The number of people applying to American law schools is dropping sharply. A recent report of the Law School Admission Council states that applications to law schools fell almost 18 percent from 2012 to 2013. That drop-off continues a trend; the report says approximately 20,000 fewer people applied to law schools in 2013 than submitted applications only two years earlier, in 2011.
Why the drop-off? The economy has changed, and there is less need for lawyers. Would-be law school applicants recognize that many recent graduates are unemployed or underemployed. The employment statistics compiled by the American Bar Association show a significant number of graduates struggle to find any kind of law-related job. In the meantime — because law school is incredibly expensive — many recent graduates are saddled with tremendous student loan burdens. Working at a waitressing or bartending job in a desperate effort to pay your debts while looking fruitlessly for work in the field for which you’ve received costly but narrow training is not an attractive future.
I think this change is permanent — which means we’re going to see some of the less well-regarded law schools close their doors and we’re going to see a change in the power equation between the shrinking pool of applicants and law schools that want to fill out their classes with well-qualified students. The latter result apparently is already occurring, as students are negotiating more lucrative financial aid packages with law schools competing for their acceptance.
Optimists might foresee other, positive long-term effects from this trend. Lawyer jokes aside, lawyers tend to be intelligent, well-educated, highly motivated people who could contribute to the American economy in many different ways. I’m hoping that people who might have gone to law school in the past now apply those traits and abilities in opening and managing their own businesses, devising new approaches to products and services, and letting their creativity and passions guide them to other productive roles. The fact that the door to a career as a lawyer may be closing just means that other doors should be opened.