Things were getting bleak. It seemed as though the news cycle was a never-ending record of enrollment and applicant drops, with law graduates faced with heaping piles of debt and no jobs. There had to be a bottom in sight. Well, according to a couple of law professors at top schools, that bottom might finally be here.
University of California-Berkeley Law professor, Steven Davidoff Solomon, writing in an article for The New York Times on March 31, touted a recent blog post by Professor Brian Leiter of the University of Chicago Law School. Leiter is a prominent legal scholar whose views are well respected. He noted a recent report from the Law School Admissions Council which found that applications are only 2.9 percent behind where they were at this time last year. In the middle of March, they were 4.7 percent behind. In January, applicants were down over 7 percent.
Leiter states flatly: “My guess is that we have hit bottom in terms of applicant decline.” If his call turns out right, that’s huge. The mass exodus from law schools began in 2010 when law school enrollment was 52,488. This year enrollment fell to 37,924—a decrease of 27.7 percent. Of course, the drop had to do with widespread unemployment among newly minted law school grads, along with crippling debt burdens that put many graduates into the poor house. Many of those law jobs that were outsourced are not coming back, but demand is edging back into balance with the dwindling supply of new JDs coming out of school.
The five-year decline has exacted a terrible toll on legal education. Some schools have dropped out of the market. Even highly selective schools have reduced the size of their incoming classes. But even more troubling has been all the bad publicity that has discouraged many young people from pursuing law as a profession.
ENROLLMENT STABILIZING AT 1970’s LEVEL
But now, Leiter believes JD enrollment will stabilize around 37,000. “Each year we’ve seen a shrinkage like this, more applicants later in the season, but smaller and smaller declines, this one being the smallest yet,” Leiter told TippingTheScales in an email. “That would suggest that things are stabilizing.”
Of course, in a downturn you have to hit bottom before you can start climbing back, but few are predicting an increase in enrollment at this point. Most observers suggest that the right amount of students are graduating for what the professional market can handle. According to American Bar Association, out of the 20 top schools for job placement, only two schools saw their job placement numbers decrease from 2013 to 2014. But these were at the top schools. Some of the lower ranked schools still have abysmal figures that make their law degrees incredibly poor investments.
Leiter remains cautious and doesn’t see things improving on the job front too immediately. “I’ve no reason to think there will be an increase in applicants until we see more evidence of an increase in demand from employers,” he says.
THE J.D. STILL PAYS OFF
One thing that Leiter (and others) does see is the value of a J.D.—even if the value doesn’t immediately materialize.. Law professors Frank McIntire and Michael Simkovic released a study earlier this month that found that while students with law degrees made less during their first four years of employment compared to similarly educated professionals, lawyers can make up the difference later when income for many climbs rapidly.
“The reality is that students who do not go to law school usually need some kind of further education for employment purposes,” Leiter says. “But what are the other options? It is far from obvious. And as the systematic research has shown conclusively, the J.D. continues to pay off for the vast majority of students over the long-term.”