Reflections on the Profession: Reactions to the New-Lawyer Surplus by Prospective Law Students, Law Schools and the ABA
This week’s mini-series of critical reflections on the legal profession—including posts on the dearth of female leaders in the law, widespread lawyer job dissatisfaction, and the nationwide new-lawyer surplus—was not meant to break any new ground, but rather provide a thoughtful overview of current challenges. In line with the YLD’s mission, this overview was directed not only at the legal community but also at prospective law students.
Many lawyers are dismissive of anyone who decides to go to law school, particularly with ballooning tuition and a tight job market. And law students who make the decision capriciously might well deserve the disdain. But the numbers suggest that at least some prospective law students are doing their homework: law-school applications this year were at the lowest level since 2001. Indeed, the numbers were stark enough—a double-digit percentage-point drop—to lend credence to a couple of law professors’ splashy prediction that some law schools will go out of business before long.
In light of that revelation, it may well be that the law schools themselves deserve a healthy share of the blame for the new-lawyer surplus. Law schools have enjoyed prosperity of late, while cooking the books when reporting data, even as many of their graduates have not been so fortunate. Many exploited loopholes in reporting admissions and employment numbers to the ABA, U.S. News and others. In at least one ignominious case, Philly’s own Villanova Law, false data was knowingly reported. But now, after taking a financial and reputational hit, some schools seems to be reining things in a bit, accepting fewer students. (Note the ethical terms used by the law school deans quoted in that last linked article.)
Given its law school accreditation authority, the ABA has also faced scrutiny, including from Congress. Its president, Steve Zack, has made law school data transparency a focus from day one, though reviews of the results are mixed. The ABA has modified reporting criteria to address the aforementioned loopholes, and the ABA Young Lawyers Division Assembly passed a comprehensive resolution on the issue. (Though a small step, I was quite glad to vote for the resolution—the only I’ve ever seen pass unanimously—as a member of the Pennsylvania delegation to the ABA YLD Assembly.) The ABA has also publicly blasted at least one law school (brand new, unaccredited Belmont Law) for playing games with numbers to project an unrealistically rosy job-market picture for future lawyers. Still, some commentators have criticized the ABA for continuing to trust law schools to self-report, insisting that the perverse incentives to mislead or outright fabricate are too great. Given the transgressions of ‘Nova and others, that criticism may be entirely warranted. It takes crises like the recent legal job market implosion to provide an impetus for reform, so mere band-aids now will likely mean the status quo for the foreseeable future.