In 2009, legal graduates were earning a starting salary of around $72,000. By 2012, this number had slumped to $60,000. Students typically graduate from law school with around $100,000 in debt, but the thinking was always that they would make that back through increased salary over their lifetime. But now that earnings are slumping, and the job market remains tight, more and more people are questioning the economic benefits that come from an investment in going to law school.
Over the last twelve months law school admissions have dropped by 20%. For those who graduate, many are now turning to freelance work in place of full-time employment. Freelance work typically means that you have no guarantee of full-time work, weaker employment benefits and rarely much additional salary to account for the additional risk.
In fields such as marketing, the freelancer can be a highly paid professional. Many times freelancers possess niche and specialized skills, and may bill out at high hourly rates for their services, and work with 20–30 different clients over the course of a year. In marketing, some freelancers typically work with only one marketing agency, and effectively function like employees.
For legal graduates, the second type of freelancer is becoming an increasingly prevalent part of the industry. Law firms do not feel sufficiently confident about the volume of future work, so they avoid taking on full-time employees, and fill their order books by beefing up on freelancers.
Law schools are attempting to address the needs of their students by giving them the skills they need to find non-legal employment after they graduate. Students may graduate in law, but then head off to work for a Wall Street bank, and command the same level of salary that they would have gotten at a big Manhattan law firm. In many cases, the people who go to Wall Street earn more. But for those with only legal training, and a lack of financial literacy, they are left clinging on to the legal profession as the only realistic way to pay down their debts.
“Students who graduate with six-figure debts aren’t going to feel comfortable taking any type of job. If you are paying $10,000 a year, you are hoping to earn enough to cover your debt by the increased salary you command,” said James Cupero, a lawyer who runs a personal injury practice in New York. “At the top end of the market, there will always be some who earn impressive salaries in the legal industry, but we’re seeing the effects of technology automating many of the jobs that would previously be done by people.”
Legal students are often told that they are earning a qualification that has diverse applications. You learn to communicate, which you need to do in every job. You learn to think critically and analytically, which is an asset to any employer. But given the extra costs of legal education compared to other options, it remains to be seen whether legal education is a good path for those that don’t enter the legal profession.
Image source: http://www.law.columbia.edu/ipimages/Communications/2007%20Graduation/picture-115.jpg