Law schools have weathered a tumultuous decade. The feel-good train of abundant jobs and high-paying salaries came to a screeching halt with the 2008 recession, and law schools have had to defend against growing discontent ever since. Mainstream media outlets picked up on these scam-bloggers' online rants, and there has been no shortage of news stories disparaging law school economics over the past few months.
Things don't look like they'll get better anytime soon. Visions of law school as the get-rich-quick plan are finally subsiding, and recent college graduates are silently voicing their opposition to the law school bubble by refusing to commit three years and hundreds of thousands of dollars to a JD. Applications to law schools nationwide are down 10% this year, with some schools struggling with a drop in enrollment as high as 17%.
As law schools adapt to these changing economics, they have the real opportunity of making small but positive changes to legal education in this country.
First, universities must recognize that opening a new law school on their campus simple isn't feasible at this point in time. It won't increase the prestige factor; it won't produce an entire class of passionate graduates devoted to public interest law; and given the recent drop in applications, it won't even guarantee more tuition revenue.
The University of Delaware and SUNY Stony Brook have already given up on opening new law schools, citing the prohibitive costs of building and operating a top legal program. While their final decision may have been influenced by the bottom-line and not wishy-washy ethical considerations of pumping out hopelessly unemployable graduates every year, their realistic approach to the economic situation is commendable nevertheless.
The era of two or three new law schools popping up every year must come to an end. Existing law schools should look to cut class size instead of constantly looking for ways to expand their campuses.
Law schools must also be more transparent with their post-graduate employment statistics. While it's unlikely that any law school will freely advertise that some of its graduates pick up shifts at the Cheesecake Factory or succumb to low-paying doc review jobs to pay off their debt, law schools should make a concerted effort to publish the methodology behind their statistics.
For example, if salary ranges and medians are self-reported (as they often are), law schools should include a disclaimer next to the likely inflated statistics - after all, people with higher salaries just might be more likely to report what they make or perhaps even make high-ball estimates.
Every year that yields a decrease in law school applications is a major victory for the legal profession. Law schools might find this hard to swallow, but they must recognize that the current job market cannot sustain the 45,000+ JDs that law schools produce every year.
We don't need more law students, and we certainly don't need more law schools. In fact, down-sizing could be the law schools' greatest contribution to society in the coming decade.
Building a Better Legal Profession (BBLP) is an organization based at Stanford Law School. BBLP is a national grassroots movement that seeks market-based workplace reforms in large private law firms. For more information, visit BBLP's Web site at www.betterlegalprofession.org.
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