Law Schools Adjust to Increasingly Lower Enrollment

Long considered the ticket to prosperity, law schools are now fighting to remain relevant. Many prospective students are considering the long-term costs of attending law school and are deciding it’s not worth the investment amid a dismal job market for young lawyers.

With fewer jobs available — as many law firms are still struggling to recover from the 2008 recession — the number of people applying to law school is dropping. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the nation’s 206 accredited law schools have experienced major reductions in applicants in recent years, with enrollment declining to levels not seen since 1973.

The 37,924 full- and part-time students who entered law school in 2014 represent a 27 percent decline from 2010, when enrollment reached an all-time high of 52,488, the ABA reports.

“We have certainly felt a reduction in application volume, which started in 2010, so for five years we’ve been riding through this tumultuous time,” says Rebecca Scheller, assistant dean for admissions and financial aid at the University of Wisconsin (UW) Law School in Madison. “Almost every law school in the country has felt this decline. It’s in large part because people are shying away from law school because of the debt burden and [because] the economy is still uncertain.”

Over the last five years, UW Law School has experienced a 55 percent decrease in the number of applications. “We’re now reaching the new normal,” Scheller says. “Things are leveling off.”

According to Scheller, UW has had a rich tradition of promoting diversity within its law school. However, its minority applicant pool has shrunk in recent years and currently represents 22 percent of the total enrollment, compared with 29 percent two years ago.

While some are concerned that diversity may suffer in light of law schools’ low enrollment numbers, there’s evidence that it is actually increasing at many schools, although that’s not the case at the nation’s most prestigious law schools. Some experts believe diversity could be the antidote to the enrollment dilemma for many of these schools.

“The trend basically has been positive for enrollment of minority students for some time. Where we have a problem is in the acceptance rate, [which] remains low, particularly for black and Latino males,” says Kent Lollis, executive director of diversity for the Law School Admissions Council, a nonprofit organization that administers the LSAT and helps prospective law students with the admission process. “We have a number of programs to give students early exposure to law school. We’re working to create a clear pathway, a seamless link to law school, so students have a ladder from grade school to college supporting their desire to become a lawyer.”

Most law schools are aware of the need for reform and are coming up with creative ways to address the enrollment issue while adding value for their students. Some are lowering tuition or making only modest tuition increases, while others are imposing outright tuition freezes. But for many law schools, the focus has been on stepping up recruitment efforts and making more scholarships available to students while providing them practical, clinical experience.

Many law schools, like the University of Florida’s Fredric G. Levin College of Law, are focusing on building the pipeline by developing programs aimed at high school and college students, particularly students of color. At Levin College of Law, the number of applicants is down to 1,400 this year, which is about a third less than five years ago when enrollment was above 5,000.

“Some of our outreach programming is aimed at students of color,” says George Dawson, dean of Levin College of Law. “We go to historically black colleges and universities, and we go to schools where we know there are Hispanic populations. It’s impossible to reach all minority students through the pipeline, but it’s important to reach some.”

Law schools are also starting to reach out more to veterans, like Edward Zayas, a former captain in the U.S. Army who recently graduated from Charleston School of Law in South Carolina.

Zayas, 35, completed law school practically debt-free thanks to the Post-9/11 GI Bill, a matching scholarship through the Department of Veterans Affairs Yellow Ribbon Program, and money from his savings. The GI Bill is a lifeline for many minority students who, like Zayas, come from disadvantaged backgrounds and are often the first in their family to go to college.

“This was a dream to graduate from law school,” Zayas says. “Coming into the military as an older man who has been in the workforce for nine years, having substantial savings, and being able to utilize my GI Bill, I’m in a better position financially than my peers.”

Unfortunately, this is not the case for 24-year-old Karla Rodriguez, a third-year student at Charleston School of Law. Rodriguez has taken out $100,000 in loans to pay for law school, which she says is a worthwhile investment in her future.

“When I first signed the loan agreement, I cried. It was a big shock,” says Rodriguez, who is president of Charleston School of Law’s Latino/a Law Student Association. “Now I feel more comfortable seeing all the opportunities available to me as a lawyer. This was the best decision I’ve [ever] made. It’s the place I’m meant to be.”

Rodriguez hopes to work in immigration law and take advantage of the Federal Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program. Through the program, student borrowers who work in nonprofit and public sector jobs, and make student loan payments on time, are eligible for student loan forgiveness after 10 years. “That has given me hope to be able to repay my loans,” Rodriguez says.

Other students may be setting the bar too high for what they expect to earn after law school in a tough economy. While there’s prestige in working for a top law firm and earning a six-figure salary, for Zayas, it’s not about the money.

“I went into law because I want to make a change in my community,” he says. “The only way I can do that is by being empowered with the law.”●

Tannette Johnson-Elie is a contributing writer for INSIGHT Into Diversity