Monday, March 17, 2014

The End of the Law School Bubble

In retrospect, I think my professional life in the law coincided with a golden age.  I've long said I spent my early years pushing against unlocked doors.  Now as I prepare to let go, I'm pretty sure I'm observing the end of a bubble, on the order of the dental education bubble pop in the 80s (in the United States--and in other nations, perhaps today).   Not that lawyers will go away--sorry,no such luck.  But it is hard to see how we'll soon to the palmy days of the 90s (and before?)  Some graduates--a few--will still grab the big bucks. but there will be fewer and they'll have to work for what they get.

Some of these thoughts came into focus today when I listened to a Man Who Knows talk about trends in law school enrollment.  Key takeaway: the decline in law school enrollment and  law jobs may have coincided with, but it is not exhaustively explained by, the 2008 financial market collapse.  Other,perhaps more urgent, candidates include, at the top end, the rise of big data and his trusty sidekick, the search algorithm.  For many  years the mega firms gobble up top talent at high prices for the most dreary of office jobs: combing through hundreds, perhaps thousands, of pages of documents for little nuggets of information that might assist in bashing an adversary's face in as a part of the dance of litigation.  It never did make a lot of sense and apparently those days are over as more and  more of that kind of searching can be done by machines.  

At the other end of the scale, we've seen the expansion of on-line do-it-yourself.  This kind of thing isn't entirely new (I've been a big fan of Nolo Press for years), but ease of access and general convenience seem to be driving an increase in the role.    And elsewhere in the world, we're witness the relaxation of rules on what kinds of jobs must be done by lawyers only: pressure for that sort of thing is bound to reach the United States.  Correspondingly, we're seeing an increase in law-degree-helpful jobs: jobs for which you may better your chances for employment by having a law degree, but for which the law degree is not essential.  Which takes me back to my own law school days when many of my classmates (well--maybe me--) saw the parchment as a job market force magnifier even if we weren't going to practice law.

One seeming anomaly:  a blip up in "public interest" or non-profit jobs, at a time when such entities seem to be experiencing declines of their own.  Can this be right?  It can be right, once you recognize that a lot of these new public interest jobs are being paid for by the law schools themselves to keep the tads out of the marketplace.  The Economist explains how paying pencil out as profitable for law schools, if it keeps them in competitive play for applicants.  Vagrant speculation: are we coming to a day when subsidized postgrad employment will be baked into the cake, something you buy when you write those seemingly exorbitant tuition checks.