Could a years-long oversupply of new attorneys finally be on the wane? Based on the trend of recent headlines, it would be easy to reach that conclusion. For example, a December 2013 Wall Street Journal headline read: “First-Year Law School Enrollment at 1977 Levels.” The first sentence of the article described the “plunge” in entering law student enrollments.
Likewise, in January 2014, National Jurist reported on steep enrollment declines at particular schools from 2010 to 2013. The big losers in that compilation were “the University of LaVerne (down 66.2 percent) and Thomas M. Cooley Law School (down 40.6 percent).”
Most recently, the National Law Journal took a closer look at the 13 law schools that saw “1L enrollment drop by 30 percent or more in the span of 12 months, while an additional 27 reported declines of 20 to 30 percent in all.”
Taken together, these reports create an impression that the severe lawyer glut is ending.
How about a job?
For prospective law students, the size of any drop in overall enrollment isn’t relevant; employment prospects upon graduation from a particular school are. According to the ABA, just under 40,000 students began law school in the fall of 2013 — down eight percent from the entering class of 2012. That’s significant, but not all that dramatic.
Meanwhile, for the entire decade ending in 2022, the latest estimate (December 2013) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics puts the total number available positions for “Lawyers, judges, and related workers” at around 200,000. That net number takes into account deaths, retirements, and other departures from the profession. More sobering, it’s yet another downward revision from earlier BLS projections.
As the profession makes room for 20,000 new attorneys a year, why all the media attention about 1L enrollments “plunging” to a level that is still almost twice that number?
I think the answer is that some law professors are running around screaming that their hair is on fire because, for many of them, it is. The media are covering that blaze, but the larger conflagration surrounding the crisis in legal education somehow gets lost.
U.S. News to the rescue?
Professor Jerry Organ at the University of St. Thomas School of Law has an interesting analysis of the situation. Schools in trouble are “picking their poison.” One option is to maintain admission standards that preserve LSAT and GPA profiles of their entering classes. Alternatively, they can sacrifice those standards in an effort to fill their classrooms and maximization tuition revenues.
U.S. News & World Report rankings now have an ironic role in this mess. For decades, rankings have contributed to perverse behavioral incentives that have not served law schools, students, or the profession. For example, in search of students with higher LSATs that would improve a ranking, many schools diverted need-based financial aid to so-called “merit scholarships” for those with better test scores.
Likewise, revenue generation also became important in the U.S. News calculus. As the ABA Task Force Report on the Future of Legal Education notes, the ranking formulas don’t measure “programmatic quality or value” and, to that extent, “may provide misleading information to students and consumers.” They also reward “increasing a school’s expenditures for the purpose of affecting ranking, without reference to impact on value delivered or educational outcomes.”
Now the rankings methodology has presented many schools with a Hobson’s choice: If they preserve LSAT/GPA profiles of their entering classes, they will suffer a reduction in current tuition dollars as class size shrinks; if they admit less qualified applicants, they’ll preserve tuition revenues for a while, but they’ll suffer a rankings decline that will hasten their downward slide by deterring applicants for the subsequent year.
As some schools become increasingly desperate, they will be tempted to recruit those who are most vulnerable to cynical rhetoric about illusory prospects on graduation. The incentive for such mischief is obvious: However unqualified such students might be for the profession, the six-figure loans they need to finance a legal education are available with the stroke of a pen. Revenue problem solved.
Some law professors argue that the trend of recent declines in enrollment is sufficient to create a shortfall in law school graduates by 2015. Maybe they’re right. Time will tell — and not much time at that.
I think it’s more likely that over the next decade, a lot of law professors will find themselves looking for work outside academia. Meanwhile, their best hope could be to run out the student loan program clock long enough for them to retire. Then it all becomes someone else’s problem.