Myth-Busting

Commentary

Don LeDuc, President and Dean | June 3, 2013

The internet abounds with misstatements about law schools and lawyer employment. The leadership of lawyer, law school, and employment organizations tied to the law has failed to provide any clarification or information countering these misstatements, allowing the all-too-frequent repetition of them to create the impression that they are true. Here, then, is a brief summary of the facts that readily refute these mythical assertions.

1. MYTH:  Unemployment among lawyers is widespread and severe. 

False, in fact, among the ten professional and management occupations recognized by the United States Depart of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics, legal occupations have the lowest unemployment rate. Lawyer unemployment nationally is currently about 1.4% and in Michigan about 1.8%. Employment of lawyers is nearly the best among all individual professional and management occupations, with judges having the second lowest and lawyers the seventh-lowest unemployment rates among 53 professional and management occupational categories. Only nine of these 53 professions had unemployment rates under 2% in 2012—two of those nine were lawyers and judges.

2. MYTH: Law schools continue to admit increasing numbers of students.

False, nationally, first year enrollment fell by 4,000 in 2011, by another 4,000 in 2012, and will likely fall by at least that much again in 2013. First-year law school enrollment at Michigan's five law schools is down over 30% over the past three years (2010, 2011, 2012), and will likely decline significantly again in 2013.

3. MYTH: Law schools will drop their standards to keep their enrollment up.

False, all law schools have similar options when facing declining application numbers—cut class size, lower the admissions profile, and adjust tuition. Nationally, most schools have adjusted by balancing among these three factors. Michigan's law schools kept their entering class profiles relatively stable over the past five years, reducing class size rather than lowering their admission standards.

4. MYTH: Law schools are charging exorbitant tuition. 

False, law school tuition is comparable to tuition charges for other professional schools and for doctoral programs. For example, at Cooley, a typical May 2012 non-scholarship graduate would have paid about $97,000 in tuition for his or her legal education. The typical scholarship student at Cooley would have paid about $75,000. Approximately 57% of Cooley students receive scholarships. 

5. MYTH: Law school graduates are experiencing alarming default rates because of the student loan debt. 

False, default rates among law school graduates are quite low. During the height of the recession, the three-year student loan default rate among Cooley graduates was 5.2% and the two-year default rate was 3.3%, well below the national three-year and two-year default rates of 13.4% and 9.1%, respectively, and far below the Department of Education's minimum 25% default rate standard. The average debt of a 2011-12 law graduate student with loans was $122,395.

6. MYTH: The current admissions practices among law schools have led to a glut of lawyers.

False, while it is reasonable to debate whether there are too many or too few lawyers, Michigan's experience that the number of new lawyers entering practice has actually declined is likely typical. In fact, admissions to practice in Michigan have decreased in each of the past three decades--from 1973 to 1982 the average annual admission to practice was 1,178, from 1983 to 1992 it was 1,137, from1993 to 2002 it was 1,095, and from 2003 to 2012 it was 1,061 (including an estimated 980 admissions in 2012), a reduction of 10% over forty years. 

7. MYTH: Young lawyers, burdened by debt, are forced to take on cases that they are incompetent to handle, causing them to behave unethically. 

False, actually, recent law school graduates contribute relatively little to the work of the lawyer disciplinary bodies. For example, in the past four months only five of 64 disciplinary actions reported in the Michigan Bar Journal involved lawyers with P numbers higher than P69234, which identifies lawyers admitted in mid-2006. By comparison, eight of the actions involved lawyers with P numbers in the 20000's, meaning admissions in 1979 or earlier. And the annual report of the Lawyer Discipline Board shows comparatively few competency-based disciplinary actions overall.

8. MYTH: The law schools do a poor job at training students to be lawyers.

False, the quality of legal education, from the substantive, doctrinal courses to the practical, clinical courses, has never been better. Teaching is outstanding throughout the nation, facilities are the best in history, libraries are more comprehensive than ever, and technology has been employed in all parts of legal education. Focus on practice preparation by the nation's law schools has never been more intense.

9. MYTH: Big Law – made up of the ultra large international and national law firms, is the core of the legal profession.  

False, almost two-thirds of all lawyers in private practice work in solo practice or in law firms of from two to ten lawyers in size. Most other lawyers in private practice work in mid-sized or boutique law firms.  "Big Law" gets the headlines in the legal press because that is where many of the big deals are done and large cases are litigated. But "Big Law" has no relationship to the real world faced by almost all of our nation's lawyers.

10. MYTH: We don't need more lawyers. 

False, while there are plenty of lawyers charging $600 an hour and up to represent the largest corporations, there clearly are not enough lawyers to serve the interests of the middle class, much less the indigent in society. The law schools can teach students how to be efficient and innovative in packaging and pricing their services for the huge majority of citizens who cannot afford legal representation.