Should you really go to law school?

Despite the down economy and big firm layoffs, college students are still beating down the doors of law schools in America. More people — 60,746 — took the most recent LSAT on September 26 than had ever taken the exam before. The number of LSAT takers has been on the rise since 2007, but this is the largest jump since 2001— nearly 20% over last year.

I won’t dig into the reasons for this increase too much. (If you are interested, this thorough post on Most Strongly Supported has a good discussion.) But for any person considering law school or a legal career, this is a good excuse to discuss the question of whether you really should go to law school.

There has been a flurry of articles and blawg posts lately about whether a legal education is really a good investment. Vanderbilt Law professor Herwig Schlunk wrote an entertainingly-titled article “Mamas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up To Be … Lawyers,” and Paul Caron of TaxProf Blog asserted that “Going to Law School Is Like Starting to Smoke.” There’s a healthy dose of humor and pessimism in both those pieces, but even the most optimistic observers have to recognize that the legal profession is undergoing a shift that is destroying many of the institutions that made it so lucrative. Aspiring lawyers must now realize that they might not have a job waiting for them when they graduate from law school. And law schools, particularly those in the top tier, have become more like big businesses than halls of learning. While the median income of lawyers increased by 25% from 1987 to 2002, the average law school debt increased 400% over that same period. In 2005, the average graduate of a private law school had $78,000 of debt from law school alone.

Young LDS students considering legal careers should carefully consider these sobering number, in light of Mormon Church advice on avoiding debt. I have heard many people within the Church say that borrowing money is okay for purchasing a home, obtaining an education, and sometimes to purchase a vehicle. But given the housing market collapse and the rising costs of a legal education, students should understand that neither a house nor an education is always a good investment.

While some parts of the country are still under-serviced, there are probably too many people getting into the practice of law. Last month Justice Antonin Scalia commented that he thought that America is “wasting some of our best minds” on lawyering, when other fields lack qualified applicants. After last September’s jump in LSAT takers, the ABA Journal took the unusual step of suggesting that applicants “consider the alternatives.

My advice to people considering law school is the same that it has always been. If you are interested in the practice of law, then by all means, pursue it. But if you don’t know what to do with your life and you know lawyers can make a lot of money, I think it’s a bad decision. I also recommend that future law students find out for themselves whether they will like legal practice. Most law schools will let you sit in on first-year law school classes, and you can volunteer or do internships at legal offices to find out what the practice is really like. It is better to find out early on that you wouldn’t really like being a lawyer, and if you do like it, the experience will cement your decision.

This content is cross-posted from LDS Law.

New scrutiny on the billable hour

Last week the New York Times featured an article on how the down economy has forced many top law firms and their clients are reexamining the common law firm practice of billable hour. The billable hour is the focus of many young associates’ waking hours, and everyone in the legal industry recognizes it is a flawed model. Not only does it make for extremely stressful working conditions when associates are expected to bill 2400 hours or more a year, it also presents a strong financial incentive to the firm that runs counter to the interests of the clients. The Times article highlights how the poor economy has forced some of the big firms to make concessions to their clients that demand cheaper fees.

None of these critiques are new. In his now-infamous ABA Journal article “The Billable Hour Must Die,” Scott Turow recites many of the problems the billable hour poses to the profession. It creates tensions and suspicion between a lawyer and her client; it prevents lawyers from serving the public and underprivileged segments of society through pro bono work; it results in diminishing returns for ladder-climbing associates who have smaller and smaller chances of ever making partner.

The pressures of the billable hour are perhaps more acute for young LDS attorneys, who often hold ecclesiastical positions and have young children in addition to the significant burdens placed upon them by their employers. Everyone talks about a balanced lifestyle, but the current billable hour system virtually guarantees imbalance. I know quite a few LDS attorneys who have left private practice at large or mid-size firms and have entered the public sector. They all say the same thing — they don’t make as much money, but they are much happier. During law school I summered at a small immigration firm that mostly billed by project or by visa petition rather than by the hour. We still worked a few evenings or weekends when things were busy, but the stress level was significantly lower and the firm’s financial incentives didn’t conflict with those of the clients. Immigration practice might be particularly suited for that kind of billing, but I’m sure it’s not the only practice that could be more effectively without the billable hour.

In “The Billable Hour Must Die,” Turow cites the 1977 Supreme Court case of Bates v. Arizona (which invalidated previous prohibitions on lawyer advertising on First Amendment grounds) as the opening of the competitive floodgates in American law firms. And while I’m not completely naïve, I’d like to believe that the current economic turmoil might apply those same market forces in a positive way.

Photo credit: Darren Hester.