Are law schools starting to downsize?

Pundits have predicted for several years that market forces will eventually force law schools to shrink enrollment due to the dearth of jobs available to graduates. If Albany Law School of Union University is any indication, that change may be nigh.

Albany plans to reduce the size of its incoming class from 250 to 240 and cut 2% from its $32 million budget — a $600,000 reduction. The school has also nixed pay raises for employees and is raising tuition by 4%, though dean and president Thomas Guernsey said that increase isn’t enough to offset the lost tuition revenue that will result from the smaller class.

Albany has received about 20% fewer applications this year. Reducing the class size is intended to help the school preserve the academic qualifications of the new class, and to ensure they have access to jobs when they graduate, said Guernsey.

“This is really a reflection of the job market,” Guernsey said. “It seems like the right business judgment at this time, given the economy.”

Guernsey noted that Albany is not alone in seeing fewer applications. Nationwide, law school applications to American Bar Association-accredited schools are down by nearly 13% compared to a year ago, according to the Law School Admission Council. By contrast, the number of applications grew by 7% the previous year.

To continue accepting the same number of students would mean declines in median LSAT scores and GPAs, Guernsey said. He predicts that more law schools will follow suit with modest budget and class size reductions, not because there won’t be enough applicants to fill seats, but because they want to preserve their standards.

“Schools are going to have to respond to the market forces,” he said. “If you want to maintain your academic quality, you’re going to have to make some hard choices. This is something all law schools are going to have to think about.”

Albany is not facing financial problems, but is acting proactively to ensure it won’t face budget shortages down the line, Guernsey said. Budget shortfalls have become common at law schools during the past several years, particularly at public law schools in budget-strapped states. Albany employees have been fairly supportive of the pay freeze, given that employees at the University of California’s law schools have been furloughed without pay, Guernsey said.

The William S. Boyd School of Law at the University of Nevada is perhaps in the toughest financial position right now. State legislators have indicated that they will cut $47.5 million in funding to the university system, and that the law school will see a $2.3 million reduction of its budget.

Still, not everyone seems to be getting the message that less is more. Plans are moving forward for a new Baptist-affiliated law school in Louisiana. Louisiana College’s law school is slated to open in Shreveport in the fall of 2012. Texas, New York, and Delaware are among other states where officials are considering new public law schools.

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com