Before the Great Recession there was a virtual stampede of eager applicants to the nation’s law schools -- but in just a few short years, how things have changed!
Once upon a time a law degree was considered money in the bank. Newly minted law school graduates were in hot demand. Starting salaries at top law firms nudged the six-figure mark, and then there were the legendary perks. However, the current economic situation has had a big impact on the legal profession, and these days students are thinking twice about plunking down 100K for a degree that may lead to a gig at Starbucks.
According to the National Association for Law Placement, only 65.4 percent of current law school grads are working in a job that requires passing the bar exam, and 12 percent are unemployed. As a result, applications to law schools have hit a distinct slump, causing many schools to cut back on the number of students admitted.
"What is going on in the market is absolutely catastrophic," says the dean of one well-regarded midwestern law school. "It is not short-term. It has been precipitated by what is going on in the economy, which is a long-term dislocation caused by the way legal services are being delivered. Technology and cheaper contract labor is eliminating a lot of law firm jobs.
The development of sophisticated software program geared specifically to niches in the legal profession, in addition to high-speed digital technology, has impacted on the way a contemporary law practice operates. But what has really changed the paradigm is the growing acceptance of paralegals and legal assistants in responsible roles in the legal profession.
Once relegated to ‘back room’ duties, paralegals and legal assistant are rapidly assuming more prominent and public roles in legal practices, and now they are making inroads into other legal bastions. Paralegals and legal assistants now perform much of the research that is fundamental to so many cases, and they are even charged with much of the face-to-face contact with clients. And as more corporations are faced with tough ‘bottom line’ budget considerations, their legal departments are starting to hire from the paralegal and legal assistant pool, rather than hire more lawyers.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for more paralegals and legal assistants is on the rise, with the profession expected to add almost 50,000 jobs between now and 2020 -- a healthy 18% increase in the workforce. As of 2012, the median annual salary of for these workers is in the neighborhood of $50K, but expect these numbers to trend up. And employment experts familiar with the demands of the legal profession project the need for workers with these skills to increase at faster rate.
Legal assistant and paralegal programs are offered at many two-year college and there are an abundance of courses that are offered online. Some legal practices offer on-the-job training, and while there is no formal testing procedure for paralegals and legal assistants, professional advocacy groups like NALA, the National Association of Legal Assistants/Paralegals, are proponents of continuing education and establishing standards. And as the need for these legals pros increase, expect to see more community colleges and online universities adding training programs to their curriculum. Or as one observer remarked, invoking the words of hockey great,, "...a good hockey player plays where the puck is. A great hockey player plays where the puck is going to be."