Divining Legal Employment Trends: One Way for Law Students to Think About the Market Is to Think About Themselves

Law School and CareersIf you follow the legal press even casually, you’re likely to see quite different, and constantly shifting, views of the future market for lawyers.  You can regularly find optimism and pessimism in a sort of perpetual point/counterpoint.  For those in law school and those thinking about entering law school, what are you to make of all this?

No one can be certain of the future, even if they sound sure-footed (think of how many times MSNBC and Fox Business talking heads are wrong).  We posted on June 19 Advise-In’s current view, subject to significant assumptions, that the employment market for new lawyers would likely be better in 2013 that it is now.  Subsequently, the director of NALP, Jim Leopold, opined that the first uptick from the current market would likely be no earlier than 2012, which is in line with our view.

But none of us knows for sure (and of those who sound more certain, you should ask whether, like brokers perpetually telling you why you should buy stock, they have an economic interest in their certainty).  If we were that smart, we’d have predicted the global and U.S. economic downturn and the decline in the legal market.  The fact is that few did (although I’m still overly self-satisfied that my wife’s and my investments got a lot more conservative in 2007).

Any estimate is also subject to significant assumptions (remind anyone of the LSAT?).  You can make a best guess and assign a degree of probability that the evidence points to a particular result.  That’s all.  What the apparently conflicting reports you see most likely show is that the market is in a state of flux.  That implies that you also have to factor in the possibility that you’ll be wrong.  With the economy (upon which the legal market largely depends) and the legal market itself in transition, the possibility of a result contrary to your expectations should be set fairly high.

Whatever your estimate of the most likely state of the market, it’s technical.  It can’t tell you whether you should go to law school, where you should go if you do (with its calculus of immediate outlay and debt, on one side, versus likely opportunity, on the other) or whether you should rethink your career path.

Deciding those questions is distinctly personal and depends on this obvious but sometimes neglected question:  Do you want to be a lawyer and, if so, how much?  There’s an additional question embedded:  Are you clear about what lawyers (especially the type of lawyer you think you might want to be) actually do and how they do it?  How many have you talked to, in what range of practices?  Of course, there are other careers that some law schools can prepare you for and, if you’re thinking of an alternate path, that’s great—of course, it’s wise to ask exactly the same questions about that course.  We’ll keep it simple, though, and assume that the reason most people go to law school is to become lawyers.

Why is it crucial to answer those questions?  If a desire to be a lawyer is deep in your bones, the state of the legal hiring market at any particular time will probably matter less to you, as long as you can find a position.  You’ll be happy with a legal job, whether it’s high-profile and high-paid or not, because you want to be a good lawyer and counselor.  If you’re going into law because you can’t think of what else to do or only for the money (note the “only”), then it’s likely you should discount the prospects of a bright or improving hiring market substantially.  You’re less likely to be satisfied with simply practicing law if your initial opportunities and salary are more limited—and you’ll still probably have a lot of debt to pay off.

Making your best estimate (and evaluating others’ estimates) of the legal employment market is important.  (It’s also training to be a good lawyer—one mark of terrific lawyering is anticipating possibilities, preparing your clients for contingencies and accurately assessing and communicating the risks of different possible courses of conduct.)  But those evaluations don’t tell you very much until you’ve applied them to your desires, ambitions and limitations—then they can help you decide whether to attend or continue attending law school.

~ by Kyle Pasewark at Advise-in Solutions on July 1, 2010.

2 Responses to “Divining Legal Employment Trends: One Way for Law Students to Think About the Market Is to Think About Themselves”

  1. […] “elite” group), you’ll need to account for your own desire to be a practicing lawyer.  The state of the market may have a different meaning for those whose ambition is to be a great counselor, as opposed to those entering law for lack of […]

  2. […] so to most students), then the market matters a lot.  In either case, it’s important to know who you are and what the legal world is like before taking the […]

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