A career in law isn’t looking as attractive to young people as it might have before the age of slow growth, piling student debt and constant economic uncertainty.
Between the fall of 2006 and the fall 2015, applications to American Bar Association accredited law schools decreased from 88,700 to 54,500, according to the Law School Admission Council. During that same time period, students admitted to law schools dropped from 56,000 to 42,300, the council reports.
In recent years, the decline has tapered off with only a 2.2 percent decrease between 2014 and 2015, and the 2015-2016 academic year saw a 4.1 percent increase in administered Law School Admission Tests (LSATs), according to the council.
Last year, publications such as Forbes, The New York Times and the Boston Globe reported that there was a glut of lawyers with not enough jobs to go around.
A Kaplan Test Prep survey from October reports that 111 of the 205 American Bar Association-accredited schools are showing optimism, but many “favor the closure of existing J.D. programs and limiting new ones.”
Much of these problems and uncertainty can be tied to the 2008 recession. The legal profession, like many professions took a hit in the number of jobs.
How law schools adapt and deal
Doug Sylvester, dean of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, saw law schools react without much foresight in the wake of the economic downturn.
Sylvester says schools raised tuition and class sizes when they should have realized the same number of students wouldn’t have been able to find jobs in 2010 compared with 2008.
“I think that kind of somewhat toxic reaction to a difficult environment really did lead to a general disillusionment on many, many potential applicants about a legal career,” he says.
With this sense of uncertainty floating around the legal profession, law schools like the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law took steps to ensure the industry has skilled lawyers.
Over the years, Sylvester has focused on keeping tuition costs low for students. With low tuition costs in one hand, his school still only focuses on admitting the best and brightest, Sylvester says.
ASU’s school of law spends a lot of time on admissions, Sylvester says. His law school doesn’t use statistics or formulas when it’s considering a prospective student. Instead, every file is read in its entirety, Sylvester says.
Sylvester also makes sure each student is enthusiastic about ASU’s mission and that they have a real energy and passion for going into law, something that is really important for a student going into the profession.
The tired cliché of the law student or lawyer who was forced into the profession from external pressures didn’t come from a vacuum.
Arizona Summit School of Law President Don Lively says there are two things a student should consider before going into law:
- If they want to go to law school.
- If the law school of their choice is the right school for them.
“I never try to persuade people,” Lively says. “I just want them to get to an informed judgement.”
As a result, Lively wants to make sure the students are going to law school because it’s their choice, not because of parental pressure or other pressures. He wants prospective students to read about the critics, cynics and more before committing to a career in law.
“I don’t want people to come here, load up on student debt and look at their rear view mirror and ask themselves, ‘Why did I ever do that?’” Lively says.
Lively believes that when a student makes an informed judgement and is not coaxed into law school by a student’s parents, peers or a persuasive admissions department, it works out in the best interest of the school and for the student in the end.
A lot of times, Lively says, the student will come your way because you’ve demonstrated you’re working in the student’s best interest.
Since the recession, Summit has lowered its class sizes and has seen a reduction in admissions like many other schools in the country. In these different times, where the schools have been changing, what are law firms looking for in law school graduates?
What the profession wants
Firms like Fennemore Craig, Gallagher & Kennedy, Sherman & Howard and Quarles & Brady are all looking for bright and intelligent lawyers to join their firms.
But what is changing is how many lawyers are getting hired and who is getting hired, experts say.
Robert Kramer, chief talent officer at Fennemore Craig, says needs for starting lawyers are different than they were 10 or 15 years ago. In the past, Fennemore Craig’s yearly associate additions floated between 10 and 15 new lawyers. But now it’s down to around five a year, Kramer says.
W. Scott Jenkins, partner at Quarles & Brady, says one of the biggest changes in the legal market since the downturn is a bigger emphasis on a new lawyer’s business development at the firm.
The process of having lawyers generate more business for their firm starts much earlier than it did in the past, Jenkins says.
“New lawyers can’t just be good, they have to bring in money,” he adds. “That’s just an economic reality.”
In the past, recent law school graduates would spend their first year or two learning the ropes of what it was like to work at a legal practice.
Summit’s president, Lively, recalls a time when he spent his first year as a lawyer basically holding someone’s briefcase, observing while others practiced law.
Today, firms don’t have that kind of patience or extra bodies to serve as mentors, which is why schools have been preparing students for immediate work.
Kelly Mooney, shareholder at Gallagher & Kennedy, has been seeing recently graduated law students come in with more practical experiences from their externships in law school.
“We’ve been impressed with the externships that these students have been getting,” Mooney says. “(The externships) have been giving students good practical experience.”