Legal Education Loses Gloss

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

It does not take too much research to know we are a litigious society.  Simply watch TV commercials by law firms offering help to get money for victims of accidents, medical malpractice, malfunctioning of medical devices, and complications of medicines… … 

But still, you may not know how litigious we are.  A 2011 Harvard Law School study gives us that info.

Here are the numbers:

Per 100,000                Australia       Canada   France  Japan    UK           USA
Suits filed                         1540             1450       2410     1768    3680           5810
Number of judges             4.0            3.3         12.5          2.8        2.22        10.80 
Number of lawyers           360            26           72           23         251          391

 Now there are indications that the legal profession is losing its gloss among youngsters. As reported in the New York Times, the number of applicants seeking legal education has been shrinking over the years. In January of this year, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease compared to January 2012 and a 38 percent decline from 2010. See here:

Among the many reasons cited: The job/career prospects and earning potential for freshly minted lawyers are not what they have been even in the recent past; the availability of forms on-line; and the growth of Internet on-line self-service legal help (as in for many routine needs. With a reasonably good grasp of the English language and knowing what you want, you can create contracts without the need for even paralegals for many routine needs.

Besides, legal research is now done on-line, and is faster, easier, and comprehensive, requiring fewer lawyers, or even paralegals. Also, legal work is increasingly outsourced to less expensive West Virginia, or to countries like India and Pakistan (West Virginians may not like that they are compared to India or Pakistan).

A compounding factor is the huge cost of the 3-year legal education for youngsters after their 4-year bachelor degrees. In 2001 the average tuition for private law school was $23,000; in 2012 it was $40,500. For public law schools the figures were $8,500 and $23,600. This is the case for all undergraduate education as well.

But many law students finance their education through loans. And among private law school graduates, the average debt in 2001 was $70,000; in 2011 it was $125,000. The American education system, like the medical system, has been raising the cost for their service at twice or even three times the rate of inflation. 

It has reached a point where youngsters from homes with limited resources see that unless they land in top-of-the-line law firms (which gravitate towards applicants with law degrees from top schools), it would be difficult to pay off the debt, and they are opting out. 

Unlike business schools, where any drop in enrollment from applicants within the nation can be offset by increases in applicants from overseas, foreign students have no interest in American law schools.

In the years ahead, several not-so-top-of–the-line law schools will be closed down, and others may see downward restructuring. The legal education itself will be forced to look into structural reforms to adjust to this changed reality.

But given our deeply-held penchant for litigation, do not bet that this will make us any less litigious as a society. There will be always lawyers who will come to you saying, “You will not pay us unless .       —   April 2013

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