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Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Deborah Jones Merritt: Short-Term Law School Predictions (2012-2014)

Deborah Jones Merritt (Ohio State), Mid Game:

Several commenters have asked me whether faculty are discussing the issues raised in this blog and, if so, what any of us see as the endgame. ... [H]ere are four predictions about what might happen by the end of the game's first quarter (roughly within the next two years). ...

1. This summer will produce shock waves at almost every school. Applications are down, including among those who scored highly the LSAT. In addition, based on comments at sites like top-law-schools, 0Ls are much more reluctant to pay sticker price outside the T14. Even some applicants with multiple offers in hand are still weighing whether to attend law school at all.

Schools outside the T6 almost certainly will have trouble filling their seats with applicants as qualified as the ones they currently enroll. The challenges may be greatest at schools ranked roughly 15-100, who will face pressure on three fronts: (a) fewer applicants in their original pool, especially at the higher LSAT levels; (b) more competition from schools ranked just above each of them, who are dipping further into their own pools; and (c) more competition from the schools ranked just below each of them, whose scholarship offers will be more tempting to applicants than in the past.

A significant number of schools at every level may pare class size to maintain LSAT and GPA levels. Alternatively, they may end up inadvertently under-enrolled because students change their minds in late summer. This summer probably will be a volatile one for admissions, with lots of students admitted off waiting lists who leave gaps at other schools.

The schools that do cut class size may face a sobering outcome: the unfilled seats are likely to be full-price ones. I suspect, in other words, that schools will continue offering scholarship money to attract the best students; they may even push those budgets to maintain their entering-class profile. When classes start in August, the missing bodies may be ones who would have paid full tuition. Losing 10-25 students at the "average" seat cost isn't too bad; losing 10-25 students who would have paid full tuition for three years is a bigger blow. ...

2. Tuition won't rise nearly as fast as it has in recent years. Some schools may even freeze tuition to attract students, although I think few will go so far as to roll back sticker price. Instead, schools may try to increase scholarship offers, de facto lowering tuition. Scholarships are an appealing way for schools to cut tuition, because they can differentiate among applicants. ...

3. Schools will begin looking for new sources of revenue. They are likely to admit more international students to both LLM and JD programs. They may also create revenue-generating courses targeted at practitioners. ...

4. Schools, students, and employers will adapt to new hiring patterns. I don't think the boom times of 2007 will come back -- certainly not within the next two years. The new patterns will vary by law school prestige and geography, but some likely overall trends are:

(a) More externships, volunteer positions, and fellowship-funded positions during the 1L and 2L summers. ...

(b) More staff attorney, career associate, contract attorney, and other "alternative" positions at law firms of all sizes. ...

(c) Much more mobility and part-time work during the first 2-3 years after graduation. The job market overall is unstable, and new lawyers clearly are having a hard time establishing themselves. We'll continue to see graduates moving among contract positions, government jobs, fellowships, and law firms. ...

(d) Increased emigration. American JDs have value abroad and, as the domestic job market remains rocky, foreign jobs may become more attractive. ...

Notice that my "first quarter" predictions do not include massive closings of law schools. It's possible that some law schools will shutter, and I think that would be a good result. But law schools have a lot of resources and considerable fat to pare from their budgets. Meanwhile, although the applicant stream has diminished, it is still large enough to fill all existing seats at law schools. At least during the next two years, I think we'll see reduced class sizes rather than closures. What happens after that may depend on how schools themselves react during the next two years, especially on predictions 2-4. Will we find ways to attract more students by cutting some costs? Will we find new sources of revenue? Will we place more of our graduates abroad? Will we find out more about the new job market so that we can help our graduates better navigate those waters?

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Keep a close eye on transfer admissions practices, and expect to see large increases to protect the bottom line.

I would expect to see loosening standards, and possibly outright recruitment at cross town rivals (GW/Gtown snatching up folks from American and Catholic, Columbia and NYU from Fordham and Brooklyn, UCLA/USC from Loyola and Southwestern, Northwestern and Chicago from Loyola Chicago and DePaul, etc.). The poached schools will then poach accordingly.

The higher ranked schools can be almost certain that anyone they admit from the lower ranked cross-town schools will attend and pay sticker, since the kids won't even have to move out of their current apartments.

Posted by: Loyola Grad | May 23, 2012 1:01:20 PM