Law school enrollment is down in S.C. (slightly)

For years, bloggers have been lamenting how there are too many lawyers and not enough jobs for them, and yet more law schools keep opening up shop to crank out more jobless lawyers.  Among the negative effects is a race to the bottom as untrained, jobless lawyers open their own practices by necessity, learn to market their non-existent skills, and take on cases for lower and lower fees.  It affects the quality of legal services provided, and older attorneys complain because at least some of their business is now migrating to the newer, cheaper attorneys.

The reason law schools are founded, and the reason that law schools continue to struggle to keep up their enrollment knowing that their graduates are not going to find work, is quite simple – legal education is a profitable business and the stakeholders do not want to go under or lose money.  Like most businesses, like many of the law school applicants who hope to become rich and famous despite the lack of jobs prospects, the motivation is money.

The problem is not that enrollment is down at law schools.  The problem is that there are too many law schools producing too many lawyers for the market to sustain, even in South Carolina, where we have only two law schools in the state.

I don’t have a solution – we can’t make law schools stop accepting students and we can’t control the number of graduates they produce.  There is the age old debate as to whether the number of law graduates should be regulated – it would solve the problem of the over-abundance of unemployed lawyers and the perceived decline in quality of legal services, but the counter-argument is that it would be protectionism pure and simple.  I don’t think that the number of attorneys graduating could be regulated, but the number of attorneys licensed could be.  Personally, I think that every citizen would benefit from a legal education, although not every citizen should be allowed to practice law in the courts.

South Carolina has two law schools, which is probably less than most areas of the country.  The Post and Courier ran an article today with quotes from the deans of the Charleston School of Law and USC School of Law lamenting the lack of jobs and how enrollment is down at their schools.  According to the article, lawyers graduating in 2011 had only 55% employment 9 months after graduation.

The job market has been tough for law graduates nationwide. That’s a problem because many of them take on more than $100,000 in student-loan debt.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this month that law schools produce more than 44,000 graduates each year, about two for every new opening for a lawyer or judicial law clerk.

The class of 2011 had the worst employment numbers of any since 1994, with only 55 percent of graduates known to have found full-time jobs requiring a law degree nine months after graduation.

When I went to law school, USC School of Law was the only law school in the state.  Finding a job was not a problem.  Then Charleston School of Law opened its doors – whatever their stated reason for opening the new school, it was, like every law school, to make money from potential law students.  Now we have two law schools with just over half of the graduates finding employment (I don’t know if this statement is substantiated for South Carolina or not, as I think the statistics cited in the article are nationwide – feel free to correct me if I’m wrong).  Yet the schools are certainly not accepting responsibility for the effect that they have on the job market – each school is concerned that their enrollment is down and they are working to keep up their enrollment, accepting students with lower scores and GPA’s to keep up the numbers:

USC Law Dean Robert Wilcox said his school also has faced challenges recently. Enrollment dropped from 240 students in 2009 to 213 in the past two years. And applications also have declined, he said, from 1,973 in 2009 to 1,771 this year.

The school has to have a class of at least 210 students to sustain itself financially, he said. With the smaller applicant pool in recent years, the average LSAT score and grade-point-averages of the entering class have declined, he said.

What’s the solution?  Can we limit the number of new schools that open in areas that do not need them?  Can we limit the number of graduates who are licensed to practice in the courts?  We can’t say that the market will even itself out as those who do not find work go into another profession, because the unemployed or unemployable new graduates now have a license to open their own offices and begin collecting money from the unsuspecting public.

2 Responses to “Law school enrollment is down in S.C. (slightly)

  • Well, it seems to me that if the quality of graduates is lower, then probably the percentage who pass the bar exam should be lower? And that must be disclosed to people applying for law school? Will the magical market cause many law schools to go out of business?

    The only other thing that comes to mind is what the bar in Pennsylvania used to do, years ago, before I became a lawyer. Each new lawyer was required to have a preceptor — an experienced member of the bar. The preceptor was supposed to meet regularly with the new lawyer, and pass on practice pointers and the ethics of the profession. I don’t know why they stopped doing this – maybe the number of lawyers became too great. I will have to ask some old timers before we lose them. Or maybe it just took too much time.

    If I were the law schools, I would be working hard on looking for and training for alternative employment for new lawyers. They could use their training without having to be litigators or opening their own offices? But then, what is the point of spending enormous sums and a tough three years in law school?

  • We have a mentoring program that was started a few years back, I think it is probably under-utilized, though. If the market caused law schools to go out of business, that may solve the problem. I kind of doubt that will happen, though – there are plenty of people lined up who want to become lawyers even knowing what is in store for them. Everyone thinks it will be the other guy who is out of work or scraping the bottom for cases, not them.

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