Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Attorneys cheer as law school numbers dwindle

It's no secret that the myth of law school being an easy path to riches is largely just that -- a myth. An article in today's edition of The Courier-Journal provides the latest numbers behind the disturbing trend of declining applications at law schools nationally and in Kentucky. Here's a glimpse:

U of L
2011: 1,495
2012: 1,109
2013: 749
2014: 618
Decline: 59%
2011: 1,114
2012: 1,168
2013: 919
2014: 672
Decline: 39%
2011: 891
2012: 717
2013: 681
2014: 524
Decline: 41%

The number of applications is dropping, the article says, in large part because smart students realize that the job market for freshly minted lawyers is not strong enough to justify the mountain of student loan debt that often comes with a three-year Juris Doctor degree. Even at a school such as U of L Law, where tuition is far lower than private schools, it's not difficult to pick up a $60,000 or even $80,000 tab if you are borrowing for tuition and taking a cost-of-living stipend.

But what gets me about the C-J's very well-written article is not the application drop. It's the quotes from practicing lawyers who are cheering the bottom falling out in our industry. One criminal defense attorney said the trend is "great news," while another remarked that some local lawyers are "starving" for work.

It's true that we're enduring a market correction in the legal industry, and fewer applications to law schools may result in a better job market for new grads over the next few years. But if you ask me, the pallor mortis hanging over law schools is not a good thing in the long term. I agree with the following thoughts from Susan Duncan, U of L's law school dean:

While polls show most Americans distrust lawyers, Duncan says they will care about declining law school enrollment "if the quality of legal services declines" or if they can't get "an expert lawyer when they need one."
She also said that it is in the country's best interest to ensure that "the best and brightest" go to law school.
She cited a statement from the American Association of Law Schools on the value of a legal education that says "progress begins with the rule of law" and that it is "the foundation of our society."

Once upon a time, I had similar thoughts about journalism, an industry that has been rocked even more than the law in recent years. Before I bailed out of newspapers and went to law school, my job prospects often felt uncertain, but I never cheered for the industry to implode. For the same reason, I wouldn't steer anyone away from law school now. If you are smart, hard-working, and most importantly have a passion for justice and helping others, my advice is to ignore these negative comments of practicing attorneys. The law school route isn't easy. But if you are fully committed, when you reach the battlefield, there's a good chance they will be no match for you.

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