According to a recent article by Peter Schworm of the Boston Globe, ‘even years after the end of the recession, enrollment at the nation’s law schools continues to go down.’
Is the legal education system in a crisis?
According to the latest figures from the American Bar Association, first-year enrollment for fall 2013 was just 39,675 students, making it was the smallest incoming class since the 1970s. Many feel it’s because students don’t want to take on massive student loan debt during a difficult job market.
Law schools, such as Suffolk University, Western New England University, Boston University, Harvard University and Northeastern University have all seen the number of applications decline over the years and many fear the drop will continue this fall.
Across the nation, applicants for the incoming class have dropped about 8 percent from last year, according to the Law School Admission Council. While the legal community was encouraged that the number of applications would rebound with the economy, others say there’s no sign of stabilizing. Many others feel this shift may be permanent.
Richard P. Campbell, a Boston lawyer and former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, has followed the issue closely over the years and says, “It’s a complete structural change, and it’s not going away. The end result is fewer graduates, and fewer law schools.”
For many students being an attorney was considered a steady and lucrative career and well worth the time and effort of a continuing education. But after the economic collapse in 2008 many graduates found themselves unable to find work. The class of 2011 had an employment rate of just 85 percent, according to the National Association for Law Placement, the lowest it had been since 1994.
The job crunch caused students to reassess their career plans, realizing the high price of a law degree was becoming a risky bet.
“Students are being cautious, having seen what happened,” said Vincent D. Rougeau, Dean of Boston College Law School, where first-year enrollment fell 14 percent over the past three years, to 230 last year. “We’ve pretty much become accustomed to declines.”
What Can Law Schools Do?
While the top law schools continue to draw applicants, many of the other universities must adapt to the situation. Some schools must accept fewer students, lower admission standards, freeze faculty wages and/or tuition, offer buyouts to some faculty members, and/or reduce administrative staff costs just to stay afloat in a tough market.
Campbell, a Boston lawyer and former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association, compared the decline in enrollment to a bubble, a natural outcome of law schools growing too fast and charging too much. And now many of the 2nd tier law schools may not survive the jarring transition, he said.
Has the job market improved?
Although it’s improved somewhat over the last couple of years, it remains stretched. In the past, many top students saw law school as a “natural progression” from their college studies that would pay strong dividends in the course of their careers, Rougeau said. But the speed and scope of the current decline suggests those days may be gone, observers say.
Jeremy Paul, Dean of Northeastern University’s law school, said declines in entry-level hiring and flat funding for legal services programs have made jobs harder to come by, and law schools are not expecting enrollment to rebound quickly.