By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP

Here at The Coaching Educator, we take pride in being credentialed not only in the field of education but also as career services providers. We try to help our student/clients chart a well-considered course not only into and through college but beyond, so we keep current regarding trends in the economy and the job market. One development that has come to our attention might also come as a surprise to many of our readers, especially families in which the student is considering pre-law studies and law school: There is now a large surplus of law school graduates, and the job market has become a notably unfriendly experience for a population segment that has always expected to be wanted if not loved.

Those expectations were not unreasonable, considering that the U.S. is infamously the most litigious society in the world, with more lawyers per capita than any nation except Israel (which has led the field for a decade or so at least). The American Bar Association reports a whopping 15 percent increase in the number of practicing attorneys in the U.S. between 2008 and 2018. With statistics like that, a three-year commitment beyond the bachelor’s degree and an average debt of about $140,000 once seemed worth it.

Do the opportunities outweigh the outlay?

However, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median salary for attorneys as of 2018 was $120,910. Bear in mind that this takes into account everything from insanely expensive D.C. lobbyists of long experience to rookie sole practitioners in depressed rural areas. So not many newly-minted attorneys are likely to strike it rich and retire their student loans quickly— especially if they can’t find employment or are underemployed. The Bureau continues:

Employment of lawyers is projected to grow 8 percent from 2016 to 2026, about as fast as the average for all occupations. Competition for jobs over the next 10 years is expected to be strong because more students graduate from law school each year than there are jobs available.”

While the estimated creation of 43,800 new positions for attorneys between 2014 and 2024 sounds promising, the ABA reported a few days ago that 34,221 law students had graduated in the class of 2018 alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

Some law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions turn to temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs. These firms allow companies to hire lawyers as needed and permit beginning lawyers to develop practical experience. Many other law school graduates and licensed lawyers end up finding work in other occupations or industries due to the difficulty in finding jobs with traditional legal employers.

Only 70 percent of 2018 law school graduates are employed in positions that require passage of the bar exam, according to the ABA, while seven percent are unemployed and actively seeking work. Graduates working in professions that don’t require the bar exam are not only realizing little if any financial benefit from having attended law school, they also have incurred the opportunity cost of spending three or more years pursuing a law degree instead of advancing their careers in full-time employment during that period.

A profession on the move in many ways…

Among states sporting a surplus of law school graduates, Mississippi offers the worst odds, with nearly 11 graduates per job opening, but the glut of law school graduates is by no means a rural-state problem. Pennsylvania has 2.35 graduates per vacancy, New York 2.92, Massachusetts 3.27, and Michigan 6.48.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that the willingness to relocate is becoming more important to the job prospects for law school graduates. Growing support for the Unified Bar Exam, which applies across multiple states and fosters greater mobility for lawyers, appears to be a related development.

The surplus of law school graduates has actually been accompanied by a steady decline in law school enrollment as college students have become aware of the situation, possibly, and as the cost of law school has ascended like a Saturn V rocket, certainly. Law schools are downsizing, consolidating, and even closing, as reformers consider ways to make law school less expensive, one suggestion being to replace the third year with an internship.

LSAT scores are down, but acceptance rates are up. For applicants who take the bait nowadays, the next few years could prove to be an interesting and intrinsically satisfying time to pursue legal study, depending on what types of financial and curricular reforms occur—but those students will graduate to confront a profession in which routine work historically performed by recently-graduated associates is now being accomplished by paralegals, legal assistants, cheap overseas outsourcing—or technology.

The surplus of law school graduates and the agony of the law schools…

In short, the measures the law schools take to save themselves will do just that, at least for a while, but will not benefit students who emerge into a glut of law school graduates. It seems reasonable to suggest that the legal profession and its education system are on course for a long, painful period of restructuring in which the market eventually will adjust the balance between vacancies and graduates. Exactly what the post-upheaval landscape will look like, no one can say.

None of this is intended to discourage interest in the legal profession, which is not going anywhere and which needs good people. Societal and technological changes have a way of creating new legal specialties, such as those related to cyber-crime, revenge porn, and internet defamation, and the future could be bright for law students with the vision to identify a niche and the opportunity to occupy it. The top-echelon law schools will continue to be launching pads for prosperous careers, heavy student debt notwithstanding. Nonetheless the current surplus of law school graduates points clearly to the fact that in the United States, which has been a lawyer-centric nation since its inception, the legal profession is no longer the ticket to security that it once was.

The Coaching Educator has a decade of experience helping students assess their opportunities, identify their strengths, select appropriately from their educational options, pursue their admissions objectives, and find the means of paying for them. To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.

Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has also been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.

Photo: Getty Images

Recommended Reading About College Admissions and College Costs

Culp, Paul. “Beyond Tuition, Fees, and Books: The Other Costs of College,” The Coaching Educator, 7 June 2018, http://tce.local/2018/06/07/beyond-tuition-fees-and-books-the-other-costs-of-college/

Culp, Paul. “Eat Your Alphabet Soup: FAFSA, EFC, COA, and Other Delights,” The Coaching Educator, 6 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/06/eat-your-alphabet-soup-fafsa-efc-coa-and-other-delights/

Culp, Paul. “Types of Financial Aid: A Very Short Primer,” The Coaching Educator, 14 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/14/types-of-financial-aid-a-very-short-primer/

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