Why are numbers down at law schools?
Posted: 12:31 pm Fri, February 8, 2013
By Patrick Thornton
Ask a 3L, last of the ‘naïve believers’
One was a television reporter in northern Michigan. One grew up on a farm south of Hastings. One graduated from Butler University in Indianapolis and the fourth sold health insurance for four years after college.
They all headed to law school for different reasons and ended up at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and graduate in May.
They are part of the class that some in legal education think could be a turning point.
The demand for law school is falling faster than the public’s desire for new VCRs. The national average for applications is down 20 percent compared to 2012 and 38 percent from 2010 according to the Law School Admissions Council.
The dramatic drop in applications is viewed by some as a necessary leveling off after many years of too many graduates and not enough jobs. But there are implications for the future of the profession and the schools.
Deans at the four schools acknowledge that a student who applied five years and was just below the mark for admittance, stands a much better chance today of getting in today. Many of the top students are foregoing law school based on the barriers of paying for school and finding a job when they graduate.
The drop off in applications also creates a predicament for the schools. They can either admit fewer students to keep their academic profiles high, or dip deeper in to the applicant pool to keep revenues up.
Locally the numbers are similar to the national trends. Between 2010 and 2010, applications are off from between 17 percent and 42 percent at local schools. The University of St. Thomas had 1,801 applicants in 2010 compared to 1,030 in 2012. The University of Minnesota Law School had 3,865 applicants in 2010 and 3,205 in 2012. William Mitchell College of Law’s applicant pool was 1,431 in 2010 and 1,048 in 2012. The Hamline University Law School had 1,350 applicants in 2010 and 966 last year.
The number of students enrolled is also off, ranging from 126 at Hamline, down 44 percent from 2010 to 260 at William Mitchell College of Law, off 27 percent from two years ago.
Bigger debt, fewer jobs
The class of graduating 3Ls has had front row seats to witness the dramatic transformation. They aren’t surprised by the drop off in applications. The four students interviewed for this article said the swirl of publicity about the two-fold problem of the mounting debt for law students to pay for their education and meager job prospects upon graduation has started to sink in for many would be law students. And it is probably for the best.
Vince Gmerek, a 3L from Indianapolis, jokes that his class was the last of the “naive believers” and said there are fewer students go to law school because they don’t know what to do after college. He’s not surprised the applications are down, but said those who do apply are much more focused on what they want out of a legal education.
“Everyone in our class was told that it was a bad idea to go to law school. said Gmerek. “The 1L class is probably more focused on getting a job from Day 1 and more cost conscious than we were. And if anything, it has gotten better in our three years here. That’s a good thing.”
Gmerek is hoping to land a job in civil litigation after graduation.
The American Bar Association calculates the average tuition debt for a private law school grad is about $120,000 and about $75,000 for a public school grad. At the same time, the U.S. Dept. of Labor says there are approximately 50,000 fewer legal jobs than there were five years ago. About 55 percent of the class of 2011 had a job that required a J.D. nine months after graduation, according to the National Association of Legal Placement.
Randall Kins, a 3L from Eau Claire, Wisc., said everyone comes to campus now with “eyes wide open.” As an undergraduate he heard from practicing attorneys who told him to avoid going to law school at all costs.
“A legal education teaches you how to think critically, how write better and so many valuable skills that will be useful in your career. But the fact of the matter is you need a job too,” he said.
Kins wants to work in health law or insurance litigation.
Jenna Haler, a 3L from St. James, Minn., said it is a little less crowded at the cafeteria over the lunch hour, but there is more passion in the hallways than when she started.
“Everyone is very supportive of each other. We do what we can to help each other out. We share job leads and help each other prepare for interviews. We can’t change what is happening in the job market, but there is a sense that ‘It’s not going to be easy, but you will be OK. It’s going to work out,’” she said.
She plans to return to outstate Minnesota and work on estate and business planning for small business owners and farmers.
‘Would do it again’
Ben Kwan, a 3L from Bloomington, now finds himself being asked by college students if they should apply to law school. In his counsel he stresses the betting odds aren’t always favorable.
“If you started today and knew you would be taking on $100,000 in debt and didn’t know how the bell curve would assign your destiny it is daunting,” he said. “But with the benefit of hindsight I can say with confidence that I would do it again. Absolutely.”
Kwan has a job lined up at Winthrop & Weinstine and will start this fall.
All of the students interviewed for this story agreed with Kwan and said they have no reservations about the decision and would do it again. They said their legal education adequately prepared them to enter in to the job market and the school has done a good job of integrating practical job skills classes, taught by practicing attorneys at area law firms, with the more traditional scholarship.
Gmerek had one caveat.
“Right now I don’t have any debt collectors knocking down my door. I might change my answer in a year,” he said.
The decline in applications is also an issue for financial health at the four schools. Some industry experts predict numerous law schools will close and other schools will lay off faculty and staff to stay in the black. Others will dip deeper in to the applicant pool to keep enrollment up.
The schools say they are adjusting.
Eric Janus, the Dean of William Mitchell, said schools will have to “hone in on their focus.”
“The classroom education must be paired with the networking and the soft skills students need to land that first job,” Janus said. “We have listened to what students say the need to be practice ready.”
David Wippman is the dean of the University of Minnesota Law School. He said his school went through budget cuts four years ago and is always looking to reduce cost through attrition, consolidation and moving services online. The school is in the midst of a $70 million fundraising push in part to increase financial aid.
“We are going to look pretty carefully at how much hiring we do based on retirements and other faculty leaving. We won’t be seeking much growth in the next few years,” he said.
He predicts the reaction from law schools to the decrease in demand will vary widely and that some schools will close. He said the schools that will succeed will be the ones with a strong curriculum, a track record of job placements for graduates and ones those that can offer the most value.
Law schools have to be more attentive to the value proposition they offer prospective students because that proposition is being challenged, said Dean Rob Vischer. All schools must focus on preparing students for their careers in the most cost effective way.
“When the pool of applicants declines you cannot get in to the mindset of ‘we need to fill this number of seats.’ It means you have to make hard decisions and be an effective steward of the school’s resources,” he said. “I am operating with the mindset that the current market conditions will be the market conditions of the future.