The New York Times covers the near 30-year low in law school applications that SBM Blog has been following, most recently here. The NYT story says that the law school application decline is counter to what's happening in other professional schools, except veterinary school. In addition to citing the usual explanations -- the perception of decreased demand and rising tuition -- the story includes a counter-view, from a professor of law and economics at the University of Southern California, who says that the problem is not a lack of demand for lawyers:
It’s not a problem of producing too many lawyers. Actually, we have an exploding demand for both ordinary folk lawyers and big corporate ones.
Meanwhile, Prof. Bill Henderson of Maurer School of Law at Indiana University, says the fallout from the drop in applications is imminent:
There are going to be massive layoffs in law schools this fall. We won’t have the bodies we need to meet the payroll.
At the Faculty Lounge, the dean of Loyola-Chicago School of Law, David Yellen, who also serves on the ABA's Task Force on the Future of Legal Education, says the data is tricky, but accepts that significant downsizing is in the cards:
As others have pointed out, three of the most important questions facing legal education are:
- Do we have too many students enrolled in law schools given the current and likely future job market?
- Why is law school so expensive and what can be done about that?
- Are we doing an adequate job preparing our students to practice law in today’s changing profession?
In my view, 52,000 is far too many law students and even 40,000 is too many. The “right” number of law students must surely be related to the job market. We are in a profound restructing of the legal services market, as Bill Henderson and others have pursuasively argued. Projections based on Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that there will be approximately 20,000-25,000 jobs per year for lawyers in the coming decade. Of course, as Yogi Berra (allegedly) said, “Predictions are very hard, especially about the future.” Perhaps, as has happened in the past, predictions of the decline of lawyers will prove to be overstated. Still, the BLS data is the best evidence we have, so we must take it seriously.
What about law grads who work in other fields? This is a point that some defenders of legal education love to make. We deans all have wonderful stories of (and frequently generous contributions from) graduates in business, real estate, etc., who have had truly great careers using their legal training, but not working as practicing lawyers. However, the vast majority of the successful non-lawyer law school grads I know started out practicing law and later migrated to another field. In my 25 years in legal education, I have met only a very small number of students who came to law school not planning to practice law. Given the expense, how could it be otherwise?
Still, a small number of law school grads do pretty well from the start in jobs other than practicing law. I have taken a careful look at our 66 graduates from 2011 (out of a total graduating class of 251) who reported working nine months after graduation in a “JD Advantage” or “Other Professional” job. I considered whether they were working full or part time, whether or not the job was long term, whether it seemed reasonably likely to lead to a JD required job (a number of them are working as law clerks for firms, and each year some of these jobs have become real associate positions) and what we know about their salaries (although not required by the ABA, my school publishes detailed salary information). I would estimate that approximately 20-30 of them are doing well enough to be considered reasonable success stories right now. This is speculative, and I can’t say how typical my school is.
A real deficiency in the available data is that we really only know how our graduates are doing nine months after graduation. How many of those who are really struggling nine months out eventually find their way to a solid job? How many with jobs nine months out suffer setbacks? The After The JD study provides a great deal of rich information, and suggests that the situation of law school graduates in general improves the longer they are out of school. But after the JD focuses on the class of 2000 and we really need to know what is happening over time to the students who graduated during and after the Great Recession.
Longitudinal data is very hard to obtain. I tried to resurvey our class of 2010, but the response rate was too low, and too skewed towards those doing well, to be reliable. I recently had a conversation about this with Jim Leipold, the Executive Director of NALP, and I believe they are considering ways to fill in the information gap on a national level. I hope they succeed.
In the end, I have little doubt that if there were an Emperor of Legal Education, he or she would order schools to enroll fewer students. My best guess is that the target would be 35,000 students, a drop of about 33% from 2010. Others, I’m sure, would place the number lower. But we don’t have an Emperor (I know that some think that the ABA should play this role, but that is a topic for another day), and the total law school enrollment is the result of decisions made by 200 schools with different goals and market positions.
For an individual school, the decision about whether, when, and by how much to downsize is a complicated one. Downsizing is painful. Because almost all of our budgets are personnel, enrolling fewer students means pay cuts, layoffs or other difficult steps. There has to be a compelling rationale.
It is tempting to say that we are downsizing because it is the morally right thing to do, but that would not be honest. Any benefit to society or even to individual students from a single school’s downsizing will likely be mostly symbolic. My school will probably shrink by 25-30 students next year. The students we do not enroll will almost certainly attend another law school, so we are not saving them from a risky choice. Will the ripple effect from our decision mean that the least selective schools will enroll 30 fewer students? I don’t know, but that is a very attenuated basis for downsizing.
What about the students we do enroll, will they be better off because we are smaller? Perhaps. If there are X number of jobs likely to go to Loyola graduates, then 30 fewer graduates will be unemployed or underemployed in 3 or 4 years. But it is also the case that because the students we will not enroll would have had lower incoming credentials, they would have been more likely to finish near the bottom of the class. So some of our actual new students may wind up with lower class ranks than if we had enrolled a larger class, which might affect their employment prospects.
So why are we, and so many law schools, downsizing? Candidly, it has a lot to do with rankings. No one likes to see their median LSAT’s and GPA’s decline, and we worry that if they do, we may fall in the rankings. With rapidly declining applications, most of us are experiencing drops in the average credentials of our students. In an effort to minimize that decline, and out of concern about our relative standing if other schools succeed in holding their credentials steady by getting smaller, we decide to downsize.
A great deal of what is wrong with legal education is a result of the impact of U.S. News & World Reports and our complicity in playing that game. I will have more to say about U.S. News and law school behavior in future posts. For now, I note the irony that in this crisis, U.S. News actually provides a strong incentive for us to do something that ought to be done, but that we would otherwise have great trouble doing. The Emperor of Legal Education would be happy.