I teach at a law school and although applications here at the University of Tennessee College of Law are way up, that's not the pattern nationally. In fact,law school applications just keep falling. Right now, the optimistic view is that, after several years of decline, they've finally hit bottom. Many schools are cutting enrollment. Others are cutting faculty salaries and research stipends.
This is bad news for law professors like me, but is it bad news for America? That depends.
Brian Tamanaha's book, Failing Law Schools, predicted this several years ago. Tuition, he noted, was climbing even as employment opportunities for graduates were shrinking. These two trends couldn't continue forever, and they haven't. A more recent book, Deborah Rhode's The Trouble With Lawyers, notes similar problems. But many Americans, seeing lawyers as a source of litigation, economic stagnation and bureaucracy, may feel that America would be better off with fewer lawyers.
And to some degree, they may be right. America probably is, as Walter Olson's blog of the same name suggests, Overlawyered. But it may also be true that the real problem isn't that we have too many lawyers, but that they are too expensive.
That's the view taken in my colleague Benjamin Barton's new book, Glass Half Full: The Decline And Rebirth of the Legal Profession, out this month from Oxford University Press. Barton notes that high-end law firms are being squeezed by much-greater client sensitivity to costs, and by technology that lets one junior attorney do the work of ten when reviewing documents. (Increased efficiency isn't a plus when you bill by the hour.) Likewise, lawyers at the bottom end are being squeezed by online legal form services like LegalZoom or Rocket Lawyer. Still, he sees some upsides for lawyers and clients alike.
For lawyers, he sees incomes falling to the more-modest levels that prevailed before the 1980-2000 legal boom. Lower incomes are bad, of course, but it's also true that prior to the boom, lawyers were happier with their work. Crushing workloads, dog-eat-dog firm politics and fickle clients made the boom time much more stressful. The move to billing arrangements that focus on results, not hours worked, saves clients money, but it also changes the way lawyers work, probably for the better.
Meanwhile, while technology is hurting firms' income, it's also cutting their expenses, and making life easier (in some ways) for solo practitioners. I have a former student who practices family law and doesn't even keep an office. Her clients like it that she makes house calls, and she saves big on overhead. Email, voicemail and the like are better than a secretary, and online legal research is better than maintaining a law library.
Clients, meanwhile, will get cheaper legal services. There's a limit to how much lawyers can cut their rates those student loan debts have to be paid, and if you can't make enough to pay them practicing law, you're better off doing something else but many tech startups are looking at ways to provide legal services more cheaply and efficiently than the old model ever did. Barton is optimistic about that, and I hope he's right.
At any rate, law, as the ultimate white-collar job, is now undergoing what so many other fields have suffered before: Technological unemployment and a shrinking economic pie. Lawyers, who probably didn't shed a lot of tears when this happened to linotype operators, will just have to deal with it as well. I hope that Ben Barton's mostly-cheerful predictions turn out to be right.