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Headed to Law School? Lower Your Expectations

Recent law school grads face a tough job market, daunting student loans and — if they land a job — a demanding work environment. Steven Harper’s “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” serves as a wake up call and warning for students disillusioned by the prestigious lawyers they watch on T.V. In the book, Harper, a Northwestern University Law Professor and former Kirkland & Ellis LLP litigator, gives an honest, sometimes grim, account about the issue of too many lawyers and too few jobs.

While his aim is to address and educate potential law school applicants about the bubble, the book may actually offer a solution to it. By revealing the harsh realities of getting a job at a big law firm (and trying to remain happy while doing it), some prospective students may reconsider their career paths. He points out contributing factors to the lawyer surplus and assigns blame to law school deans, big law firms, the government, students, the American Bar Association and even U.S. News & World Report law school rankings.

The PBS NewsHour spoke recently with Harper about his book and what every law professional and potential student should be aware of with this growing crisis.

NewsHour: There’s no sugar coating in this book, do you make it a point to be blunt no matter how dream-crushing it may be for future law students?

Steven Harper: It’s intended to be direct; it’s not intended to be mean-spirited. So what I tried to be, at least as a matter of intent, is balanced and I think the difficulty with a lot of — at least of the undergraduates that I’ve taught over the last several years who are on their way to law school — is that for many people for a long time, law school has been the last bastion for the liberal arts major who can’t decide what to do next. And it becomes a pretty expensive proposition when you come out the other end with maybe only a 50-60 percent chance of getting a job that requires a degree and a six figure loan — a mortgage but no house.

I had a wonderful career as a lawyer, I think it’s a very important and noble thing to do and a noble undertaking, but it’s not for everyone and that’s really the central message. If you can take a hard look at yourself and decide whether it’s a good fit for you, you have a much better chance of not only enjoying the process of becoming a lawyer and being successful at it, but also not adding to the ranks of what are already too many dissatisfied lawyers.

NewsHour: You mention your students were your inspiration for this book, what did you experience while teaching that made you want to write this for future generations?

Steven Harper: The idea for this book and the course really started before the Great Recession. One of my particular concerns was what I was seeing in growing rates of dissatisfied, unhappy lawyers. So the course really started as an effort to bridge the gap between what I think are student expectations going into the profession and the reality of what it can become. Sometimes those expectations are formed in the same way mine were, many years ago; they’re formed by the images you see on TV. I mean who wouldn’t want to be Alicia Florrick? You know, have a trial every week, cross-examine the key witness, and then make equity partner in a firm after four years. Oh and by the way, she dressed really well along the way, too. So what I really started out doing was trying to bridge that gap between expectations and reality.

What ultimately drove me to write the book was that I really couldn’t find something that I thought was a comprehensive and balanced treatment of what I wanted to cover. Which was what it is about the profession that makes it challenging, what it is about the profession that makes it great, how has the profession evolved, particularly in big firms where I practiced for thirty years, and those have evolved in many ways that have become hostile for a satisfied career and balanced life. So I wanted to catch younger people earlier in the process and just have them take a really hard look at themselves and the profession in what I hope is a balanced way.

NewsHour: In terms of structure of the book, a huge chunk of it is documenting the collapses of big law firms, why?

Steven Harper: Because for better or for worse, big law firms are several things. One, they are where the vast majority of law school students seek to get jobs. It’s where they want to start their careers, it’s where the money is the best, and it’s where, frankly, the leadership in the profession has always been. Big law firms only comprise 10-15 percent of practicing lawyers. And the other thing about it is that big law firms really do exert a large influence that is far disproportionate to their numbers in terms of signaling to the rest of the profession where we’re going. And so it just seemed to me the combination of those things, plus I suppose the obvious is it’s the part of the profession that I knew the best, I lived in it for thirty years.

NewsHour: It’s no secret in the book that you’re not a big fan of U.S. News & World Report rankings and their influence over law school deans, but who is the biggest culprit of perpetuating the bubble?

Steven Harper: I think it’s a number of different factors. I certainly wouldn’t let students off the hook. I think that when you have a confirmation bias and you’re reluctant to view the world in a particular way other than the way you want to view it, you have to take some responsibility for what happens. And increasingly there is greater transparency. I think a second factor, to a very large degree has been law school deans. For many years, a vast majority of them pander to the criteria that go to rankings. Some of them are very destructive to the profession and to the students involved. And then there’s the third thing too that’s fueling all of this, and that has to do with the free flow of government money. Don’t get me wrong, I could not have gone to law school had it not been for student loans, and I had plenty of them by the time I came out, but the difficulty now is that there’s no real accountability between the behavior of deans who are really determined to increase enrollments, and the outcomes for their students in terms of not being able to repay their student loans or get jobs that are sufficient to allow them to repay their student loans. If you default on a student loan, the federal government backs it up and the law school is not out a penny as a result of any of that.

NewsHour: You say the industry is in crisis, will there ever be a catalyst or bursting of the bubble that influences big law firms or deans to change their ways?

Steven Harper: Well some of it is already happening, there’s been increased discussion especially since law schools have had to disclose for example, whether “employed” meant simply working as a greeter at a Wal-Mart or as a barista in a coffee shop, or whether it meant having a full time law firm job that actually requires a law degree. And so as a result of some of that transparency and changes, I don’t know if the bubble is bursting but I think it may be seeping a little bit or leaking a little bit. Certainly law school applications have gone down dramatically, although they’re still not low enough to make significant inroads compared to the few jobs that are available.

But I think law school deans in particular are very concerned, many of them, some of the non-top law schools are very concerned about how they’re going to fill their classrooms with not just bodies but with people who are going to be able to do the work, and so I think that’s going to become an increasing challenge. For many law firms, it may very well be true that no change is necessary or even appropriate because as long as people continue to gravitate to a big firm environment, even if it’s harsh or not what they want, they can get new lawyers in sufficient numbers, and that model will continue to survive and thrive.

NewsHour: Knowing what you know now, and writing this book, say it was 2008 and you just graduated college, would you go into law school?

Steven Harper: Yes I would. As I mentioned, I really had a great career. It was for me something that seemed like the right thing to do. What I would’ve done coming out of law school is less clear to me although frankly when I went into law school as I was going in, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do coming out anyways. So I’m not sure where any of that would ultimately land now. But I certainly would be a lawyer if I had to do it over again, no question about it.

NewsHour: What do you say to those graduated and who are in school now reading this book?

Steven Harper: Well, first of all that would depend where you’re in school because there is a dramatic difference between, for example, employment rates for those who are graduating from say the top 10 or 15 or 20 law schools compared to those who are graduating from way further down the food chain. But what I would say to them is if you really want to be a lawyer and it looks like it’s the right fit for you, then by all means be a lawyer, go for it. Figure out a way to make it work for you and do the best you can and just persevere through it. On the other hand, if you’re someone who’s kind of gotten yourself into it and you’re looking around saying ‘What am I doing here? I don’t even enjoy any of this,’ then don’t be afraid to admit a mistake. We all make mistakes. And find whatever it is you can do with your life that you’re passionate about.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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