Across the country last year, 46,000 newly minted law-school graduates hit the job market bearing the crushing weight of their student-loan debts.
Nine months later, only 27,000 had found full-time jobs as lawyers.
“Legal education is in crisis,” said Frank Wu, chancellor at University of California’s Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco. “Nobody has seen anything like this. There are too many lawyers, there are too many law students, and there are too many law schools.”
Once considered a sure bet for a stable, well-compensated career, law has become a riskier gamble. Not only is it harder to become a lawyer now; it also has become much more costly.
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As states withdraw support from public universities and schools chase rankings that reward them for spending more, tuition goes up and up, forcing students to borrow $100,000 or even $200,000 to earn their degrees.
Would-be applicants are taking note; across the country, the number of people applying to law school has fallen by nearly a third since 2010, the lowest number in more than a decade.
Law schools are under pressure from all sides: Prospective students balk at the high tuition, while firms assert that graduates leave school unequipped to practice law. Even President Obama made waves last month by suggesting that law school take two years, instead of three.
“The third year they’d be better off clerking or practicing in a firm, even if they weren’t getting paid that much,” said Obama, who once taught at the University of Chicago law school. “But that step alone would reduce the cost for the student.”
Last week, an American Bar Association task force described the crisis in stark terms, noting mounting financial pressures on law schools, high student debt, years of sharply falling applications, and “the predicament of so many students and recent graduates who may never procure the sort of employment they anticipated when they enrolled.”
The report called for sweeping changes in legal education, such as greater flexibility in what law schools must teach and how, and new licensing programs for basic legal services now too expensive for most Americans to afford.
The financial crisis forced the bar association to consider solutions that had been floating around for decades, said Bob Gordon, a professor at Stanford.
“I think it’s pretty clear it’s going to be a shake-up in this market, given the drastic decline in applications.”
In Spokane last month, Gonzaga University School of Law cited both the ABA task-force report and Obama’s remarks in its announcement that it would begin a two-year accelerated-degree program in fall 2014 in addition to the traditional three-year sequence. Gonzaga said it will be the first Pacific Northwest school to offer a Juris Doctor degree in two calendar years.
In California, faculty at Hastings, UC-Berkeley and Santa Clara University said they are responding by giving their students more practical experience during their second and third years by adding legal clinics and “externships” with local organizations and companies.
This past fall, Hastings cut the size of its first-year law class by more than 20 percent. It was the only responsible thing to do, its chancellor said, given the number of deeply indebted lawyers in a troubled job market.
Santa Clara is doing far more to help its students network and find jobs, said Bradley Joondeph, a law professor and dean of its law school.
Law student James Giacchetti — who was able to work under attorneys in Santa Clara County’s misdemeanor court — said he is determined to establish a career as a public defender, even if it’s tough going at first.
“It’s not as if we entered law school blindly,” said Giacchetti, a second-year law student at Santa Clara. “It’s not a bad thing to have a (law degree). You have to consider that this is an investment in a career and not just a short-term way of making money.”
Information about Gonzaga’s new program was reported by Seattle Times staff.