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The Changing Law School Frontier

The opening line from a 2011 Economist article stands a strong reminder of the gloom for perspective lawyers and the legal profession:

“The legal business has undergone not only recession but also structural change. Ever-growing profits are no longer guaranteed. Nor, for some firms, is survival.”

From that rather cataclysmic prediction, the piece also included a sobering graph from the Bureau of Labor Statistics demonstrating an almost 4 percent dip in employment for lawyers in 2009. Suddenly, everyone did a double take before trekking off to law school.

The result? A predictable dip in law school applications, admissions, and graduations. In what might actually be a direct correlation, the amount of law school applications went from 100,000 in the early 2000s to just above 50,000 in 2014 (Bloomberg). Recently, those numbers have not so much rebounded as they have crept up to a level of 57,500 in 2016 (The National Law Journal). Yes, classrooms have fewer empty seats, but faith in a legal education as a sound investment is still low.

In the shadow of these findings, a jury in San Diego recently ruled that Anna Alaburda would not be awarded over $120,000 for tuition and fees after she claimed Thomas Jefferson Law School had misled her by posting high employment statistics. Grounds for the suit rested in the fact that Thomas Jefferson Law School included individuals working outside of the legal profession in its employment data.

Along with this recent jury decision, the well respected Syracuse Law School recently introduced a four-year online law degree – a program which includes online classes coupled with in person meetings for experiential learning.

Needless to say, the status of legal education is in a state of fluctuation. With fewer students entering the field, schools are now offering higher levels of scholarships to attract more and more students, but expectations still remain high for diverse learning opportunities and post-graduation opportunities.

Undoubtedly, these expectations will in turn influence the motivation for students enrolling in law school, shifting from the perceived notion of a guaranteed wealth to a more tangible experience in school. How these trends will affect the legal profession is still unknown, but as the methods, modes, and students involved in legal education change, we will undoubtedly begin to see a very different type of lawyer.