That said, I think I bring a warped perspective to discussions about the employment prospects in law.
(Disclaimer: I don't know much about the legal job market yet, not compared to the academic job market, so my comments here are just gut reactions, not reasoned arguments.)
Big law firms are bleeding as hard as many other industries, and last Thursday has been dubbed "Black Thursday" because over 700 lawyers at big firms were laid off; 400 more lost their jobs the next day. And while I don't want to work at a big law firm (or possibly any law firm), I still have to pay attention, because when these lawyers can't find jobs at other firms, they'll turn to the government and public interest jobs I have my eye on. Plus, government and public interest positions aren't exactly handed out like candy in times of economic crisis.
Nonetheless, it's very weird for me to see someone on a law board I read talk about law prospects prior to the current disaster and criticize them as bad even before our economy went to hell.
This article talks about a reported employment rate among 2007 law grads of 92%.
Now, this is troublesome because schools are notorious for reporting ANY employment as employment - so if a law grad is working at Starbucks, hey! they're employed! Moreover, these percentages are based on students' self-reporting, and presumably those who are un- or under-employed are less likely to respond than those happily set with legal employment.
Nonetheless, the idea was floated at this other board that a 92% employment rate wasn't very good, and that, well, it made me laugh. Or cry. When you consider that most people I've seen now concede that maybe 50% of humanities Ph.D.s will get a tenure-track job (and I'd argue that number should probably be lower), 92% sounds like PERFECTION. 80% would sound like perfection. And 70% would sound pretty decent. I mean, maybe there really is 42% worth of wiggle room/exaggeration in the reporting of law grads' employment. But I'd be a little surprised if it were THAT high.
The other major issue with legal employment is an extreme bi-modality (is that a word?) of salaries. Associates - meaning new law grads - at the biggest of BigLaw firms do earn $160K+. (I'll pause while my academic compadres recover from that one.) Of course, firms offer a wide range of salaries, and only a very small number of people will reach such heights. Nonetheless, the article linked above states that the median salary for law grads working at firms is $108K.
The thing is, there are salaries clustered at the top of the scale, and salaries clustered at the bottom of the scale, but very little in the middle. And the same article warns that 38% of law grads are earning $55K or less.
And all I can think is, I would be willing to bet you that there are a LOT of assistant professors throughout this country who still start at less than $55K. (We won't even get into adjuncts, who are, after all, employed in the field for which they trained, and who would therefore be considered successfully employed by legal standards.)
This is NOT to say that there are therefore no problems with the legal job market. In some respects, it shares the same problems as academia: There are very very few of the jobs for which the degree ostensibly prepares you, which grad schools use to lure you in (in law, the money-making Big Law jobs; in academia, tenure-track jobs), and if you don't get one of those jobs, you're stuck chasing crumbs. (And, I'd argue, that once you get one of the holy grail jobs, you may well find out it's not all it's cracked up to be...but that's another issue.)
The comparison only goes so far, of course. The first big difference is that while I think the BigLaw jobs are what draw a lot of people to law school (I will go to BigLaw and wield power and make lots and lots of money!), there is a much wider range of good, accepted options other than BigLaw for lawyers, compared to options other than tenure-track jobs for academics. I don't actually think that if you don't do BigLaw, you're chasing crumbs, though I think that attitude exists (not where I am - in fact, I don't think my own school actually pushes the BigLaw track very much at all - there's a much greater emphasis on government and public interest work (though this may just be my own bias showing). But I hear this may be the case at some schools).
And the second big difference (or it should be a big difference) is debt. I sincerely hope that most people going through a Ph.D. program in the humanities are being paid to do so (even though I recognize that this won't always keep you out of debt; grad stipends don't go far, especially after you've been living on them for seven years or so already...). I sincerely hope that many people get out of their Ph.D. programs with minimal debt.
This is not the case for most people going to law school. With some private law schools breaking the $40K/year tuition barrier, law school is EXPENSIVE, and many people come out with crazy debt.
So the bi-modal salary distribution is a big problem for law students because if you come out of law school owing $150K in student loans, taking a $35K/year job to start may not be an option. If you choose to take out exorbitant loans to go to law school banking on the chance of getting one of the $160K jobs, being unable to find a job that you can afford to take can make the legal market look like one great big scam - kind of like coming out of academia and being unable to get anything more than a couple of sections of Western Civ at $1500 a throw.
But it's still hard for me to see the legal job market as quite so exploitative and awful as the academic market. This is probably due to a lot of personal factors rather than any wonderfulness on the part of the legal profession: I just wouldn't have paid $40K/year tuition, I'm going to a state school specifically to keep my tuition and loans down, I have a supportive husband who can pay our living expenses which further reduces my loan burden, and I don't want to work in a big firm anyway. And I haven't yet been kicked around by the legal job market - it may yet happen, but it hasn't yet.
It still doesn't sound as bad as academia.