The American Lawyer: No, It's Still Not a Good Time to Apply to Law School, by Matt Leichter:
In mid-December, the ABA Section of Legal Education publicized the number of first-year students for the fall of 2013—39,675. The decline in 1Ls since the 2012-13 academic year exceeded 10 percent—the biggest one-year drop since the early 1950s. Meanwhile, the average number of 1Ls per law school reached its lowest level since 1968.
Thanks to these developments, some writers argue, legal education is becoming a fairer deal, and savvy applicants who buck the downward trend will be rewarded. While it's certainly true that generous merit scholarships enable prospective law students to pay less for a legal education now than they would have a few years ago, there are still many compelling reasons to believe the benefits of law school still don't outweigh its costs—and won't for the foreseeable future.
The ABA Journal recently reported on the most rigorous analysis of the applicant decline's impact on potential job opportunities for future law school graduates. In the article, Appalachian School of Law professor Paula Marie Young shared a dialogue on the subject with Professor Deborah Jones Merritt of The Ohio State University Moritz College of Law. Using National Association of Law Placement (NALP) and ABA data, Young maintained that by 2015 or 2016, the number of ABA law school graduates will equalize with the number of lawyer job openings. Merritt asserted that Young misread the ABA's graduate data, and the more accurate equilibrium estimate is 2021. The discussion then shifted to whether "JD Advantage" jobs should really count in these calculations and whether positions classified as "full-time" fairly represent indefinite career jobs because they only need to last one year to count.
It's not fruitful to rehash the entire back-and-forth in detail, and while I generally agree with Merritt's line of thinking, there are additional points worth considering that may make even 2021 an overly optimistic estimate. ...
[A]lthough it's not invalid to use NALP or ABA jobs data, it should be noted that the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) just released its own employment projection for the 2012 to 2022 period. The news is mostly bad. ... Here is my estimate of the cumulative number of law graduates and licensed lawyers over the previous 35 years compared to the current number of employed lawyers and active and resident attorneys.
... A generation of Americans maturing into a lifetime of chronic underemployment and debt will not be able to afford homes, start families, open businesses, or discharge their student loans. Lawyers who would normally serve them in "small law" matters like estate and business planning will increasingly struggle to find clients. Prospective law students have little reason to compete with them.
Law school optimists are undeniably right that many people finishing law school in 2017 will pay less for their educations than their recent, underemployed predecessors did. It's also certain that law school will continue to be a prerequisite for some of the most prestigious positions in society, such as the judiciary. However, a host of other data points indicate that the profession law school applicants hope to enter won't provide the long-term, career-spanning employment that justifies three extra years of education. They would be wiser to walk by.