In a survey by Newtown Square-based legal-consulting firm Altman Weil of managing partners at 238 U.S.-based law firms, respondents reported that the legal industry faced long-term financial pressures, and that the firms would respond by outsourcing work and hiring fewer inexperienced lawyers. Fifty-five percent of respondents said they expected smaller first-year classes to become a lasting trend.
Now, a corresponding dynamic is under way at law schools. Applicants are down about 14 percent this year on average nationally, according to the Law School Admission Council, of Newtown, Bucks County. Prospective students are looking at the struggling job market, the high cost of legal education, the possibility of graduating with debt of $100,000 or more, and deciding in some instances to place their bets elsewhere.
These are the harsh new facts bedeviling the lives and careers of educators such as Temple Law School dean JoAnne Epps. Applications at Temple are down 21 percent this year. In four of the last five years, moreover, the school has had to absorb state budget cuts ranging from just under 1 percent, to as much as 5 percent in 2009-2010. Rival schools, meantime, are offering generous aid packages.
"We are likely to admit a smaller class this fall, in recognition of the declining applicant pools, and though we can't claim to be selfless, it is the right thing to do in recognition of the changed and more limited opportunities after graduation," says Epps, a Yale Law School grad.
It would be overstating the case to say these problems have unleashed an existential crisis. While applications are down, competition for admission remains keen. This year, Temple had 3,254 applications for 250 places in its first-year class.
The budget cuts have been absorbed through reductions in money for travel, supplies and other expenses, but there have been no staff reductions, Epps said. Temple, moreover, is a state school, and attractively priced, with tuition about $20,000.
The pressures, nonetheless, are real. One simple solution to the law-school budget crunch would be to simply admit more students to generate more revenue. Forget for a moment the question of whether the United States actually needs more lawyers. Law-school administrators argue that graduates who can't find jobs as lawyers have the opportunity to work in other capacities in government and the private sector, putting their legal training to good use.
But accepting for a moment that such jobs might exist in meaningful numbers, even if post-graduation employment data suggest otherwise, law-school deans are loathe to go on an admissions binge for fear of diluting the quality of the incoming class as measured by undergraduate grade-point average and LSAT scores. These are key determinants of the much-detested U.S. News & World Report law-school rankings, which, in turn, are consulted by aspiring law-school applicants in deciding where they would like to go.
Temple has responded by going the other way, with a slightly smaller class that Epps says has stronger entry-level statistics than last year's.
Like many other law schools, Temple is adjusting its curriculum to move slightly away from the heavily theoretical and case-based training model to one that places more focus on experience. The idea is that this will appeal not only to students, but also to law firms seeking to reassure clients that their young lawyers are doing value-added work, and not being trained on the job at their expense.
"One of the challenges law schools face is finding the right line between traditional legal education and the experiential side," Epps says. "Potential employers are saying, `Send someone who knows everything.'?"
Another challenge, she says, is for law schools to find ways to admit creative and entrepreneurial students whose admissions data might fall short of traditional measures, but who nonetheless have the potential to be fabulous lawyers. That would mean, Epps says, breaking free from slavish devotion to rankings, but it also would give schools more flexibility on the admissions side.
Of course, life is filled with surprises, and it is theoretically possible that the boom years will someday return, in which case many of these adjustments will be thrown to the wayside.
But law schools aren't acting that way, and that's probably a good thing.
Contact staff writer Chris Mondics at 215-854-5957 or firstname.lastname@example.org