It’s been a never-ending torrent of bad news for law schools in the last few years—fewer applicants, fewer jobs for graduates, and signs of upheaval in the industry. But the precipitous decline in law school enrollment may finally be showing signs of abating, as the National Law Journal reports:
Legal educators are cautiously optimistic that the 2015-16 academic year will mark the low point for law school enrollment, and that the number of applicants next year will start to recover from a five-year slide…
Two data points fuel their hopes. With the admissions cycle wrapping up, the number of applicants to American Bar Association-accredited law schools declined by a modest 2 percent compared with the previous year — the smallest reduction in four years, according to the Law School Admission Council. The number of applicants fell by more than 10 percent each year from 2011 to 2013.
Meanwhile, the number of people taking the Law School Admission Test has increased in each of the three sitting since December — spiking 6.6 percent last month. “Historically, the June LSAT is the start of the new admissions season for law schools, and June along with October have the largest number of first-time test takers,” said Jeff Thomas, executive director of prelaw programs for Kaplan Test Prep. “There’s reason for optimism.”
Prospective lawyers might be tempted to interpret the new numbers as evidence that the JD is recovering. And there may be something to this—the market for legal services in the 1990s and the early 2000s was grossly inflated, and the decline in applications over the last five years represented a much-needed market correction.
But those contributing to the uptick in applications should know that the legal profession will likely never be the automatic ticket to a middle class life it once was. Innovations in information technology are continuing to eat away at the available jobs for recent graduates, and despite the supposed recovery in the industry, only six in 10 newly minted JDs found jobs as lawyers last year. Law schools are overdue for downsizing and reform—perhaps even for integration into undergraduate programs—to adjust to these new realities.
The bursting of the law school bubble was not just a result of the sluggish post-recession economy; it was symptomatic of a broader crisis that the industry has yet fully to come to terms with. While the latest ABA and LSAT numbers show that applications may have reached their nadir, at least for now, they should not be interpreted as evidence that the high-flying industry of a decade ago will come back anytime soon.