Law school adjusts to lower enrollmentAmy Cramer, who finished law school in 2011, was one of the fortunate ones, if you define fortunate as finding a temporary job as an employee benefits consultant for $18 an hour soon after graduation.

More than 14 percent of her classmates at The John Marshall Law School in Chicago had not found any job nine months after graduation. Cramer recently joined the ranks of unemployed lawyers when her contract job ended in October.

“I love the law, but being unemployed is very tough on the psyche,” said Cramer, 28. “I don’t know if it’s bad luck or something I’m doing wrong. There’s so much self-doubt in the process.”

The job market has been tough for law school graduates for several years. But law schools were slow to react to changing market conditions. They kept growing enrollments, despite fewer jobs.

In 2010, a record of more than 52,000 students started law school, according to data compiled by the American Bar Association, which accredits U.S. law schools. Since then, enrollments have fallen nationally amid a dwindling pool of applicants.

Would-be lawyers are thinking twice about spending $40,000 to $50,000 a year in private school tuition to study for a profession that isn’t creating enough new jobs to match the supply of graduates every year.

The first to reduce their enrollments were lower-tier schools, according to published reports. But now the pain is spreading up the ranks. National admissions data for the entering Class of 2013 are being compiled by the American Bar Association, but a survey of law schools in Illinois shows sharp declines in enrollment.

At Loyola University Chicago, the entering Class of 2013 was one-fourth smaller than the 2012 class. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign enrolled 170 students, which was 28, or 14 percent, fewer than a year ago.

Even elite schools can’t escape the trends. Northwestern University, No. 12 in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Colleges rankings, trimmed its 2013 entering class of three-year law students to 177, or 14.5 percent, from 207 the year before.

Unless law schools relax their admissions standards, enrollments may continue to shrink, judging by the numbers of people considering getting a Juris Doctor degree. The Law School Admission Council reported that 33,673 people took the law school entrance exam, known as the LSAT, in October, down nearly 11 percent from the same test month last year. The exam is administered four times a year.

The would-be professionals turning away from law school are not fleeing in any obvious direction. For example, interest in graduate business schools waned after 2009 amid a tepid recovery and uncertain job prospects. Applications for master of business administration programs rebounded this year, but much of the increase came from overseas demand, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.

In the face of declining enrollments, the heads of law schools confront financial pressures that many have never dealt with. Schools are forgoing millions of dollars in tuition revenue by shrinking their enrollments. To balance their budgets, some deans have reduced faculty and staff through layoffs and attrition.

At the same time, they are spending limited resources to attract more students and find more jobs for their graduates. They are throwing themselves into curriculum reform and cajoling alumni to hire students for either internships or full-time positions.

“We’re in a longer-term correction in terms of jobs,” said Harold Krent, dean of the Illinois Institute of Technology Chicago-Kent College of Law. “Technology changes, globalization trends, corporate pressures on law firms and tax issues for state governments all have contributed. We have to ensure we continue to be as relevant as we can.”

IIT Chicago-Kent received 2,661 applications for its 2013 entering class, down 31 percent from 2010, when it received 3,854.

Law schools face a difficult choice when the applicant pool shrinks. They can keep enrollment steady by loosening admissions standards, but the strategy could endanger their status in the influential rankings by U.S. News & World Report. Or they can preserve their academic credentials, accept fewer students and find ways to make up the revenue shortfall.

In 2012, Krent trimmed IIT Chicago-Kent’s first-year enrollment by 7 percent, from 308 full- and part-time students to 286, and the same number of students matriculated this year. From 2010 to 2013, the school has registered a modest decline in its median LSAT score, to 158 from 161, out of a possible score of 180.

Krent said it hasn’t been easy balancing the goals of admitting students who can succeed in law school and pass the bar exam and maintaining revenue. Law school tuition also supports the undergraduate and graduate programs at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

“Some people at the university would prefer if we guarantee 300 seats,” Krent said.

David Yellen, Loyola’s law dean, said university officials supported his decision to cut the first-year class, agreeing to accept less revenue from the law school.

Yellen initially planned to cut the first-year class by 10 percent. But after Loyola received fewer applications than he anticipated — 3,323, compared with 4,143 in 2012 — he said he had little choice but to cut deeper to maintain the school’s academic credentials.

“You’re always concerned how you stand relative to your peers,” Yellen said. “You want as talented a group of people as you can get.”

Yellen said his worry about the ongoing malaise in the job market for entry-level lawyers also factored into his decision to enroll fewer students. In the class that graduated in 2012, 32 Loyola students out of 271 were unemployed nine months after graduation. In the 2010 graduating class, only 18 of 266 students had not found a job in the same time frame.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more students are graduating from law school every year than there are new legal jobs available. Growth in legal occupations has been constrained since the Great Recession because demand for discretionary legal services has declined. Also, businesses increasingly use accounting and consulting firms and paralegals to perform some of the tasks that lawyers perform.

Some recent law school graduates who have been unable to find permanent positions are turning to the growing number of temporary staffing firms that place attorneys in short-term jobs.

Cramer found her temporary job through Kelly Services, working at a large bank on an employment benefits project. But she didn’t make enough money to start paying back more than $250,000 in student loans.

Now, while looking for work, Cramer is volunteering with Coordinated Advice & Referral Program for Legal Services, which provides legal services to low-income residents in Cook County, Ill.

“I’m so happy I went to law school, and I think it’s a wonderful profession,” said Cramer, who graduated in the top 30 percent of her class and passed the bar exam on her first attempt. “But the economy is dictating things.”

Source: MCT Informnation Services