WASHINGTON — A few months after finishing college, Angela Achen sat in a hospital waiting room and took stock of her assets: a degree in art history, a knack for women’s studies, and almost no marketable job skills.
She asked her father, who doctors told her was in his final hours, whether he had any last wishes. He paused, then smiled and said: ‘‘Be a lawyer.’’
So Achen enrolled at the University of Minnesota Law School, encouraged by the school’s statistics on graduates’ salaries and hungry for a career in international business. But as graduation neared, she sought job advice from her professors and lawyers.
Extend your studies another few years, they urged her, or volunteer for a nonprofit.
‘‘The advice I got from all of them was don’t even bother applying to law firms right now, because you’re just wasting your time,’’ said Achen, now 30. ‘‘They’re not hiring.’’
New data released by the American Bar Association in June revealed that barely half of those who graduated law school in 2011 found full-time jobs as lawyers within nine months of graduation. A separate survey from the National Association for Law Placement in June found the overall employment rate last year was the lowest in 16 years.
Although the crisis has been brewing for about a decade, marked by a sudden jump in demand for law school seats, the warning signs until recently had largely been brushed aside.
Now school officials, industry leaders, and even US senators are sounding the alarm, and considering drastic steps.
‘‘It is not a blip. It is not temporary. It is a permanent, structural shift,’’ said Frank Wu, the dean of the University of California’s Hastings College of Law in San Francisco, which is cutting its incoming class by 20 percent.
Last year, 425 students made up the freshman class at Hastings. This year, the target is 330 students. Out of a payroll of 275, the school eliminated 21 positions through layoffs, buyouts, and attrition, and cut another 10 workers to part time. No faculty were let go, said Wu.
Some insist the government needs to stop issuing loans to every student who is admitted to law school. But such proposals inevitably lead to questions about the wisdom of letting the government pick winners and losers — and whether denying loans would give wealthier students an unfair advantage.
Others argue the ABA needs to relax its standards for law school accreditation, which require rigid faculty ratios, expansive libraries, and other features that drive up the cost . Fewer regulations would make room, they say, for lower-cost schools whose graduates could work for reduced rates and still afford to pay off their debt, which averaged almost $125,000 last year for graduates of private law schools.
Barry Currier, the ABA’s interim consultant on legal education, rejected the notion that the standards are too high. He said there’s room within the standards for schools to offer different price points.
By far the loudest call has been for increased transparency, so that students can accurately assess whether it’s smart to drop such a large sum on a law degree.
Demand for lawyers didn’t keep up with supply, a gap that only widened when the recession hit in 2007. With fewer Americans able to shell out hundreds of dollars an hour for legal help, many turned to low-cost options, such as the Internet and legal clinics, and away from the private firms where graduates seek jobs.