Once considered a lucrative career, the practice of law is undergoing far-reaching changes that call into question the future of all except top-tier law schools.

In Japan, the new bar exam has resulted in a steep increase in the overall number of lawyers to some 35,000 this spring. This compares with 22,000 in 2001. Tinkering with the cutoff score has driven down the number of those passing the bar this year to 1,810, the first time since 2006 that the number has fallen below 2,000.

But redesigning the bar exam has not solved the problems of the huge number of newly licensed lawyers who cannot find legal work. That sends a discouraging message to the best and brightest students who in the past wanted nothing more than to become lawyers.

In the United States, a similar situation exists. Although the pass rate on the bar differs from state to state and from law school to law school, at last count the average was 54 percent. However, it’s hard to know with certainty how many retake the bar but never pass even after repeated attempts.

Graduates who pass the bar too often still find themselves not employed in legal jobs. According to the ABA Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar, only 57 percent of graduates of the class of 2013 were employed in long-term, full-time positions where bar passage was required. This compares with 56.2 percent for the class of 2012.

Despite the discouraging news, however, the size of the 2013 graduating class was the largest ever at 46,776, which was slightly more than the 2012 class of 46,364.

Competition for admission to certain law schools is understandably fierce because the top nine-ranked such schools report at least 81.2 percent of their graduates employed full-time in bar passage-required jobs; four were Ivy League schools.

One of the reasons for the change in the legal landscape in the U.S. is the outsourcing of legal work to India, where low-paid paralegals do the work once performed by full-fledged lawyers. In addition, the use of new software provides law firms with greater efficiencies than existed in the past.

Even when the economy eventually improves, however, it’s unlikely that law schools will regain the appeal they once had. The cost of earning a law degree and passing the bar saddles graduates with loans that cannot be discharged in personal bankruptcy.

That’s because law-school tuition has soared in the U.S., with nearly nine out of 10 graduates burdened with an average of $98,500 in student debt.

Although in-state annual tuition at public law schools is about half the tuition at private law schools, the former is still formidable.

One possible way of addressing the issue in Japan and the U.S. is to replace the last year of law school with a one-year paid apprenticeship. This would provide practical training that would make graduates more employable.

Another solution would be to train more lawyers for public service rather than for private firms. Students willing to commit to serving a stipulated number of years in the public sector would have their law-school tuition subsidized by the government.

For too long, law schools have attempted to shed their trade-school reputation by emphasizing the theoretical over the practical. While the intention was to teach students how to reason, the strategy deprived them of such necessary skills as negotiating, which is routinely used in practice.

Japanese law schools that are willing to consider similar changes stand a better chance of remaining in operation after the inevitable shake out.

Walt Gardner’s Reality Check blog is published in Education Week in the U.S.

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