Thursday, March 17, 2011

"Right-Sizing" Law School Admissions

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.


  1. Hi Managing partner,

    I was the commenter on your "Green shoots" post. I am in complete congruency with you that the law schools need to decrease their enrollment significantly. Yet, what I think they need to do more than anything is introduce practical training into the law school curriculum. For too long, law schools have relied on the fact that Firms did that end of the education. However, as you have previously stated, that model has broken down. Clients do not want to pay these fees when there are legions of unemployed EXPERIENCED attorneys out there.
    In general though, as an avid reader of history, the law schools really will not change until there is A)Some sort of crisis, that if not addressed, will lead to their demise; or B)Some outside agency severly limits and polices what law schools do.
    What do you feel is the future? It is uncertain, and frought with peril in many ways

  2. I'm glad that applications are down because that means that word is getting out that law school is not simply a 3 year investment of your time before you magically go onto bigger and better things. If law school doesn't kill you, then your student loan bill will!

  3. 2:42 - I absolutely agree that law schools should provide more practical training. I further believe that they should be taught by professors who actually practice (like medical school). I also agree that the law schools are unlikely to change. One thing that would be helpful is if we could move away from non-productive measurements in the ranking systems. Who cares how many books the law school has? How about adding the number of hours of practical training as a requirement? Training from lawyers that actually practice instead of "legal scholars?"

  4. Hi Chief,
    Yep, keep getting that word out! There are just too few jobs for too many students - and far too many self-interested organizations (law schools) that just want to take your money and will say just about anything to get it.

  5. Hi Managing partner,

    I am the poster at 2:42 PM. You are right, law school grading itself is quite non-productive (on the students end, just a few marks, maybe a yes and no) There was a great book review article in the WSJ today about howm in the end, Law Professors interests serve the legal community, and not the students they are teaching. This is whole heartedly true. What other profession can you think of that is teaching it's soon to be professionals in the same manner as A CENTURY AGO!!!!! Keep up the hard work, it is a pleasure reading this blog.

  6. I guess I should note that the proposal to move law school to a two year program, which is seriously being pushed by some schools as a solution to the tuition expenditure problem, would increase graduates by 50% if the economics of law schools remain the same (they would need to have that shift to have the same number of students paying tuition).

  7. Hi Managing Partner,

    I'm one of the lost souls from the Class of 2008. I was lathamed with about 40% of the 1st year class in my group. I tried relentlessly for about 6 months to get something, really anyting. I applied to about 200 firms and the daily Craigslist posting, among many other sources. I decided to do a little expirement and see exactly who it was that I was competing against for the Craigslist jobs. So I paid the $25 and posted an ad looking for "a junior litigation attorney with 0-3 years experience." The results of my expirement were horrifying.

    Within minutes of posting this ad, the resumes started flooding my inbox. Within three days, I had recieved close to 300 resumes. It was shocking! I perused through the resumes and some people were applying with 10 years plus experience. I didn't know what to think, other than my efforts for the past 6 months were analogous to trying to win the lottery? I mean the odds might as well be the same, 1/300 vs. 1/1,000,000.

    Now I tell people, if you want to be a lawyer, just post an ad on Craigslist and see how many people in your area are looking for jobs. It is seriously dumbfounding.

    I'm still trying to find something, I've been pursuing non-legal jobs, but I rarely get responses. The JD has ZERO versatility outside of law. I'm applying to simple personal banker positions but I can't even get that. Oh man....I wish I did something else, I have the brains and my undergrad was computer science, which honestly made law school pretty easy in comparison.

  8. April 12th - Sorry for the delay in replying. Yours is a truly horrifying story - and one that has become all too common.