Given our last entry, it is not surprising that law school applications have been going down dramatically over the last few years. With the high cost of law school, the paucity of jobs (only half the number of jobs as there are law school graduates) and the dimming career and earnings prospects for lawyers who do get law jobs, young people are voting with their feet. This is not a new subject for us, but these astonishing application numbers pose hard questions as to the viability of our law schools.
The reduction in applications started, actually, in 2004, when over 100,000 applied, going down steadily until a hiccup up in 2010 to 88,000 applicants, but then turning reliably downward again since then, with only 54,000 applications projected for the fall of 2013, or almost half of the decade’s high. There was a 13% drop from 2011 to 2012 and more than a 30% drop in 2012 from the 2004 peak, according to the Law School Admission Council, with the number of applicants for 2013 now at an all-time low–20% less than last year’s and 38% below 2010. And according to one commentator: "Even more interesting… is that the drop in applications has been disproportionately high among students earning the best scores on the LSAT." In the meantime, first-year enrollment has held steady throughout those years at roughly 49,000.
The attention of the mainstream press–The New York Times, The Atlantic, Forbes and The Daily Beast–has at least accentuated the problem, if not legitimized it, and will no doubt encourage those thinking, ambitious young people who would normally consider law school to reconsider.
Why so down on law school? Well, there are all those statistics about falling profits and high attrition rates in the law business. And the cost of law school is high. Some contend that law school tuition levels are unsustainable and others that law schools don’t teach the business skills clients want anyway. To put a point on it, a number of law schools have been sued for fraudulent deception by students and former students who are facing a marketplace unlike the one rosily described in the brochures. So why perpetuate such a flawed institution?
As a number of commentators have noted, at the end of 2003 there were 187 accredited law schools in the US, while today there are 201. Astoundingly enough, after accrediting 8 new law schools per decade during the 80s and 90s, the ABA has accredited 19 new law schools over the last decade, and, even more astoundingly, currently has more in the works! And this in spite of some in the business, including us, anticipating faculty layoffs and, for the first time in 40 years, even the closing of a number of law schools over the next few years.
Some discussion has focused on which law schools have "succeeded" in producing the BigLaw partners that all young lawyers aspire to, evidently, or at least which ones produce the biggest earners, or not, depending on who is talking and what statistics they are looking at. The problem is that the data is malleable and subject to varying interpretations (who said that if you torture statistics enough, they will tell you anything you want to hear?), and the marketplace has changed dramatically since those 50somethings who are currently partners were starting out. So historical information only has limited value.
In counterpoint to the fall of law school applications has been the rise of advocacy for the two-year law school, the revival of apprenticeships instead of law school and even the elimination of law school in favor of an undergraduate law degree (see the aptly titled "First Thing We Do, Let’s Kill All the Law Schools"), which is the primary route to law practice in Great Britain. Others, like Bill Henderson, have suggestions on how to fine-tune what we have, which some say must include adding the business classes that our young lawyers need to manage their legal businesses or apprenticeships to existing law school curriculum. Today, in The New York Times, John Farmer, former attorney general of New jersey and currently the dean of Rutgers School of Law, proposes that a two-year post-law school apprenticeship, like a medical residency requirement, would not only improve the quality of lawyers but also provide much needed legal counsel.to low-income groups.
But what, if anything, has been done with all this fine advice? Well, Yale Law School has announced a Ph.D. in law that it claims is the first in the nation, and designed for wannabe law professors and legal scholars.
In the meantime The American Lawyer recently reported that fewer summer associates and first year associate positions are available this year. According to data released by NALP, the number of offers for summer associate positions that law firms made to 2Ls last fall fell slightly. The percentage of interviews that resulted in summer associate offers also declined from 46% in 2011 to 44% last fall. The hiring situation for new graduates appears to be even worse. Only 19% of law firm offices considered 3Ls last fall. Even the 90% of 2012 summer associates who received job offers from the firms for which they’d clerked represented a 1% decline over the previous year.
There is clearly a groundswelll. No one seems happy with the status quo. Can we turn what seems mostly like musings or worse, blamings after the horse is out of the barn into a proactive approach to reforming our law schools into net contributors to what is needed over the next decade–well-prepared candidates for the fine jobs that law still offers in the decades ahead?