Thursday, September 1, 2011

Law schools lure fewer students as jobs dry up

That's the title of this article from

COLUMBIA, Mo.—Tenia Phillips has heard the horror stories about life after law school, circa 2011, from crushing student loan debt to recent graduates serving coffee at Starbucks.

The reality check didn't deter the 27-year-old Waco, Texas, resident from pursuing her childhood dream, though it took four years of working as an apartment leasing agent before she could start fall classes last week at the University of Missouri law school.

"I had gotten to the point in my life where it was either now or never," she said. "Nothing in life is guaranteed. The job market can go back up again or back down."

The days of top law school graduates having their pick of six-figure jobs at boutique firms -- or at least being assured of putting their degrees to use -- are over.

Post-graduate employment rates are at their lowest levels in 15 years. The typical student leaves school nearly $100,000 in debt. And after several years of recession-driven enrollment gains, applications to law schools nationwide are down nearly 10 percent this year.

The sobering statistics have prompted plenty of soul-searching in the legal academy, with calls for schools to provide more accurate job-placement data as well as efforts by some law schools to admit fewer students to avoid dumping a glut of newly minted J.D.s onto an unforgiving job market.

"The sense that one can go to law school and get rich quick, that it is the lottery ticket-- those days are well past," said law dean Larry Dessem at the University of Missouri, where first-year fall enrollment is down 11 percent and applications declined nearly 17 percent.

The lessening interest in law school can be seen at flagship public universities in Missouri and elite private schools such as Washington University in St. Louis, which reports a 12 percent enrollment decline.

New student enrollment at the University of California-Los Angeles is down 16 percent, while the University of Michigan reports a 14 percent decrease in applicants. WashU, UCLA and Michigan are top 25 schools in the influential U.S. News & World Report rankings.

"This year, people realize that this is not a one-year economic decline," said Sarah Zearfoss, assistant law dean and admissions director at Michigan. "It seems to be a much longer-term problem."

That's not necessarily bad, she said. Long considered a refuge for the hyper-ambitious, law schools may now be attracting more committed students, said Zearfoss.

"Now that people are aware it's not a cakewalk to get a big salary, they're thinking more carefully and a little more rationally about making this choice," she said.

Or, as Dessem put it, "That's going to lead to a lot more satisfied lawyers down the road."

That satisfaction could come without a fatter paycheck. According to the National Association for Law Placement, only slightly more than two-thirds of spring 2010 graduates had jobs requiring law licenses nine months later -- the lowest mark since the industry group starting keeping count.

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