At 6 foot 3 and 330 pounds, Brock Seng commands attention.
His powerful presence would lend itself well to the courtroom, which is where he envisioned himself someday as an attorney. But Seng, a journalism senior at the University of Florida, has changed his mind and veered from the legal path.
Statistics show he isn’t the only one.
Enrollment to law schools around the country has dwindled by more than 37 percent since 2010. The decline steadied this year at 8 percent, the first single-digit figure in four years, but this is not sign of an upward swing, according to Alfred Brophy, a professor at the University of North Carolina School of Law.
“In the median term, I don’t think (the number of applicants) will increase because I think the structural reasons why people aren’t going to law school aren’t going to change,” he said. “Who knows? Maybe Ebola will wipe us out.”
Brophy has tracked enrollment and written about it for blog The Faculty Lounge since 2013. Official numbers have not yet been reported, but he predicts that 2014 will have about 30,000 first-year law students, compared to 52,488 in 2010.
George Dawson, interim dean of the University of Florida Levin College of Law, mused that the legal field “may have lost its luster.” Brophy points to various factors when speculating what could be causing the decline: Tuition costs are skyrocketing ahead of inflation, jobs are scarce and, ironically, the legal field just isn’t that lucrative.
Putting things into perspective
In 1985, the average attorney brought home about $90,000 per year, which, adjusted for inflation, equals almost $200,000. But a six-digit paycheck is now an elusive reality for law-school grads. These days, the average U.S. attorney is paid a yearly salary of less than $62,000, according to the National Association of Law Placement.
“Not only is law school expensive, but you’re leaving and not making the money you really need to live plus pay back loans,” Seng said in an email interview.
According to Brophy, technology has decreased the need for lawyers — outsourcing is increasingly popular — and businesses have foregone billable hours in lieu of structured pricing models for hired attorneys.
“Now clients are demanding things like a set amount of money to file a motion or handling some litigation, so law itself has become less profitable.”
“Thirty years ago if you were looking to get on the escalator to upward mobility, you went to business or law school,” said William D. Henderson, a professor of law at Indiana University, in a 2013 New York Times article. “Today, the law school escalator is broken.”
Navigating the roadblocks
“A lot of things have come together to make law school a bad proposition for a lot of people,” Brophy said. “Word has gotten out, and people are thinking, ‘Jeez, do I wanna go?’”
First things first, law school is a pricey investment. According to Law School Transparency, a nonprofit legal education policy and watchdog organization, the average law school charges almost $41,000 for tuition. In 1985, tuition at the average private law school cost $7,526. In today’s dollars, that’s $16,294.
Let those numbers sink in.
So, even accounting for inflation, law school is now more than twice as expensive as it was in the ’80s.
Part of the reason this is occurring, Dean Dawson said, is because public institutions have received less and less financial support from the state and budgets have not increased. Yearly tuition at UF law, for example, has climbed by nearly $10,000 since 2009.
“I’m from a middle-class background, so there’s no way that my family would be able to pay for my (law) education completely,” said Nishant Srivastava, a UF 2013 grad. “Combine that with reports that most law school grads are unemployed or not working in the legal field a year after graduation … and the prospects of attending law school don’t look very promising.”
Job stats are indeed dismal. According to a report by Western Michigan University’s Cooley Law school, unemployment of lawyers between 2007 and 2010 increased by 25 percent, from 14,000 to 16,000. Figures for 2013 weren’t any more encouraging. The American Bar Association reported in April that fewer than 60 percent of the class of 2013 was employed in long-term, full-time positions. A CNN article published in July said 13 percent of those grads were still hunting for jobs nine months after receiving diplomas.
Isaac Mizrahi, a third-year law student at UF, said he took UF’s employment stats with a grain of salt because, quoting a professor of his, “there are always good jobs for good lawyers.”
Law schools have taken various measures to adapt to the continuing decline in applicants.
Some law schools, such as the University of Iowa College of Law and Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law, are experimenting with price-cutting to boost enrollment. This has been successful thus far, according to a September 2014 article by the Wall Street Journal. However, tuition cuts are not a panacea.
“Even if it’s free, if there’s no jobs you still don’t do it,” Brophy said. “For instance, I wouldn’t go to school for typesetting even if it were free.”
Law schools’ bottom line is being affected by more than just price-cutting. Admission offices are also having to choose between admitting fewer students (fewer dollars) and accepting candidates with inferior academic credentials (a threat to U.S. News & World Report rankings), according to Brophy.
Dawson said UF law has opted for the latter coping mechanism. Since 2009, its median LSAT score has dropped from 161 to 158, and its median GPA from 3.6 to 3.5. Since 2011, more than 50 law schools around the nation have followed suit, including Florida State University (162 to 159) and Villanova (160 to 157), according to Law School Transparency.
Lower standards means lesser lawyers, right? Not exactly.
According to Brophy, “flagship state schools,” such as UF, UNC and the University of Wisconsin will still garner high-caliber candidates. It’s the non-flagship and bottom-tier institutions, like the St. Thomas University School of Law, that will take a big hit. They will take bigger cuts and dip lower into the candidate pool. To prospective law students considering such institutions, Brophy suggests conducting careful cost-benefit analyses and researching employment statistics before accepting admission.
“Before you sign up to go there, you really need to look at the job prospects coming out.”
Had Mizrahi been accepted only to lower ranked schools, he would not have made the leap.
“It wouldn’t have been worth it because the money’s just not there,” he said. “You’re going to come out of a school like that and be a couple thousand dollars in debt. And if you graduate at the top of your class, you might be making $60,000, at best. And that’s just tough to live on.”
Nobody can say for certain when the decline will reverse.
Dawson believes there may be a cyclical nature to the legal profession — he points to two big waves since 1960 — but he doesn’t see a “boom” period coming any time soon, if ever.
“The nature of the profession has changed, maybe permanently,” Dean Dawson said. “If anything, (the trend) will plateau.”
Mizrahi also thinks there’s an ebb and flow to the industry.
“While I was in undergrad, I saw the boom, then the bust,” he said. “Now people aren’t finding jobs. They’re unemployed. And enrollment is way down. But as the economy gets better and jobs become available, there will be another surge. Then maybe another slump. Maybe it will flatten out. I can’t say for sure, but it definitely seems cyclical.”
Via: Hanover Research
“(The decline in law school enrollment) is an issue of extreme importance to everyone who is law school faculty, student or even a lawyer … because it shapes the future of the profession and how crowded, how lucrative it’ll be,” Brophy said. “This is a great career in many ways if you can get a foothold, but it’s become so competitive and so hard.”
And where did would-be applicants flock to instead?
“I don’t have a good gauge on that,” Brophy said. “My guess is they’re trying to find jobs right out of college. Though I didn’t make a systematic study of this, job prospects of people graduation from college are better now than they were back then.”
“Ultimately, this will be better for the profession.”
“If your passion is truly law school, go for it. Put yourself into it and be the best that you can be,” Brock Seng said. “I plan on continuing to advance in my journalism career.”
A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the University of Missouri lowered its LSAT median score requirements. The error was a mix-up between two institutions with similar names. Additionally, the name of the Pennsylvania State University’s Dickinson School of Law was previously misspelled as the “Dicking” School of Law. The article has been updated to reflect the correct information.
Feature photo courtesy of: Levo