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Why Students At Boise’s New Law School Face A Tough Future

Adam Cotterell
Boise State Public Radio

Everything about Concordia is new. The leather spines of the library books look un-cracked and the furniture looks like catalogue pictures. But Spencer Lay has been around the block. He's an ex-marine who did tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Boise's first three year law school is now teaching classes and Lay is a member of Concordia Law School's first class

He sits next to an iron staircase in the school’s study area. He’s in his late twenties and still sports a haircut that would pass marine muster. His says his time in the service gives him a lot of advantages in school, not least of which is paying for it.

“I’m very lucky. I get to take part of the VA loans and post 9/11 GI Bill. So a lot of my tuition is taken care of and Concordia has been very generous with scholarships.”

Lay thinks his debt will be smaller than most of his classmates’. According to the American Bar Association a graduate of a private law school like Concordia will rack up about $100,000 in debt.  

“There are some studies out there that are now saying it’s closer to 200,000," says Tamera Martinez-Anderson, Concordia’s Associate Dean in charge of admissions. She says law schools will soon have to change the way they do business because they’re fast approaching a crisis, “in terms of how quickly they have increased and inflated their tuition compared to what the opportunities are for earning power," she says.

Average salaries for lawyers have been dropping and law grads outnumber available jobs. In June the American Bar Association released its first comprehensive study of employment for new attorneys. Just over half of 2011 grads had a full time law job nine months after graduation.

Outsourcing and software decreased demand for attorneys even before the recession. The recession then accelerated the trend because it forced law firms to cut costs as their clients trimmed legal budgets. Martinez-Anderson keeps all that in mind as she talks to prospective students. She cautions, “is this something that you are passionate enough about, if you’re not confident of that then making this level of investment probably is something you should reconsider.”  

Concordia’s Career Services Director Jodie Nafzger says she doesn’t sugar coat the job market for students, but she does emphasize the positive. She cites a survey from the Idaho State Bar last year that showed half of Idaho’s attorneys are over 50. Close, she points out, to retirement. And she stresses the advantages of Concordia’s location.  

“It’s a tremendous opportunity for students to be attending law school in the heart of the capital city," Nafzger says. "Downtown within walking distance of internships and externships and federal courthouses and state courthouses and the Idaho supreme court.”

Nafzger makes a valid point according to the National Association of Legal Career Professionals or NALP. Numbers from that group show Idaho has a higher proportion of government jobs than most states. Between judicial clerkships and other jobs, 40 percent of Idaho’s new lawyers who found work last year went to work for the government.

That may be an advantage for Spencer Lay who wants to be a prosecutor.  He says he’ll go where ever he needs to, in state or out. But he does like the idea of working in rural Idaho.

“Maybe I’m romanticizing the idea of small town prosecutor," he says.  "But, I think if you’re going to work really hard and have a JD degree, someone’s going to want to have you.”

Lay is willing to work for a firm if necessary. Of the new lawyers that found work in Idaho last year, 38 percent ended up in law firms.

Lay says if no one offers him a job he has a back up plan. “Worst case scenario, I hang up a shingle and start doing, you know, DUIs or something. I mean I can be my own employer.”

But despite his confidence even this ex-marine is worried. He says thinking about finding a job combined with student loans is scary. "Those two things are incredibly frightening,” he says.   

But, it’s not all bad news for lawyers. While the job prospects aren’t good for new attorneys, the legal profession as a whole has a lower unemployment rate than the national average. Last year the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics reported 3.7 percent unemployment for legal professions. The year’s unemployment for the entire U.S. workforce was close to 9 percent. For Lay and the other aspiring attorneys at Concordia that means if they can just get that first job they stand a better chance than most of keeping it.

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