As employment rates for law school graduates fall, enrollment at law schools across the United States has also dropped 15% in the last two years.
Changes in the field of law are leaving some college students in an academic bind.
During his freshman year, University of Georgia junior Tucker Green “thought [law school] would be a good idea,” he said.
But now, he isn’t sure where he stands.
“Law school looks nothing like it used to,” Tucker, who has interned at a law firm in Washington, D.C., said of why he is more hesitant to apply. “I know that because of rising debt in a tougher job market and all the kinds of pressures in the legal field right now, if you make the decision to go, you better be 100% sure you want to be a lawyer.”
As employment rates for law school graduates fall, enrollment at law schools across the United States has also dropped 15% in the last two years, according to a recent survey conducted by the American Bar Association (ABA).
Some law school graduates have filed class-action lawsuits against their respective schools, claiming that the schools have published misleading employment data to trick students into attending. A judge recently denied the Thomas Jefferson School of Law’s motion for summary judgment against such a lawsuit, the ABA reported yesterday.
“To the extent that misrepresentations are made, consumers are injured by enrolling in an institution that is not what it purported to be,” San Diego Superior Court Judge Joel Pressman wrote in his final order.
The National Association for Law Placement (NALP), which focuses on legal recruitment and career development, has reported that only about two-thirds of law school graduates in the class of 2011 obtained jobs that require passage of the bar exam, representing a drop of more than nine percentage points since 2008. The overall employment rate for graduates currently stands at almost 86%, the lowest since 1994, according to the NALP.
NALP Executive Director James Leipold said larger law firms in particular have seen greater job loss. Because bigger firms typically pay more than smaller firms, the median starting salary for law school graduates has dropped. For the class of 2011, for instance, the median starting salary fell 5% from that of 2010.
For graduating college students, the changing state of the legal job market comes with a price. Kaplan Test Prep reported in a survey of law school admissions officers last month that 51% of law schools have had to reduce the size of their entering class, the main reason being the decline in employment.
One such school that is mirroring this national trend is the University of Texas School of Law. Enrollment fell to 309 this year from 375 last fall.
And nationally, law school applications were down about 15% last year, USA TODAY reported in May.
Experts attribute these shifts not only to the economic recession but also to changes in the field of law itself.
“Some of the jobs that law school graduates had gotten are now offshore,” Leipold said in reference to what he described as the effects of globalization.
Leipold said technology, particularly the “very sophisticated computer-assisted search options that are now available,” has affected the field of law as well. Certain tasks such as document review for litigation “can be done effectively now on the computer,” he said.
Students who are currently considering applying to law school, therefore, are doing so at a time when law schools are undergoing curricula alterations.
More schools are revamping their curricula to ensure students are more “practice ready” after graduation, said Jeff Thomas, director of pre-law programs for Kaplan Test Prep. This means an increased emphasis on the practical skills students need in their legal careers after they graduate.
“Historically, those have been additional opportunities at law schools, whereas now, students and schools are recognizing the need to leave law schools with those practical skills that, historically, students wouldn’t have learned until they entered the workforce,” Thomas said.
The Emory University School of Law‘s Center for Transactional Law and Practice sponsored a conference Nov. 2-3 that focused specifically on creating “practice-ready” law school graduates. The Center’s co-executive director Sue Payne presented a five-step plan to achieve this goal, according to the school’s website.
Over at Vermont Law School, administrators are now “rethinking a lot of the curriculum” and planning structural changes for the future as the school struggles with enrollment drops and budget cuts, said Carol Westberg, Vermont Law School’s director of marketing and communications.
“The extent of it is innovation,” Westberg said. “It’s really about getting ahead and seeing what legal education means.”
As the field of law evolves, Thomas suggested, students should invest their time and money in law school primarily if they plan on entering a legal profession.
“Law schools have historically been filled with folks who want to become more marketable,” Thomas said. “Right now, it’s important for students to understand that law school has become a means to an end … and that end is being a practicing attorney.”
Meanwhile, a few schools, such as Harvard, reported slight increases in enrollment this year.
Emory senior Roshani Chokshi is currently preparing for the LSAT in June. She said she looks forward to learning about a profession she’s aspired to since she was young.
“If anything,” she said, “the slim possibilities will only be a tool for motivation.”
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