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UC Hastings Law School Dean Calls for Shrinking Enrollments

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by Publius
Posted October 04, 2012, 1:38 PM

Frank H. Wu, Chancellor & Dean of UC Hastings College of the Law, writes in the Huffington Post:

Law schools must reduce their J.D. class sizes. They should do so immediately and permanently.

The data are compelling. There are simply too many lawyers and too many law students in the United States nowadays. Only about half of recent graduates of law schools, of which there also are too many, are securing permanent full-time employment in the legal profession at this point.

There, I've said it. Indeed, my law school has taken action. Lest observers speculate, we announced our decision as part of comprehensive strategic planning, well in advance of seeing how the applicant pool looked for this academic year.

If anyone doesn't know the news, there were fewer people aspiring to join the bar in the admissions season that ended a month ago when we welcomed the one-L class -- again. This runs opposite to the previous pattern: When the economy slumps downward, law school applications spike upward. Worse, it appears that the supply of the strongest candidates is decreasing at the greatest rate.

The only issue is whether these trends are an anomaly, blip, or cycle. I'm convinced they signal a permanent and profound structural change.

Sure, the economy will recover. Yes, law firms will too.

But look at the law firms that already have come back. Many of the so-called BigLaw firms -- the most prestigious, constituting only a fraction of the bar -- are making more profits per partner than they ever have. The same is true of some of their mid-size counterparts and specialized boutiques.

Except those establishments are doing what they do after surviving a round of layoffs. They are not rushing to recall the people they showed the door.

A few of these thriving operations even have flat revenues. They have managed to adjust their model so they do more work with fewer people. Thanks to technology, outsourcing, and the commodification of service professions, as institutions they have come to resemble the corporate clients they serve.

I say all of that as a description of what has happened, not a judgment about it. We can lament the situation all we wish, but we are compelled to adapt in any event.

I'll go further. Law schools should have reduced their class sizes long ago. Or at a minimum, we ought to have done our part to set realistic expectations. Even in a boom economy, only a minority of graduates from a minority of law schools were competitive for the entry-level slots at the one hundred largest law firms.

There are hyperbolic claims from people who seem to have no greater desire than to burn down the law school from which they recently graduated. They cannot be ignored if only for public safety.

Some -- but not all -- of their concerns are about the economy more generally.

Young people feel they have been sold on a false promise. They are not wrong.

It's possible for a twenty-five year-old who has acquired a good education, displays a decent work ethic, and who is agreed to possess a solid character -- who has, by all accounts, done everything they were told to do -- to have, through no fault of her own, very bad job prospects and high levels of student loan debt.

This challenge is not limited to new lawyers. It's also true of architects, social workers, journalists, PhDs, and liberal arts majors from all but the fanciest schools. Law happens to receive the bad press, probably because anyone enrolling in a three-year M.Arch degree (which I once considered) has been warned well enough not to do it for the money.

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