Law school applications decline with uncertain job prospects and growing student debt
Dean Ken Gormley addresses graduates during the Duquesne University School of Law commencement ceremonies last year at the A.J. Palumbo Center.
University of PittsburghSchool of Law dean William M. Carter Jr.: "As someone still paying off his student loans, I understand completely" the issue of growing student debt.
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Applications to Duquesne University's School of Law are down about 15 percent from a year ago, but dean Ken Gormley isn't scrambling to find more enrollees.
"We want to stick with our standards. We don't want to admit students to fill seats if they may not succeed and pass the bar and be able to practice law."
Duquesne is hardly alone among law schools experiencing a dramatic decline in applicants. Nationwide, applications fell by nearly 11 percent in 2011 and by almost 14 percent in 2012, according to the Law School Admission Council, based in Bucks County.
Despite those statistics and a legal job market that has been bleak since the economic crash of 2008, Mr. Gormley takes the approach that smaller enrollments and more specialized curriculums can benefit law schools and their students in the long run.
To that end, Duquesne has adopted course concentrations that allow students to focus in areas such as energy law, health care law and intellectual property, so they are better equipped to deal with a challenging job market.
The school also has added new skills training to its first-year curriculum and beefed up its clinical offerings that give students the opportunity to handle specialized legal issues for groups such as veterans and prisoners, Mr. Gormley said.
"We need to focus on giving students practical experiences," he said.
Across the country, the pool of applicants for law school admissions in 2013 is shaping up to be even smaller than the past two years.
According to data the council released last month, applications as of mid-January were down 20 percent compared with the same time in 2012. At that rate, total applications for the year could fall by 38 percent.
A combination of factors are likely contributing to the dramatic drop-off, said William Carter Jr., dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Law.
"Certainly there's the down economy for legal hiring of new graduates over the last couple years. There's the issue of negative press in the mainstream, and the blogs about the economy and the state of legal education. And there is the issue of growing student debt. As someone still paying off his student loans, I understand that completely."
At Pitt, tuition for its law school in the 2012-13 academic year was $28,728 for residents and $35,704 for nonresidents and international students. Those figures don't include living costs and additional fees such as books.
At Duquesne, tuition for the current academic year is $17,317 per semester for the day program and $13,308 for the evening program. Those costs don't include living expenses, either.
Mr. Carter declined to disclose statistics about applications to Pitt, saying they "fluctuate from week to week."
"We're neither doing much better or much worse than the national trend," he said.
The school had 253 graduates in 2011, according to an American Bar Association report on job placement for law school graduates.
The ABA data, released in June, showed 55 percent of 2011 law school graduates had full-time, long-term jobs as lawyers nine months after graduation.
Among Pitt law school's class of 2011, 54.2 percent were employed in such jobs, and of Duquesne's 2011 class, 44.5 percent held full-time, long-term positions, the ABA report said. Duquesne had 204 graduates last year and expects 206 to graduate this June, including students from its day and evening programs.
Pitt had 211 students enrolled in the class that started in fall 2012, according to the law school's website.
The school isn't making any significant changes to its marketing efforts in light of falling applications, Mr. Carter said.
"I wouldn't say our strategy is different in terms of the downturn. We continue to talk to students about all the good things going on here."
But the school is attempting to give students more exposure to practical legal skills through law clinics and the Pitt Law Academy, which is a series of programs featuring alumni and practicing attorneys who discuss real-world experiences and challenges of being a lawyer.
"We're training students to develop analytical and reasoning skills," Mr. Carter said. "The question becomes as the market is changing: How do we best position students for the opportunities that are out there? We cannot create jobs, but we can position students best for the jobs that are there."
Law school deans aren't the only ones searching for ways to cope with the dive in applications and graduates who can't find jobs.
In Dallas this month, an ABA task force on the future of legal education held a hearing to gain input from students and lawyers about ways to improve the system. Recommendations included reducing the core courses of law school from three years to two, simplifying the bar exam, encouraging college juniors to go directly to law school and having states establish training for legal practitioners much the way they do for nurse practitioners.
In Washington state, for instance, the state bar plans to launch a program for limited-license legal technicians who will have more responsibility than paralegals but not as much as lawyers who negotiate for clients and appear in court.
Besides infusing its curriculum with more practical legal skills, the school is trying to pump more resources into scholarships, Mr. Gormley said.
Among the efforts aimed at cutting costs for students are fellowships for students interested in public service law (such as the courts and state government), and a loan repayment assistance program.
"There's a greater need for lawyers right now than in any time in recent memory because so many people have legal issues," Mr. Gormley said. "The answer is not to give up on legal education but to make it more affordable."
First Published February 18, 2013 12:00 am