Enrollment rebounds (a little): Law schools have a lot of ground to make up before they’re back to the heady days of 2010, when more than 52,000 new students show up on campuses nationwide. In fact, many experts think enrollment is unlikely to return to those levels—ever. Still, 2018 brought a ray of hope that legal education’s popularity is on the rise. The number of applicants for this fall’s 1L class spiked 8 percent, with schools ultimately enrolling 3 percent more students. That may not sound like much, but enrollment was either down or stagnant the seven previous years. Pundits believe improved employment rates—due primarily to the smaller number of graduates—and the tumult in Washington, D.C., stemming from the Trump administration are prompting more people to pursue legal careers.
#MeToo arrives at law school: Yale Law superstar professor Jed Rubenfeld was scrutinized for his conduct with female students he taught and mentored, with allegations that he crossed lines into sexual harassment. University of Illinois law professor Jay Kesan is taking an unpaid, year-long absence after news surfaced this year that he was investigated last year after students and faculty complained of sexual harassment. (The university’s investigation concluded Kesan’s behavior violated the campus code of conduct but did not rise to the level of sexual misconduct.) And Ian Samuel—a high-profile professor at Indiana University Maurer School of Law, who helped spark the law student movement against mandatory arbitration in law firms—is the subject of a university Title IX misconduct investigation. Those developments come on the heels of not one, but two law deans stepping down in 2017 amid sexual harassment allegations. It appears the reckoning over sexual misconduct in the workplace is gaining steam within the legal academy.
On-campus recruiting gets a makeover: What will the all-important summer associate recruiting process look like this August? We’re not really sure. The National Association for Law Placement (NALP) in December overhauled its on-campus recruiting guidelines and eliminated all of the specific timing rules. For instance, firms no longer need to wait until December of the 1L year to begin recruiting, and they don’t need to give law students 28 days to decide whether or not to accept an offer. The new guidelines are intended to give firms more flexibility in how they recruit. So it’s up to individual law schools to decide what requirements to place on the firms that come to hire. In short, things could look much the same as they have in years past. Or it could be Wild West out there. We’ll wait and see.
Brett Kavanaugh shakes things up: It seems just about everyone connected to the legal academy had thoughts on Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial U.S. Supreme Court nomination, and they weren’t afraid to share them. But nowhere did the Kavanaugh debate play out as visibly as at Yale Law School and Harvard Law School—the two elite institutions with which the now-Justice is most closely tied. Christine Blasey Ford’s claim that Kavanaugh and a friend attempted to rape her at a high school party in the 1980s prompted much soul-searching from students and faculty at Yale Law School about the institution’s role in his virtually seamless career ascendance. And over at Harvard, where Kavanaugh taught as a visiting professor beginning in 2009, students called for the school to cut ties. (Kavanaugh pulled out of his previously scheduled two-week January course on the modern Supreme Court, apparently of his own volition.)
Lawsuits aplenty against the ABA: The American Bar Association’s outside counsel at Sidley Austin stayed very busy in 2018. Taking the ABA’s section of legal education and admission to the bar to court over allegedly unlawful accreditation practices was all the rage. Western Michigan University Cooley Law School kicked off the trend in November 2017, but by May Florida Coastal School of Law, the now-closed Charlotte School of Law and Arizona Summit Law School each joined the lawsuit party. All four schools has been found out of compliance with the ABA’s law school standards, though Cooley has since come back into the ABA’s good graces and dropped its suit. The lawsuit couldn’t save the beleaguered Arizona Summit, however. It stopped holding class this fall and is scheduled to officially close once current students complete their degrees at other campuses.
Closed for business: Law school closures continued in 2018. Arizona Summit shuttered, and Valparaiso University announced in October that it will wind down its law school amid enrollment shortfalls. It didn’t bring in a new class of students this fall while it worked to relocate the school to another university. But its efforts to gift the law school to Middle Tennessee State University were shut down by state regulators, and it will close by 2020. Meanwhile, Atlanta’s John Marshall Law School pulled the plug on the Savannah Law School, its satellite campus that had been around for a mere six years. Will the closures continue in 2019? Thomas Jefferson Law School is fighting for its life, and several other schools are struggling.
Law students vs. Big Law: This is a David and Goliath story, with plucky law students playing the role of David taking on Big Law’s Goliath. The groups squared off over mandatory arbitration policies for attorneys and non-lawyers at firms and legal organizations. In the spring, the law students at elite schools pushed legal employers to disclose whether or not they require employees to sign such agreements. In the fall, students in Harvard Law School’s Pipeline Parity Project urged their classmates to boycott specific firms that they knew used mandatory arbitration, and they got quick results. Kirkland & Ellis backed off mandatory arbitration within two weeks, while Sidley Austin did so without being the subject of a specific boycott. The group has now set its sights on DLA Piper.
LSAT goes digital: The LSAT has been around as a paper-and-pencil test for 70 years, and 2018 brought news that the exam is getting a much-needed update. Starting in July, the test will be offered digitally on Microsoft Surface Go Tablets, with half of LSAT takers using the tablets. It will be fully digital by September, bringing it in line with all other standardized graduate admission tests. The Law School Admission Council expects to buy about 30,000 tablets to make the transition. Not only that, but the writing portion of the exam will be separated from the primary multiple choice portion with takers completing it at their own convenience on their own computers. So long, No. 2 pencils!
The GRE comes on strong: The ABA punted this August when it came time to decide whether to ditch its longtime requirement that law schools use the LSAT in admissions. But that hasn’t slowed the tide of law schools accepting GRE scores alongside LSAT score. Fewer than 10 law schools were accepting the GRE at the start of 2018. Today, 34 schools allow applicants to submit scores from either test. That means more than one-sixth of all schools are on board with the alternative exam. Among the notable GRE embracers this year: New York University School of Law; Cornell Law School; and the University of Pennsylvania Law School.
Bar exam blues: Anyone hoping that 2018 would be the year bar exam pass rates recover was sorely disappointed, much like the 59 percent of those who sat for the bar in California this July and failed. Ouch. Pass rates were down in other large jurisdictions, too. New York’s pass rate fell five percent points to 63 percent; Florida’s rate dropped to 67 percent from 71 percent; and Texas’ first-time taker pass rate fell three points to 78 percent. The average score nationwide on the Multistate Bar Exam portion of the test hit a 34-year low.