Objecting to More Lawyers

Three law schools announced that they will shrink the size of their incoming class in the face of poor job prospects and other pressures.
June 21, 2011

While many pundits argue that law schools are doing a disservice to their students and graduates by training more lawyers than ever before for a job market that has taken a nosedive in recent years, a handful of colleges are taking steps in the opposite direction.

At least three law schools -- Touro Law Center and Albany Law School in New York and Creighton University School of Law in Nebraska -- have announced plans to shrink the size of their incoming classes over the the next few years. Creighton will drop from 155 students in the fall 2010 class to 135 next year and stay there. Albany will go from 250 in the fall 2010 class to 240 next year and 230 the following year. Touro administrators are seeking approval to shrink the class by 10 students a year for the next three years.

The announcements come at a time when law schools are facing the nearly constant refrain from outside observers, as well as students and grads, that they admit too many students at too high a cost for the job market to sustain, leaving many students with massive debt loads they cannot pay off. They also fall on the heels of several colleges and universities announcing that they would not move forward on proposed plans to build law schools. Both decisions buck a trend of the last decade, in which colleges and universities catered to more and more would-be lawyers.

While 150 fewer law students over the next three years won't likely have a huge impact on the job market, some think these actions might be the start of a new trend.

Administrators at the law schools dropping enrollment cite a variety of reasons for downsizing, including a structural change in the job market that makes enrolling as many students an irresponsible course of action. "It’s more than just an immediate problem,” said Ed Birmingham, associate dean for administration and finance at Creighton. “This is a long-term trend involving international practice, the outsourcing of work, demands on lawyers to become more efficient, and also we’ve had a debt issue."

While most law schools are still claiming high job-placement rates, those numbers don't seem to show up in other reports. A study by Northwestern University's law school estimated that since January 2008, about 15,000 attorney and legal staff jobs have disappeared from the nation's largest firms.

"It is the ethical and moral thing to do," said Lawrence Raful, dean of the Touro law center, in an interview with the New York Law Journal. "I don't think the [job] placement situation is going to turn around for a number of years and I think we are concerned about the ethics of turning out quite so many students in debt when we know that not everyone can get a job to pay off that debt."

But other administrators, law professors, and higher education observers all say there are more factors at work besides ethics. They say that a nationwide drop in applicants, pressure to improve rankings, and financial pressures all play into the decision to downsize.

Applications to law schools dropped about 11 percent this year after a spike last year. The reason behind this decline has been debated, with some individuals arguing that students took note of the grim job market and balked at taking out significant loans to pay for a legal education. Others argue that applications for law schools, like those for business schools, tend to be counter-cyclical. Individuals seek professional degrees when they don’t think there could be better options in the workforce, and spike in recessions. Between 2008 and 2009, the number of individuals taking the LSAT jumped from 151,398 to 171,514, according to the Law School Admissions Council. But with some economic recovery in 2010, that number receded to 155,050.

Either way, a shrinking pool of applicants means there are fewer strong applicants to spread around to law schools that are not in the top tier. Accepting fewer students means a law school can be more selective, helping to improve its standing in rankings. Better-prepared students are more likely to end up passing the bar and getting jobs upon graduation -- also pertinent factors in rankings.

Birmingham said one major reason for Creighton's move was to maintain the quality of its incoming class. "By definition, the last 20 to get in would not be as qualified as the 20 before them," he said. He also added that enrolling fewer students opens up more resources, staff support and faculty attention for the remaining students.

Albany has been shrinking its enrollment since 2003, when it had a total of 800 students in the law school. “It was a new dean wanting to raise the school profile,” said David Singer, a spokesman for the law school. “His vision was to become a smaller, more selective institution, and things will follow from there.” The school's average LSAT score rose from 148 in 2003 to 155 in 2006.

John Yoo, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, argued in a blog post that these law schools are simply trying to protect the value of the degree by making it more scarce. “Education is a product in the market, like any other,” he wrote. “The producers (law schools) sell a service (a legal education) at a price (tuition) to consumers (students). If there is an oversupply of the product, or the demand falls, then the price should drop and eventually the quantity will fall until the market clears. I don't see anything so moral (or immoral) about it.”

Regardless of why these law schools are choosing to shrink their enrollments, the decision could pose financial challenges for them. Law schools like Creighton, Touro, and Albany don’t have state appropriations or large endowments to help cover costs, and are therefore heavily dependent on tuition revenue. Creighton charges about $31,000 a year for tuition. Albany and Touro both charge about $41,000.

As it shrank its enrollment between 2003 and 2006, Albany missed out on about $3 million in revenue that it would have taken in from tuition, Singer said. Administrators raised tuition and made cuts to non-academic services to compensate for some of that lost revenue. Singer said alumni also responded positively to the change and increased their gifts to the law school.

Birmingham said he and other Creighton administrators aren’t worried about the financial ramifications of their decision, but they announced the change in enrollment size in a letter to alumni that also asked for donations. He said the law school has always had strong support from its alumni, and he thinks they will respond positively to this change.

There is some debate about the role that colleges should play in informing students about their job prospects and helping them find employment. Some colleges have hired more career advisers during the past few years to help their students find jobs upon graduation. Creighton established a program in which students spend a semester in Washington to help them develop connections and get firsthand experience.

But Birmingham said no number of career advisers can compensate for the lack of jobs requiring legal training in the current job market. “It’s like hiring more rainmakers in the desert,” he said.

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