By Susan Spies Roth
Northwestern University School of Law
I entered my professional life as a lawyer (which, at Northwestern University School of Law, refers to your very first day of law school) in August 2003. At the time I began my studies, obtaining a law degree was, to put it bluntly, a cash cow. The shelves of the legal marketplace were chock-full of every kind of career a student could want: public interest jobs, government agency positions, judicial clerkships, and law firm jobs of all sizes and shapes. As I write this column in the spring of this year, I realize that the legal "market" has sustained a spill of epic proportions. The cleanup efforts may forever alter this marketplace — from soup to nuts.
My vantage point as a clinical law professor at Northwestern is a unique one from which to view the altered legal landscape. I am readily able to see that the changes to the legal market have their most profound effects on the law students. Law students enter school full of lofty aspirations and admirable goals: To be the managing partner of a law firm, to advocate on behalf of underrepresented minorities, to become a judge, to argue before the Supreme Court, to change the world. The problem comes when students realize that, given the confines of the current legal market, they'll be lucky to get a job — any job — and that their dream jobs may be rendered just that: dreams. Thankfully, however, rather than dash these law students' arguably naïve dreams, the legal market and all the players have undertaken to clean up the mess caused by the recession. It is this cleanup that will change the legal profession forever.
When the brunt of the economic crisis was first felt by large law firms, they responded in the way any law firm should respond: by instituting layoffs. Though that was a difficult storm to weather, law firms have now changed the fundamentals of their summer associate programs to account for changing personnel needs. Summer associate classes are smaller and the days of daily, three-hour gourmet lunches have passed — in favor of providing law students with accurate appraisals of what law firm life will eventually entail. The lack of a fairy tale "ease into it/never work past 5 p.m./get all your meals for free/barely do any substantive work" summer associate experiences has caused, in my opinion, an excellent attendant side effect. Law students now graduate significantly more prepared to tackle their post-graduation jobs.
But Big Law is not the only legal market "aisle" that has suffered a spill. The government has similarly endured hardships that have resulted in a variety of consequences with varying effects on today's law student populations. First, the salary scheme has changed for government jobs, causing lawyers transitioning away from private practice to endure larger pay cuts when they decide to pursue their public service dreams. In addition, many government agencies have instituted wholesale hiring freezes, causing many qualified students to pursue other jobs entirely. This has not caused the government to lose out on the best candidates, however. The extremely competitive and prestigious nature of the positions has ensured students will bide their time until the U.S. attorney's office ends the temporary hiring freeze.
Notably, the changing economy has had a unique effect on judicial clerkships. An interesting confluence of events has caused many judges at the federal appellate and district court level to hire lawyers out of established practices rather than law students out of law school. This is arguably the result of judges preferring not to be bound by the strict timing guidelines established by the Federal Law Clerk Hiring Plan (which only apply to rising third-year law students), the diminished job security of lawyers in practice encouraging an uptick in applications and the attrition that occurs naturally in law firms. These changes have had an interesting impact on the legal marketplace, in that the judicial clerkship opportunities afforded to lawyers in practice have increasedduring the recession, while, for many schools, the numbers of current students attaining clerkships has diminished. This results in a zero sum game regarding the ultimate number of clerkships attained. Though the net outcome may be neutral, the federal judicial clerkship market has not escaped the changing economic pressures unscathed.
What all of these changes to the legal marketplace really amount to, however, is a harsh reality for current law students. Though the job market has contracted, law school tuition has unfortunately not followed suit. On March 27, Dean Daniel B. Rodriguez of Northwestern University School of Law (my alma mater and my current employer) made a groundbreaking announcement: He pledged that the law school would limit the school's tuition increase for the 2012-2013 academic year to 3 percent, the smallest percentage tuition increase in at least the past 40 years.
This effort is by far the most meaningful in addressing the challenges that face lawyers in the legal market. Any effort made to minimize law student debt is an effort that results in increased flexibility for lawyers to pursue their dreams unencumbered (well, OK, lessencumbered) by crippling law school debt. I hope other schools will follow in Northwestern's footsteps in their efforts to address the urgent need for a cleanup, aisle law.