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These Days, Everyone Graduates; That’s the Bad News

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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