Law School Enrollment Plunges

Jul 18, 2013

Law school enrollment is taking a nose dive, and law schools are trimming their faculty rolls.

The legal market has yet to recover from the recession, and that means fewer students are applying to law school.

Middle-tier schools are among the hardest hit, and legal experts say it could be years before their enrollment returns to pre-recession levels.

Hear More: A report from the BBC's Karen Allen

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Transcript

JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:

From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Jeremy Hobson. It's HERE AND NOW. Some business news now. Computer maker Dell is postponing a vote on founder Michael Dell's plan to buy the company. He's offering $24 billion, but Carl Icahn, a major shareholder, says that is not enough. A new vote is scheduled for July 24th. And if that dispute escalates, they're probably going to need some lawyers. And it turns out, there are plenty of them available.

So many, in fact, that law schools are seeing a decline in applications because graduates can't find jobs. Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic, joins us as he does regularly with a look at that. And, Derek, what is going on here?

DEREK THOMPSON: Right. So 400 years ago, Shakespeare wrote: First thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

(LAUGHTER)

THOMPSON: And for 400 years, nothing did until the Great Recession. Applications are nearing a 30-year low for law schools. The number of people taking LSATs has declined to a decade low. And here's what's happening in two parts. Part one, is that the recession simply punched the legal industry in the stomach. There are 50,000 fewer legal jobs today than there were four years ago. Law schools graduate 40,000 students a year, as Jordan Weisman, a writer for The Atlantic, has reported. So you do that math there.

Part two, is that law school was once seen as one of the few safe bets in American education. So when the recession hit, a lot of students, I think, looked around and said, well, there are no jobs for us in the actual economy. Let's go to law school. And rather than graduate into, you know, a second jungle of law jobs, they graduated into a desert.

HOBSON: But why, you know, now that the economy is recovering, aren't there enough jobs for these lawyers?

THOMPSON: Right. And so, you know, I love stats, Jeremy, so here are two stats. First, is that there just aren't as many openings for these new lawyers as there have been. The employment rate for law school graduates in the last four years has doubled to about 12 percent. Number two, is that this message is trickling down the students. The number of people taking LSATs has declined by 25 percent, I think, in the last two years as well. So what you're seeing is a legal industry that has reacted to the recession by basically freezing, by saying, OK, let's hold on to what we have.

And as a result, there aren't as many openings for new lawyers as there have been in the past at the exact same time that all of these 20-somethings looked at the labor market, said there's nothing for us here, let's go to law school. So it's these two things that you have to look at. One, the decline of the legal industry post-recession meeting with this increase in law school applications for three years, and as a result, it's created this bubble that only in the last few years we've realized has popped.

HOBSON: How are the law schools feeling this and how are they responding to it?

THOMPSON: Right. They're simply cutting staff. They're meeting realities with their budgets. Today The Wall Street Journal reported that some of the top law schools and some mid-tier law schools are cutting staff, cutting faculty. The fact is they staffed for boom times and boom times these are not.

HOBSON: And, Derek, you know, I remember hearing a story about West Virginia starting up some law firms that were - they didn't have to pay the lawyers these $160,000 salaries right out of law school. Are there any interesting ways that places are responding to this glut of lawyers on the market?

THOMPSON: Right. Well, first, you know, it has to be said that a lot of these law schools which have to provide data for students to say, here's how many of our graduates get hired, here's how many of them are happily employed or are fully employed. These law schools are sort of scrimping to find things to do with these graduates that can't find work in the real economy. So they're creating jobs for them at the school so that they can report better numbers.

You know, I think the bigger picture to look at it is if you're thinking perhaps about going to law school - if one of the listeners are - is that if you go to a top 10 law school right now, you'll probably still be OK. If you go to a Harvard, a Yale, a Columbia these people are still graduating with something like 1 percent unemployment rates. But past the top 10, it becomes something of a crapshoot.

HOBSON: Derek Thompson, business editor at The Atlantic, thanks as always.

THOMPSON: Thank you.

HOBSON: Be back in a minute, HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.