Bench & Bar of Minnesota is the official publication of the Minnesota State Bar Association.

Choosing the Law

In the wake of the Cook County shooting, our thoughts remain with the victims: our colleague Cook County Attorney Tim Scannell and witness Gregory Thompson, and we hope for their full, complete and speedy recovery.  We recognize attorney John Lillie III for his heroic and successful efforts to help aid the victims of the shooting, and extend our condolences to the family of Daniel Schlienz.

Appreciating What We Have

At this time of year, we reflect on the year that has passed and the new one just begun.  We assess our lives and are thankful for what we each have.  We are fortunate to live in a time and place where we have access to adequate food, medical care, and freedom.  We are again knee-deep in another political season, bombarded with minute-to-minute reports, poll numbers, and prognosticating talking heads.  But there’s a beauty and comfort knowing that our political transitions are peaceful and orderly, the result of free and fair elections.  Having just returned from an Asian country where Starbucks visitors are guarded by soldiers with machine guns and busloads of professional conference attendees traveling to the mountains are warned that buses will not stop during the 75-minute drive for the safety of the participants, I don’t take any of that for granted.  Travel puts so much in perspective.

From April 14 to 25, an MSBA delegation will journey to Israel and Jordan without cost to the Association.  Similar to the Cuba excursion, this trip will likely be unforgettable.  Other countries in the region have recently seen large-scale popular revolts and the political landscapes have largely changed.  Yet, Jordan and Israel remain stable.  Israel, the epicenter of three of the world’s great religions, is a remarkable and diverse country with unmatched historical significance and sights.  The ancient city of Petra, in Jordan, first settled between 1550-1292 B.C.E., consists of rock-cut architecture, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1985, and was chosen by the BBC as one of the 40 places you must see in your lifetime.  Details on the trip will be forthcoming shortly.  Please let us know if you are able to join us.

Bringing the column closer to home, much is said about the current state of our profession regarding the number of lawyers, employment prospects, salaries, debt burdens, attitudes, and the happiness quotient of lawyers.  We all know the difficulty many of us face in finding law-related employment so we sense that the stories have some degree of accuracy.  So, what are the facts?  Should folks continue to enroll in law school and aspire to practice?

Lawyers in 2012

According to the ABA, there are over 1.1 million lawyers in the United States, amounting to 1 out of every 300 persons.  Each year the 200 ABA-approved law schools graduate approximately 43,000.  According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, lawyers filled 759,200 jobs in 2008.  Many of those positions do not entail the practice of law.  Approximately 26 percent of lawyers were “self-employed,” defined as practicing either as partners in law firms or in solo practices. Most salaried lawyers held positions in government, in law firms or other corporations, or in nonprofit organizations. Most government-employed lawyers worked at the local level. Many lawyers are employed as house counsel by public utilities, banks, insurance companies, real-estate agencies, manufacturing firms, and other business firms and nonprofit organizations. In May 2008, the median annual wage of all wage-and-salaried lawyers was $110,590.

What about recent graduates?  According to the National Association for Law Placement (NALP), the overall known employment rate for Class of 2010 graduates was 87.6 percent, only a 4 percent decline from a few years ago.  However, on closer look, only 68.4 percent obtained a job for which bar passage was required with about 7 percent of these jobs reported as part-time and nearly 27 percent reported as temporary.  Having done career services work for years, I believe the “closer look” far more accurately reflects reality, and did even before the economic downturn.

These figures should not blind us to the fact that the challenges facing lawyers, while daunting, are not insurmountable.  For those who are passionate about the law, work hard, and are open and flexible in identifying opportunities, finding a career in the legal profession is still doable.  The Bar Association has a role in helping these lawyers find their place in our profession.

The opportunities that exist may now be more numerous in smaller than in larger firms, and starting salaries for members of the Class of 2010 are on average 10 to 20 percent below those seen in recent years.  Nevertheless, today’s shifts are not significantly out of line with fluctuations seen previously in lawyers’ employment and compensation, and in some sectors—government, public interest, and judicial clerkships—median salaries are roughly the same as before.

Law School Realities

So, have the numbers impacted law school admissions?  The Law School Admissions Council (LSAC) indicates that the number of applicants to ABA-approved schools in the fall of 2011 dropped 9.9 percent from 2010 (78,900 from 87,500).

Nearly one third of the applicants are persons of color, but regrettably, the percentage of law school attendees who are persons of color is much lower.  It is too early to see if the number of students starting law school will diminish from the recent high of 51,600, but a falling off is unlikely as law schools will still fill their classes, albeit with somewhat lower LSAT averages. A few law schools have reduced class size to maintain high LSAT averages.  In the last couple years, on average, women have made up slightly less than half of the entering first-year class.

The ABA Committee on the Impact of the Economic Crisis on the Profession observed that law school tuition has, for many years, consistently risen twice as fast as inflation.  The average private law school tuition was $34,298 in 2008, while the average in-state tuition for public law schools was $16,836.  The average law student in a state school borrows $71,436 to cover costs; the private school average is $91,506, not including undergraduate debt.  Some estimate that to make a positive return on the investment of going to law school, given the current costs, the average law student must earn an average annual salary of at least $65,315.  However, over 40 percent of law school graduates have starting salaries below this amount.  The ABA Committee advises prospective law students to understand the debt that they will incur, the expected earning power of graduates from the schools to which they are applying, and to look for options to cut back on expenses while in law school (e.g. attending a local law school, living at home, enrolling in a part-time program and continuing to work, carefully controlling costs, or going to a less expensive school).

Why Choose Law?

So why do all this?  Why make the sacrifice to be a lawyer?  It’s not the right job for everyone.  However, for many of us, it is so worth it.  The ABA recently ran a story on what lawyers love about the law.  Many of the comments reminded us that being a lawyer can be about helping others, making a difference in another’s life, diversity of responsibilities, learning new things, a feeling of accomplishment, and having a role in furthering a society based upon law and justice.  One lawyer was quoted as saying “Best job in the world: I get paid to read, write, think, talk and argue—all things I would do anyway.”

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Brent Routman

Brent Routman was president of the Minnesota State Bar Association from 2011-2012. He is a partner, general counsel, and Asia Regional Trademark Attorney with the intellectual property law firm of Merchant & Gould in Minneapolis.