Law Schools Shrink Incoming Classes

The tough reality of being a law school graduate and finding employment was revealed last month. In a nutshell: approximately 55% of recent grads were employed full-time as lawyers. You don’t need a social scientist to tell you that is not good.

A number of law schools have announced they are shrinking their incoming classes, so what impact does that have on law schools and employment?

Law school applications are down

This recent article seems to imply that law schools have reduced their incoming class size because of the employment issues faced by recent graduates. At the same time, the article touches on the fact that applications are down. So does that mean potential applicants have heard horror stories about unemployed graduates and decided not to apply?

Given that plenty of individuals have declared for years that the law school bubble has burst, it seems like the reaction time is relatively slow. Another issue to consider is who has stopped applying to law school. Is it only people who hoped to make tons of money? Or was it skewed more towards individuals who wanted to work in public interest, but were ultimately concerned about job prospects of the high cost of a legal education? In other words, who is no longer even considering a legal education? It’s worth pondering.

What is the impact of a smaller incoming class?

Regardless of why incoming classes are smaller, it would seem that fewer graduates means a lower demand for jobs, which means higher employment rates for graduates. Of course, given that the market appeared to be oversaturated for a number of years, it will presumably take more than one small class to help reduce the pool of qualified job applicants.

As noted above, another factor worth considering is who is still applying for law school. If high unemployment rates have resulted in a disproportionate impact on a certain group of applicants, that is a serious problem. Again, the example I would use is individuals wanting to pursue some type of public interest work. If they have all decided not to apply to law school, who is going to take the public interest jobs?

The counterargument is that by reducing incoming classes, law schools are also filtering out individuals who might attend law school because they have nothing else to do or are simply motivated by the prospect of of a swanky job at the end of law school. I’m also an idealist and believe that the majority of law school graduates are not motivated by the prospect of a six-figure big-firm job, but because they want to help people. And no, I don’t believe in unicorns.

Of course, there’s always the down the middle angle: it just means there are less law students, but they will still have the same wide range of views as every other law school class. That doesn’t make for a very interesting blog post though.

As a sidenote, the article also notes a growing sentiment that law students need to acquire more practical skills. Fortunately, many law schools are ahead of the curve on this one, and offer a variety of skills-based classes to students.

Will smaller classes have an instant impact?

It seems unlikely. If the market is currently over-saturated, there are still two more years of “regular” size law school classes. That means it will be at least two years before the supply of recent grads begins to shrink. As noted above, it could actually be longer than that, because if only 55% of recent grads are working full-time as attorneys, that means the other 45% are still looking for full-time legal work. And they are likely looking at the same jobs recent graduates could possibly get.

Of course, statistics are just that: statistics. If you are contemplating going to law school, you need to to consider a number of elements. Where you want to go to law school, where you want to practice, and what type of law you want to practice will all have enormous impacts on your ability to find and sustain a legal career. It would be foolish to simply disregard 55% employment numbers, but it would also be foolish to turn away from an opportunity without doing your due diligence.

I may not believe in unicorns, but I still believe in law school.


1 Comment

  1. Avatar Susan Gainen says:

    I, too, still believe in law school and in the future of lawyering for thoughtful, prepared, entrepreneurial students.

    What I don’t believe is that the “shrinking” of law school classes will have much impact on the number of law grads and on their employment. If you look closely, most of the shrinkage is no more than 20-30 students per class, which isn’t enough to make a difference to employment outcomes.

    A meaningful decline in enrollment for most schools would be in the 50-70 range, or the equivalent of eliminating an entire section. That would, of course, have a huge impact on revenue, and, thus, is unlikely to happen all at once. Incrementally, perhaps, but not soon.

    A note on the public service/public interest employment market: The most competitive segment of the law school employment market is not Big Law, it is public service. Thousands of students come to school intent on public service careers. They get all of the right internships; they put thousands of hours into live-client clinics; they serve pro bono clients; they write useful and practical articles; they network with all of the right people. Their resumes scream “I am committed to public service.”

    After graduation, they compete for a rapidly decreasing number of public interest fellowships, a legal services/public defender sector whose funding is declining faster than a pile of corn dogs at the Minnesota State Fair (along with decreasing IOLTA funds), and a tottering federal/state/local public service sector whose budget challenges are legion. When forced to decided between prosecutors and police, the police win every time.

    Law schools cannot cure this problem.

    One huge challenge for law schools and the career services offices that ought to be better staffed (running career services on the cheap is beyond short-sighted) is preparing public-sector oriented students for disappointment from prospective employers while guiding them to acquire practical skills that can be useful for both public and private post-jd employment.

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