The truth sank in during 2012. Law schools continued to suffer lower enrollment ; graduates kept struggling to find jobs; and educators began to accept that these changes might be permanent — that the old way of doing things had to change. If 2011 was the year the legal academy hit rock bottom, 2012 was the year it began to come to terms with its new reality.

“Absolutely, this year was a turning point,” said Washington University in St. Louis School of Law dean Kent Syverud, chair of the American Bar Association’s Council of the Section of Legal Education and Admissions to the Bar. “A large faction of the legal education community is aware and accepting of the need for change.” Perhaps nothing demonstrates the shift as clearly as law professors’ reaction to bad press. In 2011, they circled the wagons and loudly defended legal education when The New York Times published a series of reports questioning the value of a law degree. In November 2012, when Case Western Reserve University School of Law dean Lawrence Mitchell took to the Times opinion pages to decry the “almost relentless attacks on law schools,” the reaction was much different. Law professors and pundits refuted Mitchell’s arguments in print and online, accusing him of looking through rose-colored glasses.

“I think the Mitchell op-ed will signal an end of an era,” said William Henderson, a professor at the Indiana University Maurer School of Law – Bloomington, who studies the legal industry. “We’re in change mode.”

Declining enrollment helped change the minds of many professors. The number of applicants peaked in 2010 and has fallen by nearly 25 percent nationwide since then. ABA-accredited law schools enrolled 15 percent fewer students this year than two years ago. Shrinking enrollment caught deans by surprise in 2011, but by 2012 they were better prepared. Close to half of the 201 ABA-accredited law schools this year trimmed their 1L classes by 10 percent or more, either because they couldn’t find enough applicants who met their academic standards or because they hoped smaller class sizes would boost graduate employment down the road.

Empty seats mean less tuition revenue. University financial support can help compensate for budget shortfalls in the short term but is not a long-term solution, said Brian Tamanaha, a law professor at Washington University and the author of the 2012 book Failing Law Schools.

“Schools can’t afford to stand pat,” Tamanaha said. “At some point, law schools will have to begin trimming their expenses beyond just patching here and there; 2013 will be the year law schools can no longer deal with their revenue declines by making minor adjustments.”

At least two law schools, the University of California Hastings College of the Law and Vermont Law School, have trimmed or are trimming staff because they have fewer students. Vermont dean Marc Mihaly has warned that if the staff cuts don’t save enough money, faculty will be next on the chopping block.

Enrollment has been declining in part because prospective students can gain a clearer view of their postgraduation job prospects. Two years of agitation by Law School Transparency executive director Kyle McEntee paid off in April, when the ABA for the first time released a database containing details about the kind of jobs secured by graduates of every accredited law school. Prospective students could now see, for example, how many of the employed recent graduates were actually in jobs financed by the schools themselves. In June, the ABA released a second set of employment statistics for the class of 2011, which showed that only 55 percent had landed long-term, full-time jobs that required bar passage within nine months of graduation. Those statistics surely prompted would-be law students to think twice, McEntee said.

ASKING QUESTIONS

That level of transparency “is a much bigger deal than I ever would have thought,” he said. “It’s making it really difficult for people to argue against change and that law schools are a good value proposition right now, at least in the short term. Now people are asking questions about what law schools are bringing to the table.”

At the same time, lackluster business growth and demand for legal services underscored that legal educators can’t simply hope for a return to the robust pre-recession hiring levels. “I don’t think there is any possibility that this is a one-year blip and that things will go back to where they were if the economy improves,” said Bernard Burk, a professor at University of North Carolina School of Law. “Demand for lawyers is not going to grow very fast, as it did before the recession. We’ve reached a plateau.”

Tamanaha’s Failing Law Schools also prompted introspection. The book, released in June, was highly critical of the way law schools operate and of the easy availability of federal student loans. Some reviewers found it deeply flawed but others praised it for sounding an alarm. As Tamanaha put it: “2011 was a lot of denial and scrambling. In 2012, there’s a sense of seriousness that there are real problems that we need to do something about. Faculties across the country are meeting about these issues, and that’s a real change.”

In late October, more than 200 academics, judges and attorneys gathered in St. Louis to confer about how law schools should adjust to the changing landscape. The attendees voted for what law schools’ top priorities should be, and the most popular suggestions included beefing up practical-skills training; reducing J.D. enrollments; and making professors spend more time in the classroom and less on research.

Consortiums geared toward recasting law school curricula and teaching caught on and might bear fruit during the coming year, Henderson said. Representatives of approximately 80 law schools attended the first National Symposium on Experiential Education in Law at Northeastern University School of Law in October, with the emphasis on how best to prepare law students to practice. Similarly, a consortium called Educating Tomorrow’s Lawyers at the University of Denver’s Institute for the Advancement of the American Legal System is giving law schools access to innovative courses and lesson plans online.

“Something has happened in the past couple of years, and people are organizing now,” said Luke Bierman, an associate dean at Northeastern who leads the school’s efforts. “People are recognizing that the way legal education is structured is the same as it was 150 years ago, and that we need to catch up.”

For all the apparent shift in thinking, Law School Transparency’s McEntee insisted it’s too early to declare that law schools are heading down the right track.

“In the sense of the affordability of law school, I’m not sure we have reached a turning point,” he said. “But I think that might happen next year. It’s hard to know what’s a lot of talk and what is action. I’m waiting to see some real action. There are still a lot of people in leadership positions who just don’t get it.”

Karen Sloan can be contacted at ksloan@alm.com.