During orientation of the University of Colorado School of Law Class of 2004, some - and few - may recall then Dean Harold H. Bruff (1996 -2003) exclaiming how law students begin their legal career on the "first day" of the program. Following, Dean Bruff mentioned with various certitude regarding lawyers, especially young lawyers, their importance in society, namely and proudly the rank and file of the CU Law School alumni. Numbers were then presented extolling the numbers of such alumni sitting as judges on the Federal Bench or otherwise working in the prestigious firms around the nation earning six-figures.
Such may be reminiscent in the orientation speeches of many law schools throughout the country. The promises of prestige or wealth are, quite frankly, an attractive feature of going to law school and becoming a licensed attorney. There are other selling points such as the intellectual satisfaction and challenges, status in academia and in society, etc. The outlook following graduation for most in law schools was, and may yet still be, largely positive. However, the reality for many aspiring law graduates either taking the bar or having already passed is a hyper-competitive job market marked by a deficit of suitable employment or any at all.
The numbers from the United States Labor Department, Bureau of Labor Statistics, seem to reinforce those feelings of positivism. They project a 13 percent increase in jobs for lawyers between 2008 - 2018. This increase, the Bureau notes, is due to "Growth in the population and in the level of business activity [which] is expected to create more legal transactions, civil disputes, and criminal cases." Moreover according to the same, "Job growth among lawyers also will result from increasing demand for legal services in such areas as health care, intellectual property, bankruptcy, corporate and security litigation, antitrust law, and environmental law. In addition, the wider availability and affordability of legal clinics should result in increased use of legal services by middle-income people." This is the upshot.
The downside is the recession and, as the Bureau also notes, "growth in demand for lawyers will be constrained as businesses increasingly use large accounting firms and paralegals to perform some of the same functions that lawyers do." They evidence that, "For example, accounting firms may provide employee-benefit counseling, process documents, or handle various other services previously performed by a law firm. Also, mediation and dispute resolution are increasingly being used as alternatives to litigation." The poor economy that resulted in stringent budgets across the board would logically only exacerbate some of these factors. The result is to recruit labor, such as paralegals, to do the same work but for less.
It makes some sense, although the nexus between the numbers is not stated, that for those in the paralegal profession, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job growth for them to increase 28 percent during 2008 -18. And while "Paralegals and legal assistants held about 263,800 jobs in 2008," according to the same source, the Bureau estimates that "Lawyers held about 759,200 jobs in 2008." One problem, if not apparent from these numbers alone, is that the ratio of lawyers to paralegals is roughly 3:1, which means there are likely too many lawyers. How many is too many is not clear.
Doug Mataconis writes in his article, Too Many Law Schools, Too Many Lawyers:
The job market for lawyers is terrible, full stop—and that hits young lawyers, without professional track records and in need of training, worst. Though the National Association for Law Placement, an industry nonprofit group, reports that employment for the class of 2009 was 88.3 percent, about a quarter of those jobs were temporary gigs, without the salaries needed by most new lawyers to pay off crushing debts.
Mataconis's numbers reveal that "The number of people employed in legal services hit an all-time high of 1.196 million in June 2007. It currently stands at 1.103 million. That means the number of law jobs has dwindled by about 7.8 percent. In comparison, the total number of jobs has fallen about 5.4 percent over the same period." He goes on to add that, "Law schools awarded 43,588 J.D.s last year, up 11.5 percent since 2000, though there was technically negative demand for lawyers." We can shore up the negativism by the fact that unemployment is presently around 9 percent, and jobs created in May was 54,000, which is less than one quarter of the April numbers.
The often heard advice from our parents is to find a good profession, "Go be a doctor, engineer, or lawyer." This advice, toward the end, should perhaps be modified to include, "... or paralegal." A common mistake of those going to law school is having not gained a thorough understanding of the profession and what it entails let alone the prospects of finding work upon graduation. This is also true for many students who chose a particular career-track prior to entering into a degree program only to as of the last decade be confronted with a tepid and frustrating job market. But why paralegal? Why now? The numbers are telling but so are the "war stories."
As such, before enrolling in a law school consideration ought to be given to the paralegal profession, which some could ultimately find more desirable in terms of work conditions and in light of the differences found in the roles and responsibilities of the paralegal which do not include some of the negative aspects of being an attorney. A seasoned practitioner can attest to the stresses of the attorney's job duties. For instance, heated client contact and client pressure as well as confrontation with other attorneys, and having full ethical responsibility, make for a substantial part of the stresses in day-to-day attorney life.
Modern day legal scholarship through the traditional law school is still behind the trend to incorporate practical and experiential learning. Moreover, most traditional law schools do not train students in the various types of practice-work available beyond the common notion of what attorneys typically do - and that is to try cases before judges and juries. Transactional work, alternative dispute resolution, mediation, just to name a few, are seldom offered in law schools as possible "career-tracks" for attorneys. And even in the traditional setting it is debatable how well the "edification process" is being done.
However, some schools are doing more practical training such as in the form of legal-aid clinics. One school, setting an example, is the Massachusetts School of Law at Andover(MSLAW) that uses a medical school model for its teaching methods, a total break from the American Bar Association (ABA) prescribed teaching methodologies utilized by the majority of schools. Unlike its competition, this school is spending more time with students providing them more face-to-face instruction as opposed to professors doing research and publishing. They, at MSLAW, refer to themselves as a "student centered institution." Their approach is nothing less than unconventional but is at the same time equally effective. This is refreshing when the ABA in its own findings through the MacCrate Report argued that law schools were doing a poor job of training their J.D.s. The Wall Street Journal posits in its article "The Little Law School that Could" that MSLAW is getting it right.
Where modern day legal scholarship is coming under criticism of the ABA and employers alike, for the same reason above, it stands to conjecture that the trustees, regents, and boards of the university and college systems are rethinking the approach of their law schools. Some on the traditional end, like George Washington University and Southern Methodist University, are making advances in offering paralegal education, yet there are a number of proprietary schools that have been doing the same for much longer. The ABA has a full list.
What can likely be learned from the aforementioned institutions is that the demands of the legal industry should dictate the program offerings as opposed to the education industry dictating those needs. The simple economics of the education industry, at any rate, is dependent on meeting the evolving needs of business. A solution to the problem may lie in providing better training on the law school level that uses a more practical, hands-on approach, while also augmenting traditional law schools with a separate paralegal program; or alternatively colleges and universities with the resources available ought to give meaningful assessment to starting paralegal schools.
Furthermore, pre-law programs need to be revamped to educate and train undergraduates outside of traditional curricula so as to integrate lessons that compare to those used by law schools. Pre-law programs should likewise place an emphasis on advising students on the diversity of legal jobs including the paralegal profession and better guide them on the demands as well as the job activities of lawyers and their assistants. A systematic approach including a substantive plan for change using empirical data, that is fortunately available from schools like MSLAW and others like it, could rectify schools or produce new schools committed to adequately prepare students for their future careers.
An important question students need to ask themselves is, “What do I want to do and how much am I willing to pay for it?” A paralegal can get their certificate and additional certifications in an area of specialization for much less than law school tuition and books. It will be more economical for some to go in the direction of the paraprofessional, whether it be a paralegal or other non-attorney legal professional, and earn a good wage in a more in-demand field.