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Law Schools Fight Back as Relevance -- and Enrollment -- Decline

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By Casey C. Sullivan, Esq. on April 23, 2015 11:55 AM

Law schools have seen better days. Applications to law school continue to plummet, according to data from the Law School Admission Council, and the quality of applicants has declined apace. Lower enrollment has lead to lower law school income, leading to cuts in staff and -- what was once unthinkable -- even reductions in tuition rates.

Will law schools be able to turn their fortunes around?

Where Have All the Applicants Gone?

Law school enrollment is set to hit its lowest point in recent memory. Approximately 53,000 students are expected to apply to law school in 2015, according to The Washington Post. In 2010, there were 77,000 applicants; 90,000 in 2004. For those who didn't major in math, that's a massive decline.

What's behind the law school implosion? For one, the law market continues to limp along. Just about half of the class of 2013 found full time jobs as lawyers within nine months of graduating and their starting salaries averaged just under $80,000 -- with many graduates making less than a year's tuition. That's not the type of job prospect that gets young people to line up for six figure debts.

Can Law Schools Regain Their Allure?

Unfortunately for law schools, the small signs of improvement seen in the legal economy haven't resulted in noticeable changes in their applicant pools. As their numbers have continued to decline, some schools have decided to take a more proactive approach to turning things around.

Several schools have shrunk their programs. Rather than accepting students with lower test scores or academic credentials, some schools have pared down the size of their entering class. This means letting go of staff as well. Washington and Lee, for example, is cutting twelve positions. Two Minnesota-based law schools merged into one after seeing massive drops in enrollment.

Rethinking Legal Education -- and Its Cost

Some schools are being more creative. In order to make students more "practice ready," several schools are expanding their writing, externship, and clinical opportunities. Villanova is requiring students to study up on the economics of a law firm, should they be forced to start their own in order to find employment. Some deans have spoken out against what they see as unnecessary barriers to legal education and practice, such as the LSAT and bar exam.

And a few enterprising schools have even responded to lower demand by lowering their prices. The University of Iowa reduced its legal tuition by 16% and saw applications increase 70%. A handful of universities are following suit, though the average cost of law school continues to increase from year to year, though at a slightly lower pace.

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