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Reduced Associate Ranks: A Potential Upside to a Downturn 

By Elizabeth Hatting

Elizabeth Hatting In March 2013, Forbes released the results of a 2012 survey regarding the “unhappiest jobs in America.” According to the survey, the unhappiest job in America at the end of 2012 was that of an associate attorney.

This conclusion was certainly discouraging to me as a student halfway through law school (and already buried by a mere half of my anticipated student loans). Of course I was not the only one to note the grim ramifications of this survey, particularly in light of the minimal job prospects facing new attorneys even as the legal economy has begun to slowly recover over the last couple of years.

Liberal arts students nationwide have apparently taken note of the unhappy prospects facing new law grads. Law school applications are down. Median LSAT scores and GPAs of accepted students are slowly declining. While these trends are certainly disappointing for many of the 203 American Bar Association accredited law schools across the country, might there be a potential upside to this downturn?

The answer, I think, is that there is most likely a bright, silver lining to this dark cloud of dim job prospects and unhappiness. While law school was once the default option for lost English and Political Science students everywhere, students are increasingly viewing law school as an option that requires quite serious consideration before jumping in. They don’t view it as a sure pathway to six-figure salaries. As such, this economic downturn may weed out many potential law school applicants who would have certainly been applicants and attendees just a few years ago. The result, I believe, might be that much of the unhappiness that plagues young attorneys today dissipates over the next decade or so.

While I cannot purport that I always wanted to go to law school, I realized during my freshman year of college that I wanted to pursue a J.D. I was somewhat surprised when I got to law school that many of my classmates were pursuing their J.D.s not as a matter of passion, but as an alternative to facing the daunting prospect of finding a job. How, I wondered, did they stay motivated enough to do well in the rigorous classes that made up our first year? The answer, I have come to realize, is that many of them were (and unfortunately are) unhappy much of the time. The practice of law simply requires too much time and dedication for ambivalent or uncaring practitioners to have success at work and happiness outside of it.

Even over the short time I have been in law school, I have noticed this trend beginning to reverse. There seem to be fewer students in the 1L (first year) class than in the 3L (third year) class who are interested in a legal education as a purely moneymaking venture. Students appear to be choosing to attend law school because they want to practice law, not merely because they want the status that comes with being a lawyer.

The result of this trend should be happier associate attorneys. It should mean happier work environments for attorneys across the country. It should mean more dedicated, efficient future attorneys (which is a boon to our clients).

The question for those considering attending law school should not be limited to, “Will I have a job when I graduate?” While this is certainly an important question, the reality is that if you look hard enough and keep an open mind, eventually you will find some job benefited by your J.D.

The question instead should be, “Do I really want to practice law?” This, in fact, should have been the question all along.

Elizabeth Hatting is a law student at the University of Missouri School of Law and is anticipated to graduate in Spring 2014. She will clerk for the Hon. Nanette Laughrey of the U.S. District Court, Western District of Missouri, before joining Lathrop & Gage in Kansas City, Mo., where she hopes to focus on the areas of business or tort litigation. A native of Omaha, Neb., she lives in Columbia, Mo. Elizabeth is currently the Editor in Chief of the Missouri Law Review.