US law school enrolment is falling, but do we care?

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By Polly Botsford on

Legal education consultant blames ‘cushy lifestyle’ of academics

From the country that brought us Suits, Law & Order and the Good Wife, it appears a career in law is losing its allure.

‘Juris doctor’ enrolment to the 204 US law schools is falling — and falling. In 2016, the total enrolment stood at 110,951 (according to the American Bar Association). In 2015, the total was 113,900. In 2014, the total was nearer 120,000. Go back to the academic year of 2012 and the number was 139,000. That’s around a fifth fewer students in four years.

Earlier this year, Whittier Law School in California announced it would be closing its doors, the first law school in the US ever to do so, according to US press reports. Around the same time, two other law schools in the midwest spilled the beans on a merger.

Mark Cohen, a legal education expert and consultant to Northwestern University in Chicago, tells Legal Cheek that the legal education system need a “dramatic reboot”. “There is a vast delta between the job of a lawyer and the education which gets you there,” he says. “If you are going to spend around $130,000 (£98,000) for your law degree, you are going to need something better.” Cohen sees this as law schools “not looking properly at the legal marketplace. It’s not just about the lawyers anymore — it’s about business, it’s about tech. Law schools need to embrace that.”

Cohen also calls out law academics who, he says, “only have to teach”:

“There are entrenched systems at play here where academics have a very cushy lifestyle. Compare it to medicine or engineering, where experts are practitioners at the same time as being researchers and teachers; they do both. In law faculties, they only have to do the academic side, they only have to teach.”

So should we care over in the UK? There are concerns here too about whether our law degrees are fit for purpose (read what ‘The Frustrated Graduate’ has to say, for instance). Issues have been raised about law schools acting as “cash cows” which are “packing in huge additional numbers”.

But it is much more difficult to predict that the enrolment “crisis” facing US law schools could happen here.

First, this is because the US system is different to the UK one. In the US, law is only a postgrad degree and does not have the combination of the UK’s LLB/LPC system where the former, broadly speaking, focuses on the academic side of the law and the latter gets down to the practicals.

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Second, the decline in numbers and the closure of schools in the US comes after years and years of rapid growth and expansion in schools and students in the 2000s. Throughout the 1980s and early 1990s first year law student numbers were around the 42,000 mark. The number then increased to a 52,000 high in 2010. So one could argue that student numbers are readjusting back to where they were. And there are still more law schools now than there were before the financial crisis in 2007/8.

All this gloom and doom about declining numbers in the US comes at a time when the country’s law schools have only recently been ranked the best in the world. A Times Higher Education survey ranked law schools globally for the first time and US law schools took four out of the five top spots (first was Duke University, then Stanford, Yale, the University of Chicago and then Cambridge in the UK).

Cohen remains sceptical: “Don’t let the numbers fool you. Enrolment and applications are down and law schools are playing fiscal games to stay afloat.” And it’s not just the numbers but also the quality of the candidates that’s declining — in the US, at least. There are signs of a “brain drain” as elite students are increasingly opting for other industries or professions.

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