Law schools and the degrees they offer are increasingly financially unattainable for prospective students. Not only has tuition risen exponentially, but the actual return on investment has drastically devalued due to an oversaturation in a shrinking job market.
Many students are no longer buying in. Sources like lawschooltransparency.com place law schools’ deceitful use of statistics under scrutiny. Schools often present inflated employment numbers that do not list whether or not graduates find employment as lawyers or in jobs that even require a Juris Doctor (J.D.).
At Syracuse University College of Law, only 54 percent of graduates can expect to obtain a long-term legal career, according to lawschooltransparency.com. This horrifying statistic is further compounded by the fact that the average debt that a student will face upon graduation from Syracuse is close to $235,000.
Many prospective lawyers do not worry about this debt due to the false assumption that their future lawyer salary will quickly ease the burden of student loans. For most law graduates, this is not the case. Most lawyers who make enough to pay back large student loan debt are those with careers in “Big Law” at top law firms. This creates yet another ugly problem, as the reality of landing such a job is slim.
Recent statistics show that most “Big Law” firms only hire graduates from the top 20 law schools in the country. Your J.D. degree from a school ranked 54, and the hundreds of thousands of dollars you spent to get it, mean nothing to “Big Law” firms unless you graduated first in your class or know someone in the firm. What these factors add up to is an expensive degree that is worth far less than the time and money spent on it.
I am not saying that law degrees are worthless, but the reality is that the commitment of resources necessary to obtain such a degree is astronomical and unfair. A lawyer salary of $50,000 would be feasible if the money spent on a law degree matched the salary. In order for degree price and salary to match, one of two steps must be taken. Either law schools stop milking students for a degree in a field that is nowhere near as lucrative as it used to be or an alternative to acquiring a J.D. is created to compete with law schools.
The second step seems more probable. Before law school became the primary means to obtain a J.D., prospective lawyers could apprentice themselves under an attorney as an assistant in “reading law.” Once these assistants spent enough time and had practiced enough, they took the bar exam and became lawyers if they passed. Although “reading the law” fell out of practice after the advent of law schools, it is still legal to become a lawyer in this way in some states, such as New York and California.
The “reading law” route serves as an established way in which anyone, regardless of assets, can become a lawyer. If it became more prominent, apprenticeship could allow many prospective lawyers to enter the market without the financial burden associated with law schools. With competition comes change. If ”reading law” becomes common place, law schools will be forced to adapt. Competition will destroy the monopoly held by law schools and finally open the career up to those unable to participate in the old system.