Anyone holding out hope that the market for new lawyers might self-correct will be disappointed. Two recent developments continue to make that clear.
More lawyers needed?
The first comes from Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which is considering a move from Tempe to downtown Phoenix. It’s seeking approval from the ASU Board of Regents for a three-year capital improvement plan that includes $129 million toward construction of a new law school complex.
The proposed site is now a parking lot. Compared to the current 165,000 square feet, the new facility would be 294,000 square feet. Documents reportedly sent to the regents include a business plan that would increase the school’s current enrollment and degrees by 50 percent.
A failing grade
Why would ASU entertain such an idea? Presumably because school officials think they can fill classrooms by using statements like those currently appearing on ASU’s website:
“96% of  graduates seeking employment were employed or continuing their education…82% of those employed secured full-time, long-term employment.”
Those numbers look respectable, but take a closer look at the school’s most recent ABA employment data.
In 2011, ASU awarded 201 law degrees. Nine months later, only 137 of those graduates — 68 percent — had long-term, full-time jobs requiring bar passage. (Ten of them became solo practitioners — a tough beginning for any new graduate.) Another eight had jobs where a J.D. supposedly provided an advantage; another eight held other non-legal professional positions. That’s 153.
The 82 percent “full-time, long-term employment” statistic on the ASU website results from excluding 15 more students: seven unemployed and seeking work, three pursuing graduate degrees, three with unknown employment status, and two unemployed but not seeking work.
As for the rest? The school itself funded full-time, short-term positions for 18 new graduates. Add in the others holding short-term or part-time jobs and — voila! — you reach the stunning “96 percent employed or continuing their education” number.
Curiously, the same article reporting the school’s plans to increase enrollments and degrees by 50 percent also quoted Dean Douglas Sylvester’s comment that the school has “no current plans to grow our J.D. (Juris Doctor) class beyond its historical size and beyond the capacity of the college to continue to find productive employment for all of our graduates.”
If the dean’s remark — “the capacity of the college to find productive employment for all graduates” — defines a passing grade, his school is already failing.
Predictable response to unfortunate stimuli
In March 2012, Dean Sylvester promised “to reduce the cost of attending law school to make it more available to students of different income levels.” So far, there’s no evidence that he is succeeding in that mission, either.
In-state resident tuition at ASU has increased from $19,225 in 2009-2010 to $26,267 for 2011-2012. For non-residents, tuition has risen from $32,619 to $40,815. The stated goal of these dramatic tuition hikes is financial self-sufficiency for the school.
Meanwhile, spending lots of money on new facilities enhances the average-cost-per-student component of any school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. But if ASU is pandering to that metric, it’s doing so at a steep price to students.
As ASU and other state schools try to eliminate their need for public funds, student loan debt is filling the gap. The average debt for ASU’s law school graduates is $103,436. Together with the school’s employment statistics, such growing indebtedness suggests that techniques aimed at self-sufficiency for the school are having the opposite impact on many of its graduates.
Finally, the ongoing glut in the market for lawyers illuminates the second aspect of law school dysfunction. A recent Am Law Daily article heralded the legal sector’s “bounce-back” month in September, adding about 1,000 jobs. “Bounce-back” to what is an interesting question.
From September 2011 to September 2012, the net growth in legal jobs was 5,900. During the same period, law schools graduated more than 44,000 new attorneys. Anyone who thinks that retirements and other natural attrition will close that gap is dreaming. One state-by-state analysis estimates that net lawyer surpluses will exceed 25,000 annually through 2015. Overall, the legal sector is still 50,000 positions below its pre-economic crisis 2008 employment level (1.17 million in 2008 vs. 1.12 million currently).
That takes us back to the contest for the best use of space in downtown Phoenix. If the choice is what’s there now — a parking lot — and a proposed big new ASU law school complex, root for the parking lot.