Steven Harper
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Could the country’s years-long oversupply of new attorneys finally be on the wane? Based on the trend that recent headlines purport to capture, it would be easy to reach that conclusion.

For example, a December 2013 Wall Street Journal headline read: “ First-Year Law School Enrollment at 1977 Levels.” The first sentence of the article described a “plunge” in entering law student enrollments.

Likewise, in January 2014, National Jurist reported on the steep enrollment declines that particular schools saw between 2010 and 2013. The big losers on that list: the University of LaVerne (down 66.2 percent) and Thomas M. Cooley Law School (down 40.6 percent).

Most recently, Am Law Daily sibling publication The National Law Journal took a closer look at 13 law schools that saw “1L enrollment drop by 30 percent or more in the span of 12 months, while an additional 27 reported declines of 20 to 30 percent in all.”

Taken together, these reports create the impression that the severe glut of lawyers is ending.

How About a Job?

For prospective law students, the size of any drop in overall enrollment isn’t relevant; employment prospects upon graduation from a particular school are. According to the ABA [ PDF], just under 40,000 students began law school in the fall of 2013—8 percent less than were enrolled in the entering class of 2012. That may be significant, but it’s not all that dramatic.

Meanwhile, for the entire decade ending in 2022, the latest figures (December 2013) from the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimate the total number of positions available for “lawyers, judges, and related workers” at around 200,000. That net number takes into account deaths, retirements and other departures from the profession. More sobering, it’s yet another downward revision from earlier BLS projections.

As the profession makes room for 20,000 new attorneys a year, why all the media attention on 1L enrollments “plunging” to a level that is still almost twice that number?

I think the answer is that some law professors are running around screaming that their hair is on fire because, for many of them, it is. The media are covering that blaze, but the larger conflagration surrounding the crisis in legal education somehow gets lost.

U.S. News to the Rescue?

Professor Jerry Organ at the University of St. Thomas School of Law has an interesting analysis of the situation. According to Organ, schools in trouble are “picking their poison.” Either they can maintain admission standards that preserve LSAT and GPA profiles of their entering classes, or they can sacrifice those standards in an effort to fill their classrooms and maximize tuition revenues.

U.S. News & World Report rankings now play an ironic role in this mess. For decades, the magazine’s rankings have contributed to perverse behavioral incentives that have not served law schools, students or the profession. For example, in search of students with higher LSATs who would improve their ranking, many schools diverted need-based financial aid to so-called merit scholarships for those with better test scores.

Likewise, revenue generation also became important in the U.S. News calculus. As the ABA Task Force Report on the Future of Legal Education notes [ PDF], the ranking formulas don’t measure “programmatic quality or value” and, to that extent, “may provide misleading information to students and consumers.” They also reward “increasing a school’s expenditures for the purpose of affecting ranking, without reference to impact on value delivered or educational outcomes.”

Now the rankings methodology has presented many schools with a Hobson’s choice: If they preserve LSAT/GPA profiles of their entering classes, they will suffer a reduction in current tuition dollars as their class size shrinks. If, on the other hand, they admit less qualified applicants, they’ll preserve tuition revenues for a while, but suffer a rankings decline that will hasten their downward slide by deterring applicants for the subsequent year.

As some schools become increasingly desperate, they will be tempted to recruit those who are most vulnerable to cynical rhetoric about illusory prospects on graduation. The incentive for such mischief is obvious: However unqualified such students might be for the profession, the six-figure loans they need to finance a legal education are available with the stroke of a pen. Revenue problem solved.

Some law professors argue that the recent trend toward declines in enrollment is sufficient to create a shortfall in law school graduates by 2015. Maybe they’re right. Time will tell—and not much time at that.

I think it’s more likely that over the next decade, a lot of law professors will find themselves looking for work outside academia. Meanwhile, their best hope could be to run out the student loan program clock long enough for them to retire. Then it all becomes someone else’s problem.

Steven J. Harper is an adjunct professor at Northwestern University and author of “The Lawyer Bubble: A Profession in Crisis” (Basic Books, April 2013) and other books. He retired as a partner at Kirkland & Ellis in 2008, 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.