“If you don’t know what to do with a man,” wrote Herman Melville, “make him a schoolmaster.” Until recently, if a young man or young woman didn’t know what to do, law school was the logical place to go while you figured it out. Enrollments soared. That seems to be changing.
The NYT‘s Economix blog reports that the number of people taking the LSAT has been dropping for months now: 16.4 percent fewer people took the test this October compared to last October, when the number hit an all-time high.
This decline, while significant, comes after years of steady growth. The number of law students jumped during the recession, and it’s not difficult to see why: For years, young people have been told that a law degree was one of the clearest paths to success. If you could get into law school and graduate with high marks, you would soon be set for life. It’s easy to see why this would appeal to an unemployed recent grad desperately seeking work. But now the first of these students are graduating into a world that looks very different from the one they were expecting, with high debts, low salaries, and fewer jobs, as competition and automation decimate the ranks of legal staffers. With unemployed law grads flooding the job market, word is beginning to spread.
Instead, those tempted by a JD are now appropriately weighing the risks, biding their time or choosing alternate paths. And as the trend toward automation accelerates, we can expect people to think very carefully before taking the law school plunge.
American economic life used to be full of escalators; if you got on one, your income would gradually and almost unavoidably rise. Now it is more like a rock climb, where everyone has to find their own way to the top. Lawyers were among the country’s most dedicated escalator riders, moving from associate to partner and up the scale in income and prestige. These days that strategy works for fewer and fewer people at fewer and fewer firms; the next generation of lawyers will have to reinvent their profession, and the reshaping of the profession will also transform the field of legal education.