When Kaplan isn’t busy providing second-rate LSAT prep, they do use their piles of money to put out some pretty useful surveys. A recent survey, released by Kaplan, shows that most law schools are reducing class size and that a lot “plan” to do so next year as well:
“54% of law school admissions officers report cutting their entering law school classes for 2013-2014 and 25% plan to do so again next year. This marks two years in a row that law schools report cutting their entering class sizes; Kaplan’s 2012 survey showed 51% of schools cutting the size of their entering classes. Since its recent peak in 2010, law school applications have dropped from 602,300 to 385,400 in 2013, their lowest level in decades.”
What’s more, 71% of schools say they have more clinical courses and practical training in effort to make students more “practice ready.” WSJ links this with last year’s ABA report calling for “greater focus on practice-readiness, more financial aid, and greater experimentation and differentiation by law schools.”
Another part of the survey covered something we’ve already looked at, which is that more schools are taking applications from June LSAT takers.
These trends provide a good opportunity to take stock of where law schools are and where they should be going. I’m too jet-lagged to put my thoughts in organized paragraphs, so here they are below in bullet form. Apologies in advance to those who follow law school trends closely, as some of this is well-worn territory:
- Some commentators have said, correctly in my judgment, that “practice-readiness” is a chimera. In an era of increased specialization, no school can possibly provide the range of skills that every student (or even some students) are going to need to jump in to practice without a ton of on the job training. Lower ranked schools can and should focus on having a practical curriculum, as they are trying to create lawyers who can work in several practice areas. However, the “practice-ready” approach isn’t going to create significantly more jobs for their students. I’d be surprised if it increases the available-job-pie at all. Packaging this as a solution to the broader problems of legal education, which many are doing, is just nonsense. It’s just deflection from the real problems — the high cost of obtaining a law degree and the heavy competition for jobs among those buying in.
- Really, future law students should view this “practice-ready” talk as just another pitch to try to get them to come to law school.
- The changes — more clinical programs and the like — are actually the opposite of what most law schools should be doing. Competition to provide the best clinical training has been a big part of the runaway costs of legal education. They majority of schools should focus on readying students to take the bar as cheaply as possible. If schools can’t do this cheaply, they shouldn’t be surprised if legislators come along with more drastic solutions, like allowing students to take the bar after a two-year legal education. Bar passage is what makes a law student ready to practice. They’ll learn how to file court papers quickly enough without expensive training paid for out of pocket.
The Ongoing Class Size Reduction-
- While a lot of schools are saying, quite correctly, that cutting class size is the responsible thing to do in a tepid market for lawyers, they aren’t going far enough. Many of these cuts are very small reductions, often 10% or less, and they often don’t mark a drop from pre-recession numbers. In a market where only about half of last year’s graduating law students had a job requiring a JD nine months after grad, it’s baldly apparent that schools are still churning out way too many lawyers.
- Law schools aren’t really reducing class size or “planning” to do so out of a sense of responsibility — the reason they are cutting down is that it helps them maintain their rankings. Since there aren’t as many quality applicants to go around (the result of people wising up that law school is an expensive ticket to participate in a glutted hiring market) schools have to cut class size or accept a weaker pool of applicants. Don’t reduce and they risk damage to their reputation and a slide in the rankings relative to peer schools who do reduce to maintain a same or similar quality incoming class. Also, cutting class size generally helps improve a school’s employment stats, which again should help the school down the road.
- I’ll have to see much more drastic, voluntary reductions before I’m convinced that anyone is doing this out of a sense of responsibility. Responsibility would likely mean some schools have to close and many more have to make big cuts. The problem there of course is no individual school wants to close or undergo a painful down-sizing, and no group has the power to force them too. The ABA can’t do anything to really limit the number of law schools or it would be considered anti-competitive (they are already under a consent decree regarding this). The government could do something, either by getting rid of the system of easy, unlimited loan money for law students or by strictly regulating accreditation, but the wheels will turn slowly there, if indeed anything will ever be done at all. As it stands, irresponsible schools will go on profiting off ill-informed young people who make poor choices about where to go to school and at what price.
- Plenty of schools, sadly, are taking their chances and staying bloated to maintain the full profits they’ve come to expect (see e.g. American University). In most cases, the schools doing this deserve to be castigated. Yes, law schools depend on tuition and can’t be expected to turn philanthropist. They can however be expected to bear some of the harm from the contraction of the legal economy by undergoing some contraction of their own. It would be one thing to stay full-size if they were forthright with incoming students about job prospects, but they’re not.
- Reducing class-size is not reducing cost, which is what law schools should be focused on. Without throwing cost reductions and faculty cuts into the bargain, their balance sheets are just getting more out of whack. They are trying to weather out a storm when instead they should be making permanent adjustments in light of conditions in the job market, which are the “new normal”, at least for the foreseeable future. They need to make changes that benefit students and let them return to healthy profitability on a smaller scale. Buy out some aging professors if you have to. Cut some clinical programs. Stop building new fancy buildings. Do something, anything, to lower costs going forward.
- Some schools that can afford it are opting to keep class cuts to a minimum and are instead using increased financial aid to draw quality students from the remaining pool. This would be great if this level of spending (and more) became a permanent feature of legal education. Unfortunately, the money would probably go away if things improve. Almost exclusively, financial aid still goes to stronger students, and it’s cross-subsidized by weaker applicants who pay full cost. In the current system where we have too many seats in law school, there are still going to be too many losers to create the winners who aren’t paying full price. It would be better if law schools do more to cut costs for everyone, not just for the students that prop them up in the USNWR rankings.
I’m happy to discuss any of this stuff in the comments. Also, before you accuse me of being anti-law school, I am not. I do think though that law schools have a lot of cleaning up to do. Reducing class size is part of that. “Practice-readiness” is just more BS.