I grew up in the 1980s when it seemed that everyone wanted to be a lawyer like the ones on LA Law. The 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s (up until 2007) was the era of Big Law when the promise of a $100,000 to $160,000 salary was, it seemed, extended to anyone graduating from a top 20 school and to many people graduating from a top 50 law school with great grades and clerkships.
Even in previously bad economies – 1990 to 1992, 1998-2000 – the law profession seemed to survive, if not thrive. Hundreds of thousands of smart (and even not-so-smart) people were encouraged to become lawyers by a combination of outrageous salaries – in 2007, Cravath, one of the top corporate law firms in the country, offered bonuses of nearly $100,000 for top performing associates – federally subsidized student loans, the supposed security of a protected profession (with its bar exams), and putative prestige (see any John Grisham novel).
Of course, the truth of all that was always a little suspect. While a top 20 law grad back in the day could expect to earn a six-figure salary, unless he chose to go into public interest law, many graduates didn’t have the same luck. And while it’s really neat to think of yourself as a high minded constitutional litigator, or a trial lawyer from a Grisham novel, the practical, day-to-day experience of being a lawyer was always (and still is) grinding.
Moments of glory are few and far between. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the practice of criminal law and enjoy helping clients. And as my father might say, it’s better than digging a ditch. But the day-to-day practice of law is not out of a movie script. It involves helping people with a DWI, drug charge, or embezzlement or larceny. Only rarely are most lawyers involved in high profile murder trials involving movie stars!
The demand for law school and the government subsidization of school led to the growth of the school industry, aided by publications like U.S. News with its ludicrous school rankings. Schools became financial profit centers of universities (like successful sports programs) and in many cases were required to kick back money to the central university administration to help underwrite the rest of the less profitable parts of the university.
The costs were passed onto recent graduates and, ultimately, the legal consumer in the form of high legal fees, especially in corporate law.