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August 24, 2011

Given modern labor realities, should law schools admit fewer students? Fail more out?

Applicants-Enroll 2010

If nothing else, this new blog authored by (once anonymous) LawProf called "Inside the Law School Scam" has generated some useful discussion throughout the law professor blogosphere about the current realities of law school and legal employment.  And the take-away data I found most notable and important in this context comes from this (under-reported?) New York Times piece from two months ago indicating that US law school each and every year are now graduating roughly two new lawyers for every one new legal job.  (Kudos to Brian Tamanaha for spotlighting these important data (and for the chart reprinted here) via this post at Balkinization titled "The Coming Crunch for Law Schools.")  

In light of this current significant over-supply of junior lawyers seeking jobs in legal fields with only half the opennings needed for full employment (a market problem which has arguably been going on now for numerous years), it is unsurprising that now only the most highly-ranked students and highly-ranked schools are still able to easily find acceptable legal employment and in turn have the resources need to pay off large accumulated student debt.  And, now with a glut of tens of thousands of recent law school grads who are unemployed or underemployed and yet still likely to keep seeking legal opportunities, it seems unlikely that even a huge improvement in the economy will create enough new law jobs for the seemingly ever-increasing number of new law school grads.

With an eye on these market realities, Brian and Gerard Magliocca in recent posts are exploring why there seems still to be a huge demand for law school access as reflected in law school application rates:

  • Gerald asks here, "Why did you decide to go to law school?"
  • Brian asks here "How Inelastic is Demand for Law School? (Testing The Limits)"

Though I think the law school demand side is a very important component of this story, the question in the title of this post is meant to urge discussion of the law school supply side.  In particular, I would like to hear view from anyone inside or outside the law school marketplace as to whether law schools ought to be, in light of modern labor realities, significantly reduce the sizes of their graduating classes either by letting in many fewer students or failing out many more students before these students accumulate huge law school debts.

In a future post, I will set forth my own innovative proposal for how I think modern law schools should try to deal with these issues.  In the meantime, though, I am hoping to generate some feedback on these basic questions.

Posted by DAB

August 24, 2011 in Admissions to law school, Legal profession realities and developments, Serving students, Teaching -- pedagogy | Permalink


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I think class size reduction is a worthy goal. I am a law school graduate, but my understanding is that this kind of oversupply is not common for other professional schools, with their higher barriers to entry. Law school is seen as glamorous, and perhaps most importantly, anybody with a college degree can apply. And its surprisingly hard to dissuade "0Ls" from applying, even with stories about the present economy. One interesting website I've recently discovered is "Top Law Schools", an online forum for 0Ls. This is the place to go if you want insight into their mentality. They are all confident that somehow things will work out for them. In light of all this, I predict no shortage of law school applicants in coming years.

There are some arguments for allowing such large classes. It gives more people a chance at their "dream", etc, but I'd question just how many people actually dream of the types of outcomes law school graduates are finding these days. I don't think this side of the argument holds up well given the current situation.

Both ideas are good. Admit fewer students and don't promote to the second year those who haven't shown the aptitude. And recognize that the defintion of aptitude has probably changed in the last several years. It now takes a pretty exceptional person to be able to handle themselves in this down job market. For as much as its suggested that people "hang a shingle" or "get creative in your job search", understand that this is very hard to do. Most people just aren't creative. And working for yourself is hard, most people don't do it.

As a permanent solution, however, I think the focus should be on keeping class size low rather than failing 1Ls. I imagine that there is a pretty good correlation between the "top applicants" and the top students after the first year is over (I could be wrong about that). Keep them out and you'll be making life easier for them, and for the students you do admit.

Posted by: SP | Aug 25, 2011 6:42:00 AM

While I might be missing something, it seems to me most schools could cut their class size fairly substantially without much of a financial loss simply by paring the top and the bottom of their classes. If schools cut back on their merit scholarships, which have gotten out of hand at many schools, and reduced the bottom of the class (who are the ones paying for those scholarships), they should find themselves with a group of students better aligned with the job market and with the same or near same LSAT and GPA, depending on their current distributions. It might be difficult to justify current faculty lines with a smaller student body but it seems worth exploring, at least for some schools.

Posted by: MS | Aug 27, 2011 12:24:50 PM

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