Here is what is facing third-year Creighton University law student Grant Mullin: repaying loans after three years of rising tuition, penetrating a shrinking job market, and meeting the family and financial demands of two children and another on the way.
“Good thing my wife has a good-paying job,” said Mullin, 31.
Mullin's family, in many ways, is what his expensive and arduous odyssey has been about: The plan is for his wife to stay home with the kids, which means he needs a job that pays more than he would otherwise earn as a degree holder in English literature. For the Mullin family, a law degree is how they have chosen to ascend to the next rung on the socioeconomic ladder. He graduates in May and already has two good job offers from widely known Omaha firms.
Not everyone, though, is confident Mullin's decision to spend about $100,000 and three years of his life getting a law degree was the right one. The American Bar Association says 44 percent of national graduates from the class of 2012 were not working at a job requiring the passage of a bar examination nine months after graduation. In a New York Times article earlier this year, legal profession scholar and analyst William Henderson of Indiana University called the law school escalator to upward mobility a broken and faded anachronism.
The picture is not nearly so dramatic with respect to the Midlands' four law schools — Creighton, Nebraska, Drake and Iowa. And area experts say demand for lawyers is high if graduates look in the right places and specialties.
The region's lowest ABA-reported employment score — 62 percent at Des Moines-based Drake University Law School — still outpaced the ABA national number of 56 percent. The highest score went Iowa City's University of Iowa College of Law, where its 76 percent of 2012 graduates employed in a job requiring a law license beat the national number by 20 percentage points.
But the dimmer view appears to be percolating among erstwhile law school hopefuls. Preliminary reports from the ABA — not all applications are in yet for fall admission — indicate applications are down 20 percent from recent years. Creighton, Iowa, Drake and Nebraska indicated their applications are running about 25 percent lower.
Nationally, as of March, there were 30,000 applicants to law schools for the fall, a 20 percent decrease from the same time last year and a 38 percent decline from 2010, according to the Law School Admission Council. Of about 200 law schools nationwide, only four have had an increase in 2013-2014 applications. In 2004 there were 100,000 applicants to law schools; not quite 10 years later, there are likely to be about 54,000.
Meanwhile, the personal debt for graduates has mounted. Iowa leads the pain list, with the nonresident tuition that would apply to Nebraskans skyrocketing 43 percent since 2008; Iowa residents have also gotten a bigger bill, paying 66 percent more. Iowa is also the highest ranked of the area law schools, at No. 31 on the most recent national list compiled by U.S. News & World Report, and has the highest percentage of recent graduates working in a job requiring a law license.
But the tuition and fees have jumped at all four of the region's schools since 2008 — 24 percent at Drake, 26 percent at Creighton and 44 percent at Nebraska.
Statistics, however, don't explain everything. Despite some gloomy forecasts and the drop in applications, there is enormous demand for lawyers, according to professors, practicing lawyers and law college deans.
Nebraska law Dean Susan Poser said most reports of the profession's demise stem from New York, Chicago and Los Angeles — the homes of “Big Law” where firms employ hundreds of lawyers who represent enormous corporations with legal budgets that run — or in some cases ran — into the hundreds of millions.
“In those markets, it has been tough,” Poser said. “Some large firms have closed, or terminated attorneys, and budgets have been cut for the sort of hourly work done by new associates.”
Poser said the consequences have been less profound in the Midwest, with most of her graduates opting for Main Street as opposed to Wall Street.
She said the law school has large groups of graduates living and working throughout the nation's great center column, led by the Kansas City area, Denver, Dallas and Minneapolis.
Poser also said the NU law school has started a solo and small firm concentration to train students in being generalists, the kind required by firms outside of large cities. Demand there is high, she said, while jobs are shrinking in urban centers for lawyers who want the spotlight of media, finance or entertainment law.
“In western Nebraska there is a shortage,” Poser said. “There are a lot of attorneys wanting to hand over their entire book of business and retire, but there aren't enough takers.”
Thomas Tye practices law in Kearney for the Tye & Rademacher firm, as his forebears did starting in 1926. He said firms in the area have hired about a half-dozen new lawyers in the past year or so — a figure he described as typical or a little higher than normal. Opportunities going forward will abound, he said.
“We have or will have a significant number of senior lawyers retire in the next few years, so the hiring here should still be fairly strong, I would think,” Tye said. “Practicing law in rural Nebraska can be very satisfying for the right individuals.”
How do law schools in other parts of the country that rank higher than our region's perform at preparing graduates for work?
U.S. News & World Report law school 2014 national rankings
» Iowa, 26
» Nebraska, 61
» Drake, 109
» Creighton, 119
|Emory Univiversity Law School||Atlanta||23rd||86%|
|University of California, Hastings Law School||Hastings, Calif.||48th||65%|
|Brooklyn Law School||New York||80th||54%|
|Gonzaga University Law Schools||Spokane, Wash.||113th||55%|
Source: American Bar Association
While satisfaction is subjective, Drake Law Dean Allan Vestal said the apparatus that ranks law schools and tracks employment success is flat-out biased. A graduate of Yale Law School, the top-rated U.S. News institution, Vestal said the system does a poor job of capturing the essence of schools such as his and the three others in Nebraska and Iowa.
Some of the methods don't count as employed the graduates who open their own practices, Vestal said. And counting only the jobs requiring a successful bar exam fails to credit graduates who go into government or private-sector policy work for which a law degree is a big advantage but not a requirement.
The national rankings, he said, also unfairly discount the work many Midwest law graduates envisoned when they first applied to law school — returning to their rural counties to work in agricultural law or for the prosecutor's office.
“The tendency is to disparage anything other than transactional law or representing large corporations,” Vestal said. “The sytem is skewed from the start.”
Creighton Law School Dean Marianne Culhane said technology has put a small dent in new lawyer demand. Documents that used to require the attention of a lawyer for routine or cursory examination purposes are now often handled by computers and document scanners, she said.
“Work that used to be done by young lawyers is now done by computer algorithms,” she said.
Culhane said opportunities for new lawyers are brightest in highly regulated industries — banking, health care, governmental relations of all kinds. Creighton, she said, has had success in recent years sending students to Washington for semester internships at federal agencies and congressional committees.
Some Omaha firms say they are marginally increasing hiring this year.
Baird Holm plans to hire five newcomers this year, firm partner Grayson Derrick said, up from four last year and three before that. He said the firms plans to offer a starting salary for new associates of $86,500, an increase every year over the past three.
“We are extremely optimistic and continue to hire both at the new associate level and at the lateral level,” Derrick said, referring to the recruitment of established attorneys. “We continue to see growth in our client base and in the demand for work.”
The same holds true at Lamson Dugan & Murray, another Omaha firm. Partner Brian Brislen said the firm plans to hire three newcomers this year, up from two each of the previous two years. Brislen did say there are more graduates than in recent years competing for jobs, and that his firm supports Creighton's recent decision to admit fewer first-year students.
“The market is very competitive for recent graduates,” Brislen said. “Compared to five years ago, it seems that there are more graduates who had not secured employment by the time they graduate.”
In 2009, as many as 200 new law jobs were envisioned for Omaha by Florida-based mortgage title insurer Fidelity National Title Group. The group jumped from a dozen lawyers to 200 in a year, as the company expanded and centralized the legal staff handling the most foreclosures to hit U.S. housing since the Great Depression. The real-estate economy has leveled, however, said David Saag, the company's Omaha claims counsel. National Fidelity now employs 135 attorneys in Omaha, and 68 others.
Acquiring professional certification in any field, and the income and status it confers, is expensive. Soon-to-be Creighton graduate Mullin knows it all too well. Tuition and fees alone at Creighton since 2010 add up to $90,000; the monthly payments on the loans that paid for most of it, Mullin said, will be greater than a mortgage on a starter house in the metro area.
“Student loans remain a constant worry,” Mullin said. “My wife and I talked again about them just the other night after the kids went to bed.”
The job market remains very competitive, Mullin said of his employment prospects. “But I have a lot of motivation.”
He also has a lot of skill, from three years of clerking for an Omaha firm and plenty of practical knowledge from seeking out the classes that demand the execution of real legal tasks.
He expects to graduate in May and accept an offer contingent upon passing the bar exam this year. He said he knows all about the drop in applications, the reports of the profession's diminution, the cost.
But he said he doesn't care, saying working as a lawyer is the best way to apply his intellect as an income-producing proposition.
“I would have come anyway,” he said. “I am a rhetorician at heart. I like persuading people, and that is what much of being a lawyer is all about.”
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