The news hasn’t been good for law schools the last several years. In 2009, the number of lawyers in the 250 largest firms reportedly dropped 4 percent. The decrease continued in 2010, with various sources reporting a 20 percent reduction of lawyers in firms from 2008 levels, and that 70 percent of the cuts involved associates.
Three factors have contributed to this. One was firms laying off associates. Also, some of the largest firms have delayed the start date for first-year associates for up to one year. Finally, many firms significantly reduced or even eliminated summer hiring altogether. According to the National Association for Law Placement, while summer associate offer rates increased modestly this year—from 40.6 percent a year ago to 46.4 percent—that figure remains far below the 60 percent offer rate in 2007.
Naturally, this trend has affected the placement of law school graduates. The percentage of graduates able to obtain full-time employment within the first year after graduation has been declining the last three years. To make the situation even worse, these lower placement figures include graduates who have settled for other types of work rather than practicing law.
FEWER LAW SCHOOL APPLICANTS
For a number of years, law school applications had been steadily increasing. One of the reasons advanced for this was that, for some students, a law degree had replaced the MBA as the “degree of choice” for those planning a career in business rather than in the legal profession. Even as recently as 2010 law school applications had increased 7 percent.
Then, in 2011, the Law School Advisory Counsel reported that applicants to accredited law schools declined 10.7 percent from 2010. And this year the picture was even worse, with the number of applicants dropping by more than 15 percent. So, in the last two years, the number of applicants has declined more than 25 percent.
To a great degree, this decline is obviously related to the decline in the number of graduates who have been able to find full-time employment practicing law (even though some have accepted positions that did not require a law degree). But that’s not the only reason for the decline in applications. Law schools have been steadily raising tuitions, which, in turn, has increased the already sizeable debt that law graduates incur. Another factor may be the lower esteem in which lawyers are held today.
So three trends have combined to create a gloomy picture for law schools: the decline in traditional law firm leverage, resulting in fewer associates, which has led to decreased hiring of law school graduates, which, in turn, has led to a decline in applications to law school.
WHAT’S THE OUTLOOK?
According to the AmLaw Daily, the immediate future isn’t too rosy. In a client advisory several months ago it parsed several years of data accumulated by Citi Private Bank’s Law Firm Group and drew this conclusion: “Continued sluggishness in demand growth in much of the world will exacerbate the ongoing struggle in many firms to maintain profitability at acceptable levels.” Dan DiPietro, chair of the Citi group, added, “Many of our clients agree with us that 2012 may well be more challenging than 2009.” These two reports accurately gauge the uncertainty still prevalent in the legal profession.
STRATEGIES TO REVERSE THE TRENDS
What, if anything, can law schools do to reverse the downward trend in applicants and the placement of their graduates? Not too much, in my opinion. Remember, law schools do not create a market. They react to and serve a market, which is the demand for lawyers. If the demand for legal services, particularly those that must be provided by a lawyer, does not resume growing, law schools must adjust. However, they could implement several strategies that would make a law degree more attractive.
One strategy is to emphasize that a law degree is, and always has been, excellent preparation for a career in business. Law schools must make potential applicants aware of leading business executives and entrepreneurs who are not practicing lawyers but who hold senior positions in corporations or are successful entrepreneurs. At the same time, schools should accelerate the trend evidenced at some law schools to revise their curricula to include for-credit courses, not on the theory of law but on the practice of it—that is, how to research a matter, write a simple brief or take a deposition. Other schools offer elective courses, although not always for credit, on the fundamentals of how lawyers obtain business and manage their practices.
Another strategy is to take a lead from the MBA programs that offer certain courses online. And, of course, law schools should review their cost structures so that they could reduce tuitions and provide even more attractive financing packages. Boston College, for example, implemented a loan forgiveness program for graduates who pursue careers in public interest law.
The legal profession is changing. Law schools must change, too.