Anyone holding out hope that the market for new lawyers might self-correct will be disappointed. Two recent developments continue to make that clear.
The first involves Arizona State University’s Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law, which is reportedly considering a move from Tempe to downtown Phoenix. As part of this plan, the school is asking the ASU Board of Regents to approve a three-year capital improvement plan that includes $129 million toward construction of a new law school complex.
The site proposed for the new complex is currently a parking lot. Compared to the 165,000 square feet of space the law school now occupies, the new facility would encompass 294,000 square feet. The underlying business plan contemplates a combined 50 percent increase in school enrollment and degrees awarded.
A Failing Grade
Why would ASU entertain such an idea? Presumably because school officials think they can fill classrooms by using statements like these, which currently appear on the law school’s website: “96% of  graduates seeking employment were employed or continuing their education . . . 82% of those employed secured full-time, long-term employment.”
Those numbers look respectable, but take a closer look at ASU’s most recent ABA employment data and it becomes clear that those numbers don’t tell the whole story.
According to the ABA, the school awarded 201 law degrees in 2011. Nine months after graduating, only 137 of those new attorneys—68 percent—had long-term, full-time jobs requiring bar passage. Ten were solo practitioners—a tough way to start a legal career. Eight others had jobs where a J.D. supposedly provided an advantage; another eight held other nonlegal professional positions. That’s 153, or 76 percent of the class of 2011.
The 82 percent “full-time, long-term employment” statistic on the ASU website is obtained by excluding 15 more students: seven unemployed and seeking work, three pursuing graduate degrees, three with unknown employment status, and two unemployed but not seeking work.
As for the rest? The school itself funded full-time, short-term positions for 18 new graduates. Add in the others holding short-term or part-time jobs and—voila!—you reach the stunning “96 percent employed or continuing their education” number.
Curiously, the same Arizona Republic article detailing the school’s plans to increase enrollments and degrees by 50 percent also quoted dean Douglas Sylvester’s comment that the school has “no current plans to grow our J.D. (Juris Doctor) class beyond its historical size and beyond the capacity of the college to continue to find productive employment for all of our graduates.”
But based on the difficulty that a significant percentage of the school’s current graduates have encountered in the search for full-time, long-term law jobs, ASU has already exceeded his definition of the school’s maximum capacity. In other words, if the dean’s remark—“the capacity of the college to find productive employment for all graduates”—describes a passing grade, his school is already failing.
Predictable Response to Unfortunate Stimuli
On a related point, in March 2012 dean Sylvester promised “to reduce the cost of attending law school to make it more available to students of different income levels.” So far, there’s no evidence that he is succeeding in that mission, either.
In-state resident tuition at ASU has increased from $19,225 in 2009–10 to $26,267 for 2011–12. Nonresident tuition has risen from $32,619 to $40,815. The stated reason for these dramatic tuition hikes is for the school to become financially self-sufficient.
Meanwhile, spending lots of money on new facilities enhances the average-cost-per-student component of any school’s U.S. News & World Report ranking. If ASU is pandering to that metric, it’s doing so at a steep price to students.
As ASU and other state schools try to eliminate their need for public funds, student loan debt is filling the gap. The average debt for ASU’s law school graduates is $103,436. Together with the school’s employment statistics, such growing indebtedness suggests that techniques aimed at self-sufficiency for the school are having the opposite impact on many of its graduates.
Finally, the ongoing glut in the market for lawyers illuminates the second aspect of law school dysfunction. A recent Am Law Daily article heralded the legal sector’s “bounce-back” month in September, during which the industry added about 1,000 jobs. “Bounce-back” to what is an interesting question.
From September 2011 to September 2012, the net growth in legal jobs was 5,900. During the same period, law schools graduated more than 44,000 new attorneys. Anyone who thinks that retirements and other natural attrition will close that gap is dreaming. One state-by-state analysis estimates that net lawyer surpluses will exceed 25,000 annually through 2015. Overall, the legal sector is still 50,000 positions below its pre-economic crisis 2008 employment level (1.17 million in 2008 vs 1.12 million currently).
That takes us back to the contest for the best use of space in downtown Phoenix. If the choice is what’s there now—a parking lot—and a proposed big new ASU law school complex, root for the parking lot.
Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author. He recently retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis, after 30 years in private practice. His blog about the legal profession, The Belly of the Beast, can be found at http://thebellyofthebeast.wordpress.com/. A version of the column above was first published on The Belly of the Beast.