Years after the end of the recession, enrollment at the nation’s law schools continues to plummet, a wrenching shift that has forced many schools to cut expenses and raised concerns about the long-term financial prospects of some.
First-year enrollment for fall 2013 dropped 11 percent from the previous year, part of a staggering 24 percent decline in just three years, according to the latest figures from the American Bar Association. At 39,675 students, it was the smallest incoming class since the 1970s, prompting fears that the legal education system has reached a crisis.
With a difficult job market making students increasingly hesitant to take on massive student loan debt, nearly all law schools in Massachusetts — one of the top areas in the nation for legal education — have seen enrollment suffer.
The persistent decline has forced many law schools to take drastic measures. Suffolk University, where first-year enrollment fell 15 percent last year, recently offered buyouts to all faculty with tenure or with renewable long-term contracts, and Western New England University in Springfield has pared back its faculty among a number of cost-cutting measures.
Boston University and Northeastern University have also seen enrollment fall, and even highly regarded Harvard University had seen applications dip, before rallying somewhat the past two years.
By all indications, the decline at many schools will continue this fall. Nationally, the number of applicants for the incoming class has dropped nearly 8 percent from last year, according to the Law School Admission Council.
The legal community had hoped that the downturn was largely cyclical and that demand would rebound with the economy. But with enrollment showing little sign of stabilizing, there is growing acceptance of a perhaps permanent shift.
“It’s a complete structural change, and it’s not going away,” said Richard P. Campbell, a Boston lawyer and former president of the Massachusetts Bar Association who has closely tracked the issue. “The end result is fewer graduates, and fewer law schools.”
A decline in applications forces schools to compete for a smaller pool of students, making it harder to assemble a strong class. While top schools still have plenty of applicants to choose from, allowing them to maintain enrollment, less selective schools have little choice but to accept fewer students. Some schools may also have to lower admission standards.
At New England Law School in Boston, first-year enrollment has dropped 40 percent since fall 2010, while Western New England saw a 28 percent decline. In response, New England Law School last year froze wages, offered buyouts to some faculty members, and reduced its administrative staff. The dean, John O’Brien, took a voluntary pay cut of 25 percent.
Western New England has also frozen tuition, now $39,000, for the next four academic years, in an effort to attract more students.
“By reducing our expenses and developing new revenue, we are holding our own in a tough market,” said Eric Gouvin, dean of the law school.
The University of Massachusetts Law School in Dartmouth, established in 2010 as the state’s only public law school, attracted a class of 114 in 2011. That dropped to 71 in 2012, then rose slightly to 78 last year.
For decades, law school was seen as a springboard to a solid, often lucrative career. But after the economic collapse in 2008, the legal job market slowed dramatically, leaving many graduates out of work.
The class of 2011 faced the worst job market in years, with an overall employment rate of just 85 percent, according to the National Association for Law Placement. That was the lowest it had been since 1994.
During the recession, many law firms cut back on hiring, as companies took a hard line on legal spending and began outsourcing more work, from research to drafting contracts, legal specialists say. At the same time, advances in technology reduced the need for junior associates and support staff.
“All of a sudden those jobs just weren’t there anymore,” said Campbell, who created a bar association task force to study the problem. “The recession brought about a structural change.”
The job crunch caused students to reassess their career plans, realizing the high price of a law degree was an increasingly risky bet.
“Students are being cautious, having seen what happened,” said Vincent D. Rougeau, dean of Boston College Law School, where first-year enrollment fell 14 percent over the past three years, to 230 last year. “We’ve pretty much become accustomed to declines.”
The job market has improved slightly in the past three years, but remains tight. Law schools reported that 57 percent of 2013 graduates were employed in full-time positions where bar passage was required, while 11 percent were unemployed or underemployed.
Not long ago, many top students saw law school as a “natural progression” from their college studies that would pay strong dividends in their careers, Rougeau said. But the speed and scope of the current decline suggests those days may be gone, observers say.
“There’s a pretty broad consensus that this is something completely different,” he said.
Like other law schools, BC has intensified recruiting efforts to attract students. The school hosts more events for admitted students, and faculty members are more likely to contact students directly.
“We’re not complacent,” he said. “We take very seriously the idea that students who apply to us have choices, and it’s our responsibility to make the case for BC.”
Jeremy Paul, dean of Northeastern University’s law school, said declines in entry-level hiring and flat funding for legal services programs have made jobs harder to come by, and law schools are not expecting enrollment to rebound quickly.
“Nobody is acting as if there’s reason to believe there will suddenly be a large spike,” he said.
In response, some schools are moving to prepare students for a legal world that is being transformed by technology, in hopes of making graduates more marketable.
Andrew Perlman, a Suffolk law professor who directs the school’s Institute on Law Practice Technology & Innovation, said schools need to shift their focus to emerging areas, such as document automation and electronic discovery, which involves software that searches documents for relevant information. “It used to be a lawyer went page by page,” he said. “The real growth is not going to be in traditional settings.”
Suffolk created the institute, along with a new concentration in legal technology, to train students in the type of technology that has eliminated so many traditional jobs.
“Instead of fighting it, lawyers can participate in it,” he said.
At Harvard, applications for the first-year class of about 600 are up significantly this year, a promising sign and part of a national increase among students who score high on the LSAT.
“The turn-around at the top of the pool shows that people who are serious about law school are coming back,” said Jessica Soban, assistant dean and chief admissions officer at Harvard Law School.
Campbell likened the decline in enrollment to a bubble, a natural outcome of law schools growing too fast and charging too much. Now some lesser schools may not survive the jarring transition, he said.
“Before, they had no incentive to cut back on the size of their classes, or the tuition they charged,” he said. “They had free rein.”
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