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The 'Dollars-to-Donuts' of Going to Law School

It was once a sound bet when comparing dollars to donuts. You could get several donuts for $1 (USD). Today the phrase has the connotation that betting dollars to donuts is a bad bet when donuts can cost more than one dollar. This "faux bet" notion is commonly tossed around in what may be matters of trivial exchanges. When it comes to investing in a law school - far from the trivial - some of the more pessimistic may eviscerate the longstanding value of a law school degree and call "dollars-to-donuts!"

Professor Stephen Bainbridge in his blog post, Too Many Lawyers? Too Many Law Schools?, submits in his analysis through Mark Greenbaum's assertions that the ABA has permitted too many "'unneeded new schools to open and refuses to properly regulate the schools, many of which release numbers that paint an overly rosy picture of employment prospects for their recent graduates. There is a finite number of jobs for lawyers, and this continual flood of graduates only suppresses wages.'" Moreover, it is Greenbaum's opinion that the solution is federal regulation to stem the "rapid flow of attorneys into a marketplace that cannot sustain them." This may be considered to some a drastic move considering how the states have enjoyed the province of regulating their respective bars for well over a century.

What is more, Bainbridge provides, via the same source, some telling numbers:

From 2004 through 2008, the field grew less than 1% per year on average, going from 735,000 people making a living as attorneys to just 760,000, with the Bureau of Labor Statistics postulating that the field will grow at the same rate through 2016. Taking into account retirements, deaths and that the bureau's data is pre-recession, the number of new positions is likely to be fewer than 30,000 per year. That is far fewer than what's needed to accommodate the 45,000 juris doctors graduating from U.S. law schools each year.

(See also Mark Greenbaum's article with the LA Times, No more room at the bench.) You will find, and may have experienced it yourself, that the student loan debt incurred from attending law schools often exceeds six figures, and for private schools it is more precisely $92,000 on average according to Daniel Luzer's findings, as is also cited by Bainbridge. Luzer further figures that with 45,000 graduates a year, there will only be 30,000 spots available. (His article, Too Many Law Schools, is available as well.)

And so I trail Bainbridge, Greenbaum and Luzer, and others. Of course the outlook is bleak when the numbers do not add up enough "donuts for your dollar." When only a small fraction are statistically shown to have attained the higher net worth incomes, over six figures, as Bainbridge is staunch to observe in citing Feliz Salmon in his blog (graphic provided), "systematic oversupply," as characterized by the Professor, becomes endemic to the system. (See also the chart below.) From endemic to pandemic, law grads in the U.S. are starving for work using their JDs. Thus is the plague resulting from great oversupply in a market.

Apart from getting caught into the debate concerning regulation and labor cartels, i.e. creating a bureaucratic valve releasing less lawyers into the system with some form of protectionism, whereas you have Greenbaum on the one hand arguing federal regulations and Yglesias and Ribstein with Bainbridge in agreement with these two on the other, I do not believe there are any well-tested solutions at any rate at this stage in the game. You might as well pick three solutions espoused by the erudite top-brass legal elites and throw a dart at them. But, Bainbridge interestingly posits this angle on the problem:

My suggestion? Assuming we aren't going to have real free markets for legal services, but will continue to have such barriers to entry as ABA law school accreditation, bar exams, and so on, which presumably would solve the problem, we need to constrict supply. Lop off the bottom third of law schools and see if that solves it.

The Professor is poignant to first "initiate" UC Irving as the starting point for the chopping-block. Again, though, states are the eons-old authorities on their own bars, not to mention the only ones best suited to adequately understand the complex dynamics within their own legal labor markets. A national solution could be overly bombastic and unwieldy, if not plainly infernal to the status quo.

By now, should you have read to this point, if you are a prospective law student you may be so far perplexed about the real value of a law degree that you have already opened up a window for U.S. News & World Report for more guidance. And why not? You have a desire to work in the legal field and why should all the experts discourage you? Understandably, the situation may now look bleak or so Darwinian to the point of causing self-repose, especially with the daunting surplus of like graduates vying for the same jobs. Quite frankly, it is always an economic function in the end, which is why some right now are chasing degrees for in-demand fields such as in medicine, accounting, law enforcement, etc. You have seen the ads all over the internet.

Consider this: specialization. Doctors go to medical schools and typically go on to more education and training to become specialists so as to find the top paying jobs. I assert that a JD is becoming more of starting degree for what law students first need to enter into the field; but it is specialization (sometimes other things like talent and connections) that lands them jobs. Surely, there are many a JD out there, but how many JD/CPAs or JDs with a M.S. in Engineering do you know compared to plain-vanilla JDs? The perspectives on legal education past graduation and passing the bar is what needs to change. This is not to suggest that regulation is not needed. Regulation is always needed in every field of study and for upcoming professionals. Yet, professional development and promotion of suitable and replete discourses of study and/or certifications both as a matter of perspectives and "career-track-designs" are what need to be rectified at the institutional level. Perhaps the academic and legal industry can agree that what is needed today are more skilled specialists; and a JD, simply put, is not enough any more.

The selling point that a Juris Doctorate will get you into the upper echelons of income opportunities needs to be removed from the common marketing schemes of the system. Surely, there is potential. But the same goes for having other post-graduate degrees. Not that being a solo practitioner is a bad thing by any means, but it is no wonder why hordes of JDs are gravitating toward this pursuit even when they had decent paying jobs. Not every lawyer makes partner; and a great many, as seen by observing the numbers provided by Salmon, barely brake the $60,000 mark.

Bringing this all into perspective, going to law school can be a lucrative endeavor. However, always be realistic and do your due diligence before investing in what becomes a small mortgage's worth of loans. Consider, carefully, the options. Consider all of what it takes to reach the income potential you desire. In as far as the law is the career you want more than anything else, there is much hypothetical value in the degree, but it is up to you, and you alone, to do all of what is necessary in today's legal marketplace to make your life a success.


Chart (Courtesy of Felix Salmon and Reuters):

If you would like to read more of my writing, please go to my blog at

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