Enrollment Declines Continue
“The worst is over.” “We’ve finally bottomed out.” “Things can only get better.”
A few months ago, that was the expert consensus on law school. Sure, admission numbers had fallen to 1970s levels, but that was chalked up to a necessary course correction. The Great Recession had changed the rules. Technology and overseas outsourcing had swallowed up the easy work. And clients had begun questioning the bottom-line value of legal services. But that was true for every business. Disruption would force law firms to focus and simplify, to evolve and enter new markets. It was an opportunity, really, some thought. Over time, law graduates would be absorbed into the marketplace. Some even predicted that declining enrollments would produce an employment boom.
And that may still happen. For now, wages are stagnant and job placement is disappointing. The new normal is slow growth with fewer perks. In hiring, law firms are seeking experience and immediate return from new hires, not enthusiasm and potential. While law schools tinker with their curricula, potential students are turning to other pursuits, worried that the days of six-figure salaries and lifetime job security have long passed.
The number of LSAT test-takers in June dropped by 9% compared to June 2013, with first-time test-takers down 14%. In fact, the 21,802 students who sat for the LSAT in June represent the lowest total in 14 years, according to Law Blog. On the heels of a 1% uptick in LSAT test-takers in February, this decline indicates a significant step backward.
Daniel Rodriguez, Dean of Northwestern University Law School, isn’t surprised by the results: “Frankly, there was never a very good theory as to why we would see a correction this year, nor did the data point in that direction. The optimism was a product of wishful thinking.”
Overall, the class of 2017 witnessed an 8% decline in enrollments, according to data from the Law School Admission Council. Alfred Brophy, a University of North Carolina School of Law professor who tracks enrollment, projects that only 38,000 students will start law school this fall, the lowest figure since 1974. And it’s a far cry from the 52,488 students who enrolled for the fall of 2010.
“Law school just isn’t the path into the middle class that it once was,” Brophy tells the National Law Journal. “Things have tumbled downhill very rapidly. Students are disappearing, and it’s unclear when they’re going to come back.”
Law schools are also attracting lower caliber students, as evidenced by the 1% slip from the previous year in applicants with LSAT scores of 165 or higher. Moreover, the number of candidates with LSATs between 145 and 164 plunged 9%. That could be a major problem for lower-tiered schools struggling to make ends meet, according to University of St. Thomas School of Law professor Jerome Organ. “For the schools in the top 30 or so, who tend to garner many of the people at 165 and above, there may be enough to go around without too many schools having to shrink enrollment too significantly,” Organ tells the National Law Journal. “But below that, the law schools with LSAT medians between 145 and 164 will be trying to maintain enrollment and profile with 10% fewer applicants to draw from.” In other words, these schools must make a devil’s bargain: Enroll lesser-caliber students and risk their reputations or cut class sizes and reduce staff and offerings.
Even for established schools, there are no easy answers, warns Northwestern’s Rodriguez. “The market is screaming loud and clear that things have to change. There is a collective-action problem—not one of us can make structural adjustments with the flip of a switch. Many schools are making adjustments, but whether they are transformative is in the eye of the beholder.”