The Downfall of Law School? What Current Enrollment Trends Mean

Both applications and attendance are down at law schools across the country. What are the implications for students interested in the law? Here’s Noodle Expert Keith Scheuer’s take on the future of the profession.

The number of law school applicants and attendees has been shrinking for several years. Some institutions are cutting faculty and classes; a few may have to shut their doors altogether.

So are law professors an endangered professional species, like blacksmiths and typewriter repairmen? While the jury is still out, recent signs suggest that the decline in enrollment may have ended. The dons of law schools may live to pontificate another day.

What’s happening to law school enrollment?

According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the total number of enrolled law students dropped by around 9,000 between 2013 and 2014 (from 128,710 to 119,775). In 2014, almost two-thirds of the 203 accredited law schools reported that their first-year classes were smaller than they had been in 2013. In fact, 64 of these 203 schools saw their numbers of entering students drop by more than 10 percent. (On the other hand, 69 schools increased the size of their first-year classes between 2013 and 2014.)

About 43,500 students were admitted to accredited schools for the 2014–2015 school year. By contrast, a whopping 60,400 were admitted in fall 2010. That's a drop of 28 percent in these five years.

What’s happening to law school applications?

Just as fewer people are going to law school, fewer people are sending in applications. ABA-accredited schools received more than 604,000 applications for admission for the fall of 2010. That number fell to 355,000 by fall 2014. According to the Law School Admissions Council, prospective students took the Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) a record 171,514 times for the 2009–2010 school year. But subsequently, this figure fell each year through 2014–2015, when it was taken only 101,689 times — a decline of more than 40 percent. The drop was continuous in that period, too; each year’s figure was smaller than the year before.

These declines have been widely reported on and analyzed; The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time, and Bloomberg Business are just a few of the outlets to have commented on the admissions trend.

Why are these shifts occurring?

The Economy

Certainly, the Great Recession has been a major culprit. Clients’ financial woes have contributed to a stormy job market for law grads. Those businesses that struggled to meet payroll and keep the lights on started looking closely at their outside legal fees. Many decided that the costs and risks associated with retaining an attorney to file a lawsuit outweighed the potential benefits. Others decided to hire relatively inexpensive in-house lawyers to handle day-to-day legal issues, rather than pay a fortune to outside law firms.

And when cost-cutting wasn't enough and the business failed, a client’s legal work (other than bankruptcy) evaporated.

Expense Accounts

Still, we can’t blame the economy for all of the retrenchment in legal hiring. For several decades, elite law firms treated themselves as royalty, charging clients hundreds of dollars an hour for legal work and assuming the client would not balk at first-class airfare, hotels, and dining. To make matters worse, medium and large law firms often sent more than one attorney to attend business negotiations, hearings, depositions, and trials — all billing the client. In essence, a lot of law firms had been charging their clients to train junior attorneys during their apprenticeships.

Cost-conscious clients rebelled. They demanded substantial concessions on fees and insisted that only one attorney bill for her time on any given matter. Consequently, firms were forced to do some cost-cutting of their own, reducing the ranks of associates whose time they could no longer bill so liberally. These cutbacks, in turn, caused the employment pool for newly-minted grads to shrink.

Online Legal Services

Another factor contributing to the volatility of employment prospects has been the growth of access to free legal research and DIY legal services, such as LegalZoom. Not long ago, a property owner with a concern about a neighbor’s overhanging tree limb would have paid an attorney for a legal analysis. Today, she will probably find out what Google has to say on the matter. Someone who wants a simple contract, divorce, will, trust, or similar consumer-oriented document may well turn to the Internet for a variety of cut-rate legal forms.

How has the legal landscape changed law schools?

Nearly every small law firm trained its young lawyers with the routine tasks like those listed above. But as competition from the Web began to compromise that formerly reliable income stream, firms’ need for attorneys to handle these mundane matters also receded.

Large firms have experienced something similar. Certain tasks that used to occupy legions of American attorneys just cutting their teeth are now funneled overseas. Document management and analysis in mass tort suits, antitrust cases, and other litigation — which can require the review of hundreds of thousands of pages of documents — has traditionally been among the most unpleasant chores you could be assigned as a new attorney. But since it’s crucial work, it has also generated thousands of entry-level jobs.

India, however, now provides English-fluent staffers who can do the same work at a fraction of the cost. As the Indian workforce expands, it is causing a corresponding loss of legal jobs here.

The impact of these factors on jobs in the legal industry has been significant. Dozens of law firms, some very large, have shrunk substantially or have gone out of business. Commonly, the first to be fired are those with the least training. These are usually the most expendable employees — junior lawyers and non-attorney support staff (like paralegals and administrative assistants).

Facing a withering job market, incurring a mountain of law school debt became prohibitive to many would-be law students. Small wonder that fewer chose to begin the arduous path to a law degree.

What does the future hold?

While some law schools are reducing their teaching staffs and course offerings, others are tinkering with their curricula, adding mediation instruction, study abroad programs, clinical experience, and other courses that — they hope — will make their schools more desirable to applicants. And a few others have gone down an even more radical route: eliminating, in very limited circumstances, the LSAT as an admission requirement. (It’s worth noting that the ABA caps the percentage of LSAT-less matriculants at schools at 10 percent of a first-year class.)

Will any of these measures succeed? It’s too early to tell. The most recent data, however, suggest that the years-long decline in the number of law school applicants and enrollees has ended. The rate of decrease in law school applications slowed during 2015 and may have bottomed out. The Law School Admission Council states that LSAT administrations are modestly increasing. Based on this evidence, applications to law school will probably show at least a slight uptick in 2016.

This should not be surprising. Despite some turbulence in the job market in recent years, a law degree is still a very valuable asset; approximately 90 percent of graduates are employed in a number of fields within a year of graduation. And, at the very top of the profession, lawyers make an enormous income. Indeed, new hires at the largest and most prestigious firms earn north of $150,000 their first year out of school, not to mention bonuses and top-rate benefits.

If prospective students keep their eyes on that prize, law schools — at least the most highly ranked among them — should have no problem filling their ranks.

Not sure whether law school is right for you? Check out this list of questions to ask yourself before you apply, also written by Noodle Expert and attorney Keith Scheuer.

If you want to explore your options, try out the free and customizable law school search to learn more about different legal programs in the U.S.

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