Epstein on The Lawyer Bubble

Richard Epstein reviews Steven Harper’s The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis in today’s WSJ. The review begins:

Law schools are under siege. Applications have dropped to around 54,000 annually, from around 100,000 in 2004. First-year enrollment has slipped to under 40,000 students, from 50,000 in 2010. Jobs are scarce—especially for students coming from lower-tier law schools. The average annual tuition has risen to just over $40,000 per year, from about $23,000 in 2001. Average debt on graduation has followed suit, jumping to about $125,000 in 2011, from $70,000 in 2001. No wonder many experts expect perhaps a dozen schools to close their doors within a year while other schools slash their class size, faculty and staff to stay open.

Meanwhile “Big Law”—the largest 200 or so law firms, which serve elite corporate clients in major urban areas—are under stress. Firm size has topped out, and both partnership shares and entry salaries are treading water at best. Clients now scour bills and disallow certain fees. Alternative, transaction-based fee arrangements are now more common. Competition has replaced cushy long-term relationships.

Terrible news, for sure. But is the “Profession in Crisis,” as the subtitle of Stephen J. Harper’s “The Lawyer Bubble” has it? The answer is no. A bubble may have burst, but not for the high end of the profession or for the thousands of attorneys working in specialized niches. Mr. Harper, a former partner at Kirkland & Ellis, a 1,500-lawyer global firm headquartered in Chicago, and an adjunct at Northwestern University Law School, takes undue pride in chronicling how the mighty have fallen. But he misses how they may rise again.

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