Law schools across the country are facing their lowest enrollment numbers in years, causing some to slash their budgets and revamp their programs in an effort to attract students worried about finding a job in a diminished legal industry.
Nearly 46,000 people have applied so far to go to an accredited U.S. law school in the most recent admissions cycle, a figure that puts applications on track to hit just short of 53,000 total. By comparison, there were a total of 77,000 applicants in 2010 and 90,000 in 2004, according to the Law School Admission Council. Even top-ranked Harvard Law School witnessed a drop in applications before rebounding in the last two years.
Poor enrollment is hurting the bottom line at some schools. Washington and Lee’s School of Law said it plans to cut 12 positions, while Western Michigan University’s Thomas M. Cooley Law School delivered pink slips to more than half of its faculty and staff members last summer.
Going to law school used to feel like a no-brainer for college graduates seeking financial security. But that calculus has changed, with many firms that suffered during the recession still struggling to fully recover. Last month, Wiley Rein, one of the Washington area’s biggest law firms, cut 48 attorneys and staff members, an estimated 9 percent of its overall workforce.
“It’s still really difficult for first-years. I’m seeing people with good credentials from good law schools struggling to get jobs,” said Darin Morgan, a partner at Major, Lindsey & Africa, a legal recruitment firm.
The stark realities of the legal industry have been a wake-up call to law schools, said Blake Morant, dean of the George Washington University Law School.
“Every single law school that I know of is doing something to not only innovate, but also to add value to what they’re giving to students,” he said at a recent panel hosted by Lawyers of Color.
One longtime critique of law school programs is that they teach too much theory, material that won’t come up in everyday work at a law firm.
In response, Morant and other deans say their schools are increasing practical training for students, including more semesters of writing courses and externships. John Gotanda, dean of the Villanova University School of Law, said the school is now requiring students to take a course on the economics of a law firm in case they decide to start their own practice.
Some say schools have been too slow to react to the seismic shift in legal education and are setting themselves up to fail. Emory University School of Law professor Dorothy Brown predicted that a top law school would close in three years if institutions maintained the status quo.
“No law school has figured out how to handle the new normal” of fewer jobs and fewer applicants, she wrote in a recent essay in The Washington Post. “While some argue that going to law school is still a safe bet, little evidence exists to support this position. The most elite law schools — the top 1 percent — will thrive. The other 99 percent: not so much.”
For students considering whether to take on six-figure debt to go to law school, the prospects for work after graduation aren’t as rosy as they once were.
Nine months after graduation, a little more than half of the class of 2013 had found full-time jobs as lawyers, down from 77 percent of 2007, according to the most recent data from the American Bar Association and the National Association for Law Placement. Those who did find jobs had starting salaries that were 8 percent below the 2009 peak, averaging $78,205 in 2013.
While attending American University Washington College of Law, Courtney Robinson did several internships, including one as a legal fellow for the Congressional Black Caucus. But a full-time job was difficult to come by once she graduated in 2012.
After graduation, Robinson worked a series of temp and contract jobs for several months. Her plan was to go into public policy work, but the organizations she worked with didn’t have the money to hire.
“It was terrifying not knowing where I was going to land or how I would pay off my student loans,” said Robinson, 27, who owes more than $150,000 in student loans.
She eventually landed a position as a legal analyst at Freddie Mac, which preferred someone with a legal degree for the job, although it wasn’t required.
Once she started working, Robinson enrolled in a federal program that capped her monthly loan payments to a percentage of her earnings and forgives any balance left over after 20 years. The repayment plan brought her payments down from $3,000 a month to $400.
The government’s generous repayment options, including one that forgives debt after 10 years of working in public service, makes law school appealing even in a down market, said Jason Delisle of the New America Foundation, a think tank. But that can also get expensive for taxpayers, especially since law school costs far more than an undergraduate education.
“There is no downside for grad students,” Delisle said. “They can borrow as much as they want and eventually have it forgiven.”
The burden of paying off the debt each month, though, still weighs heavily on a recent law school graduate such as C. Christopher Davis. The AU alum pays $900 a month under income-based repayment, the equivalent of rent in most parts of the country.
Davis, who works as an attorney at a federal agency, said the payments are manageable, but prevent him from even considering buying a home anytime soon.
Asked whether his investment in law school has paid off, Davis, 32, said, “Until my debt is satisfied . . . I’ll always feel like that’s an open question.”
The immediate value of a law degree may be up for debate, but researchers says the long-term earnings potential is not.
A new study found that the financial impact of unemployment at graduation fades as students gain experience in the workplace. One of the authors of the study, Seton Hall University’s Michael Simkovic, said the findings are good news for aspiring lawyers.
“There’s little question that most people are going to get a very good value out of their law degree,” he said. “The occupation of being a lawyer, over the long run, has gotten bigger and become a more important part of the economy.”
And he doesn’t see evidence in the data of that trend turning for the worse.
Still, some law school graduates are pressing schools to give prospective students more information about the employment status of alumni.
“Law school is not a ticket to financial security,” said Kyle McEntee, a Vanderbilt University Law School graduate who helped found the group Law School Transparency. “There’s just no evidence that the people starting school now are going to end up okay, and to me that’s really concerning.”
Maheen Kaleem, 29, said she didn’t enter Georgetown University Law Center with blinders on. She knew that going into public interest law would mean competing for a handful of jobs at nonprofits with limited funds.
“There is a lot of uncertainty in public interest law in the first five years. You jump from one fellowship to another, but this is my passion,” Kaleem said.
She has a legal fellowship with Rights4Girls, a human rights organization, that ends in August 2016. After that, it’s all up in the air.
While new graduates may be disappointed by the limited opportunities available to them, Deborah Merritt, the author of a study about new lawyers who took the Ohio bar in 2010, is optimistic about the financial outlook for the students in her study.
“These people will be okay,” she said, comparing them with the homeless clients whom her students represent in the defense clinic at Ohio State University’s law school. “I did not find evidence of homeless law graduates in my study.”
Clarification: This post has been updated with the most recent figure for applications to an accredited U.S. law school in this admissions cycle. It also clarifies that the latest number is a partial count that puts the final number on track to be lower than 2010 and 2004.
Max Ehrenfreund contributed to this report.