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A versatile JD, might be worse than it sounds

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On Friday, Washington University held a talk on the shitstorm that is the legal employment market, aka: Hurricane Plan B. Professor Deborah Jones Merrit, a contributor at Paul Campos's Inside the Law School Scam discussed some of the changes that are wreaking havoc on the market, and we wanted to highlight her fifth and final point:

The biggest revolution has happened quietly outside the confines of our profession. There has been a vast increase in the number of non-lawyers who do legal tasks. Most HR managers, compliance officers, and contract administrators are not lawyers; they are BA's with specialized training. Nonlawyers also represent clients before administrative agencies. All of these "law-related" workers consult occasionally with legal counsel, but they perform day-to-day tasks that lawyers might have once done. [See DJM's post on ITLSS]

We of course don't have any numbers about how often quasi-legal tasks used to be handled non-lawyer employees and how many were sent to either the in-house counsel or outside counsel, and don't have today's numbers either for a comparison. So ...just what are we going to talk about?

Erm... good question.

Actually, what we want to do is put this idea in the context of a very common narrative coming from the law school apologist camp: a law degree is increasingly versatile and useful outside of the legal profession. The classic narrative goes a bit like this (numbers are inexact, and for illustrative purposes only, but probably pretty close):

Once upon a time, law schools used to produce 35,000 graduates for 25,000 law jobs. The market also had 5,000 quasi-legal, JD-preferred jobs. Now, law schools produce 45,000 graduates, we still only have 25,000 law jobs, but the market now has 15,000 quasi-legal JDP jobs. The legal market provides for a smaller share of graduate jobs, but a JD is more versatile. You can do so many things with it! S'all good, man!

But what happens when this narrative collides with DJM's assertion about more non-lawyers doing quasi-legal work? The first thing is that this creates fewer law jobs. While we've got 25,000 legal and 15,000 quasi-legal jobs, if it weren't for non-lawyers picking up this work there'd be more demand for lawyers and we might have 30,000 law jobs and 10,000 quasi-legal positions.

Your JD didn't become more valuable because it became more versatile. Quite the opposite. It became less valuable because fewer employers are willing to pay you to be a lawyer. Instead they want to pay you to be a semi-lawyer.

The second thing that happens is competition explodes. If you're going for a traditional law job that requires bar passage, the competition for those 25,000 jobs is the 45,000 law school graduates. That's pretty stiff competition, but not nearly as stiff as the alternative employment market. Those 15,000 JD-preferred positions? You're competing with the 20,000 law school grads who didn't get a job practicing law, and some 50,000 undergrads with degrees more on-point than your JD (such as a degree in health care administration for that compliance gig). You've also got another 50,000 people with a random liberal arts degree but 3-5 years of experience in the same or a similar field.

Your degree didn't get more valuable, it got less valuable. And your JD isn't more versatile, your competition is.

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