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

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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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18 Comments

Not Amused

The US has a highly abusive model where worthless degrees are sold to innocent students for high cost. Sadly Blair decided to import that model here.

Anonymous

While I am no Blair fan, the coalition is responsible for the fees going catastrophically high.

The jump to £1k and £3.5k happened on Labour’s watch.

Not Amused

It is cause and effect. Once Major had re-branded the polys and Blair had massively increased university attendance, high fees became simply inevitable.

I tend not to put much blame on the people who do the thing that was always going to happen. I prefer to blame the person who started the ball rolling.

@nighthawkprof

they provide another means of delivering lectures and enabling people a path to the profession — it is what it is
what people do with it is up to them

Anonymous

‘Issues have been raised about law schools acting as “cash cows” which are “packing in huge additional numbers”.’

The University of Law and BPP spring to mind…

Anonymous

The US system is like BPP 2: Electric Boogaloo

Anonymous

Beware of the Aluminium Monster

Did you know:

Once upon a time barristers and solicitors did not need an expensive university education to get a place in the profession.

There was a longer period of on-the-job training, granted, but for those who knew what they wanted to do after their A-levels it was a quicker and more relevant route to the professions.

There are still a handful of barristers and solicitors around now who didn’t go to university.

Perhaps we should take a look back and consider this approach afresh?

Anonymous

Fantastic idea. Seeing as demand so far outstrips supply !?

Go and have a lie down son, I think you need it…

Anonymous

The “greedy” generation, we call it.

Got houses on the cheap, hoarded the money, buy-to-let, and then f*cked us all by voting Brexit.

What a bunch of c*nts.

Anonymous

University levels the playing field a bit. students at average schools wouldn’t stand a chance against the privately educated lot until they’ve had a solid education at a good university. It creates the opportunity for students to take leadership roles and demonstrate their abilities.

What you neglected to mention in your post is that the old system meant that realistically only privately educated people became lawyers – they were the only ones prepared after school. There may have been a small handful of exceptions but this hardly disproves the fact. This problem hasn’t gone but it has been alleviated by at least giving clever normal kids the opportunity to go to a good uni and compete with the Etonians.

Not Amused

No.

Bright but poor kids always competed. They used to do it better.

With grammar schools they could compete with Eton directly from school. Going to university without fees meant they could fight upon an equal field.

No one is seriously suggesting that a law degree from an ex poly helps poor born kids. It doesn’t. It is just a way of landing them with extra debt.

Etonians are not the enemy. The enemy are the adults who shut down grammar schools and institute tuition fees.

@nighthawkprof

the model has not or should not have been departed from

the four year degree is there to provide what a busy master in practice cannot — lectures and examinations on (hopefully) relevant law that gives the clerk/student a practical working knowledge

we all know that the other 80% is learnt in the office at the elbow of another practitioner — or his/her assistant

Anonymous

“…elite students are increasingly opting for other industries or professions. ”

About ‘king time !!

Now if only this country could sort its shit out, we’d have less 14 year olds posting on here “I weally weally want to do law cos like it’ll be great and I’ll be rich and that… Innit ?”

@nighthawkprof

this is sadly true

about most human beings who were not so fortunate as you may have been

Anonymous

Fortunate ? Rein it in plank, I was brought up in a one-parent family and went to a comp. I was blessed with being academically able but that’s about all I had in ‘fortunate’ terms. Don’t presume to know me.

Pantman

…calls out…

Why do we have this kiddie language all the time? You even hear semi-educated people like journalists using it.

Brief

No. The answer to the question is no. There’s far too much ponification here.

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