You don't have to be a rocket scientist to become a lawyer, but at least one of them is going to try. As corporate frauds increase, corporate hires decrease, and the stock market declines, major and minor law schools are reporting record numbers of applicants from a variety of educational and career specialties.
Ave Maria Law School, founded in Michigan in 1999, which has only a provisional accreditation, reports a 57 percent increase in applications, up to 323 this year. One of its applicants actually worked as a rocket scientist at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before applying to law school. This can't be good news for the nation's future.
"Whenever the economy is in trouble, students recognize the added marketability of an advanced degree," says Michael Kenney, dean of admissions at Ave Maria. That's worse than it sounds when you realize that increased applicants to law school coincide with decreased applicants to medical school.
Anyone who reads about the high price of medical malpractice insurance and the astronomical awards that juries award to injured parties shouldn't be surprised. Tort lawyers are delighted to take work for their clients on a contingency fee - no money up front and a huge percentage of the prize if the lawyer wins. It's the gamble that attracts hustlers to law school.
The Law School Admission Council finds law school applications up almost 18 percent, with numbers of Blackstone wannabes edging toward 90,000 in July. We're not talking idealistic public defenders, either. The greatest interest in the law is an interest in making money, with visions of big fees dancing like sugarplums in legal-beagle heads.
George Mason University Law School in Fairfax, Va., a suburb of the nation's capital, reports that the biggest concentration among the new applicants appears to be in intellectual property law, technology law and patent law. Overall applications are currently at 4,383, a 63 percent increase over last year.
Washington, D.C. law schools, naturally, lead the surge because that's where the action is. Georgetown University, whose Law Center is the biggest in town, counted 11,500 applicants for 2002, up 22 percent over last year. The federal government, once dismissed condescendingly by the high-tech corporate legal snobs, is now seen as a coveted safe harbor.
As Wall Street suffers big time layoffs, Uncle Sam provides a haven in a heartless world for displaced lawyers. The government doesn't offer the potential for wealth or the six-figure incomes that big corporations once promised, but the work is steady and the employment is stable. Legal Times, the newspaper that covers law and lobbying in the nation's capital, describes the government employment of lawyers as providing "a refuge from the storm."
The lawyers, of course, are merely following the law of necessity, exchanging big bucks for power and status. As the government looks into all kinds of shady business deals and the formerly rich go bankrupt, prestige attaches to public service. Government oversight may earn higher prestige than making funny money on Wall Street. Besides, working in the alphabet soup of government, whether it's the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) or the Security and Exchange Commission (SEC), offers valuable expertise for those who regard the government as a way station to riches.
"There's a general growing awareness among regulatory attorneys that you need to spend some time at the organization that regulates your business," says Erin Dozier, who worked for a big law firm with high-powered communications clients before joining the FCC. "You learn things at a law firm, but it only seemed more logical that you could learn them faster walking a mile in the shoes of a regulator."
Of course, there's nothing new in that idea. The revolving door in Washington has often led to better jobs in the private sector. What's different today is that the current drive is in the opposite direction.
When the government advertises for a lawyer, agencies receive a hundred letters for one position, numbers not seen since the recession more than a decade ago. Such public service may help turn the negative image of lawyers around, but I wouldn't bet on it. What goes around comes around. When the furor of corporate fraud subsides, it's likely that the regulators of today will become the advisers to public corporations tomorrow, paid to interpret and get around the fine points.
"The departmental interpreters of the laws in Washington," Mark Twain observed, "can always be depended on to take any reasonably good law and interpret the common sense all out of it."
We may stand equal before the law, but not necessarily before the lawyers.