Many cheer the fact that increasing numbers of lawyers are unemployed and that law school applications are dropping through the floor, saying we didn’t need them anyway and that this trend must be a good thing.
Not so say many, like Daniel P Porterfield in an opinion piece written for Forbes, where he explains that the crisis in legal education can drive smart, principled students away from the law, creating what he says would be a tremendous loss for the country.
Porterfield, Franklin & Marshall College president, Oxford University Rhodes scholar and advocate for empowering lower income talented students through education is a regular Forbes contributor. He writes:
“The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers,” shouts Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II.
Since the 2008 recession, that’s what some think the American economy has conspired to do.
Last year, the United States had 1.3 million licensed lawyers—nearly 20 percent more than a decade ago. Sadly, many of these new lawyers aren’t working, as the unemployment rate for law school graduates in 2013 was 11 percent—higher than the overall unemployment rate at the time.
Given these statistics, some commentators are cheering the fact that law school applications have plummeted 36 percent since 2010.
But let’s hope that what many have deemed a “crisis” for legal education doesn’t drive smart, principled students away from law. That would be a tremendous loss for our country. Our society doesn’t work without well-educated legal leaders dedicated to preserving America’s commitments to the Constitution and fair legal frameworks for dispute resolution.
Democracy requires the effective application of legal principles and rules in political life; capitalism requires legal checks to ensure fair competition in the economic sphere and protect the rights of employees, consumers, shareholders, and owners alike; and, national security requires laws that protect both the safety of the many and the rights of the individual. We need the legal thinkers and practitioners—drawn from every generation—who will sustain these essential commitments.
At the same time, American strength and innovation always requires fresh minds for new thinking. For example, the digital revolution has required the development of new laws to protect individuals from cybercrime and from the public release of private information. Vast changes in health care have required new legal frameworks to protect patients and consumers against fraud and incompetence. Newly-coalesced societal beliefs—like those related to LGBT equality—have required new rulings to extend protections or preserve existing rights.
In America, legal work matters in everything from contracts to property ownership, from international law to criminal justice, and from the protection of our political rights to the guarantee of equal protection under the law.
So, in an era of high tuition, high loans, and high unemployment for budding lawyers, what do I say to my students who ask me about law school?
I ask, “Are you deeply interested in learning and using the law? If so, then don’t sell yourself short.”
Legal education can be a powerful tool for helping others—in criminal court and civil proceedings, through legislation and scholarly articles, and in international human rights advocacy. It can also be an equally powerful tool for helping oneself—for honing one’s mind and intellectual skills, for earning a living in law or other fields, for developing a professional network, for protecting one’s own rights, and for expertly navigating the litigious society that we all inhabit.
Sometimes, when a promising undergraduate says she is considering law school, well-meaning people say, “What a shame…”
That’s why I was excited this fall to write law school recommendation letters for Akbar Hossain, a 2013 Franklin & Marshall College graduate and Truman Scholar who hopes to use law to assist refugee populations and influence immigration policy. And for Lindsay Stern, who aspires to advocate for juvenile offenders and their families. And for Oyere Etta, who has a passionate interest in international law with a focus on human rights.
It’s inspiring that such terrific students are going after legal education. Sure, this path doesn’t guarantee that every law school graduate will practice how and where they want, which is exactly why interested students should explore what the field really offers.
To assist with that, Franklin & Marshall College’s Director of Legal Professions Advising, Katie Schellenger, helps undergraduates take courses that address legal themes. She pairs them with practicing attorneys to learn about law in business, education, science, and public policy. She encourages them to pursue summer internships and legal jobs they might hold before law school.