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You Need to Beat the Curve to Get a Great Law Job

There was a day when graduating from law school was a sure­fire ticket to the upper-Middle class, if not the Country Club. The old model was demanding, but simple: survive the One L year—however hard it is—and then coast through the second and third years. The fact that law schools pumped out only very limited numbers of lawyers each year would ensure that most anyone would make a decent living, no matter where he or she finished in the class.

In the salad days of the legal profession, lawyer production from law schools was more regulated like it is now in medical schools. The medical profession strictly limits the number of med school entrants each year. The impact of this approach is that the supply of doctors is always well below the demand for medical services. Demand forces prices up, and so doctor’s salary levels are kept artificially high by this practice. All things being equal, if the medical world stopped placing severe limits on the number of doctors pumped out of universities and residency programs each year, you can bet the price of medical services would drop significantly.

Well, friends, I hate to be the one to tell you this, but unlike the medical field, the salad days in the legal profession are over. The fact of the matter is that these days you probably can’t make a great living out of law school unless you are in the top 30% of your law school class. You have to end up on the right side of the curve to get anywhere in the legal profession. Stay tuned. We are going to focus on how to do that.

Talk to anyone who went to law school in the 1950s and they will tell you that one half to two-thirds of their class failed to survive the One L year. “Look to your left, and look to your right,” the old law school deans used to say in deep voices, like reapers. “By the time this class graduates, only one of you will remain.” In that model, 150 One Ls meant only 50 Two Ls and Three Ls.

That may make for great stories for Senior Partners in old school silk stocking law firms, but consider how silly that was for law schools as a business model: as long as they held up high grading standards, they flunked out about one-half their annual revenues. Not exactly a good business plan. But once they got wise to this, law schools stopped flunking people out. These days only a tiny percentage of the students in a 150 person One L class is gone at the end of the third year.

The good news from all of this is that you are likely to survive the One L year. Congratulations. The bad news is that so are virtually all of your classmates who are going to be competing with you for jobs when you get out.

The result in the job market is plain enough. Over the last 20 or 30 years, there has been a major downward trend in the salaries of the middle and lower portions of the legal field. Upper incomes of the past are decidedly middle class these days. Why? It’s simple: there are many more lawyers who can meet the low-grade legal needs market than there were in the past. All those people who end up in the bottom 50 or 60% of the class are scrambling over the same amount of work that less than half the number of lawyers used to divide up politely in the past.

To be sure, the need for high quality lawyers hasn’t changed much. And so the higher end jobs—the jobs you probably want —are still reasonably well paid.  But these jobs are going to a smaller portion of the available pool of new lawyers. When only 30% of law students survived law school, they filled the need for these high quality jobs. On the whole, lawyers were paid well from top to the bottom of the spectrum.

It should not surprise us then, that the group of law students that will end up paid well these days is about the same size as it was before: the highest 30% of law students. The only difference between now and then is that law schools have become smarter: let the bottom 70% keep paying tuition bills for three years, whatever their prospects for actually being successful as a lawyer might be in the end.

In the next post or two I will talk about how to make sure you take your best shot at getting in this group.

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