Law school enrollment has declined noticeably over the past decade. In 2010, over 52,000 hopeful law students were admitted to schools across the US. In 2020, that number dipped to 38,202.
Aspiring lawyers are dwindling as the profession is continuing to morph. Technology and alternative legal sources are changing the basis of competition in law and rendering some skills obsolete. High-profile legal cases such as those in US politics, the likes of Derek Chauvin or Harvey Weinstein and societal turmoil and divisiveness are contributing to the status and impression of being a lawyer.
Public image and besmirching the field of law aside, there are some concerning challenges to becoming a US lawyer.
- Law School Debt and the Implications
The opportunity to serve justice and the average legal salary of $145,000 have always been convincing factors in choosing law. However, this salary has, effectively, dwindled because of tuition inflation.
To become eligible for the State Bar exam, you must receive an undergraduate degree, pass the LSATs and attend a law school. Prior to taking the bar, those cost the average law student $160,000. Graduates are entering the workforce with six-figure student debt.
In practical terms, loan repayments at standard interest of 5.8% take 10 years to pay off at $1760 per month. That makes the cost of the student debt over $51,000. For most, it is excessive but think about the further implications.
Lawyers already enter the workforce later than most of their peers. The additional years it takes to get qualified plus the outstanding debt means that life cycle events are delayed significantly. Things like getting married and buying a house are nearly impossible for a lawyer in their 20s.
- The Growth of Technology in Law
The fundamentals of the legal industry are changing rapidly. While the predecessors of the current crop had a well beaten path to the industry, the same thing cannot be said for today’s aspiring attorneys.
AI, automation, and machine learning are sweeping through the law wiping out repetition and redundancy. Unfortunately, this means roles typically occupied by paralegals and junior associates are becoming rarer. Where it had been the job of a recent graduate to proofread and review contracts, it is now done by software for legal documents.
The challenge is gaining access to the legal market, and law schools understand this. Courses have attempted to prioritize other skillsets that make graduates attractive but they struggle to keep up. As the ABA approves new, pioneering tech, lower-level roles typically get swallowed up.
- Securing a First Legal Job
As mentioned, accessing a first legal role is increasingly difficult. Despite this issue, the adage of “needing experience to get experience” is still alive and well.
Law firms can be far more selective because the number of associates required is decreasing at a faster rate than the number of annual graduates. This reduction of opportunities has increased the standard of competition amongst hopeful lawyers.
Ivy league schools have and will always continue to get preference when it comes to opportunities. However, attendance is not equally available or affordable to all. This suggests that economic exclusion and background diversity will be a challenge for many.
When this is coupled with state-specific legal licenses, new graduates are limited in where they can look for their first job.
- Choosing a Preferred Area of Practice
Picking a field of practice is the most crucial part of your legal journey. If you choose something you don’t have a passion for, you will burn out quicker and grow frustrated with the trivialities of law. This is increasingly challenging for aspiring lawyers for a few reasons.
Graduates today are driven by moral purpose more than extrinsic factors. That can be at odds with the poor public image and client choices available.
Emerging graduates rarely get a say in who they represent. You will likely find that clients you end up representing are not aligned with your personal beliefs. You could end up representing wealthy business owners who institute objectionable employee procedures that you must defend. Moral obligations are a fact of life as a lawyer and a challenge that many will choose not to endure.
This is before you discuss the degraded image of lawyers. Trust has rapidly declined with the likes of Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell disgracing the profession. Beyond individual representatives, clients are dubious as billing hikes outpaced inflation for years on end. The moral and ethical character of the whole profession has entered murky and political waters which is not something future graduates take lightly.
- The Stress and Work-Life Balance
Society has gradually moved to appreciate health and wellness far more in the past few years. It is an urgently needed trend for the legal sector as mental illness and substance abuse is rife. Alcohol abuse is prevalent in 36% of qualified attorneys which is far greater than the national average. The biggest difference is between women in law (39.5%) versus the general population (19%).
The health issues in law are mainly due to the overwhelming stress and lack of work-life balance. The average lawyer is racking up 3 weeks of overtime a year which is at odds with how emerging graduates want to live their lives.
In truth, graduate lawyers are inundated with cautionary tales. A Gallup poll of 4,000 previous law graduates found that only 23% thought their education was worth it.
Becoming a lawyer is a considerable challenge and a huge part of the challenge is accepting the factors of the profession that contradict your understanding of what is good for you.
Even the highest-paid lawyers appreciate the significant challenges facing hopeful graduates. Emerging candidates are looking at an industry that will leave them with crippling debt, uncertain prospects, potential skill obsolescence, and stress beyond measure.
The challenges to becoming a lawyer are great and innumerable and have already caused a decline in enrollment. If they are not dealt with, legal professionals will become an endangered species.