Shubi Arora believes that the average person in the US believes that an attorney lives in the lap of luxury. Using the example of an Ivy League lawyer who advertised on Craigslist, he tries dispelling the myth. For years, he says, the unwary have entered the field hoping for a life of comfort and security. The reality, however, is different.
The average person in the United States believes that a typical attorney makes a high six-figure salary and lives in the lap of luxury. While this perception may trace its roots back to the era of the gentleman-lawyer, there is no doubt that in today's world it is perpetuated by the media. For instance, television shows abound that paint a picture that is all too rosy. In this alternate universe, attorneys live in a world where the norm is a high-end condo and an office with a million dollar view. Discussions about billing rates commanded by some U.S. law firms and the rise of outsourcing as a way to cut costs have likely created a similar perception of U.S. attorneys in India. However, this image is far removed from reality.
While the legal profession is presently suffering from its worst slump in decades, problems have existed for some time. For years, the unwary have entered the field in hopes of a life of relative comfort and security. However, after graduation many have faced prospects that are vastly different than what they had anticipated. With crushing debt loads that can be well over $100,000, aspiring attorneys are often unable to secure gainful employment and have trouble making ends meet. A key problem is that the supply of attorneys has far outstripped market demand. It is estimated that from 2004 through 2008, the U.S. legal field grew less than 1% per year on average and the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that it will grow at the same rate through 2016. This translates into roughly 30,000 legal jobs per year (note that this figure includes all legal jobs, not just those that pay a premium). Compare this to approximately 45,000 students graduating from U.S. law schools each year.
Unfortunately this situation is only bound to get worse. Given the weak job market, many have opted to wait out the recession by attending law school. Over 60,000 aspiring attorneys sat for the LSAT examination in the fall of 2009, more than any year kept on record by the Law School Admission Council. With a growing number of law schools being accredited by the American Bar Association, this larger pool will also have more options on where to attend school. It is troubling that despite this current state of affairs the number of law schools continues to increase. There are currently over 200 accredited law school in the U.S. and more are on the way. The flood of attorneys from this growing number of institutions in a severely contracted job market will undoubtedly make things worse.
While some may contend that a law degree has the potential to open doors in non-legal fields, one must consider that in recent years the cost of attending law school has skyrocketed. In 2008, the median tuition at state schools was $26,000 a year for nonresidents and at private schools was $34,000. In a job market that has become extremely competitive, applicants should carefully consider the potentially crushing costs of financing a law degree. A recent paper by professor Herwig Schlunk of my alma mater, Vanderbilt University Law School, contends that with the exception of those who secure the best jobs, a law degree is a bad investment. Given the overwhelming data and personal observations, I agree. However, I must add that in an era where the storied Lehman Brothers disappeared overnight, nothing is guaranteed. Consider the following advertisement recently posted on Craigslist by an "Ivy League Honors Grad With Substantial Experience":
Graduate of top-5 law school with big firm and federal government experience seeking employment, preferably full-time but will also consider contract, per diem and part-time work. I have experience in litigation, arbitration, regulatory and administrative matters, among other areas. Will provide resume upon request. I look forward to your inquiries.
I never thought I would see the day when Ivy league law graduates were desperately soliciting employment on Craigslist. Yet, here we are.
Over the years, several of my personal and professional contacts abroad, including those in India, have inquired as to the possibility of attending school and practicing law in the U.S. While I do not discourage anyone from considering the possibility, I do encourage everyone to determine the facts and make an educated decision. Otherwise, one might find one's self in a real-life TV drama that ends in tragedy.
Shubi Arora is an associate at the global law firm of Squire, Sanders & Dempsey LLP. His practice focuses on business transactions including mergers and acquisitions, private equity investment and project finance.