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The Current State of the Legal Profession: Identifying Opportunity in a Time of Crisis

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By Katie Schellenger, J.D., Director of Legal Professions Advising

  • chinese symbol for crisis

“When written in Chinese, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters.  One represents danger and the other represents opportunity.”  John F. Kennedy

“Crisis” is certainly an appropriate word to describe the current state of the legal profession.  Over the past ten years, the number of licensed lawyers in the United States has increased 20% and sixteen new law schools have opened their doors.  Legal employment, however, has not grown at the same rate.

The danger presented by this crisis is patent: of the law school class of 2012, only 58.6% were practicing law full-time nine months after graduation, and only 10.5% were working full-time in positions where a law degree was preferred.  In other words, roughly 30% of 2012 law school graduates are unemployed or underemployed.  These numbers become even more significant when one considers the average amount of debt carried by those graduates: in 2012, public law school graduates carried an average of $84,600 in debt, and private law school graduates carried an average of $122,158 in debt.

As any economist could predict, the market is adjusting; that is, the number of law school applicants is on the decline.  There was an 18% decline in applicants from 2012 to 2013.  A similar drop in 2014 is expected: the number of LSAT test-takers in October declined 11% from last year.  Experts predict that this trend is one that will continue in the future. 

This is where the door of opportunity swings open.  In 2013, law schools handled the reduced applicant pool in two ways: (1) they slightly adjusted their admission standards, and (2) they slightly adjusted their entering class sizes.  Across the top-100 law schools, the mean GPA dropped .02%, the mean LSAT dropped 1.03%, and the average class size dropped by 3.19%.  Many law schools also dug into their financial trenches to entice strong applicants with better offers of aid.  Given the decline in LSAT test-takers this year, changes to admissions standards and class sizes in 2014 are likely to be even more drastic.

Does this mean everyone should apply to law school?  No!  Remember the danger sign above: the legal employment market has still not normalized.  For people who are certain the law is the right path for them, however, the time is ripe.  Applicants may find themselves gaining acceptance at institutions that were previously out of reach, or receiving scholarship offers that are more generous than those offered to applicants in past years. 

The key is the following: identify and take advantage of opportunities to explore careers in the law before you commit to law school.  If you decide that law is the right fit for you, you are in luck: this is an opportune time to apply!

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