At the University of Pittsburgh School of Law, first-year students can expect to be sitting in smaller classes this fall. Though there were plenty of applicants, according to dean William Carter Jr., the school cut the number of admitted students by 17 percent to 175, from 211 a year ago, mainly in response to a glum job market for new lawyers.
"I made the strategic decision several months ago to substantially decrease the size of this year's incoming class ... not because we have been forced to, but because it is the right thing to do," Mr. Carter wrote in a recent email distributed to Pitt Law alumni.
Besides explaining the drop in class size, the dean urged alums to help current students get a jump on their professional careers by acting as mentors; offering paid and unpaid internships and externships; and hosting networking events such as workplace lunches where attorneys can discuss their jobs and field students' questions.
"The most important factor in our decision to proactively reduce the class size was the contraction in the market for entry-level attorneys," Mr. Carter said last week in an emailed response to questions from the Post-Gazette.
Pitt isn't the only law school that's reduced enrollment ranks, restructured programs or scrambled for ways to best use existing resources in response to the dire jobs situation for entry-level lawyers.
Nationwide, applications for first-year spots at law schools this year dropped by more than 12 percent, according to a report in the National Law Journal. It was the third consecutive year of fewer applications, the journal said.
At the Penn State University Dickinson School of Law, the first-year fall class is about 17.5 percent smaller than last year's, with 132 students, said Ellen Foreman, law school spokeswoman.
In an effort to better market itself to potential students, that school is working toward a plan to separate its two campuses -- one at Penn State's main campus in University Park and one in Carlisle, near Harrisburg.
University Park would try to attract more national and global applicants and offer joint degrees and joint study options with other Penn State graduate programs, such as international affairs. The Carlisle campus would target regional students who want to pursue community and public-sector law and who benefit from close access to law firms, courts and government agencies in the state capital.
Despite opposition from some alumni and officials of the formerly independent Dickinson School of Law, Penn State's board of trustees approved the proposal in May and the American Bar Association is scheduled to visit both campuses next month to evaluate them for possible accreditation next spring.
The proposed split was designed "basically to address the whole new climate, new environment that law schools are confronting and graduates are confronting," said Ms. Foreman. "It would better position both programs to be able to offer more options for students and to be able to concentrate on each of their strengths."
Exhibit A: job numbers
Job statistics on the current legal market make it clear why some would-be lawyers are hesitant to shoulder the hefty debt load required to earn a law degree.
Since the economy crashed in 2008, the employment rate for law school graduates has declined every year, according to the National Association for Law Placement. While it's too early to track statistics for the recently graduated class of 2013, the association reported in June that the employment rate for 2012 law school grads as of February was 84.7 percent, down from 85.6 percent in 2011.
The National Association for Law Placement, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, said there were some bright spots in the report on 2012 graduates, including increased hiring at large firms with more than 500 lawyers and a median starting salary for the new graduates of $61,245, up from $60,000 in 2011. However, the number of 2012 graduates who reported they had landed full-time, long-term jobs that required passing the bar was less than 60 percent.
Overall, "The employment profile for this class reflects a 'new normal' ... far below pre-recession highs," the association report said.
"We still see very high unemployment and underemployment, and there are no indications that the employment situation will return to anything like what it was before the recession," James Leipold, National Association for Law Placement's executive director, said in a statement about the report.
Legal employment hit a 24-year high of 91.9 percent in 2007 but fell off dramatically as the lingering recession saw many firms freeze hiring and even lay off lawyers and staff.
Now the tight job market is catching up with law schools.
"A lot of them have taken major hits this year," said Ken Gormley, dean of the Duquesne University School of Law, where fall admissions held steady with fall 2012 enrollment at 140 students in the day and night school programs. Applications fell by about 7 percent this year, Mr. Gormley said.
He believes Duquesne has weathered the economic downturn and tight job market for lawyers by operating as a "smaller, somewhat lean institution that fortunately didn't get too bloated and too big to begin with."
It's also been able to sell students on its Uptown location, just blocks from Pittsburgh's hub of courts on Grant Street, "so you can roll down the hill and be at any clerkship, or courthouse or judge's [chamber]. In talking to students, that's an appealing thing to get your foot in the door for jobs."
Because of the decline in applications, most law schools have two options, said Mr. Carter.
"Either reduce the class size and make budgetary adjustments to offset the decreased revenue, or maintain the class sizes of recent years and experience a decline in student selectivity and reputation," he said.
"We have chosen the former, not because of any particular rankings scheme, but because we want to make sure that we are admitting students who have a strong likelihood of success in the legal profession."
Rankings that rankle
Though the Pitt dean dismissed rankings as a factor in the school's decision to reduce its class size, many schools prefer to accept fewer applicants with higher grade-point averages and test scores as a way to maintain their metrics for rankings, such as those published annually by U.S. News & World Report magazine.
Pitt didn't fare well in the most recent law school rankings, dropping from 69th to 91st place. Duquesne, meanwhile, earned a spot on the list for the first time in a decade with a ranking of 144th out of 194.
In his recent email message to alumni, Mr. Carter said that under U.S. News' methodology, Pitt's job placement rates "while admittedly in need of substantial improvement, look worse compared to our peers ... thereby dragging down our overall ranking."
As for whether the school has had to cut costs because of this year's smaller class size, he said there were not faculty or staff job cuts but "like all law schools, we are thoughtful and cautious about filling positions that become vacant."
Penn State has offered early retirement packages to law school faculty and staff over the past two years and has left open the jobs of those who accepted the packages or left for other reasons such as new jobs, said Ms. Foreman.
"There have been no layoffs, but we have been working to bring our operating costs down," she said.
As law schools cope with fewer applicants and the unstable job market for graduates, even President Barack Obama weighed in recently on the debate of whether the cost of a law degree was worth it.
During a bus tour last month to promote higher education reform, the president -- a Harvard Law School graduate and former law school faculty member at the University of Chicago -- suggested that law schools drop the third year of classes because students would be "better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren't getting paid that much."
Joyce Gannon: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1580.