I’ve just gotten William Ian Miller’s new book, LOSING IT: in which an aging professor LAMENTS his shrinking BRAIN, which he flatters himself formerly did him Noble Service. It is, as anyone who has read Miller’s previous books can anticipate, mordantly hilarious:
Occasionally I flatter myself that I am earning my keep, contributing more than I am consuming. And unlike those football players and boxers who do not know when to quit, professors, like me, cannot be cut. Tenure and age discrimination laws let us keep working, which somehow does not seem the right word. Besides, there are always a couple of lazy colleagues whose real contribution to the enterprise is to make less lazy ones feel like we deliver value for the price. Never mind that my keep would fund four entry-level scholars in history or anthropology who are now unemployed: I still have kids of my own to feed, though I might be feeding them with someone else’s. Self-deception and wishful thinking, looking on the bright side in a self-interested way, keep us conveniently color blind to our real value, seeing black when the ink is red. Or simply not caring if it is red, when we see it.
Miller, who taught me (after a fashion) property law 25 years ago, was born at the beginning of the baby boom, while I was born near the end. I’m old enough now to read this passage with a genuine shudder of no longer abstract recognition, as opposed to laughing at it with the insouciance of a still-young man.
One of the many disadvantages of getting old is that it becomes increasingly difficult to recognize that the world is in fundamental ways no longer the world of your youth — that things have changed in a way to which you cannot relate, or to which you can only partially relate after a massive effort to break through the complacency which age gradually imposes on you like some sort of psychological sediment.
In dealing with my colleagues regarding the current crisis in American legal education, I find it’s remarkably difficult to get them to accept that there aren’t any new legal jobs. This wasn’t the way things were when they were younger, and so it simply can’t be the case. Or rather, they remember economic downturns from 20 or 30 years ago, and the difficulties people — perhaps even they — had getting jobs, and they think, this is like that, and everything turned out fine in the long run.
Both those beliefs are mistaken: everything didn’t turn out fine in the long run — for many years now huge numbers of law graduates haven’t ever really managed to have legal careers — and, more to the present point, this is not like that.
Recently I’ve been emphasizing that, according to long-term projections, American law schools are going to be turning out two graduates for every available legal job. It’s worth noting that the present situation is actually worse than that. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the “legal sector” (this means everybody employed in a legally-related job, not just attorneys, i.e., paralegals, other admin staff, etc.) added 100 jobs in November. That’s in America. 100 jobs. Total.
This, by the way, counts as comparatively good news, since the legal sector is down 3,100 jobs since last November.
Assuming that within that sector lawyers aren’t being hired at a faster rate than other personnel, this means that, over the past year, ABA law schools haven’t cranked out two new lawyers for every available job, but rather that the ratio has been even worse than that.
There are no new jobs. This means that every new lawyer who gets a job is, as a matter of current economic reality, taking a job from a non-new lawyer who had one. (In some cases this will involve retirement, death, or a truly voluntary exit from the profession, but in many cases it won’t). People focus on the entry-level job market for attorneys, and of course that’s crucial, but they tend to forget that the problems of our industry go way beyond the fact that half of our newest crop of graduates aren’t getting real legal jobs of any sort. What about our graduates from two and four and six years ago, a large percentage of whom are losing their jobs, and are currently every bit as legally unemployed as our graduates who never got a legal job in the first place? Do we know what the percentage is for the graduates of our particular law school? We do not, because we have not made the relevant inquiries.
Again, there are no new jobs. On net, this is not hyperbole: it is a simple statistical truth. The “optimistic” take from the BLS is that things will soon get “better,” and we can get back to producing two new attorneys for every new legal job. But right now the American economy is losing legal jobs — and the ratio of new lawyers to available legal positions may well be quite a bit worse than two to one.