An editorial in today’s New York Times highlights the plights of law school graduates in the U.S.,
About 20 percent of law graduates from 2010 are working at jobs that do not require a law license, according to a new study, and only 40 percent are working in law firms, compared with 60 percent from the class a decade earlier. To pay the bills, the 2010 graduates have taken on a variety of jobs, some that do not require admission to the bar; others have struck out on their own with solo practices. Most of the graduates have substantial student debt.
Even as law school enrollment was peaking in 2010 — reaching 52,488, according to American Bar Association figures — those who were graduating were not receiving job offers from firms where they were interning. And offers to some students were rescinded.
One of the main reasons for this squeeze in the U.S. is the 2008 financial crisis, which culminated in enormous disruptions for the class of 2010. The study referenced here is by Deborah Jones Merritt, and is entitled, What Happened to the Class of 2010? Empirical Evidence of Structural Change in the Legal Profession.
Merritt finds that job opportunities for this cohort has improved only marginally in the past 5 years. The employment gaps also accentuate gender differences which already exist in legal employment, which helps illustrate how historically disadvantaged groups are almost always the first to suffer when the economy or a sector is placed under financial strain. Her conclusions emphasize the impact of the debt burden on these new lawyers as well,
Even after several years in the workforce, members of the Class of 2010 struggle to secure jobs that require bar admission. Law firm jobs are scarcer than in the past, and other employers have not made up the shortfall. Most positions fall within modest paying categories: solo practice, small firms, government work, and business jobs that do not require bar admission. These outcomes are challenging for students who borrowed heavily to finance their degrees; they are also discouraging for graduates who hoped to work as practicing lawyers but were not able to secure those positions.
Merritt sees these challenges as potential opportunities to restructure legal education, proposing a first year of legal study into an undergraduate liberal arts major, and retaining a two-year upper-level curriculum. Not all of these undergraduate students would go on to law school, helping foster greater education and awareness of our legal system and developing legal reasoning skills. The law school curriculum would then be able to focus more on the practical skills in the workplace.
Legal education is going through restructuring in Canada as well. Part of it is also because of the 2008 financial crisis, but it’s also largely because of changes in our legal education itself – growing class sizes, new law schools, and more international law students (many of whom are Canadian studying abroad). These law graduates have even greater challenges than their American counterparts.
The Globe and Mail recently focused on the new Law Practice Program implemented in Ontario, noting that it has not alleviated the shortages of articling positions. Janet Minor is quoted in the piece,
Those who supported [the LPP] believed that it was not fair for the market to determine who would get called to the bar. If doing so was entirely dependent on the availability of articling positions, then it would be.
I did not offer my unqualified support to the LPP program when moderating the debate on it during Convocation. But there are some Canadian law graduates from this class of 2010, my graduating year, who are now completing the LPP program 5 years after graduation. The legal market, as it is currently structured, would not have allowed them to become a lawyer at all.
The struggles of young lawyers for employment in the legal field, and in particular to pay down tuition debt, will exist regardless of the LPP program. The LPP program at least allows them to get their license so they have an opportunity to do so. It also gives them valuable skills to run or operate a practice, which they would never have learned in law school, and probably would never be exposed to even in an articling position.
The new slate of Benchers who are elected this week do not have to necessarily continue the LPP program as it is currently structured, but they do have to realize that we still have a crisis in our profession. In part, it is a crisis of articling positions. It is also a crisis of the relevance of legal education, the roles of licensed lawyers in society, and where we are going as a profession.
These LPP candidates are not yet licensees. They don’t have a vote. That means the rest of us are essentially voting for their futures on their behalf.