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The past five years have been turbulent for US law schools. Applications to the once-booming legal-academic sector have dropped to their lowest level in years, causing heartache among administrators.
Job prospects for graduates have been poor, with law firms cutting associate positions while reducing entry-level salaries. This has made it harder for students to pay off debt.
Schools have responded by revising financial aid strategies, changing the curriculum and offering opportunities in high-demand sectors, such as technology.
“Law schools are starting to think of constructive, creative strategies to address the very challenging environment,” says Daniel Rodriguez, dean of Northwestern University’s Pritzker School of Law. In 2014, he was president of the Association of American Law Schools.
“No law school is immune from the changing legal marketplace and we, at the more elite schools, ignore those changes at our peril.”
From 2010 to 2014, the number of applicants dropped 36 per cent from 87,900 applicants to 55,700, according to the Law School Admission Council, which administers the Law School Admission Test (LSAT). The number of students entering law school in 2014 was the smallest in 40 years, coming in at 43,500.
Critics suggest schools responded by lowering admissions standards. Last year, about one-third of the 200 accredited schools in the US admitted students with LSAT scores below 150, which is considered to be “at risk”, according to a study by Law School Transparency, a US non-profit legal education policy organisation.
But several deans reject that idea, saying they maintained the quality of students and made changes elsewhere.
The high cost has been one of the most daunting obstacles for prospective students. The average total debt after graduation hovers around $150,000, significantly more than the $100,000 in student debt that burdens about 2m in the US.
Schools have recognised the cost problem, but struggle to balance this with their need for income. However, they have been more disciplined on tuition costs, capping or limiting increases, while also setting more aggressive fundraising goals and increasing needs-based financial aid.
One example is Cornell University Law School, which increased financial aid, raised fundraising goals and reallocated resources, says Eduardo Peñalver, dean. The university raised a record $672.9m in the 2015 fiscal year.
About 80 per cent of students receive some kind of financial aid. For the 2014-15 school year, the cost of attending Cornell Law was almost $80,000, including room and board and other expenses.
Most US schools are limited in how much they can change their programmes if they want to be accredited by the American Bar Association. There are also the bar associations of the 50 states to consider. The ABA recently changed its rules to allow schools to have up to 10 per cent of a class with students who have not taken the LSAT. But those students have to be at the top of their college class.
A handful of schools created programmes with three years of tuition completed in two years — but the programmes cost the same.
The University of Dayton’s School of Law in Ohio was, a decade ago, one of the first to create a two-year programme that targets older students for whom the opportunity cost is higher because they are working.
Andrew Strauss, the dean, says law schools must be attuned to the economy and provide opportunities accordingly, including in technology.
Even if applications increase they are unlikely to return to pre-crisis levels, he says. Schools need to think about where legal training might be needed next.
“There are innovative sectors and businesses being created all the time and they need legal assistance,” he says. “The successful law schools of the future are going to figure out how to do that training.”
Cornell has invested in growth areas, such as technology. The school has created a Master of Laws in Law, Technology and Entrepreneurship for students wanting to be lawyers in the start-up field.
The programme is based at Cornell Tech, the graduate school in New York City and focuses on traditional course work. It also includes a business school curriculum and work on start-up projects.
The goal is to encourage traditional law school students to spend time at Cornell Tech.
“No programme at any other law school provides students with the opportunity for hands-on experience to work with tech start-ups,” says Mr Peñalver. “We are educating lawyers to understand the distinctive needs of start-ups.”
However, the tide may be turning. This year, the number of people taking the LSAT, which is required by most schools, went up 6.6 per cent in June compared with the same period a year ago. It rose even further in the autumn testing period, by 7.4 per cent.
About 88 per cent of admissions officers are confident their school will see a spike in applications for the 2015-2016 cycle, compared with only 46 per cent last year, according to a survey conducted by Kaplan Test Prep, the test preparation group.
Still, the past few years have stung most schools, even the most prestigious. The biggest drop in applications has come from students at the top of the applicant pool.
Mr Rodriguez is optimistic, saying the situation has put pressure on schools to innovate in ways that have made them better.
“We’ll see American law schools emerging stronger,” he says. “We’re not in that heyday any more so we have to constantly explain our value proposition and that’s a good thing.”
Gaining the edge via work experience
Christina Albertson, a law student at the University of Virginia School of Law, is spending most of her last year at college working at legal clinics where she advises clients and appears in court.
These practical skills, she believes, will help her land a job after graduation next year. It is the kind of experience she would not have been able to secure if law school was only two years long.
“If you don’t have that time to build up your practical skills and experience, I’m not sure how you would find a job,” says Ms Albertson, who plans to pursue public service after graduation. “The more training you get in law school, the better off you will be when you leave.”
The third year of law school — and whether it is necessary — has been a topic for growing debate as levels of student debt increase and job prospects remain dim.
In 2013, President Obama, who attended Harvard Law School, waded into the debate, saying two years of law school classes was likely to be enough for students. He says students would be better off working as a clerk for a judge or at a law firm in what would be their third year of law school.
This is the kind of experience schools are increasingly offering.
Ms Albertson works at a child advocacy clinic, which focuses on juvenile justice cases, and at a housing clinic, which handles eviction cases and related matters. She is taking only one class, which is on oral advocacy.
The additional debt accrued in her third year concerns her, but she also receives a scholarship that will help ease that burden. Otherwise, she says law school would have been beyond her reach.
She received a school grant last summer that allowed her to work at the Legal Aid Society and live in Washington DC. Without it she would not have been able to pursue that opportunity. Public-service sector positions for law school students are often unpaid.
“UVA had us working from day one on what we needed to do to get a job after we graduate,” Ms Albertson says. “With the market the way it is, law schools are pretty conscious of that now.”