What's Really Ailing the Legal Profession
Together, three recent news items purport to capture much of what ails the legal profession, but a closer look reveals even deeper issues. First, the number of law schools applications has dropped, but schools continue to produce way too many lawyers for the number of anticipated jobs requiring a J.D. degree. Second, future attorneys incur staggering debt for a three-year degree that can and should be obtainable in two. And third, fears that law firm profits might remain flat for 2013 suggest that many senior partners in big law firms at the pinnacle of the profession have lost an appreciation for their good fortune and a sense of perspective that comes with it.
The End of Lawyers?
Media reports make the continuing drop in the number of law school applicants sound stunning—down more than 30 percent since 2010! Could this be the beginning of what one law professor has predicted will be an actual shortage of lawyers by 2016?
Using 2010 as a baseline against which to measure the comparative decline in applications is misleading. The Great Recession produced a surge of 2009–10 applicants seeking a three-year reprieve from an impossible job market. At that time, law school still looked like a safe bet, largely because deans could tout 93 percent employment rates without disclosing which of their graduates held jobs that were short-term, part-time, school-funded, or didn't require a legal degree.
Another fact is more salient: Overall acceptance rates have increased dramatically. In 2003, about half of the 98,000 applicants were admitted. In 2012, law schools took 75 percent of the 68,000 applicants. Bottom line: Prior to the Great Recession, first-year enrollment totaled about 49,000; in 2012, it was 44,500. That drop is certainly affecting some law schools. But the overall decline is not as dramatic as the hyperbolic headlines. If first-year enrollment ever falls below 30,000 and stays there for a few years, that will be newsworthy.
What Are Students Getting for Their Money?
Meanwhile, President Barack Obama weighed in on the subject of eliminating the third year of law school. It's been a great idea for a long time. Of course, the third year will survive the president's criticism because it accounts for one-third of law school tuition revenues. Such a central component of the law school business model won't die easily.
Some members of the legal academy defend the third year of formal legal education as necessary for increasingly complex times. That argument may prove too much. After the first year teaches prospective attorneys to think like lawyers and the second year covers basic substantive legal areas, the most relevant legal training occurs outside the classroom under the tutelage of practicing lawyers. Many attorneys develop specialties, but that doesn't result from taking one or two advanced courses during the third year of law school.
Deans can pass blame for the enduring third year onto the ABA. It has long been a victim of regulatory capture by the institutions it's supposed to be supervising for the well-being of all attorneys and the profession. The vast majority of states require graduation from an ABA–accredited law school, and the ABA's rules insist on course work that requires three academic years to complete. That's why the few schools that offer accelerated two-year J.D.s are simply cramming three years of credits into two calendar years.
Moreover, the accelerated programs rarely reduce the cost of law school. Most of the schools offering accelerated programs charge the same total tuition as their traditional three-year programs.
Meanwhile, at Big Firms
A final set of headlines has developed over the most recent financial reports of big law firm performance in 2013: Revenues are flat; demand is down. Partner profits might not rise this year!