TALLAHASSEE — Focused as it is on job creation, the state of Florida nevertheless continues subsidizing an industry that’s trending downward — the practice of law.
As the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics put it, “more students are graduating from law school each year than there are jobs available.”
The National Association for Law Placement reported in June that for 2012 law grads, “of those graduates for whom employment status was known, only 64.4 percent obtained a job for which bar passage is required.”
That’s “the lowest percentage (the association) has ever measured.”
At the same time, bills filed for Florida’s 2014 legislative session would provide up to $44,000 in student loan repayment assistance for lawyers working as prosecutors, public defenders and in the Attorney General’s and Statewide Prosecutor’s offices.
Government work is one option for those pursuing the legal career track in a state with 11 American Bar Association-approved law schools.
The proposed subsidy comes on top the millions of taxpayer dollars the Legislature gives to state university law schools above what they collect in tuition and fees.
A spokeswoman for Florida State University’s College of Law says it received roughly $3 million in “state allocation” in 2012-13.
In the same year, the University of Florida’s Levin College of Law got $13.6 million in “gross state appropriations.” The state’s other public law school, Florida A&M University’s College of Law, did not provide information.
Given the cost for a law degree and the sorry state of hiring for new lawyers, is subsidizing law school tuition still a wise taxpayer investment? Would-be applicants seem to be signaling it’s not.
The number of takers of the Law School Admission Test continues to bottom out, with an 11 percent drop as of the October administration of the exam.
Takers fell from 37,780 a year ago to 33,673 last month, according to the Law School Admission Council, which develops the test. The latest number is a 45 percent decline from October 2009, when law school fervor started to ebb.
As of August, law school applications to American Bar Association-accredited schools nationwide were down nearly 18 percent from 2012, also according to the Law School Admission Council.
Even Gov. Rick Scott, who once said he didn’t want tax dollars to fund non-job producing academic pursuits like anthropology, is noncommittal about a legal education.
“Here’s the way I look at it,” Scott said earlier this year. “What did you think about when you were going to school? What’s it going to cost me? That’s one of the criteria.”
Next, “do I get a job when I finish? And then three, do I make more money?” added Scott, a businessman and former lawyer. “So, the students themselves, they’re going to figure this out and they’ll do the right thing.”
For more potential law students, doing the right thing means not going.
A Chicago law firm recently made news for offering a $1,000 annual “Anything But Law School Graduate Scholarship,” to “dissuade students from practicing law.”
“We currently do not have enough jobs to be able to effectively train the current number of freshly minted lawyers in our profession,” the Willens law firm explained on its website.
Still, law school representatives remain bullish on their future.
Stetson University College of Law, a private institution, has campuses in Gulfport and Tampa. Founded in 1900, it bills itself as “Florida’s first law school.” Its current tuition and fees for a 3-year law degree are about $113,000.
About six out of every 10 members of Stetson’s Class of 2012 are working in jobs that require passing a state bar, according to the National Association for Law Placement.
Some of those may include “document review” placements — typically, short-term jobs that involve reading reams of material in preparation for litigation.
The law school’s website advises that “the job market at the time of graduation, in the place and in the sector and specialty area where graduates wish to practice will affect the length of time it may take to achieve employment.”
Christopher M. Pietruszkiewicz, dean of Stetson Law, said law school isn’t just about getting a job.
“Law school is a stepping stone in not only being able to practice law but to make a difference in communities,” Pietruszkiewicz said.
In fact, many graduates go on to successful business careers without practicing law, he added.
“From my perspective, it’s the first step that leads to a long-lasting and rewarding career,” Pietruszkiewicz said.
That said, “law schools have begun thinking about how to change their curriculum, and provide skills for a changing marketplace,” he said.
President Obama, a former lawyer and law professor, also has asked law schools to think about eliminating the last year of a traditionally 3-year-long legal education, saving students money.
For now, Florida’s law schools are still a 3-year venture.
“I never say law school is a good idea for everyone,” said Donald J. Weidner, dean of FSU’s law school.
The school reports that about 66 percent of its Class of 2012 is working in a full-time, long-term job that requires bar passage. Its tuition and fees over three years are roughly $60,000 for residents and twice that for out-of-staters.
“The analogy is an investment in a financial asset,” Weidner said. “You look at your investment goal and what your opportunity cost is,” that is, the benefits one could have received by doing something else.
“It depends on what your goal is, and what you think the benefit of a law degree will be,” he added. For some, another option could be “taking a job in business, or going to business school instead of law school.
“You have to individualize the analysis, but we have a very good record for turning out graduates who practice in Florida,” Weidner said. “If you want to work on Wall Street, we’re probably not the school for you.”
University of Florida Levin College of Law’s tuition and fees over three years are about $66,000 for residents and nearly $125,000 for those from out of state.
Spokeswoman Debra Amirin said her school “is the fourth most affordable law school among the nation’s top 50 law schools,” based on ABA data.
“That, coupled with the high value of a UF law degree, makes coming here not just a wise, but an outstanding investment,” she said.
Pietruszkiewicz points to an academic paper that came out this year called “The Economic Value of a Law Degree.”
“For most law school graduates, the net present value of a law degree typically exceeds its cost by hundreds of thousands of dollars,” according to professors Michael Simkovic and Frank McIntyre.
They estimate “the mean pre-tax lifetime value of a law degree as approximately $1,000,000.”