In a review of law school news, applications are holding steady but expected to go up, tuition is up, letter grades are being changed to pass/fail, big law firms continued through 2008 to hire apace, law schools are having it out with the ABA over accreditation, and then there is the case of the graduate who burned his Harvard Law School diploma.

Applications.  Although a few law schools, including Duke, surging 4%, and Penn, rising 6%, and the D.C. area schools mentioned below, have seen increases in the number of applications, according to communications director Wendy Margolis of the Law School Admission Council, law school applications nationally have risen by less than 1% from last year, despite the dismal state of the economy. That compares to a 17.6% increase in the national law school applicant pool in 2002 following the 2001 recession.

A bigger surge in law school applications may come next year, she says, since the economic debacle striking so late in 2008 limited the ability of many applicants to apply in time for this year’s spring decisions.  However, the higher cost of law school tuition today and the limited availability of loans also may be discouraging potential applicants.

Certainly the number of students applying to D.C.-area law schools has surged as the economy sunk. George Washington University Law School’s applicant numbers are up 8%, the University of Virginia School of Law’s applicants have risen more than 10%, and Georgetown University Law Center has received 12% more applications than last year.

Andrew Cornblatt, Georgetown’s dean of admissions, says the law school pushed its deadline back a month to March 2 to accommodate last-minute applicants coping with lay-offs and other bad economic news. His office received roughly 1,000 applications on Feb. 2 and Feb. 3 combined, a sign that people were rushing to get in before the original deadline.

Tuition.  Most law schools are raising tuition for the 2009-10 school year by 3% to 15%. Stanford Law School, for example, announced a 3.75% raise and Saint Louis University School of Law is raising tuition by 3%, less than its traditional annual increase of 5%.

Budget cuts in some states are forcing public law schools to debate tuition increases. In Missouri, Governor Jay Nixon has proposed no tuition increases if the legislature doesn’t cut the higher education budget.

Ellen Suni, dean of the University of Missouri-Kansas City School of Law, where annual tuition and fees total about $15,000 for in-state students and $29,000 for those from out-of-state, tuition went up 3.8% last year. Tuition hikes reflect increases in competitive faculty salaries and library expenses that have gone up by more than 10% each year, she says, even though the school has done some cost cutting, such as instituting a hiring freeze.

Albany Law School announced that it is freezing tuition, currently $38,900, for the 2009-10 school year and plans to increase scholarships as well, even though annual giving is anticipated to be down by 10% for the year. Said Thomas F. Guernsey, president and dean, in "these particularly uncertain times, we want to do what we can to make it easier for students who are incurring all this debt."  The school is also considering various cost-cutting measures, such as reducing the number of speakers and their travel costs, temporarily halting courses that have only a few students, and converting paper copying to electronic storage.

On the other side of the pond, three of London’s leading law schools are increasing the cost of both their Legal Practice Course and Graduate Diploma in Law by an average of 9%.

Grades.  Several leading law schools are retooling their grading policies, with some making major revisions. Harvard Law School and Stanford Law School, for example, are switching to pass/fail systems, which Yale Law School has used for decades. And New York University School of Law now allows professors to give more A’s. Columbia Law School says it is also reviewing its grading systems.

The changes are being made to create fairer evaluation systems and to better convey students’ accomplishments to employers, educators say, although it’s hard to see how a switch from grades to pass/fail accomplishes either. Other advantages cited by the law schools are incentives to professors to conceive innovative course work, reducing grade anxiety of students and providing a fairer comparison of students.

"I think each school has to look at their culture, their own pedagogy, their own curriculum and make a decision for themselves what works best," said Michael A. Fitts, dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School. Since 1995, the school has given traditional letter grades and sees no need to change that, Fitts said.

The University of Chicago Law School and Northwestern University School of Law said that they have no plans to change their letter grade-based systems. The University of California, Berkeley School of Law uses high honors, honors and pass designations and has no intention of changing that policy, said Stephen D. Sugarman, a professor at Berkeley. "When you have a less refined grading system, people who are employing your graduates are going to make distinctions, but they’ll make them on their own grounds," he said.

Hiring.  Despite the economy, the nation’s biggest law firms—the NLJ 250– hired roughly the same percentage of graduates from the top 20 schools in 2008 (54.6%) as they did in 2007 (54.9%). And the quality of hires arguably went up: those firms also hired 5.3% more graduates than in 2007 from their favorite schools among the top 20. Columbia was at the top of the list of schools sending the highest percentage of graduates (70.5%) directly to NLJ 250 firms, and Boston University School of Law rounded out the bottom with 41.2% of graduates going to those firms. Yale Law School fell from the top 20 list for 2008 primarily because it sends so many, roughly 40%, of its graduates to clerkships.

The hiring statistics make it clear how hard it is to change direction mid-stream for big firms, which usually operate on a two-year hiring cycle and extend offers to most summer associates. 

Compressed JD/MBA. Yale announced recently that it is adding a joint juris doctor and master of business administration program for completion in three academic years. The offering is in addition to the school’s existing joint J.D. and MBA program that takes four years. Yale is not the first to offer a J.D. and MBA in three years: Indiana University School of Law — Indianapolis and Northwestern University School of Law also do.

Accreditation. Northwestern University is leading a charge to revamp the criteria that the American Bar Association follows to grant U.S. law schools accreditation.

Outgoing Northwestern University President Henry Bienen has sent a letter to 35 other law schools asking them to sign a statement that urges the ABA’s Council on Legal Education and Admission to the Bar to stop stipulating employment terms at law schools. Bienen explained in the letter that the ABA had threatened to revoke his law school’s accreditation because it did not provide tenure to its clinical faculty and law library director. The demands were ultimately dropped, but the letter contends it was "an attempted infringement on our authority to govern our institutions."  With supporters on both sides, the issue is dividing the law school administration community. 

Burning Your Diploma. "Jack," a self-described, anonymous, 30s-something lawyer in D.C., who graduated from Harvard Law School has caught the attention of many in the legal field.  He blogs in Adventures of Voluntary Simplicity about giving up the material excess associated with corporate law for a simpler life . Last year he burnt his diploma in a YouTube display and in spite of the economic environment has announced that he intends to leave his $300,000+ legal position.

In an ABA Journal Q&A,  Jack said he “realized that a great deal of my self-worth was tied to being a Harvard law grad. Burning my degree was just a way to continue this process of simplification. I still have fond memories of Harvard. But, ultimately, I want to live my life on my own terms without needing a piece of paper to justify my own worth.”

“I went to law school because I didn’t know what else to do with my life. I had a vague sense that I wanted to work in the public interest field. In the end, I was seduced by the prestige of the law schools that accepted my application and by the opportunity to make a difference. And then the reality of incurring $120,000 of law school debt plus the allure of making a six-figure salary changed everything. By the time I left Harvard, I had already bought my first $1,000 suit.”

“After years of working 12-hour days, giving up countless weekends and canceling vacations at the last minute, I just had enough. I eventually realized that I was slowly losing my life, one billable hour at a time. In the end, it makes no sense to trade 90 percent of your waking hours for a chance to buy expensive clothes, be seen at fancy restaurants, and indulge in all sorts of excess. More recently, a friend of mine was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There is nothing like being made aware of your own mortality to help you focus on what truly matters: family, love and friendship.”

“I’ve been taking small, deliberate steps since last year to simplify all aspects of my life. Thus far, I have decluttered my house and have arranged for the sale of most of my furniture. Up next–leaving my job, selling my house and taking some time off to figure out next steps.”