Yes, law school graduates and new lawyers face a harsh reality in today's economy - get over it.
I don't mean "get over it" as in let's ignore the reality. I mean "get over it" as in, you can't dwell only on the struggles in your life. With so much negative press lately about the (sad and scary) reality faced by thousands of recent law school graduates, and the "value" of a law degree, it is easy to lose sight of the big picture. I am not a Pollyanna here to tell you it will all be OK or to ignore the very real negative impacts you may be facing while job searching and juggling student loan bills, but I do want to add a little perspective to the situation.
Those graduating from law school are much more fortunate than most of the population, and millions of Americans in different industries are facing situations just as dire.
There are lots of professions that require training that costs more than the starting salary will comfortably afford. We don't see lawsuits brought by artists suing their MFA programs because their degrees aren't panning out, or an abundance of articles about the struggles of MBAs who find themselves unemployed (yes in January of 2012, 14% percent of the MBAs from the Class of 2011 were still seeking work). I am positive that the reported 12.7 million unemployed individuals as of June 2012 are not all lawyers.
Yet all of the buzz lately is around the unfairness faced by law school graduates looking for work, and struggling with managing the payment of bills. Yes, there are more law graduates coming into the field than there are jobs, and yes these graduates come out of school with an unreasonable amount of student loans. How much blame can be placed on law schools for fudging employment numbers, when you would have to be blind to go into law school after 2008 thinking you could walk out and easily land a job without trouble, during a recession? The system is far from perfect and the cost of legal education is astounding, but shame on you if you enrolled in school without weighing the costs and benefits, and as part of a plan for your desired career and lifestyle. If this was your tactic, don't despair - your life has not gone down the tubes, but you might need a kick in the butt to start on the path of transformation.
The challenge below is a great place to start.
What is it about legal education that causes graduates to expect an immediate return on investment?
I myself struggle with the stark realities my family faces, paying down the student debt of not one, but two law school debt loads, in a state that is extremely low on the scale of what America's lawyers earn - we stay here because we love being near our families and want to make it work. We apply the skills we learned to create additional sources of income, to excel in positions we have, and to really help people, all in hopes that one day we will be able to pay of our loans and enjoy the lifestyle we want. But if I only focused on all of the negatives and the financial hurdles in our way, I would be in a constant state of anxiety. Education is a path of exploration and knowledge, not a path to a pot of gold - I try to focus on being grateful for the opportunities I have had, and that lie ahead of me because of the path I have chosen.
Let's not forget all that we have to be grateful for. In general, we are a privileged crew (even if we worked hard for it).
According to the National Coalition for Literacy Adult Literacy Fact Sheet 2009, it is estimated that 93 million U.S. adults have Basic and Below Basic literacy skills. As of 2009, the Department of Education reported only 89.8 percent of adults have received a high school diploma or alternative credential. Only 27% of the nation's population has achieved education at a bachelor's degree level or higher. 44,258 law students graduated in 2010, out of the total population per the U.S. Census of 308,745,538, representing only 0.014 percent of the population.
A law degree can be in applied in hundreds of jobs, and is more versatile than many new grads consider (see 300+ things you can do with your law degree for inspiration).
So while it may feel like you can't swing a purse around the corner without hitting a lawyer, the reality is that there are nearly seven times more teachers than licensed attorneys in the country. While education required of teachers can be less expensive than a legal education, many would agree they make a pittance compared to their value, and often self-fun classroom resources in light of shrinking budgets. So thank your kids' teacher, and take a minute to realize how lucky you are that you have a doctorate level degree, a varied list of opportunities to apply your skills, and high earning potential (even if you are not realizing it right now).
Here is my challenge to law students and new lawyers for today
First, make a list of ten things that you are grateful for, that have come out of your legal education and/or career.
Second, reread your list and after each item, repeat the two words "thank you" three times (or until you believe it).
That's it. I am sure you will all change the dial back to reading negative articles, looking at student loan statements, sending out dozens of resumes in a frantic job search, or head to a job that you hate out of duty to pays the bills. But once in a while, take a moment to remember that lawyers are part of a privileged and small group of professionals in the nation that receive the particular level and type of education we receive - for better or worse you have paid for that privilege. Don't waste the years looking back with regret - keep moving forward.
"The price of anything is the amount of life you exchange for it."
--- Henry David Thoreau
Chelsea Callanan is the founder of Happy Go Legal, a multi-media resource for new and aspiring legal professionals. Mrs. Callanan is a 2008 graduate of the University of Maine School of Law, and currently practices at Murray, Plumb & Murray in Portland, Maine, focusing on corporate and intellectual property needs of business of all sizes.