In recent years, law schools have changed in numerous ways, largely as result of economic and employment trends. During the recession, the job market for new lawyers was bleak, discouraging students from pursuing law. Today, however, these developments may be reversing. It is interesting to reflect on the recent trends of law schools, especially for those interested in future careers in the field.
Declining Applications and Enrollment
Over the past decade, law schools have undergone many changes, most notably, a significant decline in applications and enrollment. The decline can be attributed largely to the 2008 recession, when the job market became increasingly difficult for recent law school graduates.
The situation became a downward cycle of cause-and-effect. As fewer students applied, law schools had to compete for a smaller pool of highly qualified applicants. As a result, many law schools shrunk enrollment, worried that if they began accepting less qualified applicants, they would jeopardize their rankings.
Schools began losing money they would have normally earned through tuition. In an attempt to rectify this issue, schools started charging higher tuition, which led to even fewer students applying, and the problem continued to grow.
Although the decline in law school admissions and enrollment has continued since the beginning of the recession, things may be finally looking up. Jerome Organ, a professor at the University of St. Thomas School of Law who tracks enrollment trends, predicts a growth in law school applicants very soon. For the upcoming enrollment period, Professor Organ estimates that 57,500 people will apply to ABA approved law schools, which is a 5.5% growth from the previous year. The estimated growth could be a result of a recovering job market or the efforts law schools have devoted to increase their value.
If the decline of applicants starts to reverse, it is possible that other trends may begin to turn around as well.
As law schools struggled to fund themselves, they began raising the cost of tuition. This further aggravated student fears of high debt with fewer job prospects.
According to Michelle J. Anderson, Dean of the CUNY School of Law. “Students are doing the math. Most law schools are too expensive, the debt coming out is too high and the prospect of attaining a six-figure-income job is limited.”
Increases in law school tuition also continue to far outstrip increases in undergraduate tuition. From 1989 to 2009, while college tuition rose 71%, the cost of law school increased by 317%.
From 2000 to 2013, even with the price being adjusted for inflation, tuition at ABA approved law schools rose about $5000. Since typically 90% of law students fund their education through loans, it is notable that among private law school graduates the average debt was $70,000 in 2001 and increased to $125,000 in 2011.
According to the New York Times, highly influential US News rankings are also a factor in escalating law school tuition. The US News algorithm gives 9.75% weight to a figure called “expenditures per student” in determining a school’s ranking. This figure “is essentially the sum that a school spends on teacher salaries, libraries and other education expenses, divided by the number of students, and it gives law schools a strong incentive to keep prices high.” Schools are not going to seek out cost efficiencies when the more they spend on students, the better their ranking will be.
Finally, Bloomberg states that the least-qualified law school applicants are getting a raw deal. Students with the lowest test scores are paying the most to go to the worst law schools, facing greater risk in bar passage outcomes, and suffering the worst employment prospects.
Curricular and Program Changes
Many schools have taken action to make their programs more appealing to prospective students, moving toward a law education that involves more practical application than theory. For example, Stanford, like several other schools, has increased their attention to clinics, due to the realization that hands-on-training is very advantageous; students with real world experience are better candidates for a job. These schools hope to make clinical training the essential experience in law school that it currently is for medical school. Stanford’s clinic focuses on religious liberty, and only takes cases that involve the defense of religious freedom.
The Harvard Business Review wrote that “there is a need for scalable, affordable experiences that connect students to firms and the practice of law—similar to medical school residency programs.” The belief that practical application will provide more value to a legal education has encouraged some schools to make changes in recent years. And in fact, students who learned through these new methods have shown more success than those previously admitted. Both the University of New Hampshire and the University of Denver show similar results, producing ready and able new lawyers through their new process.
Women in Law School
Women have been a minority in law for many years. According to data from the American Bar, the legal profession is currently made up of only 36% women.
However, during the overall decline in applications to law schools, male applicants have declined at a faster rate than female applicants. From 2011-2015, male applicants dropped by 25.29%, while female applicants only dropped by only 17.31%, closing part of the gap.
According to the ABA Journal, as female applicant numbers grow closer to male applicant numbers, the number of law schools with more women than men is growing. As such, more women in law school may lead to more women working in the field.
Minorities in Law School
Despite an overall decline in enrollment, minority groups have actually gained some ground. Many schools have made efforts to increase minority enrollment and thus, diversify the school. Between 2000 and 2010, minority enrollment in JD programs at ABA-approved law schools increased, but only by 1.8%. Although this was an improvement, it was small. The numbers after 2010 have continued to show progress. In the 2012-13 school year, there were about 36,000 non-white law students, which was at the time the highest number on record.
These increases are also closely related to the decline of law school applicants overall. Minority applicants have been decreasing at a slower rate than white applicants. From 2011-2013, white applicants decreased by 14.8% while black applicants decreased by only 1.6% and Hispanic applicants remained relatively stable. If this pattern continues, minorities will become a much stronger presence in law schools and the legal profession overall.
The job market and legal field are constantly adapting to varying factors. If you are considering a future career in law, it is important to weigh the costs, time commitment, employment opportunities, and your passion for the industry before you embark on a law-school education. Law can be a very rewarding profession, but it is not the right path for everyone. For guidance on graduate school and careers, contact collegiategateway.com. As always, we’re happy to help!