Help the Starving Lawyers?


For decades, the stereotypical ambitious mother has urged her young son to become "a doctor or a lawyer."  A person duly trained and accredited in either of these two professions, we are told, will never lack for an income.

It would seem that too many mothers have been too convincing.  According to the Wall Street Journal, newly-minted lawyers are having difficulty finding gainful employment.

Before you break out the party hats and noisemakers, it is not the Harvard graduates and members of Skull & Bones that are going begging.  Graduates of elite schools still average $160,000 starting-salaries.

The vast majority of young lawyers do not graduate from the Ivy League, but rather from the second-tier law schools that have proliferated over the last decade.  These folks don't even get the chance to interview with the high-powered law firms you see on TV, and thanks to tort reform, John Edward's path of suing businesses into bankruptcy is less available to them.

As a result, many wind up doing contract or temp work for $30 an hour.  This may not seem like such a bad wage, until you consider that law school is insanely expensive, and graduates even of low-ranking institutions regularly approach a quarter million dollars in student loans, when you include four years of pre-law, and two or three of law school, plus living expenses during their tutelage.

The problem is made worse by false advertising on the part of the colleges.  It's commonplace to see law schools advertise the average starting salary of the previous year's graduating class -- a fairly healthy six-figure number.  The trouble is, this number comes from a survey of the graduates.  If you recently graduated, and are now working for Dewey, Fleecem and Howe in Manhattan for a $160,000 salary, of course you're going to answer the survey!

If, on the other hand, you are back living with your parents and doing paperwork reviews for $20 an hour as a temp because nobody offered you a real job, are you going to be so quick to send back the survey?  No, you need the 32 cents for Ramen Noodles.

The laws of supply and demand dictate that, when supply exceeds demand, the price will drop; and that's exactly what's going on here.  It's a signal to the market that the supply needs to be reduced.  The trouble is that, because of the length of time and enormous investment it takes to get a law degree - to say nothing of the shiny glittering prize of riches for the few top lawyers we see on TV every night - it's going to be quite some while before the supply shrinks enough to even things out.

Sometimes it never does.  How many aspiring actresses have been dissuaded from moving to Hollywood and pursuing their dreams of stardom, by the pitifully long odds of ever "making it"?  The wages paid to waitresses in the entire Los Angeles area are depressed by the constant stream of failed thespians who can't quite bring themselves to give up and move back to Iowa... they will carry their dream of stardom with them to the day of their death as complete unknowns.

The other way of fixing the supply imbalance is to increase demand.  And this is where Americans need to be very careful.  Can anyone think of a way to increase the demand for lawyers?  Can anyone think of a political party prominently occupied by trial lawyers, and which is very fond of passing new laws leading to lawsuits against all and sundry?  I'll give you a hint: they now control Congress.

By way of example, let us suppose that Hillary is elected to the presidency, and puts into place her plan for universal health care.  Does anyone doubt that there will suddenly be a tremendous increase in demand for lawyers?  The precise interpretation of the new laws and regulations; the consequences when somebody is denied timely treatment; refusal of the government to pay for this or that obscure procedure; and the whole panoply of medical practice -- funded by the deepest pockets of all, the federal government.  What starving lawyer could resist pursuing this alternative path, if not to riches, at least to steady work?  Perhaps her plan should be called "The Lawyer Full Employment Act."

One of Shakespeare's characters advised, "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers."  While the Bard had in mind a somewhat speedier demise than starvation, doubtless he would have gladly accepted a lack of work as a close second option.

Americans should view an excessive supply of lawyers as a good sign and should work to increase that excess - not by increasing the supply, but by further reducing the demand.  There is no reason why a good many "lawyerly" tasks cannot be performed by other professionals; and no reason why we must continually add to the laws entangling us which call for legal advice at every turn.

To that end, an opportunity stands before these unemployed graduates.  Their Alma Maters sold them a bill of goods - that is, held out the patently false "average graduate starting salary" and other representations of a law degree as certain path to riches.  Is this not consumer fraud, calling for... a lawsuit?

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Economics.
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