A little off the normal subject, but we will get around to fees eventually. Would or should you recommend a child or a friend’s child going to law school these days?

There has been a change in the legal profession over the past few years. As the housing bubble burst and the economy slowed down, things have happened in law schools great and not so great. Graduates stopped getting jobs that paid wages with little tie to the general economic forces.

New lawyers with little legal value to add to the work done for clients were being paid wages greater than the professors who taught them what they knew. Law firms apparently were buying into the concepts promoted by author Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, where expertise comes in the early immersion into a field. Sometimes considered the 10,000 hour rule, a person has a chance to become extraordinary at a subject after spending more than 10,000 hours working on the skill.

One firm is alleged to demand 3,000 billable hours from its young lawyers. A legal billing expert, John Conlon asserts that a lawyer will normally spend about 3 hours in the office for every two billable hours properly produced. With the firm apparently requiring 4500 hours out of the total annual 8760 hours (8784 during the leap year), 51.3% of the year must be at the office.

I am not an alarmist, and I do not think the legal profession is falling apart. Thirty years ago people were making the same kinds of claims, such as there are too many law students, the law students are spending too much money going to law school, they are taking on too much debt, and there are not enough good jobs to feed all the graduates. I trust the marketplace over the long haul. Yes Congress has recently made the debt nondischargeable, and the amounts are bigger than they were (my educational debt was about 1/2 my first year wages). And for the recent graduates, it is tough out there. Many will leave the field of law, but they leave it with an education that will benefit them in whatever they do.

Good law grads are now moving into positions that mediocre lawyers once took, and that is good for the retail clients who need legal services. When the best and brightest went into wholesale law (working on projects that affected small parts of business operations) the retail practice (dealing with the people who actually live with the result of the legal service) suffered. Now it should get stronger, and that is good for the clients.

What does this have to do with fees? Excess supply of a fungible product drives prices down. Legal services are marginally fungible, in that for some things it does not pay to have the best and brightest. The fees for those fungible services are now more negotiable, and trending flat. The more expertise a lawyer has in the field, approaching the Outlier standard, the more value the lawyer brings to the client, and the fees are holding steady or moving up.

I might recommend to a high school student to keep the law as one option, but for the college junior I may suggest culinary school. It seems to be a good choice for the short run. Law school can wait and many good schools want students with real life experience. Having worked in a restaurant a few times, I know the owners and managers learn how to work and work hard. That is the true skill a potential law student needs to know coming into law school.

addendum

A great new article came out in the January 2012 American Bar Association Journal, written by Professor Bill Henderson at Maurer Law, and Rachel Zahorsky of the Journal.  It focuses on the economics of the law student loan programs and future of the profession. The Law School Bubble focuses on the issue from a different angle.  Good job Bill and Rachel. 12-30-11

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