Graduation day was no doubt exhilarating for the hundreds of law school graduates in South Carolina who collected their J.D.’s this month, and just as much so for the law schools proudly sending them off into the world. The grads are now contemplating bright futures, but for law schools across the country, the future is perhaps not quite so imbued with boundless optimism.
Nationally, schools are still grappling with historically low enrollment numbers, even as the latest figures show that in 2018, first-year enrollment inched 2.9 up percent nationwide, the first uptick since those numbers began a long and steep multi-year descent after the Great Recession.
Law School Transparency, a nonprofit organization based in North Carolina, has documented it all, having helped to shine a light on the fact that a J.D. wasn’t necessarily a ticket to easy street.
“We’ve highlighted how law schools, for a long time, had been providing deceptive employment statistics to the public,” said LST’s founder, Kyle McEntee. “Some schools were advertising that their employment rate for new graduates topped 95 percent or more, but the reality was much grimmer. “
The reality was that, while rates varied widely from school to school, only around 55 percent of U.S. law school graduates had jobs that require a J.D., he said.
“The schools would count people as employed, whether they had a job as a barista or at a white-shoe law firm,” McEntee said.
At the same time, jobs at elite law firms swiftly declined, something that the mainstream and legal press picked up on, McEntee said. Some firms were hiring summer associates but not extending permanent full-time offers in the fall, previously a rare occurrence.
Turn and face the strange
Those and other factors led to a decline in law school enrollment both nationally and in South Carolina specifically. Since 2011, enrollment at South Carolina’s two law schools has collectively dropped by 11.5 percent, according to LST.
Over the past few years, the University of South Carolina School of Law has aimed to reduce its first-year class size from 240 to around 210, said Rob Wilcox, the law school’s dean. “When other schools were dropping far more dramatically, we felt at the time it continued to be the right balance,” he said.
First-year students are now more focused legal analysis, reasoning and thinking like a lawyer, Wilcox said.
“During the second year, there is much more corporate law and wills and trusts, and during the third year, they begin to apply those principles to practical situations,” he said.
The school has increased its career counseling staff and has added a class to help students understand the options that they have with a J.D. outside of the practice of law.
“My thinking is going forward is that we have to find ways to finance legal education through things other than [J.D.] tuition,” Wilcox said. “You are seeing more law schools that are looking at other types of graduate programs that are law related and bring in revenue.”
The school is currently exploring the possibility of offering Masters of Law degrees in areas such as health law systems, Wilcox said.
Charleston School of Law’s first-year enrollment declined by almost 18 percent from the year before, from 251 in 2017 to 206 in 2018. (At USC, enrollment was basically stable, going from 215 in 2017 to 214 last fall.)
Dean Ed Bell said that the school had more applicants last year than in years prior but decided to accept fewer students. “We are mindful of our need to increase the profile of our students as we are making it hard to get in,” he aid. “We recently have received enough statistics so we can fairly predict the minimum profile for students to succeed in law school.”
In North Carolina the decline in law school enrollment has been even steeper, sliding by 31.5 percent since 2011, although the lion’s share of that is due to the Charlotte School of Law closing in 2017. (Like Charleston, Charlotte was a for-profit law school.)
Some schools there have been particularly creative in addressing the new challenges. When Elon University School of Law opened in 2006 in Greensboro, 115 law students enrolled. That number dipped slightly for a few years, and in 2012, the school saw its lowest first-year enrollment when 99 students started. Since then, though, the number has climbed steadily.
Luke Bierman, the school’s dean, acknowledged the bad PR that law schools had been getting.
“It takes too long, it’s too expensive, and it’s disconnected from the practice of law,” he said of the public’s narrative on law schools.
Every autumn an opportunity
The school responded accordingly. It cut tuition by about 20 percent, resulting in less student loan debt for students, Bierman said. It also shortened its J.D. program to two and a half years and divided school years into trimesters. Elon also focused on the quality of its faculty–most have practiced law–and students now work full time at a law practice for academic credit.
Dexter Smith, assistant dean of admissions at Campbell Law School in Raleigh, said his school also considered overhauling its curriculum but decided against it, and instead sharpened its focus on the practice versus the theory of law. It also matches third-year students with mentors and they work in their practice.
Declining enrollment can provide advantages for prospective law students, McEntee said. Because there are fewer applicants, it’s easier for students to get into a more prestigious school, and strong students get more generous scholarship offers, and lower enrollment means fewer graduates to compete with for entry-level jobs.
“For law schools, however, drastically lower enrollment spells financial trouble when they cannot quickly shed costs or raise revenue, whether through tuition increases, fundraising, borrowing, or non-J.D. program revenue,” LST says.
McEntee argued that, even today, law schools are still admitting too many students.
“We are seeing the enrollment rate improve, but the number of graduates has fallen,” he said. “At the same time, the number of legal jobs has been pretty flat. Unless law schools reduce enrollment again, we are going to end up in the same position as before. It’s not too late for schools to be responsible in their enrollment management. Every year, they get a chance to do the right thing.”
Follow Bill Cresenzo on Twitter @bcresenzosclw