Amid plummeting app numbers, law schools adapt to economy

The Yale Office of Undergraduate Admissions earned a record-high number of applications this year, reflecting the phenomenon of rising application numbers at colleges nationwide. But across campus at the Yale Law School, admissions officers are witnessing the exact opposite trend.

The decline in applications correlates with a decline in legal jobs across the nation. In 2012, the American Bar Association published a study showing that only 55 percent of law students found full-time jobs that required passage of the bar exam nine months after their 2011 graduation — and law schools nationwide are feeling the effects of the poor economic climate on their applicant pools. In 2004, 100,000 students applied to American law schools, but this year, experts and media outlets predict a total of fewer than 60,000. Yale Law School received 2,943 applications in 2012, compared to 3,173 in 2011 and 3,797 in 2010.

The jury is out on how law schools should adapt to recent changes in the job market, but professors interviewed said students have largely been right in considering their decisions to apply to law school with greater care than they might have in a more favorable economy.

Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University School of Law, said he thinks some students are making “educated economic decisions” to hold off attending law school. Robert Berring, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, said students who are unsure of their futures may be wary of the high tuition fees associated with law school.

“There are two different varieties of people who go to law school,” Berring said. “Some are set on becoming lawyers, and some enroll because it’s the next logical thing to do. But are you going to bet $150,000 to $200,000 on something you are not sure you want to be?”

With fewer students taking the bet, law schools have been forced to fight the difficulties of the current job market in whatever ways possible.

ADJUSTING TO A HARSH REALITY

Robert Rasmussen, dean of the University of Southern California Law School, said the declining number of applications to law schools nationwide has become a talking point among law deans, some of whom are concerned that they will not have enough students to fill their classes in future years.

“At some point,” he said, “what happens when we have more law school seats than qualified applicants?”

Rodriguez said he thinks all law schools will have to consider making significant adjustments to their economic models in order to remain sustainable as application counts plummet. Every law school will have to address the decreases in applications caused by dwindling career opportunities and skyrocketing tuition rates, he said.

David Montoya, assistant dean for career services at the University of Texas at Austin School of Law, said his school’s class size reductions over the past 11 years have helped it weather the downturn in the legal market.

Rasmussen said a school’s success can also hinge on whether it has a “special niche” in its community. Because the University of Southern California is located in Los Angeles, the second-largest legal market in the country, Rasmussen said the majority of his school’s graduates are able to secure jobs immediately.

Paul Rollins LAW ’98, associate dean for administration at the admissions office of the University of Georgia Law School, said his school — which charges $15,862 per year for Georgia residents, in comparison to the roughly $50,000 tuition at Ivy League law schools — will always attract in-state students because of its “reasonable cost.”

Law schools are also focusing on raising awareness about jobs outside traditional law firms.

“One of the things we have put an additional focus on is helping students identify the premium jobs in the market — not just the jobs in the law firms, but also the highly sought-after judicial clerkships, government positions and public policy jobs,” said William Hoye, associate dean for admissions and student affairs at Duke University School of Law.

While Berring said top-tier schools and schools that use local connections or fill specific niches are likely to survive the crisis, schools “in the middle” might have more trouble. As a result, some professors at these schools might lose their jobs, he said.

WEATHERING THE STORM

The constricting legal market has forced many graduates to take lower-paying, less-coveted jobs — sending many prospective law students into panic. But administrators at top-tier law schools such as Yale Law School and Columbia Law School said their students have been less affected than others.

Romy Ganschow LAW ’12, a staff attorney at a Brooklyn non-profit, said “the Yale network and credentials” helped her secure the job she wanted, with funding from a Yale fellowship. She added that Yale Law does particularly well in securing public interest jobs for its graduates.

“I would say the average person at Yale Law wouldn’t be very apprehensive,” Ganschow said. “The job market is really bad, but it’s not as bad for Yale Law graduates.”

UCLA Law School Dean Rachel Moran said higher-ranked law schools may offer better job prospects because employers can rely on the consistent quality of their students. Since large law firms and federal judges tend to hire students relatively soon after students enroll at law schools, she said, such employers often consider students at “institutions with stringent entering credentials.”

Regardless of the prevailing economic situation, Columbia Law School Dean David Schizer said employers still seek Columbia Law graduates because of the school’s internationally recognized status and track record of producing successful lawyers.

Though administrators said Yale Law School has taken the financial crisis seriously, Director of Admissions Craig Janecek said Yale Law students and their peers at similarly prestigious institutions have not felt all of the effects of the financial crisis. Instead of receiving 10 job offers, for instance, Janecek said students at Yale might receive four or five offers in the current economy. All but two of 205 students in Yale Law’s class of 2011 confirmed that they were employed or working toward an academic degree nine months after graduation, according to statistics available on the school’s website.

All Yale Law School students interviewed said they are fairly confident in their job prospects.

“I have no worries at all — it would be silly if I did, because those worries would be irrational,” said Michael Wright ’11 LAW ’15. “Everyone that graduates from Yale Law gets to do almost exactly what they want to do.”

DESPITE ADVANTAGES, A ROCKY FIELD FOR ALL

Though graduates from top-tier law schools might be more at ease than others, professors and students said the evolving legal market will affect everyone.

“When we get to the decision of whether to hire a law student, we consider a variety of factors, including the law school the candidate has attended,” said Tina Tabacchi, firmwide chair of recruiting at Jones Day, a law firm headquartered in Washington, D.C. “But we are more focused on the student than the ranking of his or her law school.”

Securing a position in the non-profit and government sector as a law school graduate remains difficult regardless of what school a student attended, Ganschow said. Mathew Andrews ’11 LAW ’14 said the same applies to clerkships and public interest positions.

Despite having been accepted to five of the highest-ranking law schools in the country, Kat Lanigan ’13 said she is “definitely worried” about the current job market. Although she hopes doing well at a competitive law school will help her secure a job, Lanigan said she is not entirely certain of her prospects.

Shailin Thomas ’13, who will enter law school in the fall, said he thinks the decrease in applications may not be proportional to a decrease in the competitiveness of admission, because applicants with generally lower levels of interest — the “people who are on the margin of applying” — may be the ones not applying.

“Law school and being a lawyer isn’t as much a guarantee of becoming well-off and having a steady job now as it used to be,” Lanigan said. “My siblings, who are lawyers, have had trouble finding jobs in this economy. People are seeing now that it’s not an easy path.”

Correction: March 4

A previous version of this article mistakenly stated that Shailin Thomas ’13 said he thinks decreasing application figures increase competition in admissions because applicants with generally lower qualifications and levels of interest are the ones not applying.

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