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Aspiring law students have more to consider than ever before. They not only need to think about whether there will be a job for them at the end of their studies, they also have to consider whether the law school they choose will be able to withstand pressures that are leading to falling student enrolment.
Diminishing confidence in the strength of the legal graduate market, in the wake of the economic downturn, has made it more challenging for law schools to make their case to prospective students – the number of whom has fallen.
In the US, the world’s largest legal education market, the number of applicants for juris doctor (JD) programmes at schools approved by the American Bar Association shrank by more than a third between 2009-10 and 2013-14, according to the Law School Admissions Council.
The number of students admitted on to these courses also fell by almost a quarter from 2009-10 to 2012-13, the most recent year for which LSAC figures are available. The trend presents a problem for law schools: loss of revenue.
Karen Kedem, vice-president at Moody’s Investors Service, says that standalone law schools are particularly vulnerable to tuition revenue declines, as they rely almost exclusively on fees for funding.
A Moody’s report published in May concluded that law schools without the financial security and brand associated with top universities face a greater risk of closure as a result of sustained lower demand.
There have already been casualties. On top of takeovers, some providers have closed programmes.
In the UK, the for-profit Kaplan Law School closed its Bar Professional Training Course this May. Jenny Birch, chief executive of the school, says it became “uneconomic” to deliver the course as intended as a result of “downward pressure on fees and upward pressure on costs.”
John Latham, president and chief executive of The University of Law, says the postgraduate legal market in the UK, as elsewhere, has become much more competitive. “We understand that it is a massive investment [for students] and our focus is on quality of outcomes,” he says.
Students are increasingly concerned about employability when applying, says Michael Schill, dean of the University of Chicago Law School. “It is expensive and students are right to expect a return on their investment . . . [they] are drawn more and more to schools that can keep up of their end of the bargain.”
Chicago’s is one of a number of university law schools that has paired up with other faculties to deliver joint degrees. Mr Schill says that, while the “Chicago brand” is strong, the development of programmes with the university’s Booth School of Business has attracted top students.
Within the sector, there is optimism that falling applications will be reversed as the graduate recruitment market picks up. “We hope applications catch up with general improvements in the economy,” says Maureen O’Rourke, dean at Boston University School of Law.
Some analysts think the decline in demand is not attributable to the economic cycle alone, but reflects a structural shift in the legal industry.
“We are reaching a point where changes in the way that law firms bill [from per-hour charging to flat fee structures] and use technology means there is less need for labour,” says Ms Kedem.
While demand for top schools that offer strong employment opportunities will remain broadly unaffected by this trend, she says, those with less recognised brands and reputations are more likely to struggle.
Amid oversupply in the legal education market, the flight to quality by recruiters and students alike is well under way, she says.
Finance: Students must decide early on how to fund their education
It is not only law schools that face financial challenges. Students must work out early on how they are going to fund their education. In addition to tuition fees, full-time students will face accommodation and living costs. For those without savings or benefactors, here are the main options:
Most top law schools offer strong applicants merit-based financial support that does not have to be repaid. As well as schools’ scholarships, there are also several private grants and scholarships. Students can apply for these according to conditions set out by their sponsors.
Although several banks lend to graduate students, options for international students tend to be limited. Professional and Career Development Loans, subsidised by the UK government, are available to long-term residents, and federal Stafford loans are available to US citizens. A US resident must cosign a US bank loan to an international student to guarantee its repayment.
As many traditional lenders withdrew from the student loans market during the economic downturn, a new form of finance emerged. Crowdfunding platforms allow students to borrow money from those interested in investing in them. Borrowing opportunities can be limited and terms are arranged on a case-by-case basis.