When I was in college, the common assumption was that students who couldn’t decide what to do after graduation enrolled in law school. The law was a fallback profession, the legal academy a repository for good but dithering students looking to find their way.
Things have changed. The blogosphere abounds with news about the crisis in legal education. The global financial recession brought about a decrease in law-school applications and LSAT takers while tuition rates continued rising. Undergraduates increasingly determined that law school was not worth the time or student-loan debt, in part because starting salaries for lawyers remained stagnant while the job market for legal positions remained saturated.
Law schools with struggling reputations (say, those which fall into the fourth tier of the U.S. News and World Report rankings) have experienced a decrease in applications and reduced matriculation rates. Forced to shrink the size of their classes to remain statistically competitive and satisfy American Bar Association (ABA) admissions standards, these schools have taken creative measures such as accepting more transfer students and developing non-J.D. courses and programming to counteract reduced tuition revenue.
Elite institutions are not immune from trouble. One study has shown that applications to Harvard Law School are down 18%. Applications to the University of Minnesota Law School are down 50%, forcing that school to scramble to save money. It reportedly has not only bought out faculty but also cut coffee in the faculty lounge. Dorothy Brown, a professor of tax law at Emory University School of Law, predicts the imminent closure of a top law school. Meanwhile, as these financial woes grow and spread, LSAT scores and bar passage rates continue to worsen at lower-ranked institutions.
The ABA and the Department of Education (DOE) are cracking down on law schools, the former in response to pressure from the latter. The DOE, in 2016, proposed a one-year revocation of the ABA’s accreditation powers. Consequently, the ABA has more aggressively enforced compliance with its admissions standards, threatening law schools with, among other things, reprimands, probation, and sanctions. For example, the ABA instituted a remedial plan to reverse the negative trends of Ave Maria School of Law’s bar-passage rates and admissions data. Around three months ago, the ABA censured Valparaiso University School of Law and placed Charlotte School of Law on probation.
The ABA has not revoked Charlotte School of Law’s accreditation, but the DOE has nevertheless terminated this school’s access to federal student aid. Law students there have filed a federal class-action lawsuit alleging that Charlotte School of Law and its parent company, InfiLaw, misrepresented the extent of the problems they were confronting, thereby misleading students about the health of the institution in which they were enrolled. Speculation now circulates about whether the closure of Charlotte Law School is inevitable.
Indiana Tech Law School, known for its experimental pedagogical approaches, has announced that it is shutting down. Other law schools have turned to institutional consolidation to remain financially viable. The William Mitchell College of Law, for instance, merged with Hamline University School of Law in 2015. Thomas M. Cooley Law School affiliated with Western Michigan University in 2014, changing its name to Western Michigan University Cooley Law School. It closed its Ann Arbor campus that same year.
The good news for worried law school administrators is that the ABA House of Delegates has voted down proposed Resolution 110B, which would have required 75% of graduates from any law school to pass the bar exam within two years, a figure that would have resulted in the non-compliance of several schools with ABA standards.
In this climate of institutional contraction and uncertainty, law school administrators must remain transparent, lest they invite litigation of the kind facing Charlotte School of Law. On the other hand, prospective law students must complete their due diligence before enrolling in law school. Although the doctrine of caveat emptor has faded away, some residual form of it could benefit the wider culture. Absent any evidence of fraudulent misrepresentation or deceptive practices, law schools should not be liable for the poor matriculation decisions of starry-eyed students.
Prospective law students have a personal responsibility to make informed choices about their graduate education. They should examine closely a law school’s admissions data, including GPA and LSAT scores, and stay sober about their own qualifications and preparedness for law school. They should account for a law school’s employment records and bar-passage rates. And they should research the state of the legal job market in the geographical area surrounding different law schools, paying close attention to the hiring patterns of local firms and organizations.
Not everyone goes to law school for the same reason. Some wish to study at an institution with a religious affiliation; others attend schools that consistently secure for their graduates judicial clerkships or opportunities to work at prestigious law firms. It’s important that prospective law students know exactly what they want from law school—and that they refuse to “settle” on a law school that isn’t a good fit for them.
During this transitional period for legal education, law schools with a long history of recognized stability may not satisfy consumer demands as they once did. Law schools need students, and they’re recruiting them vigorously with mixed results. The days when law school was a prudent option for students who waffled about their profession or career are long gone. While law schools should be scrutinized for their marketing strategies and admissions and employment data, students, too, should be responsible for their poor decisions.
Accountability runs both ways. Law schools and prospective law students alike must equip themselves with knowledge of the legal job market—in addition to the costs and demands of legal education—and adjust their plans accordingly. Otherwise their future could be bleak.