BY RYAN BYRNES
The number of individuals sitting for the LSAT has dropped consistently for two years. Enrollment at law schools for fall 2012 is nine percent less than it was one year ago and 16 percent lower than it was in fall 2010. Tuitions remain at all-time highs while post-graduate employment demand remains stagnant-at-best.
Empirical evidence suggests that, in today’s economy, law school is not a prudent investment of one’s time and money. But for those most qualified to enter the legal profession, there’s no better time to cash in on the opportunity to be a law student.
According to a Kaplan study released two weeks ago, more than half of the ABA-accredited schools surveyed said they reduced the size of their 2012 entering class. Further, nearly 80 percent of those schools indicated that they will have smaller 1L classes by the fall of 2013 than they did last year.
Though there will be fewer seats left vacant for prospective students, those who ultimately receive one may have an easier time paying for the privilege to sit there. In fact, 47 percent of schools said they increased the amount of financial aid available to students for the 2012-2013 school year. Additionally, 41 percent said they were able to maintain their 2011-2012 levels of aid.
Of course, being admitted into law school is only one part of the transaction. While schools do not necessarily have a duty to help students pay for their education, institutions should feel a responsibility to make the law school experience worth the hefty price tag it carries. As students continue to have difficulty securing post-graduate legal employment, this responsibility has only received greater scrutiny.
After decades of course loads stocked with six semester’s worth of lectures, fact patterns and the Socratic method, schools have recently realized that their curriculum must adjust with the times in order to even begin to justify the cost of tuition. The Kaplan study revealed that 68 percent of schools have revamped their curriculum to make their students more “practice ready.” An additional five percent plan to implement such changes, while another nine percent said they are considering doing so.
These changes include providing students with more opportunities to partake in practical programs, such as clinics. Schools have also taken steps to allow students to specialize in a specific area of law, perhaps enabling them to develop a competitive edge over their eventual competition in the job market.
While the effectiveness of such programs and the impact they have on the value of graduates in the eyes of employers remain to be seen, the widespread adjustments reflected in the survey suggest schools are finally taking some steps toward change prospective students can believe in.
“Our survey shows that law schools are taking much-needed action to better prepare new lawyers for the changing job landscape, while at the same time accepting fewer students, as they know jobs will not be easy to come by,” said Jeff Thomas, director of pre-law programs at Kaplan. The survey drew its data from phone interviews with admissions officers from 123 of the nation’s 202 ABA-accredited law schools. The information was collected between August and September 2012.
So while law schools across the country continue to buckle their belts by reducing the size of 1L classes and, in turn, churning out fewer graduates, the opportunity for those qualified enough for admission is perhaps greater than ever. Fewer admissions slots will allow schools to maintain – or even increase – their selectivity, breeding very competitive first-year classes. Those students will often be applying for financial aid that is at least equal to – if not greater – than the amount available to larger numbers of students in earlier years. In turn, 1L classes may be smaller and more intimate than what has become customary in overwhelmingly large lecture halls. During 2L and 3L years, students are less likely to be stuck passing time behind their laptops and more likely to be engaged in a clinical program or a practicum course more aligned with their post-graduate interests.
The legal job market continues to struggle. In June, a NALP survey revealed that employment rates for the class of 2011 were the worst in 18 years. Last year, as other sectors trickle back to respectability, the legal services market – along with other “white collar” fields like finance and insurance – continued to shed jobs. The law market has shown few signs of improvement, though – as one law school dean wrote in a recent editorial – the outlook tends to be distorted by an overemphasis on “first jobs” rather than the opportunities a legal education presents over the span of a career.
It is important to remember that law schools can only do so much to improve the larger economic climate, and the schools are primarily a business. Universities generally consider law schools for-profit institutions, and students who believe they are suited to enter the legal market should incur some cost in order to take that chance. But in the long-term, the changes schools are making should improve the current situation to the extent possible: reducing the seats available so that only the most qualified applicants are granted admission, and updating the in-school requirements to best reflect the industry’s post-school expectations.
Unsurprisingly, not every school is on-board with the downsizing. In June, an associate dean of Cooley Law School told the Wall Street Journal that the school’s “mission is inclusiveness” and that the institution wasn’t “interested in reducing the size of its entering class on the basis of the perceived benefit to society.” In perhaps related news, the same school’s dean recently questioned whether his institution’s 2012 Michigan bar passage rate of 51 percent was “for real.”
But the Kaplan survey suggests that most schools are getting the message. The legal job market is changing with the times, and the education preparing individuals for that market is finally showing signs of changing along with it. It may be late, but it is better than never. For the average person, it is probably true that law school is not a wise use of time and money. But for the right person, there’s no better time to apply than now.