETH LESLY STEVENS: Thank you very much.

MARTIN: Now, let's just talk about the basic math that you talk about in your piece. You say that the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts less than 74,000 new lawyer jobs in this decade - but we're only three years into the decade and more than 132,000 new lawyers have already hit the market. And the National Association of Legal Career Professionals says that, since 2010, 75,000 new law grads have found full time jobs, so that suggests that whatever jobs are going to be created have already been filled.

STEVENS: In theory, there are none jobs for the 300,000 additional JDs who are expected to be graduated in this decade.

MARTIN: And we reached out on Facebook, just to ask people, you know, what are your experiences? And the - as you might imagine - this won't surprise you - the responses poured in. I just want to play one from a woman named Rebecca Wyler(ph). She's just one of the hundreds of people who wrote back to us and this is what she had to say.

REBECCA WYLER: I sent out dozens and dozens of CVs, all tailored to the job that I was applying to at the time. I had two interviews and no job offers.

MARTIN: Why is this?

STEVENS: Well, there is an economy for legal talent and young lawyers and we know from the BLS, roughly, you know, that there is a certain universe of new jobs available for these graduates, 74,000 over a decade, and U.S. law schools - there are about 200 of them accredited by the ABA - are graduating 45,000 new JDs a year. And, while not every law student wants a job as an attorney, I'm willing to go out on a limb in saying, perhaps, you know, most probably do. And, you know, statistically, those jobs have all been taken.

MARTIN: So you raise the question in this piece, is the degree still worth it? Is it worth piling up a mountain of debt with so few job prospects? And, you know, once again, here's another clip from Rebecca Wyler. She graduated from Albany Law School last year. She couldn't find a job, she just told us, then she decided to double down and get a master's degree in LLM from the University College of London and then let's hear what happened next.

WYLER: My cousin - she dropped out of high school and had a baby and was just doing a waitressing job. Now, she's in a better financial position than I am. She's thinking about buying a house and having her second child and I'm miles and miles away from ever being able to have the normal American dream sort of life because I'm in so much debt and I have no way of paying it.

MARTIN: But, you know, we keep hearing about legal aid lawyers with these crazy caseloads or public defenders with these crazy caseloads, which suggests that there's legal work out there to be done. Is the issue that there are no high paying jobs out there or is the issue that students have accumulated so much debt just to pay for their legal education that they can't afford to take the jobs that are out there?

STEVENS: Well, the employment statistics include, you know, relatively low paying public service legal jobs and, of course, the need for legal services has not diminished. I mean, people still need attorneys, but you know, you have local and state governments hard-pressed financially trimming their employment figures, so you know, public service law jobs are not easy to come by.

With unemployment levels like this, one has to think that, you know, a law school grad would certainly take a public defender job, even if it didn't pay very well if they were widely available, but they're not.

MARTIN: You know, and it also used to be - one of the points you make in the piece - that a degree from a top-tier school got you into the big firms making the big bucks, but that if you go to a mid-tier firm, one that's less prestigious, you might get a stable job. It might not be a very prestigious job, but you would get at least a stable job.

But now we have another Facebook listener, Allison Anderman. She graduated from the University of San Francisco in 2007. She's interested in public interest law and particularly direct legal aid for low-income people. She says she can't get a job even in these modestly paying positions. And this is what she had to say. Here it is.

ALLISON ANDERMAN: Six years ago, seven years ago, I think a lot of people who went to the top 10 schools wanted more prestigious jobs than I was interested in. Those jobs have gotten more competitive as well and now they're looking at the kind of jobs that I want. And so then I'm up against these candidates and even though I don't think that I'm less intelligent than these people and I don't think that my work experience is less impressive than theirs, I do think that name recognition goes a long way in the legal field.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Our guest is journalist Elizabeth Lesly Stevens. She just wrote a piece in The Washington Post Magazine talking about the shrinking opportunities in the legal field. And she asks the question: Is law school still worth it?

You know, what about the role of technology? And there are a lot of fields that are contracting, that part of the issue is that people can do themselves what they used to pay somebody to do. For example, like in planning travel, for example.

STEVENS: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You would never play a big trip without talking to a travel agent. But these days a lot of people plan their own trips online. Does technology play some role in this?

STEVENS: It does play some role through, you know, Web services you can sort of largely write your own will. And there are a lot of the lower-level legal services I think people have done, you know, themselves in some cases.

MARTIN: They're doing it themselves. So a lot of the stuff that you could do to open up your own shop, you know, hang out your own shingle.

STEVENS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Like the mom-and-pop lawyer, the guy that everybody knows that you'd send Uncle Buddy to to write his will.

STEVENS: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You're saying a lot of people, they're just doing that work themselves these days.

STEVENS: You know, anecdotally, that's what you hear, but also the young lawyers, to be a new J.D. and to hang out a shingle with no client base is extraordinarily difficult. And the way I sort of got into that part of the story is there is a law professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder named Paul Campos. And about 18 months ago anonymously, he started a blog called "Inside the Law School Scam" and, you know, has become sort of a meeting place for a lot of people very concerned over this issue. So I was speaking with him, you know, it was clear he loved his job. He loves working with bright young people and he loves the law. And I said what precipitated you just one day starting this anonymous blog attacking essentially your own, blowing the whistle on your own industry. And he paused for a while because I think he didn't want to cheapen or being mawkish about something horrible that had happened. And he told me that one of his favorite, brightest students ever had committed suicide a year to the day after he graduated and that set Professor Campos on this sort of mission to understand, to go out and find out what is happening - I think he said - to these young people.

MARTIN: And it turns out that this young man couldn't find a job, had tried to open his own firm, couldn't make a go of it and was in despair and he attributed it to that circumstance.

STEVENS: Yes. And, you know, we didn't name this young man in this story because the piece isn't about, you know, young J.D.s making horrible decisions, hopefully. It's, you know, it was what prompted, you know, this very well-established legal professor who loves his profession to come out with a blog like that and that's what did it.

MARTIN: Well, but you talk a lot in the piece about the role that law schools are playing in flooding the market - if we can call it that. And we actually heard from a law school professor who said that law schools are taking some responsibility to make the profession more financially viable. This is Professor Jeremiah Ho of the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. This is what he had to say.

JEREMIAH HO: It's been heartbreaking and frustrating for me as a law professor to see some of my hardworking students unable to get the early career placement as quickly as it had been able to do so when I was in your shoes. But on the other hand, to say the law schools aren't doing anything to help students is a gross misconception. There are some law schools out there that are actively trying to be responsive about increasing resources and support for career placement during and after law school.

MARTIN: He said that some schools are changing their curricula, cutting down tuition, scaling back faculty pay. You touch on a number of factors contributing to these circumstances that you've described in the piece. But it seems to me that the main thing you point the finger to is that there are too many law schools turning out too many graduates for jobs that don't exist. I mean, is that about right?

STEVENS: That is the root of the problem. Yes. And, you know, one of the fuel for this entire process is the availability of student loans. And I only looked at federal loans, you know, in the story, even though many of the students take out private loans as well. But the federal government will loan a law student whatever the tuition figure the law school chooses to name, plus the estimated living expenses the law school finds is what it will cost to support yourself for that year. And so there's no, you know, the law schools are being paid with money that isn't theirs and isn't even really the student's yet. And, you know, and yes, you are a law student and you're not 16 years old, you should sort of understand what that means, but you're betting on yourself and that's the American way, is to bet on yourself with perhaps not understanding how dire the macro numbers are.

MARTIN: But if they don't make that money available then the only people who could go into that field would be people who are already wealthy, right?

STEVENS: Which is unacceptable. I mean, you can't deny people the ability to take a bet on themselves. So, you know, it really is a huge issue.

MARTIN: Finally, though, you do talk about one school, it's in Washington, D.C. - where we are - that takes a very different approach. If the University of the District of Columbia. You say it's extremely affordable by law school tuition standards. It's very practical. And they are very honest about selling expectations to students. Is this the wave of the future?

STEVENS: In theory, I mean, some of the people I interviewed thought that that was sort of a viable, not a model for the entire legal education industry, but for the great middle. UDC isn't proposing this but, you know, trimming the third year off law school, because many people say that it's, you know, not particularly necessary or, you know, that might back some of the costs out of it. You know, right now the ABA, that's not allowable. It has to be a three-year program. But you have the requirements of what a law program needs to be sort of by definition makes it so expensive to deliver that you're just caught in this trap. So if you are able to go to law school and not take out loans and be modestly priced, that at least would be a model that wouldn't set somebody up for sort of being enslaved to these debt levels for their entire professional life.

MARTIN: Elizabeth Lesly Stevens wrote the article "The Case Against Law School" for The Washington Post Magazine. She was kind enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios.

Elizabeth Lesly Stevens, thanks so much for joining us.

STEVENS: Thank you.

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