Law schools are changing the way they do business and how they teach because of economic woes over the past few years.
Leaders at South Carolina’s two law schools — Charleston School of Law and the University of South Carolina School of Law — said the shrinking pool of applicants has forced changes. The schools have had to be more careful with how they spend money, and to ensure that their enrollments don’t drop to a level that won’t sustain them financially.
They also have had to tweak their programs to offer more practical training so students who graduate are ready to begin hands-on legal work.
Charleston School of Law Dean Andy Abrams said when the economy first soured around 2009, students flocked to law schools, hoping that their financial prospects would improve by the time they graduated. But the economy didn’t rebound as quickly as many had hoped, so fewer students began applying to law school.
At the same time, many big law firms took a financial hit in the downturn. In the past, many recent law school graduates would get jobs at big firms that gave them hands-on training largely paid from client accounts. When those clients cut back on legal services, the large firms cut back on hiring new law school graduates.
The job market has been tough for law graduates nationwide. That’s a problem because many of them take on more than $100,000 in student-loan debt.
The Chronicle of Higher Education reported this month that law schools produce more than 44,000 graduates each year, about two for every new opening for a lawyer or judicial law clerk.
The class of 2011 had the worst employment numbers of any since 1994, with only 55 percent of graduates known to have found full-time jobs requiring a law degree nine months after graduation.
Abrams said his private school is faring better than many other schools because several of its leaders had extensive experience in higher-education management. “From Day One we took a fiscally conservative approach,” he said. “We were all aware of the cyclical nature of enrollments.”
For instance, he said, when enrollment increased in 2009 and 2010, school leaders hired visiting faculty members instead of filling those positions with more-expensive permanent employees. And instead of building a new building or signing a long-term lease for more space, they rented smaller classroom spaces within walking distance of the school.
When enrollment dropped again, which was expected, the school simply let go of the temporary employees and space.
Drew Sheridan, 23, a second-year Charleston School of Law student from Mount Pleasant, said he chose to attend the school because it already offered the kind of hands-on training he would need to work in the legal profession in the near future. “It’s more about externships and doing work while you’re in school,” he said.
Will Davis, 23, from Greenville, also in his second year, said the school helps students meet practicing lawyers while they still are in school. He hopes those connections will one day lead to jobs, he said.
USC Law Dean Robert Wilcox said his school also has faced challenges recently. Enrollment dropped from 240 students in 2009 to 213 in the past two years. And applications also have declined, he said, from 1,973 in 2009 to 1,771 this year.
The school has to have a class of at least 210 students to sustain itself financially, he said. With the smaller applicant pool in recent years, the average LSAT score and grade-point-averages of the entering class have declined, he said.
Abrams and Wilcox said the need for good lawyers continues to be strong, and they are hopeful that the job market for graduate will soon improve.
“The notion that the sky is falling on legal education, I don’t think that’s the case,” Abrams said. “The legal system is a critical component of our society. That’s not going anywhere.”