Law School Graduates: an endangered species?

December 17, 2013

Law School 3Last week, the Law School Admissions Council released its application numbers. Altogether, they make it apparent that law school has misplaced its appeal.

Between Dec. 4, 2012 and Dec. 4, 2013, applications fell 14 percent, to 14,171. That drop is in keeping with recent industry trends; applications have declined precipitously every year since 2010. (Lawyers, Guns and Money has a good rundown of application numbers.)

This is more bad news for law schools, many of which, it seems, are operating in the red.

The short-term impact that dropping student enrollment will have on law schools is fairly easy to predict, so let’s discuss what it means for Large Law firms.

The first and most obvious implication might be a drying-up in the talent pipeline. Fewer students means fewer summer associates, making it less easy for firms to groom qualified future attorneys. Now, it may not be a tragedy if summer associate programs falter, but consider the wider-scope implications. Attorneys in the twilight of their careers can only remain the workforce so long; it is simply a fact that they will have to retire at some point. If fewer and fewer students are going to law school, will there be enough new, qualified attorneys to replace them?

The answer to that question, of course, depends on many things, including how long the trend of declining law school enrollment continues. Also, as technology increases the productivity of each individual lawyer, the legal industry may be able to accomplish more with less manpower.
Even so, the drop in law school application number is so steep and so consistent that it bears paying attention to. There seems to be very little chance that there will not be repercussions — for law schools as a collective, for law firms and for the collective legal industry.