Despite a Tough Market, Intrinsic Value of Legal Education Remains
Note from the Editor: Recently, the Campbell Law Observer hosted a write-on competition to recruit new staff writers and editors. Each student was to discuss the value of a law degree. As we all know, the value, or perceived value, of a law degree has changed. Below, you will find the article that received the highest score from the previous editorial board. Next week, we will publish another student’s write-on prompt in an attempt to display two very unique perspectives.
Three words alone are enough to make any law student or recent graduate cringe: the job market.
Articles, statistics, job postings, blog entries, and even lawsuits join together in criticizing the value of a legal education in today’s society and economy. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) reported that only 68.4 percent of graduates from the class of 2010 acquired jobs that required bar passage. Private firms are hiring with more caution and several have had to reduce the size of their workforce. Future and current members of the bar have not escaped the challenges of a weak economy, leading some to question whether a law degree still holds value.
William Woodruff, a professor at Campbell University School of Law, sees benefit not in starting with identifying the value of a law degree, but in defining value itself. “Individuals,” Woodruff says, “have to spend some time evaluating and eventually assigning their own value to a law degree.” He comments further that the evaluation process should be a “personal and subjective analysis.” Woodruff suggests that a law degree not only transforms students into well-informed citizens, but also imparts skills and abilities that can be applied in a variety of fields, from a legal practice, to the business world, and to the classroom.
If the value of a law degree is measured solely by a potential salary, those who work hard to obtain their J.D. may be disappointed. Alternatively, it is worth considering that value may be found in more than just a large paycheck. Today’s legal system is complex and it changes rapidly. Cases are decided and statutes are promulgated, oftentimes with the slightest of nuances. The average layperson may not have the knowledge needed to critically identify and resolve complicated legal issues, all of which are tasks that the well-trained lawyer can easily handle.
The preamble to the North Carolina Rules of Professional Conduct states, “A lawyer, as a member of the legal profession, is a representative of clients, an officer of the legal system, and a public citizen having special responsibility for the quality of justice.” That special responsibility befalls every licensed attorney, regardless of the economy or salary.
Eugene Pridgen, a Managing Partner at K&L Gates, recognizes and praises the unique role that lawyers have. “Many of the community and political leaders across our state are lawyers,” Pridgen notes. He also emphasizes the commitment of many lawyers to community service. “Lawyers serve not just as bar or law firm leaders, but also as leaders in our communities. People who chair United Way campaigns, lead church committees, serve on city councils and school boards, and otherwise serve in various leadership roles.”
One seasoned attorney, Francis “Razz” Raspberry, Jr, understands the implications of the recent economic recession but refuses to think that the degree he obtained over twenty years ago has a diminished value. “A law degree provides a great life enhancing set of skills to have,” he says. Lawyers also “provide a lot of benefit to society as they play an active role in making decisions at the local, state, and national levels.” In an age of rapid transfers of thoughts, ideas, and opinions, having knowledge about the legal system is especially valuable. “As a lawyer,” Razz remarked, “you know what goes on behind the scenes.” Lawyers have the ability to provide thoughtful insights on current issues that are backed by rigorous study of legal policy and doctrine.
On the other hand, simply recognizing and appreciating indicia of value cannot pay the bills. While the idea of obtaining a law degree is rich with promises to help men and women obtain a stable and fulfilling career, it is becoming more frequent to end up as a man or woman with unpaid student loans and grim job prospects. A widely circulated New York Times article from January of 2011 highlighted Michael Wallerstein, a recent and unemployed law school graduate with over $200,000 in debt. The title of the article, like flashing yellow caution lights, read: “Is Law School a Losing Game?” Wallerstein’s law degree was classified as a “catastrophic investment,” while page after page of the article described the current climate of creditors, low-paying temp jobs, and rising tuition.
Sadly, Wallerstein’s story is not unique. Last August, several law schools, including the New York School of Law, were on the receiving end of lawsuits instigated by angry, unemployed graduates. The suits alleged that certain law schools misrepresented employment numbers and prospects and ultimately misled students about the job market. While this may not be surprising given that New York has one of the greatest surpluses of lawyers for the size of its market, the driving motivation behind bringing the lawsuits was seemingly altruistic: obtaining a more efficient market for legal careers.
While no North Carolina law school has been implicated in the flood of lawsuits, there are proactive actions being taken to demonstrate how the North Carolina Bar holds a law degree in high esteem. The Young Lawyer’s Division of the North Carolina Bar Association is not just acknowledging the value of a law degree, but it is actively recruiting future lawyers. A new program called Legal LINK (Leadership, Information, Networking, and Knowledge) is seeking a more diverse legal profession that accurately reflects North Carolina’s changing demographics and “recognizing the need for the legal profession to be more diverse in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, and disability” by establishing mentoring programs for local high school students. The programs help to educate selected students about law school and the legal profession in hopes of ushering them into a legal career.
Despite encouraging efforts from the North Carolina Bar, finding the value in a law degree can be tough for the unemployed or unsatisfied. There are numerous resources available to current and future attorneys who are either looking to find a first time job or make a career shift. The NALP has an online resource center with information for law students and graduates, including specific and general alternative law careers, tips for interviewing and networking, and ways to have an effective job search.
Brandon Poole, an attorney for the City of Raleigh, sees versatility as a trait unique to a law degree. “If you’re a banker, and you lose your job, it’s going to be difficult to find another career,” he said. “But with law,” Poole observed, “you have the chance to start over. You can hang out your own shingle or start practicing in a completely new arena. It’s a lot more flexible.”
The ability to think critically and help guide others through the vast legal system is an invaluable skill. The job market may improve – or it may not. Either way, the time to stop cringing is now. Be creative in figuring out ways to use a law degree and be dedicated to using the skills learned in law school or in legal practice for the betterment of fellow citizens. Certainly those considering getting a law degree should responsibly consider the time and monetary commitment involved. But in the end, the only thing catastrophic about investing in a law degree would be not realizing its rewarding and full potential to lead, serve, and do justice.