As law schools face declining enrollment, law grads face tough job market

May 16, 2013

If you think shelling out the big bucks for law school is a fast-track to success (or at least a hefty salary) you may need to think again. Prospective law students in Arizona face a big bill and a rough job search, and law schools nationwide are facing far lower application rates. Two law school graduates for each job; that is one estimate of the job market prospective attorneys face.

In one more year, Allison Kline will be one of those graduates. She got a degree in psychology at Arizona State University and worked in the field for about a year, but Kline realized it was not for her and decided to go to the Phoenix School of Law, less than a decade old and very different from the law schools at ASU and University of Arizona.

“Our school is actually building quite a reputation for itself, and that actually encouraged me to stay here, when some attorneys told me that they were no longer hiring ASU students, because they weren’t as practice-ready as people that went to Phoenix School of Law,” Kline said.

Joe Perez Joe Perez is Assistant Dean of Professional Development and works in Career Services for the Phoenix School of Law. (Photo by Nick Blumberg - KJZZ)

The school’s Assistant Dean of Professional Development Joe Perez said they are honest with students about the tough market they are heading into after graduation.

“The biggest thing is preparing them, if there’s two people interested for one position, to be the better of the two," Perez said. "I mean, really, in its most simplistic form. From day one, we’re very up front with our students.”

Which also means being up front about the hit to their wallets. With a 2012-2013 tuition of nearly $40,000, PSL is the most expensive law school in the state. U.S. News and World Report said nearly all of the school’s 2012 grads left with debt, an average of $160,000.

Arizona residents will pay about $24,000 next year to go to U of A’s law school. In-state students at ASU this past school year paid about $26,000.

While tuition at the Phoenix School of Law is pricy, placement rates for its graduates in full-time, long-term attorney positions was about 20 percentage points lower than ASU and U of A grads. Phoenix School of Law is also part of a consortium of for-profit law schools. That’s troubling to Doug Sylvester, dean of ASU’s O’Connor College of Law.

Doug Sylvester Doug Sylvester is Dean of ASU's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law. (Photo courtesy ASU)

“You change motivations if your goal is to prove to your shareholders and to your investors that you are a good business model," Sylvester said. "I think that just gives you motivations and decision-making authority that is just different than what’s best for students and what’s best for your graduates.”

But Perez sees all for-profit schools getting painted with the same brush.

“Whether you’re talking about a graduate-level law school, or you’re talking about a for-profit trade school," he said. "And it’s justified in some instances, but we certainly don’t believe that that negative connotation is justified for us.”

And Nancy Rapoport, interim dean of UNLV’s Boyd School of Law, said prospective students have more important questions to ask than what a school’s business model is: “Will I be able to pass the bar, am I likely to get a law job that will help me deal with the debt it cost me to get that law degree?”

Whatever the business model, all three of Arizona’s law schools are in the same boat when it comes to one thing.

“Applications to law schools have declined just shy of 40 percent cumulatively in the last three years. That’s not a decline, that’s a crash,” said Marc Miller, interim dean of the University of Arizona’s Rogers College of Law. He said in past recessions, people have invested in themselves by going back to school.

“That’s not what we or other law schools have seen in the most recent downturn," Miller said. "I think the changes we’ve seen in legal practice are not cyclical, they’re not a reflection just of the economic downturn. They’re actually structural.”

Changes like outsourcing some legal services or putting more work on people who bill less. With the huge decline in enrollment, each of Arizona’s three law schools has been aiming to innovate.

U of A is reducing law school tuition for the upcoming year by about $3,000. Phoenix School of Law has a new trimester program to help students graduate earlier, and ASU hired a full-time headhunter to help unemployed graduates find jobs.

“I graduated from law school without a job," Sylvester said, "and I remember going back to my career services, and they weren’t ready to help you other than say, ‘Well, you can do the same things you did for the last year that didn’t work.’ And so, I remember when we saw this problem arising with our students, I wanted to make sure we did everything we could.”

So, how do you fix the system? Rapoport is also part of a group of legal educators that put together recommendations for the American Bar’s education taskforce. She wants schools to keep tuition as low as possible and make sure that prospective students come in with the right mindset.

“People say, ‘Oh, you can use a law degree for everything!’" Rapoport said. "It’s absolutely true that you can use a law degree for everything. It’s just not everybody will pay you.”

And for law student Allison Kline, finding someone willing to pay her next year is definitely on her mind. She’ll graduate $75,000 in debt, but she's also got a lot to worry about before the job hunt even starts.

“I’m worried more about finals right now, and studying for the bar is something on its own," Kine said.

And even though her dad is an attorney, Kline made it pretty clear she is not interested in working for him.

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