As reported in the Wall Street Journal, and on the ABA site, applications to law school have dropped 11.5% - to the lowest level since 2001. There's also a post over at Jobless Juris Doctor. But what does this mean for the future?
I especially like the title of the WSJ piece - Law School Loses Its Allure As Jobs At Firms Are Scarce - it really sums up the difficulty. Also, the article itself doesn't mention a "$160K starting salary", but instead emphasizes the difficulty and years of effort to get to high pay. Thus, instead of the media pitching the idea of law school, they are now taking a negative view on it. In this regard, I really have to salute all the bloggers that have been so instrumental and dedicated in getting the message out.
In the future, I would expect there to be more articles that are negative with regard to the prospect of going to law school. I make this estimation because the print media is typically very uniform in that once a "respected" source (WSJ would be one) takes a position on an issue, then it becomes an "everybody knows" in the media and many supporting articles are often published.
However, what does this mean for the odds of success when going to law school? Well, in reality the important number is not the decrease in applications by itself (not even a decrease in enrollment by itself). Instead, it is the ratio of graduating law students to available jobs.
In this regard, I can say with a pretty good idea of certainty that the number of available jobs is still far, FAR below its 2001 level. Consequently, even if the decrease in application to 2001 levels leads to a decrease in enrollment to 2001 levels and a decrease in graduation to 2001 levels, there will still be far FAR too many law students graduating for the available jobs.
As I talked about in this earlier post (Tiny Green Shoots In Legal Hiring) we really need to see the number of law firm graduates decline by about 30-50% AND for the economy to improve. We now have some evidence that hiring (which was depressed by about 60-70%) has now inched upward a little by about 8-10%. Further, law school applications have now inched down about 11.5% to their 2001 level.
That's an improvement, but even after the improvement, there is still a large supply-demand mismatch between the number of graduating law students and the number of available law jobs. To put it in perspective, if law firm hiring DOUBLED overnight then there would still be sufficient numbers of graduating law students to supply the demand - and any increase anywhere near that big is an impossibility for a mature industry like law, especially when payrolls have actually been declining over the last few years.
Approaching the situation from the other direction, if the number of students graduating from law school declined by 50%, we would probably still have enough supply of lawyers to meet the demand - without even approaching the "shadow" market of the tens of thousands of lawyers that have graduated since 2008 and have not been able to find jobs.
The bottom line is that although the slight increases in hiring and decreases in number of applicants are encouraging, we are still not even close to balancing the supply of law firm graduates to their demand. Law hiring statistics are still likely to remain depressed for a long, long time. Don't let the decline in law school applicants to "2001 levels" falsely persuade you that the current opportunities are going to be as good as they were in 2001. We are nowhere near that. The jobs just aren't there.