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There would be enough legal jobs for law graduates if law schools hadn’t slashed admissions standards

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animal house

The ABA has just released first year enrollment figures for the fall of 2013 at the nation’s 202 ABA-approved law schools. 39,675 students enrolled this fall, marking the third straight year that has featured a steep decline, after enrollment reached an all-time high of 52,488 in 2010. You have to go back to 1975 to find a smaller first year class (Attempts to fill the gap with ever-more non-JD students seem to have stalled, as schools enrolled almost exactly the same number of non-JD students this year as last).

What’s particularly striking about these numbers is that first year enrollment is down by 24.4% even though admissions standards have been slashed all across legal academia (Yale, Harvard and Stanford are the only elite schools that haven’t dropped admissions standards, and many non-elite schools have cut median LSAT scores for admits by ten percentage points or more).

In 2004, 55.8% of 100,600 applicants were accepted to at least one school, and 47.9% of applicants ended up enrolling: this fall, about 76.8% of 59,400 applicants were accepted, and 66.8% ended up enrolling. Applicant totals are heading down to a projected total of about 51,300 in this admissions cycle, which means that if law schools had maintained the admissions standards that prevailed a decade ago, next fall’s incoming class would feature about 24,600 matriculants, which is a number about 13% larger than the average annual total of jobs for lawyers that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates will become available over the course of this decade. (Actually applicant totals would probably be even lower if so many schools hadn’t started offering to admit anyone with a college degree who can sign a federal educational loan document, but let’s not make this hypothetical unnecessarily complicated). Since currently about 10% of matriculants fail to graduate, simply maintaining admissions standards would have essentially eliminated the current oversupply of law graduates.

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  • Justice Tell Me a Story

    Admissions standards are culturally biased. (Sorry, but I love that old canard that faculty trot out, which is both irrelevant and bigoted.)

    When “legitimate” law schools begin to fail, I look forward to the knife fight between old guard faculty and the diploma mills. To date, all law schools have stood united shoulder to shoulder. I expect this to break down, and I can’t wait until it does. Soon we’ll see a cluster of 13 schools, a few good public universities, and the diploma mills doing well. Everyone else will be dead. Law profs, you’ve killed the golden goose.

    • NewishLawyer

      What do you consider the difference between a “legitimate” law school and a diploma mill?

      I went to a law school that was founded in 1913 and is connected to a local university. For most of my law school’s history we were a regional but well-respected law school that filled many positions in government and small and medium sized law firms with a handful going to big firms. We have taken a serious beating in the law school crisis with my year being one of the worst.

      I still think it is rather snobby to think it is Top 10 or 20 (depending on who you ask) and saying the rest should go away. Probably an unpopular opinion here but there are good law schools that are not in the Top 20 according to US News and World Report.

      • cornelius mccracken

        This is an easy question. A diploma mill is any law school in a category below that of the speaker’s law school.

        • NewishLawyer

          plus one

        • It’s funny because it’s true. For a given value of funny.

      • Gregor Sansa

        “Diploma mill” doesn’t just mean lower quality. It means lower costs and lower standards. There’s plenty of bad law schools that aren’t diploma mills, and there are probably diploma mills where a dedicated student can get a better-than-average legal education too.

      • Marek

        Without specific reference to your alma mater (whatever it is, I didn’t google 1913), it is irrelevant whether the schools are good for this analysis. Only whether there are jobs for the graduates is relevant.

      • Fair question. I’d say that here in the 21st century a good law school is probably affiliated with a university, has an overall bar passage rate of >75% for first time takers, and a placement rate– meaning placement in full-time employment that requires a JD of >80% in the year following graduation. I’d be prepared to go a bit soft on those numbers for state law schools that are less expensive than the median tuition cost for law schools in a given state.

        • NewishLawyer

          My school had all of those factors except the last one in recent years. It is hard to get full data. Things are are all over the map for the people I can keep track of in my head.

          I know quite a few people at firms, government, or in-house positions as full-timers. I know people employed by their parents. I know people who hung their own shingle with varying degrees of success, and I know a lot of people who are out of law. Then there are people like me who have JD positions but they are freelance and go from one long term project to another. I’m lucky in that my most recent position pays well and lets me work from home but it is still freelance.

        • NewishLawyer

          So there is a question to be asked about whether my freelance work is better than my friends who are associates at mid-sized or small-firms and making less money but they get to call themselves associate and are on more of a traditional move-up ladder.

          • kindasorta

            Assuming perfect foreknowledge, would you have spent 3 years out of the workforce and borrowed whatever you borrowed to attend this school for the job you currently hold?

            • NewishLawyer

              Eh I’m not pleased about the freelancing but I am still doing much better socio-economically than pre-law school.

      • BoredJD

        The problem is that a lot of those schools have stopped trying to be a cheap school for kids who want to practice smallaw or in the state/city government or PD offices and have started chasing national rankings they have no business chasing. And their faculties and deans have demanded salaries and work schedules that are unsustainable at the expense of their students. It’s gotten the schools exactly jack shit, except some powerful alumni can feel good about themselves when the new building goes up.

        Take the difference between CUNY (13K) and the four or five diploma mills in the NYC area (40-50K). Shameful.

        • NewishLawyer

          I don’t disagree with this and I think this thinking goes across all levels of higher education.

          Besides CUNY, can you think of any other law schools that have taken a firm stance against the rankings and said “We will be a good regional law school.” This would probably cause a lot of applicants to flee.

          FWIW my law school is or was Tier II according the US News Rankings. At least they were during my tenure and before.

      • Anonymous

        Sounds like Loyola, New Orleans. I went there in the 80’s and ended up after a stint with the DA’s office in Mid-Law, learned an awful lot and eventually went out on my own. Lots of future politicians were in my class, including the current Mayor of New Orleans, Senators, etc. (I chose Loyola over Tier 1 schools at the time, although of course this was before US News Ranking, so I never realized how poorly Loyola would have ranked relative to its peers).

        • MacK

          there were only two ABA law schools established in 1913 – Utah and Puerto Rico.

        • Schadenboner

          It sounds like my dad’s experience at Marquette Law (in the mid 60’s). He clerked for the State Supremes then did 40 years in Milwaukee mediumlaw (20 to 30 lawyer firms, at least that’s what mediumlaw in Milwaukee in the 1970/80/90/00s was). He never went biglaw (or “White Shoe” as he calls it) but he never really had to (he’s also constitutionally unsuited for a bureaucratized environment, but that’s just my opinion) to be moderately successful (for reasonable values of “success”).

          The problem is (as he explains it, so anecdata ahoy) that biglaw has hollowed out mediumlaw to the point where smalllaw is the only option for graduates from schools where biglaw doesn’t deign to recruit from.

          Add to this an expansion in the practice areas of accounting firms and a general oversupply of graduates from the non-top schools driving down wages at the remaining mediumlaw and the larger-smalllaw practices and you have, well, this.

  • ichininosan

    The quality of the students is cratering. You have to wonder whether these students have sufficient intelligence to practice law. Take American University Washington College of Law, a school with a USN&WR ranking in the low first-tier, high second-tier range. Students at American’s 25th percentile had a 158 LSAT score (75th percent of all test-takers) in 2010. In 2013, American students at the 25th percentile have a 153 LSAT score (56th percent of all test-takers). That is the same score that students at the 25th percentile of the notorious unranked fourth-tier behemoth New York Law School (not to be mistaken with NYU) had in 2010.

    • wengler

      You have to wonder whether these students have sufficient intelligence to practice law.

      OK, this line made me laugh.

  • jim, some guy in iowa

    weird. Belushi looks like a young Antonin Scalia, almost

    • Sherm

      That’s the future Senator Blutarsky; not Justice Blutarsky.

      • jim, some guy in iowa

        d’oh!

  • Hmm

    It seems like this is now in a death spiral. Law schools (outside the very top ones) are seeing a negative ROI from raising tuition. However, law school deans keep raising tuition in the hope the market will bottom out at some point. As long as tuition moves higher enrollment will continue to decline.

    Top schools will continue to raise tuition – because they can. The lower ranked schools are at the mercy of the higher ranked schools. The higher ranked schools can simply lower there standards, get the same amount of students, and drive the so-called lessor schools out of business. I don’t see why this cycle of top schools raising tuition causing a decline in total law school enrollment will change anytime soon. But it sure is fun to watch!

  • Gavin

    Shouldn’t the bar exam filter out those law students who aren’t qualified to be lawyers? I mean that is the purpose of the exam, right?

    It’ll be interesting to see if bar passage rates decline as a result of reduced admission standards. My guess is they don’t.

    • marco pantani

      Much better to filter out the unqualified students who can’t pass the bar during the admissions process. You know, before they take out six figures of non-dischargeable loans and waste three years of their lives.

      • Gavin

        Agreed.

      • PSP

        Better for whom? I think the Dean of Admissions’ paycheck if far less likely to bounce if the bar exam does the filtering.

        • Twopoint Five

          hahaha

      • Lee Rudolph

        But just because they’re unqualified to learn at law school, they needn’t be deprived of the opportunity to subsidize their more qualified classmates!!!

        • Hogan

          Let’s call it networking and charge them extra.

        • Schadenboner

          But but but, there’s so much else you can do with a law school education!

          You don’t have to pass the Bar to be president of an NFL team, for example.

  • justme

    I’m not sure I agree with the final conclusion. First, there would need to be an undersupply of law grads to bring the market back to equilibrium given the many years of oversupply. Second, there’s no hard data, but plenty of anecdotal data that the long-term employment prospects for lawyers is bad. Is that b/c they’re aren’t enough legal jobs in the long run or do lawyers just become so dissatisfied that they leave law altogether? Probably it’s both, but we really need the hard data to get a full picture of the lives of American lawyers and their career prospects.

  • justme

    And for those who’ve never seen it:

    https://twitter.com/LawLemmings

    • maxx

      And don’t miss this:

      http://lawlemmings.tumblr.com/

      I think these two sites answer this statement:

      “You have to wonder whether these students have sufficient intelligence to practice law.” @4:58

      with a resounding NO.

      • ichininosan

        “If I don’t get into law school, I will cry forever! I don’t have a back up plan”

        There is no hope for the human race.

  • mch

    I appreciate the attention here (starting with NewishLawyer) to less-than-top-tier law schools that have served good ends, for the lawyers they produce and the people they serve. I’ll keep listening.

    One area maybe relevant: how many recently minted attorneys are women? I think this might affect placement issues more than is sometimes taken into account, as young women contemplate the biological clock and the grueling schedule of many legal jobs (from white-shoe firms to public defenders’ offices). And men, too, whose partners have careers to be coordinated with…. Not meant as an objection to anything said here, just as another element to be taken into account.

    • Lee Rudolph

      billable hours v. biological clock #slatepitch

    • Um, really? You think “young women” straight out of college and law school “suddenly” discover their biological clocks are ticking and that a full time job is not to their taste? Like they slap their foreheads while contemplating their loan repayment schedule and go “oh, fuck it, I think I’ll just go mommy track?”

      • Hogan

        Chicks, amirite?

    • Law Spider

      Trying to give your question more seriousness than it deserves:

      If you haven’t noticed, the latest screaming problem — at least what some folks are screaming about — is that women are “too busy” focusing on their careers until early to mid-30s. Moreover, only a complete idiot would take out $120K (or more) in loans for a 3-year hobby. At most, the stats are skewed by the 1 woman per school whose parents are wealthy & stupid enough to pay for a $120K MRS.

      • mch

        Just to note that not everyone enters law school at age 22 or 23, and that those who do head law-school way that young are usually from a class or classes that don’t contemplate having children till their 30’s, without much thought as to where they’ll be in their careers at the crucial time. Why the hostility to men, as much as women, whose life choices (or hopes for them, at least) include timing of children? Questions about family-planning may not be of much relevance to many commenters here, but believe me, they are of great relevance to my daughter’s law-school classmates (male as well as female, gay as well as straight), now mostly in their late 20’s and early 30’s. As I’ve noted before, a subset of commenters here seem determined to exclude certain voices.
        Thinking about debt incurred by the young in terms of its effect on family-planning and not just money-making career goals — shoot me!

    • MacK

      You are being facetious?

      Even assuming arguendo that there was a point to your argument, the “mommy track” in the legal profession has, since debt became such a huge issue, not being going home to change diapers, but taking an in-house job or a job in a government agency. Right now, many law graduates would offer a testicle or an ovary for one of those jobs.

      If you are talking about BigLaw, for the vast majority of its recruits (circa 95%) it is a 2-5 year deal – so its over by 18-30, plenty of time to have kids.

      Finally, most women lawyers, in my observation, they tend to marry or partner with persons of similar educational background, often including the same levels of educational debt. I fail to see how marriage for most would be a solution.

      • postmodulator

        I bet you meant it was over by 28 to 30.

  • Another telling statistic:

    The last time there were under 40,000 1Ls enrolled, there were only 163 ABA-accredited law schools. Today there are 202.

    • MacK

      And those 163 ABA-accredited law schools were much much smaller – most with a single 1L section, typically smaller than such sections were a few years ago.

      • PaulB

        If there are 40,000 students distributed among 202 schools today compared to the same number distributed among 163 schools, doesn’t that mean that the average law school today is considerably smaller than 30 years ago?

        • No. It just means the classes are smaller.

          That is, the cost of Administration, Buildings and Grounds, etc. are relatively larger.

          Equilibrium requires lowering ROI or lowering the number of law schools. Which is, of course, why the ABA claims this year’s 1Ls have a chance of reaching equilibirum.

          Just like I had a chance of winning last night’s MegaMillions.

          Probably about the same odds, too, but I didn’t buy $200,000 in tickets.

  • George Hussein Clinton

    There will probably be a surge in summer of 2014 for the fall 2014 class when people take the LSAT and see that it isn’t as hard to get in as previous years.

    • Afwan

      The other side of the coin is the abysmal placement stats. It’s easy to get into law school, but the job market is much less welcoming.

  • Dr Uber Pimp

    @Orin Kerr “The last time there were under 40,000 1Ls enrolled, there were only 163 ABA-accredited law schools. Today there are 202.”
    Also, during 1998, Bloggers, lawsuits, lack of jobs, better informed public, books about the law scam, LPO s, high tuition did not exist during that year either.

  • Informant

    Wait, is that the real Orin Kerr?

  • Joseph Slater

    Very interesting numbers. Among other things, it shows how steeply law school enrollments increased in the first decade of the 21st century, with especially big jumps in the 2001-02 to 2002-03 (from 45,070 to 48,443), and then from 2008-09 to 2009-10 (49,414 to 51,646).

    Before then it was relatively steady for over a decade, with 1988-89 at 42,860, 2001-02 at 43,518, and years in between all steady in the 42,186 to 43,664 range. And the rest of the 80s were steady at only slightly lower numbers: the mid-40,000s to the mid-42,000s.

    So, while it is interesting and important to note how low the 39,675 number is (especially given the increased number of law schools and increased overall population), and I know the OP made a separate interesting and important point about admissions standards, another thing that really struck me is how a bubble started in the first part of the aughts and then really increased from 2008-10. Recessions driving folks to law schools? It’s curious to me in part because this was also the era in which tuition was outpacing inflation.

    • Orin Kerr

      That struck me, too. This is just speculation, but I wonder if the reason for that enrollment boom is related to the sharp increase in entering associate salaries at the large law firms over that time. The standard biglaw salary was steady at $74k in DC and $86K in NYC from the early 1990s to 1997. In 1997, it began to jump up quickly to $125,000 by 2000, and then to $160,000 by 2007. It might just be a coincidence, but the increases in enrollment seem to follow about 2-3 years after the increases in entering salary at the large law firms. Biglaw was booming, salaries spiked up, and applications followed.

      • PaulB

        Orin,

        I think that’s a reasonable explanation, even though the number of 160K jobs has always been a small percentage of those available. With starting salary stuck since 2007 and the number of available jobs in this range declining, it’s not surprising that the sharpest decline in applications has come from high LSAT scorers.

      • ichininosan

        Orin, your speculation is consistent with what I have observed. In the late 1990s, when the number of persons taking the LSAT was about what it is now, there was not a conventional wisdom that law was amazingly lucrative. People went to law school because they wanted to be a lawyer, or had an interest in law or policy, or just did not know what else to do with a liberal arts degree. The full cost of attendance was well under 100K at all but a few very elite schools. The system was not perfect. There were tons of grads from lower-tiered schools who would never have the opportunity to practice, but their debt loads were mostly manageable.

        Thanks largely to the billable hour and robust economic growth, biglaw starting salaries far outpaced inflation from the late 90s to mid 00s. Firms that paid first year associates $80K in 1998 were paying them $125 in 2001. There was competition for the best of these graduates, measured by schooling. And the students got greedy, real greedy (this is when the greedy associates website emerged.) By 2001, if you wanted to earn six figures, law was perceived as the place to go, at least if you could get into biglaw. That was also the year that professors noticed (I am not speaking hypothetically here) that first year associates were earning more than law faculty (gasp). On the premise (faulty, I think) that they would otherwise be working in biglaw had they not decided to “help students” by teaching, faculty started raising their salaries and diminishing their teaching loads (2/1), much to envy of other university faculty. To fund this operation, law school tuition continued to increase dramatically. In short, the faculty became greedy.

        In the mid-00s economic reality showed up uninvited to biglaw’s doorstep. Billables started to decline, slowly at first and then dramatically, thanks in large part to the outsourcing of mindless legal work that never truly required legal training to perform.

        And here we are. Today, there are 40,000 new graduates each year, the vast majority of whom are up to their eyeballs in law school debt. There are only 4,000 biglaw summer associate positions each year. There were 8,000 such jobs in 2008, but the lost jobs are not coming back. Yes, there are another 16,000 legal jobs, but the vast majority of these pay a salary in the range of $60K, which is insufficient for students that hope to eventually pay off their loans. For the students, it is tragedy. For the citizen it is an outrage. For the law professors. . .

        • I disagree somewhat on the cause of increased faculty salaries in the 2002-07 period. As best I remember it, the main reason was that law schools had tons of cash on hand. Applications were up and schools were expanding, meaning that there was lots of tuition money sitting around. With all that cash sitting around, there was lots of lateral hiring and bidding wars for top faculty, which led to raises for everyone else in an effort to preemptively retain them.

      • MacK

        I think the bimodal salary distribution showed up in the mid-late 90s and was not observed – just at about the same time as the greedy associates phenomenon. So when I left law school in 92 there was a salary range – somewhere around high $40ks to $60k-ish and a little more for STEM degreed lawyers – and new hires were in that spectrum. A small firm paid maybe high $40 to $50k, a boutique $50-55k and big law $60k or so. Now it seems to have diverged so that there is a tiny minority getting BigLaw salaries ($160k), another group getting a sort of mid-market salary $70-100k but a huge group getting $40-60

        The catch is that in the public mind the vast majority of lawyers are making what BigLaw associates and partners make – that is what they see on TV, in the movies and downtown. But this group forms a subset of the legal profession dealing with high value matters for very monied clients.

        The perception though has driven both what law students will pay and also the perceptions of legal faculty. Time and again you hear law professors make “I could’a been a contender” arguments based on a perception that they have the same credentials as BigLaw partners – just because they went to the same law school, achieved similar grades, etc. What they tend to ignore is that of their peers from Harvard, Yale, etc. only a small minority actually made it to BigLaw partnership – surviving their first 5 years as an associate.

        • Srsly Dad Y

          I think too highly of my law-school classmates who became professors to think that they could have been big-law partners.

          • MacK

            Hey, I was trying to avoid mentioning the necessary qualities (or lack thereof) to survive as BigLaw partners….or make it there! That would be rude, though, some academics would seem to have the lacks nailed…

  • 2009lawgrad

    Run it into the ground. Burn it down. I’m fine with the schools faltering, its sad but its a necessary market correction.

    Without being the 10,000’th person to bitch about how we got screwed and how bad it is, we did, and it is. There are too many lawyers even in my small town, and not enough pie to go around. Let demand spike back up, then people will start going back to law school.

    And maybe, just maybe, the law school model will change from 3 years learning about the origins of torts and ferae naturae from the common law to maybe a week on all that and the rest of the time spend on how to actually be a working attorney.

  • Davis X. Machina

    Jack Cade had a 3L a jobs program….

  • Anonymous

    By definition, anyone who goes to law school is not intelligent enough to practice law.

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  • Anonymous

    There is a mistaken notion in these statistics that Harvard, Yale and Stanford Law Schools are somehow immune to the jobs crisis in the legal profession. That is a trap. It is true for most younger people, but less and less true as one ages.

    There has simply has been a drop in demand for legal services, and Harvard does not help you if you spend 20 years at Davis Polk, were on Law Review and now need to find other work as a lawyer after being given a too short deadline to leave. Try getting a job after that from unemployment – the lawyer is f—-ed. There are very few open jobs for lawyers, and most of the open jobs require either that a lawyer be very inexperienced or have a book of business or are in practice areas where most lawyers cannot fit the experience requirements.

    A lawyer does not escape by trying to go to a small firm, non-profit or the government. The jobs are not there for most lawyers, no matter how good their records.

    Hello to unemployment for Harvard grads. Big mistake to do this – go to HLS for a not insignificant percentage of people – you are taking a risk of long term unemployment in the future.

    Honestly, the first second any of these law schools surveys their grads and we see how many actually have jobs, we will see that there are lots and lots of [involuntarily] retired lawyers or solo practitioners or the like among HLS grads.

    • Srsly Dad Y

      +1. Kids–if you do go to HLS–at least be friendly to all of your classmates! Forget about referring business, one of them–and believe me, you don’t know which–may rescue your career someday.

    • bobbyp

      If the demand curve has shifted inward (less demand for services at any price level) and the supply curve has shifted outward (more legal services at any price level) then do we observe lower P?

      If so, where’s the beef? If not, there is an apparent market failure. Isn’t the fact that some mundane legal chores can now be self performed a good thing? On the other hand, with so much supply, how can any firm get away with charging $500/hr? Are there some kind of mysterious barriers to entry?

      Just asking.

      • Anonymous

        There will always be elite clients with complex matters who want the expertise of large firms or highly credentialed smaller firms in specific practice areas. Businesses are willing to pay for expert advice. $500 an hour is not a big number in terms of lawyer billing rates in big firms in big cities.

        The problem is that there are a limited number of $500+ an hour clients and huge competition for that business. The fact that the supply and demand in the legal profession are totally out of whack and that there are many displaced big and mid law lawyers out there does not really change the market for legal services at the top.

        Most lawyers who are booted from big law jobs at the senior level or from senior in house jobs will have trouble generating a reasonable amount of legal business at reasonably high billing rates. Lawyer oversupply does not matter when clients are going to name firms, big or small, in a practice area – the cream rises to the top, so to speak.

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